Responsive Design & Mobile SEO: Best Practices for 2013

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We’re shifting into a world in which smartphones and tablets are beginning to rule the roost in terms of connectivity. More people are searching for information via mobile phones, tablets, and smartphones.

Mobile Web Browsing

Mobile Web browsing is on the rise. Photo:

Yelp reported several months ago that about 40% of searches came from their mobile app. BGR chimed in to say that a little more than 10% of all web searches originate from mobile devices. We’re now past the stage of expecting that mobile devices will take over web searches — the process is already underway.

What does this mean for website owners? Or for optimization experts?

The future is mobile and the future is happening right now.

Googlebot Mobile, Google’s Recommendations, and More

Ideas and opinions about mobile SEO were floating around long before Google’s formal recommendations for mobile websites got posted. Following the introduction of Googlebot Mobile for smartphones and feature phones, webmasters and SEO specialists became involved in endless debates about optimal ways to serve mobile websites so they got listed at the top for mobile searches.

I won’t get into the details of Google’s recommendations for making mobile-compatible variations of a web page, but briefly, they are:

  • Make them responsive (serve the same page with an altered design using techniques like CSS 3 Media Queries)
  • Have a separate sub-domain served for user-agents (like, etc.)
  • Provide different HTML output based on the type of user-agent (desktop or mobile)

Responsive design is the best way forward in the present web demography. There are a lot of benefits, although some experts will tell you that one of the finest ways to leverage mobile SEO is to have a separate domain served based on the user-agent.

Such a method — when you redirect the user to a mobile version of the website based on the user-agent — involves some complicated steps like adding switchboard tags (similar to canonical) and/or using robots.txt to make sure Googlebot Mobile gets to the right version of your website.

A responsive design, on the other hand, discards all such complexity and makes things simple.

Why a Responsive Web is Better

If you’re in the loop of web designers and developers, you probably know that “responsive web design” is the hottest trend right now. Large brands have shifted their focus to designing websites that look good on mobile devices like smartphones and tablets while also looking sharp on a desktop — all with the same content.

The advent of what is popularly called CSS3 Media Queries enables websites to have the same content (and HTML) now, but still render differently between smartphones, tablets, and desktop browsers.

Why this method is better:

  1. Easier to Develop:

Using CSS3 media queries reduces the time it takes to develop and customize websites to meet mobile standards and dimensions. Instead of having to create an entire website from scratch (for the mobile platform), the existing content is merely styled to fit mobile browsers of various sizes.

  1. Simpler Management of Content:

With a responsive design, you have only one set of content to manage instead of multiple pages on multiple domains. This makes it simpler to manage content on your website.

  1. Link Juice & Page Authority Preserved:

One of the greatest benefits from an SEO point of view is that since there’s just one page for desktop and mobile, the page retains its original link authority. There are ways in which a separate domain for mobile can be “related” (something like canonical and alternate methods) and thus retain the authority and link-backs, but this is the simplest of them all.

  1. Google’s Recommendation:

And finally but most importantly, Google has written about having responsively designed websites more than the other options. It favors responsive design for reasons that are more design/code oriented, and those are worth looking at.

How to Tweak A Responsive Website To Meet Mobile SEO

1. Think Local

Recent surveys indicate that search volume for restaurants on mobiles is closing in on that for desktop searches. When people are home, they are more likely to look for things from their desktop. But on the move, it’s the smartphone or the tablet that serves their needs. And when it comes to that, you have to think “local.”

Most mobile search results are largely influenced by geo-specific parameters. This means you have to tweak your website to meet local SEO pointers. This enables Google to identify your optimized website as a suitable result for display in local searches — mobile being one of the most important ones.

2. Think Shorter Keywords

When it comes to mobile phones and tablets, people are using touch-screen keys. They’re not comfortable typing out the entire search phrase, so the keywords they’re using are shorter than normal. Target shorter keywords if you want to show up on mobile searches more often.

Another interesting user experience with regard to mobile searches is that people are more prone to tap the keyword suggestions that Google offers when they start searching for specific terms. Take note of Google’s recommendations and target your keywords based on them. You can get Google’s recommended keywords either while you begin searching for keyword phrases, or on Google’s AdWords Keyword Tool.

3. Think Mobile Analytics

Google’s Mobile section in Web Analytics offers insights into the number of visits from mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. As a webmaster/SEO, you can tweak the results to include more metrics like keywords and thereby track which keywords are driving traffic. Even a cursory look reveals a lot and can give you ideas for small tweaks that will energize your mobile SEO efforts.

4. Think Users First

The best advice you’ll ever hear from the likes of UI/UX experts, however, is this: focus your mobile strategy to help users find information on your website quickly and easily. Forcing users to resort to pinch-to-zoom should be avoided, and having a lot of heavy-load graphics on a mobile website is not recommended either.

Mobile phone users do have 3G (and 4G) connectivity these days, but resources on mobile devices aren’t as powerful as those on desktops and laptops. At least not yet. Users still prefer fast-loading websites that present information well within the smaller dimensions of their smartphones and tablets.

The Way Forward

It has always been a matter of faith that a well-designed, information-rich website will attract both visitors and links. Responsive web design is the next big thing not because it’s a spectacular method of having the same HTML code while varying the design, but because it makes it easy for the user, browser cache, user-agents, and crawlers to track the website. Since the information is the same, it makes sense to have just one page for both desktop and mobile versions.

Local SEO, intuitive and smart keyword targeting, mobile analytics tracking, and a commitment to good usability are the essential elements of effective mobile SEO.

Jayson DeMers
Jayson DeMers is the founder & CEO of AudienceBloom, a Seattle-based content marketing & social media agency. You can contact him on LinkedIn, Google+, or... Read Full Bio
Jayson DeMers
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  • Pete

    I dislike responsive sites, they put me off and I tend to click straight back out. I much prefer a dedicated mobile site . The main difference being I can chose to view the desktop version is I want. (I have a 5.5″ mobile phone which will happily render most desktop sites. With a responsive site you don’t the option.

    • Neo Ighodaro

      While its valid to want to have access to Desktop Version, and with responsive websites you can’t have this, web designers and ux experts understand no web site can fulfil every users needs; designing for the majority is what ultimately counts.

      The majority want a uniform but scaled down experience. A single-column website they don’t have to scroll left/right or pinch-zoom to view. Responsive web site handles this effectively; though it must be said that there are still situations where dedicated mobile sites are needed.

  • Derek Whitney

    Great article Jayson! This is a trend that is only going to grow and become more popular. At the end of the day, its all about user-experince and making the user happy. If you have a slow site, where you have to zoom to see every page, its only going to hurt conversions.

    Thanks for the tips!

  • Prashant Rohilla

    I think delivering required content to Mobile users in the least number of clicks is what The need of the time, Because on mobile people will probably not like to click more than 1 or 2 times and thsi is a Challenge.

  • Anirudh

    responsive design is the future of web, One design will render on all devices like smart phone, tablets, desktop etc., really the need of the hour and will go long way as it lot of updates and changes will follow..

  • Chandler Bryson

    Great read, I really enjoyed reading about responsive design. Responsive design is a revolutionary step to make website designing more attractive and user friendly.

  • Veru

    May I suggest to look at the question from another, and much more Seo oriented, point of view? RWD is not always the best solution, it’s one of the most we can use, not the best or the worst…

    Have a look here, just to see the things from a different point of view

    Cheers 🙂

  • Tom

    I don’t even have HTML5 on my site which I should on all if my sites but that’s another topic. Responsive mobile web design just doesn’t look right for some reason. I agree that its easier to see, build, load etc…. But customers enjoy navigating through menus which is so obvious. They enjoy flipping to the next page to see what’s next, (maybe reviews, gallery , FAQ , about us, or a video on a unique service. I just think that hacking a 1.5 second load time opposed to a 3-5 second load time is really not that big of a deal as most people think. I also want to point out that so many customers click onto the call to action button on either the Adwords ad text (If set up properly, amazing still how many people still don’t do that right) or local map listings call to action button after a search even unfortanly while their driving. I think that the average human being is more inquisitive than just a 1 page scroll down mobile friendly website to satisfy us all.
    I personally enjoy navigating through websites because I want to see what’s on the next page. Making a website so easy or mobile responsive has potential but I just don’t think its going to keep people’s attention like everyone is talking about. Its almost under kill instead of overkill the way I’m interpreting it. Yes I agree it will work well for Certain industries but not more than 15-20% as of right now.
    Things change so fast that soon everyone’s going to be wearing exoskeletons & the jetsons are not even coming soon because we have the technology already.
    I have my own website development & Internet marketing business ( not a freelancer) and I’ve seen our industry broken down into about 4 types of people . The complete profiteers which are everywhere in every aspect of life so that we can’t do anything about except smarten up & educate clients , 2) The pressured salesmen that is brainwashed by his company to believe his own line of BS who probably has a hard time looking at him/herself in the mirror each morning because is probably a good person that can’t afford to lose their income, benefits & reputation amongst his peers which has zero barring on his/her life by the way & has become that super savvy talker – business man who preys on selling just enough value to keep a client “If I show you a ROI of the $5000 your spending with my agency each month and you generate $15,000 in revenue your going to stay with me of course, it always takes a few months for the ROI to start to really increase” these are the pyramid employees that are watching the boat sail right by them that they built, painted, upgraded, rowed, etc…. who will be kicked to the curb when all the juice has been squeezed for their souls white the “hog”usually 1 btw gets so fat that its disgusting & will keep just arms length from the business ownership behind on their name so they don’t get hurt when the corruption starts getting very thick like it did in the mortgage industry when all middle management got the shaft while the big fish swam away free and clear with no legal ties and another stack of a few billion dollars. 3rd theirs the techies who just are so involved with perfection while trying to run a business with deadlines, timeframes, costs, etc… who make me just as crazy as the savvy business “slave” because they have the ability and talent to make a good living but can’t bring themselves to launch a website until every little aspect is 100% in the code, layout, load time, image size being 100x 100 when its loading as a 400×400 which slows down the load time by a trillionth of a nano second even though the business that he/she is developing this site for could’ve made that client 15x their normal revenue that 1st month if they would’ve launched the site instead if tweaking themselves out if business “mostly men techies are like this btw” .
    Then the 4th) type is the “non techie” old school work ethic, pride aside, service oriented, go the extra 100 miles, over services “which could hurt then too”biggest strength is sometimes their greatest weakness” that will knowledge transfer to the client and won’t lose the client btw because the client doesn’t hade time to use the bathroom after the business is so busy from the website, advertising, face to face meetings , building business relationships Taft last years to come.
    This last category I find myself to be in and I don’t know everything “far from it” but determined, motivated, passionate & valuable to every client I have more than I could’ve ever believed which took me 3-4 years to fully understand how valuable I’ve become.
    I went on a complete rant about this industry for a reason, everyone’s trying to recreate the wheel and it might make sense but remember who your clients & customers ” end users ” are right now.
    I will definitely benefit some clients with responsive mobile sites but not most yet. I deal with my clients customers directly which will tell you more than any statistic, analytics report,new article submission , etc….. and I ask questions to find out what they liked and disliked about the site, listing ad, etc… and play devils advocate by showing them some responsive mobile sites and I get this expression & reaction from most people that they like the current website version much, much better than the comparison on responsive mobile sites to a point where they say I would’ve looked at this site and exited it if I saw that to be honest. This doesn’t make sense but its the “human algorithm” right now .
    ” If its not broken don’t fix it”
    Don’t we have enough reeducation rack day when a new dashboard for everything we use just changed completely.
    I love this industry btw because its such a challenge and someone’s always better, faster, more organized, etc… then me and everybody else out their but the bottom line is still the bottom line!
    I’ve always hated the phrase ” The Bottom Line” reminds me of that little weasel guy from the movie cocktail who did a poem at the club Tom Cruise was working at right b4 he did his poem.

  • Ziv

    At SEJ, you have skipped working on the font size for small media screens – Font sizes of title, h1, h2 should be much smaller.
    Was there a reason to leave the same fonts?

  • Zac Johnson

    Thanks, and great tips! I’m making the transition to a response design in my next blog update. It will be exciting to see if/how the site ranks better. I know it will definitely look better across all platforms at least!