Misleading SEO articles about responsive design

Responsive design gets an unfair beating sometimes. As a site dedicated to helping you with responsive design I felt the need to look at some of the articles that have been written specifically around the SEO side of things and fairly* provide an overall understanding of the issues raised.

Update: The author followed up to my comment 6 hours ago (10pm, 2nd December). His comment is awaiting moderation as well so I’ve copied and pasted the reply to the bottom of this article.

Over the course of the week I seek out and find as many responsive design mentions, articles, tweets, tutorials… anything that could be of interest. I read through each of them and spend time curating the best into a weekly email and into the news section of this site.

A false statement

Last week I came across an article on a SEO marketing website with a sensationalist headline. After reading the post I felt I had to respond.  This was my initial response.

This article comes across as just link bait.

If you’re targeting the term “Mobile Games” and don’t use it at all in your page then you’re not going to rank for that term. Simple.

If you want to rank for that term, use it.

Matt Cutts isn’t wrong about what he said, he is very much accurate, this article is pointing out points that were not considered in the video post in question.

There is no problems with RWD and SEO in the same way that there’s not problems with it and website performance. If you build a site badly, it will be slow, if you don’t target keywords, you won’t rank for them.

My initial response to the article

I thought this was pretty reasonable but I was sure that there would be a rebuttal. I was right and it was followed up with this comment:

So you think I’m intentionally pushing principles I don’t believe in to get more inbound links to a site I don’t own or get paid to work for? Seriously?

Matt Cutts was asked if there are any SEO drawbacks to using responsive design and he did not mention potential SEO drawbacks. If I asked you if anyone has been president of the United States and you neglected to mention any of the 44 people who have held that office in the past, your answer would be wrong. By not mentioning responsive sites’ tendency to not use relevant keywords and responsive sites’ inability to address a user’s context (as being on a mobile device) to provide more useful content, Matt Cutts gave a wrong answer.

And do you really think all that’s necessary to rank for a competitive term is to use it once on your page? Have you seen the search results? Tightly-themed content wins this race, as it is more relevant, and is more difficult for responsive sites to get right. Also, I really would like to hear how responsive sites can address a mobile user’s context in the same way that Lowe’s and Sears have in the examples above without using RESS or some other type of dynamic serving, which Google doesn’t prefer. If you can, I seriously would reconsider my stance against using responsive web design in all cases.

The authors response to my comment.

I thought the author of the article had missed my point so I deconstructed the comment reply and responded to each of the areas on their own. Unfortunately I must have breached the commenting guidelines because the comment has been removed, so I wanted to cover it off here (Just for clarity I’m assuming the website owner removed the comment and not the author of the article).

Unpublished response to the false statement

So you think I’m intentionally pushing principles I don’t believe in to get more inbound links to a site I don’t own or get paid to work for? Seriously?

No. I believe that the article contains a more sensationalised headline than is warranted for the content.

Matt Cutts was asked if there are any SEO drawbacks to using responsive design and he did not mention potential SEO drawbacks.

There are, in fact, no SEO drawbacks in using responsive design.

If I asked you if anyone has been president of the United States and you neglected to mention any of the 44 people who have held that office in the past, your answer would be wrong.

I’m not sure what relevance is in this statement, can you clarify what you mean?

By not mentioning responsive sites’ tendency to not use relevant keywords and responsive sites’ inability to address a user’s context (as being on a mobile device) to provide more useful content, Matt Cutts gave a wrong answer.

No.

If the question was “If I want to target mobile specific keywords and desktop specific keywords, but I want to use the responsive design so there is a single source of content, am I going to have any issues” then I’m sure Matt would have outlined  there would be some issues competing against some targeting mobile keywords only.

And do you really think all that’s necessary to rank for a competitive term is to use it once on your page? Have you seen the search results?

At this point you’re beginning to sound antagonistic. That never helps any discussion.

Tightly-themed content wins this race, as it is more relevant, and is more difficult for responsive sites to get right.

Absolutely. A. Micro site specifically targeting dog walking services for every species of dog is sure to work better than a standard dog walking site, providing that the audience is searching for “Labrador walking” and not just “dog walking”.

Also, I really would like to hear how responsive sites can address a mobile user’s context in the same way that Lowe’s and Sears have in the examples above without using RESS or some other type of dynamic serving, which Google doesn’t prefer.

If you can explain to me what a “mobile users” context is across every online experience then please do. You will leapfrog Matt in Internet popularity..

If you can, I seriously would reconsider my stance against using responsive web design in all cases.

Responsive web design is currently the best approach we have in our industry for the majority of web experiences. It is not the golden egg that wins out every time, but I have found it to be the preferred approach in the majority of cases.  The web is fluid. Websites are varied. People’s experiences and expectations are never the same. If you build a website that meets your users needs, across every device they access it from, then it will triumph.


Update

The original author has posted a reply to my now missing disqus comment. Just incase his comment is also removed I’ve copied and pasted it below for you to read his response.

Justin, I saw your follow up comment before Disqus swallowed it and I would encourage you to post it again if you can. Most of it as I recall was a lot of the same stuff that’s posted here but I wanted to mention two things 1) I’m not making this adversarial. I’m taking issue certain things about a popular movement in web design and development and people like you who offer it as a service to your clients are seeing it as adversarial because it seems to contradict what you’ve told your clients about responsive web design and SEO in the past. But chances are it probably doesn’t. I’m saying responsive web design can be fine if you consider the user, which is what Google has said in the past, but is not what Matt Cutts said in his video. If you are offering user-friendly, fast-loading responsive web design for a site that does not have vastly different search behavior across platforms, does not target users outside of the US, Canada and the UK, and cannot offer mobile-specific content to address the user’s context, what I’m saying here probably has no bearing on responsive web design’s effect on SEO. But if you can offer something valuable as Lowe’s and Sears have through separate HTML, and if you have vastly different search behavior across platforms and could benefit from a platform-specific information architecture, then responsive web design probably isn’t the best bet for SEO. This isn’t anti-responsive web design. It’s pro-user, which I’m sure you are too. I was just surprised that Matt Cutts didn’t mention anything about it in his video, as I’ve been talking about responsive web designs that aren’t user-friendly for a while, and Google supports other mobile configurations when responsive web design isn’t right for the user, which implies that responsive web design isn’t always the best solution for SEO.

2) I’m not talking about the mobile context as Josh Clark and others define it. I agree that it’s difficult to assume a user’s physical context correctly from device usage as most smartphone usage is done at home. When I define the mobile context it is first of all defined by technologies that one platform might have access to that the other doesn’t (e.g. Flash on desktops and laptops but not smartphones, GPS on tablets and smartphones but not desktops, etc.) and secondly defined by a user’s queries based on their platform. As I showed recently in Smashing Magazine, mobile searchers mostly aren’t looking for coloring pages on their smartphones because most of them don’t print from their smartphones. A site like Disney Junior might serve a searcher better by offering the content, but by giving mobile searchers more explicit directions on how to print, or by making the option less prominent in their navigation. This message doesn’t resonate with people as much as if I put on a toy space helmet and claimed I knew the future, but it works for users better than applying the same information architecture and keywords to a site even when it makes it less relevant to users on a different platform.

I appreciate your comments, even when your opinions differ from my own. I’m trying to facilitate a conversation here that foregrounds the user, not one specific movement. A lot of the reaction I’m getting is adversarial because it’s a popular movement, and Matt Cutts is a popular icon who is generally assumed to be infallible when it comes to SEO. When you point out that he’s contradicting what Google has said before about SEO, many people don’t like to hear that, and you get a lot of the comments that we’re seeing here. I’m really just trying to help by providing a different perspective. You’re free to do with this information whatever you see fit.

The authors reply to my comment that was taken down (and reposted here in this article above)

*If you believe that  at any point I’m not being fair please let me know in the comments. I will publish them and update the article based on any feedback.

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