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Should You Use Responsive Design, or Separate Mobile Pages?

I’ve written a lot about how to make your site mobile friendly. This is crucial in today’s digital marketing landscape, because more users are shopping or looking for information on mobile, and Google actively penalizes sites with poor mobile experience. One of the standard tips for getting your site up to snuff, of course, is using “responsive design”—a style of coding that makes your site look good on any screen size.

But responsive design isn’t the only way to make a mobile site, and some would say it’s not the best choice. So should you use it, or not?

Columnist Abraham Nord offers a detailed pro-and-con breakdown to answer that question. But before I share his findings, I should explain the alternatives. There are three main ways to set up a mobile version of your website:

  • Responsive design. There is one URL for both versions of the site. The same content and same coding are used for all devices. The different parts of your page are just resized and moved around to fit the screen.
  • Dynamic serving. There’s still just one URL and one set of content, but the server delivers different coding depending on the device you’re using.
  • Separate site. You have two URLs, and you can put separate coding and content on each version.

Responsive design is the most commonly recommended option. But, as Abraham points out, it’s not perfect. He put together a stunning list of strengths and weaknesses. I would sum them up this way:

  1. Responsive design is easier. This is the main reason we recommend it so often. A responsive website can be set up once—and works seamlessly for every device ever built. Additionally, Abraham points out that page updates only require making the changes once—not twice– since there’s only one version of the site. This is a huge time saver, especially as your site grows. Last, social sharing works better because there is only one version of the URL and it works for everyone.
  2. Responsive design is less likely to glitch. Both of the other methods I mentioned have drawbacks, and they often manifest as glitchy user experiences. With dynamic serving, this includes a potential loop where the server keeps feeding you the mobile version even when you ask for the full version. With a separate site, it includes missing or broken redirects between the versions. And with both methods, there is the risk that the mobile version won’t look good on all devices—necessitating even more Responsive design looks good on any device, with none of these issues.
  3. A separate mobile site allows fine-grain control. If I had to sum up all of Abraham’s “cons” of responsive design, this is what I’d say. Responsive means you can’t customize the content for any device. Mobile users see the same things desktop users see, just arranged differently. That means no mobile-specific sales copy, no putting hours or store finders in a more prominent spot, no simplified signup forms for thumb-typing.

Responsive Design and SEO

There is one major difference that Abraham didn’t mention: responsive design may make SEO easier.

There has been a long-running debate in the SEO community about whether Google uses responsive design as a ranking signal in SEO. They clearly favor mobile friendly pages, but have never specifically said whether they factor in the type of design used. One excellent, recent analysis concludes that responsive design isn’t a direct factor, but has many indirect SEO benefits. Compared to separate mobile URLs, responsive sites are less likely to have faulty redirects, improper canonicalization, or slow loading time. That makes them more likely to check out with Google in general, and less prone to algorithmic penalties.

The Verdict

Abraham is right about every one of his points. Responsive design is popular, and it’s popular for a reason—easy to implement, unlikely to glitch, and less work to maintain. It’s the ideal low-resource option for smaller businesses, or companies that still see most of their customers in person.

If you have a larger company, however, you will reach a point where sometimes you want to deliver separate content to mobile and desktop users. And this will be the case right off the bat if a substantial portion of your sales are online. This is where you will need something more than responsive design.

EverSpark Interactive can get your mobile website looking great, with the right kind of coding for your business. To find out what we can do for you, contact us and get a free consultation today.