A responsive website adjusts itself to different screen sizes so that it looks good no matter whether you are looking at it on a phone, tablet, or desktop.
From the point of view of the site owner, a site that uses responsive design only needs to be built once - you don't need to build a web version, a mobile version and a tablet version separately - so this usually saves time and money and is the biggest advantage of responsive design. Plus, any updates that then need to be made only have to be implemented on one site.
What are the drawbacks and challenges with responsive design?
The challenges are numerous: primary among them is that responsive will deliver more or less a web experience, but reformatted for mobile, rather than a true mobile experience. A mobile website (covered in more details in our November article) that is designed specifically for an iPhone or an Android smartphone provides a true mobile experience that is tailored for the small screen.
Also for responsive design, while only one set of HTML is required, the difference in the stylesheets to provide a custom mobile experience may well be so great that maintaining two sites is actually easier.
If you look as some of the leading retailers who already have extensive and complex websites, building a responsive design would be an enormous challenge. The reason being is that a true responsive design only works well when the site is designed from scratch to be responsive.
The best responsive designs start by thinking mobile first - not desktop first. A good mobile user experience usually translates well to desktop. The same isn't always true the other way round.
This is why so far responsive design has been primarily adopted by smaller businesses or new businesses. This can however change as the technology behind responsive design matures.
There are websites that are a mix of responsive and mobile websites. For example the BBC website actually redirects mobile users to a separate mobile domain but the mobile domain itself is responsive in that it adopts to different mobile or tablet screen sizes. For example if you turn the home page from vertical to horizontal three columns of content are being displayed instead of two.
Which option is best for SEO?
In the eyes of Google, does responsive design or traditional mobile design leverage a higher SEO value? I have drawn some conclusions from Matt Cutts video where he explains the SEO aspects in relation to mobile websites and responsive design.
Cutts said that both ways of doing it are proper ways of dealing with mobile traffic, and that they have a lot of help documents available to webmasters to ensure they are doing everything correctly, particularly ensuring rel=canonical is being used for mobile versions of sites. This is because the challenges caused by a mobile version is that your site ends up with two different url’s for each web page – one mobile and one desktop. When it comes to responsive sites this issue doesn’t exist if there is only one version of the site.
Matt Cutts states responsive design is the smarter way to go for SEO, primarily because you can have issues when creating a mobile version of the page if you aren't implementing it correctly.
In his video Matt Cutts says: "In general, I wouldn't worry about a site that is using responsive design losing SEO benefits because by definition you've got the same URL," Cutts said. "So in theory, if you do a mobile version of the site, if you don't handle that well and you don't do the rel=canonical and all those sorts of things, then you might, in theory, divide the PageRank between those two pages. But if you have responsive design then everything is handled from one URL, so the PageRank doesn't get divided, everything works fine."
Hence in conclusion, like many other things in life, I don’t think there is a clear right or wrong when it comes to choose between responsive design and a mobile website. It really depends on many different factors and unique needs of a business.