By Annie Ellicott

Almost a year ago, Google announced its preference for responsively designed web sites, allowing sharing of SEO value of desktop-delivered content with mobile-delivered content. Responsive web design is all the rage in the mobile site developer realm and with more and more visitors accessing sites via smartphones and tablets… should you consider going this route when charging into the fray of mobile site development?

To recap, there are three current ways of building a mobile site (at least so far):

1. Responsive Web Design (RWD): Separate stylesheets (desktop, mobile) control how content on the RWD site displays be it via desktop, smartphone, tablet. Essentially, this allows a single domain (and url) to be used for delivery of all content whatever the device accessing it.

2. Mixed RESS: Responsively designed mobile site but instead of CSS stylesheets and browser settings controlling the display of content, server side settings help compress images, navigation, video to render the appropriate look for the device receiving the content (e.g smartphone, tablet). Mixed RESS can also be combined with mobile-specific templates to maximize the mobile user experience.

3. Mobile site: A separate mobile version of a site is hosted on a separate subdomain or subdirectory with unique templates and CMS vs the desktop version of the site (with separate templates designed for mobile devices, smartphone, tablets) e.g. Mobile templates specific to the mobile user experience (stripped down navigation, smaller image sizes, bite-sized content) are delivered with regular (full-depth) web content delivered via RSS/XML feeds.

So what are the pro’s and con’s of going the responsive web design route vs the two competing methods for mobile site development? Do these choices impact SEO? What about the investment costs? How easy or hard are each option for content updating and site maintainence?



Responsive web design is clearly trending. It’s most significant advantage is scalability. Whatever the device of the future (and who knows what we will see even in the next year… Apple’s iWatch? Google Glasses?), responsive web design will allow immediate, flexible content delivery, regardless the device. All content on the host domain will be fully and easily accessible. Another pro, Google’s spiders only have to crawl one site (hence why they love responsively designed sites!). Great for large sites who need to display all content in full versions, all the time (e.g. publishers like the Boston Globe).


RWD often requires a fundamental redesign of the universal site vs what your current desktop version may look like today. It’s therefore costly in terms of investment as designers and developers must work much more collaboratively on the “universal” site layouts, navigation and site architecture. And responsive web design typically requires presentation level engineering support to update and maintain. Everytime you change a stylesheet setting…you change it on the mobile version and the desktop version.

With RWD, all content/navigation/imagery is universal and all content is accessed regardless of device so there is on “mobile-only” user experience which strips down what the user sees when accessing your site via smartphone or tablet. This, from a marketing standpoint, is probably my biggest beef with RWD. For the vast majority of brands, the mobile user experience should not be anything like the desktop user experience. Visitors who don’t like wading through all your navigation, content etc. may simply bounce away, reducing your SEO performance and your conversions and lead capture.

With RWD, load times can be longer (and data transfer costs on mobile plans higher for users) since the image size you would want to display on the desktop is always substantially higher than what you would ideally like delivered via mobile. Finally, it is also true you can’t target mobile-specific keywords using RWD as content can only be optimized once, across all devices. [Since location is a key variable impacting mobile SEO however, this is slightly less important than you might think, however.]



Mixed RESS allows you flexibility in what you send to the mobile version of your site (navigation, imagery, video) as server side settings compress content before it is delivered up based on the user-agent (device ID) of the visitor. When combined with a mobile-specific template integrated into your desktop’s content management system, this can be a powerful solution. Load times are reduced, data plan charges too and user-agent “sniffing” allows the right level and format of content to be delivered based on the user’s device. One content management system controls the content and leverages CMS plugins, XML and RSS feeds so content updates don’t need to be made in multiple places. Great option for large sites who  want to point mobile users to specific “go to” pages but shortcut their way they interact with this content via mobile (e.g. Universities, e-commerce sites).


This solution is also costly, but less than RWD for sure.



For complete customization of the mobile user experience, hosting content on a subdomain or subdirectory with mobile-specific templates, CSS, content is another option. This is by far the most customized way to deliver your message to visitors based on how they are viewing your content (by smartphone, tablet or desktop) and allows full search optimization of the mobile site (with mobile-specific keywords associated with location, device). As long as desktop versions and the mobile site are cross-linked and mobile pages are listed in the xml sitemap sent to Google, the mobile site will be crawled and indexed with SEO value of the desktop site shared with the mobile site. DIY blog-site mobile templates are available to deliver a fully functional mobile site for some blog-based site themes (e.g Genesis in Word Press for example) which is a great way to go if you are a small business and need a desktop site with a bundled mobile site solution.


Separate design of mobile templates can be costly. More importantly, content must be updated in both the desktop ( and mobile versions ( or as separate CMS’s control the hosting of the different versions of content. Server-side adjustments (HTTP headers include REL-ALT and REL=CANONICAL tags) to avoid “duplicate url/same content” issues with Google and you need to correctly cache and compress content properly so that spiders can crawl your mobile site quickly and easily.

Still dazed and confused about which mobile site development option to choose? Just contact us and we’re happy to help!