Responsive design, friend or foe?
In the world of digital marketing, responsive has become one of the new buzz words. Every marketing consultant and agency I meet appears to be shovelling the concept without understanding its practicality within the given business or producing the statistics and hard facts to back up their presentations. I’m always wary when everyone jumps on the same bandwagon; after all I sat through the Flash revolution of the 90’s, and we all know how that ended!
Don’t get me wrong, in theory I love responsive design, but I like to weigh up the pros and cons and implement solutions that suit a given situation or project. Not wildly push something because it’s in fad or to make a quick buck.
Those companies or agencies that are willing to share the knowledge of their success appear to have jumped from having no mobile presence to a responsive site. Of course they are going to see uplift in revenue and conversion; to go from nothing to something is always going to be an improvement. I haven’t yet come across anyone though that has moved from an mdot site to responsive and willing to share their experience.
So what is a responsive site?
Responsive sites are developed to respond to a user’s behaviour and device. Built around a 12, 16 or 24 grid framework (such as Twitter Bootstrap) a website will automatically resize dependant on screen size, platform and orientation through the use of CSS media queries.
Visits from multiple devices have been steadily growing since 2007, fuelled by the release of smartphones and tablets. Rather than quote statistics off other sites and taking them as gospel. I can tell you for a fact, visits to my current company’s site are as follows; desktop 49.6%, mobile 31.9%, tablet 18.5% (2014)
Users now want and expect access to their digital lives on the move and from a device of their choosing. I expect this to also include larger devices in future such as Smart TVs (when the technology matures), so don’t just expect screen size to become smaller. Responsive is one solution to this problem.
SEO and user experience
Google with 89.5% UK search market share recommend responsive web design as its preferred option and refer to it as industry best practice. I would suggest this is primarily because it is EASIER for Google to crawl, index and organise content as responsive sites have one URL and one set of code.
This in theory enables a more seamless user experience and Google can be confident that content on one URL is consistent across devices and therefore easier to share and interact with. Bots also don’t have to contend with (complex) redirects to and from different domains, indexing multiple versions of what is in essence the same site.
What does all this mean? Google is placing a large emphasis on an optimised user-experience for search ranking, which is essential for SEO. However I believe a well-built mobile only site can achieve all of the above and more.
Most people don’t use or want to use mobile sites in the same way they’d use a desktop version. Experience has taught me that many visitors browse sites on their mobile for information and sharing. When they are ready to make a purchase or do something more considered, they switch to a different device with a larger screen.
Whereas responsive websites attempt to reflow the same content in various layouts, a mobile site if designed correctly using analytical insight would give THE optimum user experience in my opinion. Many ecommerce sites have lots of additional functionality and navigation which would be impossible to shrink down into a mobile version in an efficient manner, which is why the likes of Amazon have an optimised UI (user interface) containing those elements proven to be most important.
I personally believe that many people don’t realise how much they pinch and zoom on their phones and tablets. I often find it easier to navigate a desktop site on my phone than I do ANY mobile optimised version. This is usually because I know where everything is on the desktop site, whereas mobile and/or responsive sites tend to hide elements that I regularly use or want. Every mobile site needs to offer users the ability to switch to desktop view or alternatively switch off responsive altogether.
And… although Google and Bing’s preference is responsive, the effect on SEO ranking is actually unknown. Many experts claim that a dedicated mobile site is easier and faster to index on mobile SERP and actually ranks better. I’ll have to take their word for this!
Site performance and speed
Another downside which Google appear to be ignoring is the impact of site speed and load time on user experience. Responsive sites tend to be slower because each device requires the downloading of unnecessary code and scripts, before deciding what to serve up to the user dependant on device size. Whereas mobile only sites can be stripped back to the bare bones.
Obviously it goes without saying that slower load times can impact conversions rates and even search rankings. Although all sites can be optimised to improve efficiency, responsive sites will always be that much slower in my experience.
Development speed and cost
Responsive design has a reputation for being more costly. For the initial build I would probably disagree and would suggest they are on par. This is obviously dependant on the size and scale of the project and whether an existing framework is used.
However, in my experience the project management and implementation of site enhancements are much slower and more expensive with responsive. Each device needs to be considered carefully and thoroughly tested, with design and development working in harmony at each breakpoint.
Whereas companies with separate desktop and mobile sites can roll out UI and development improvements faster and in a stagged approach; desktop first, mobile later. Although again experience suggests because of budget restrictions and/or human error, dedicated mobile sites often get forgot about. In time these often become the poorer cousin of the desktop site as internally staff tend to view the desktop site more frequently.
Responsive definitely has its place and in time it will likely become the expected solution, although nothing is set in stone. Google and Bing aren’t likely to make any rash decisions which could penalise known brands and sites. After all any hard line they take could damage their own revenue streams.
Each business needs to evaluate what is right for them. I think responsive is great for smaller SME type businesses where sites contain more content and less features. Any decision making process also needs to reflect budgets and lead time too.
Make sure you think for yourself and don’t be led down the garden path by an agency solely interested in lining their pockets.