Google’s latest game change puts designers and SEOs on the same page
Time was, search engines were incurious and largely illiterate. Way back, oh say, five years ago, robots were unable to read a good deal of the content on a typical web page. That’s why title tags and headers were so important for Search Engine Optimization – the bots couldn’t readily see what pages were about, so they were prepared to take the author’s (or optimizer’s) word for it, especially if that word were repeated over and over in the visible, static text.
Times have changed. In the past couple years, search engines have become more and more proficient, not only at understanding the substantive content of web pages, but also at seeing through – and flagging – excessive manipulation, overzealous optimization tactics, and what can only be described as stretching the truth.
In the wake of Google’s 2011/2012 Panda and Penguin updates, much has been writtenabout the importance of creating ‘great’ content.It seems clear that content should no longer be built to ‘rank’ in the traditional SEO sense – thatit should be built to satisfy: to be useful, sharable, and likely to be shared. Going forward, content creators must take into account that even merely providing an answer does not cut it anymore. People have to like you.
Somewhat lost in the shuffle, however, is how that same usefulness factor relates to Google’s recent endorsement of responsive design.
The new best practice
More to the point, it allows for different creative elements, different calls to action, and so forth.
Now, whereas Google had previously recommended separate mobile (m.domain) sites, or had remained, characteristically, either ambiguous or ambivalent on the issue, the search giant’s guidancesuddenly shifted and hardened as of spring 2012, when the writ was unceremoniously dropped:thou shalt use responsive design.
This edict signifiessomething of a sea change in one narrow corner of the industry. A cynic might postulate that Google never endorsed RWD simply because it was unable to deal with it effectively. Historically, it has certainly been the case that m-dot content has variously shown as duplicate, that searchers have alternatingly been directed to misaligned results for their device or screen size, that the developer community has vigorously appealed for better counsel. So why did Google not sooner preempt such problems and promote the undeniable good sense of RWD? So far, there has been no official comment on the rationale, but the writing is on the wall.
A change for the better
If the unwelcome news is that marketers the world over just got a whole new set of marching orders – implying not just a sudden increase in workload and expense, but quite possibly a dramatic about-face in boardroom rhetoric and the hasty revision of last year’s PowerPoint presentations – the good news is twofold: RWD is great for the user, and it benefits SEO. As we shall see, these two aspects amount increasingly to one and the same.
Let’s deal with the second point first. When websites host mobile-friendly contenton a separate URL (subdomain or subfolder), two or even multiple versions of the same content entail – e.g., one for the desktop and another for mobile. This duplicate content issue is what led to Google’s indexing struggles and, ultimately, to its acknowledgement of RWD. The further challenge has to do with linking. Of course, we should all know by now that building links is on the outs; however, doing things that result in (good) links is still very much where it’s at. That said, in this bivalent scenario, links to oneversion (for example, through content shared socially) bypass or rob equity from the other. Resolving content to a single site means having to build only one set of links, and eliminating the need for cumbersome, fallible and, for search engines, potentially confusing agent-specific redirects.
Now onto the real reasons we should all of us – publishers, marketers, SEOs and global citizens – embrace responsive design: it makes for a better user experience. Let’s return to the earlier observation about destinations increasinglybeing rewarded for being actually useful. This isa massive issue with mobile. Today, many mobile sites that use agent detection end up providingextremely poorpost-click experiences and, of course, the vast majority ofwebsites still don’t offer any kind of mobile experience. This is a search quality issue, and one which Google clearly wants to ameliorate. It stands to reason, therefore, that those who adhere to responsive design, and do it well, will be rewarded for their effort.
Obviously, responsively designed websites make sense from anSEO and PPC landing page perspective, by encouraging conversions and transactions without the risk of device-driven dysfunction and resulting user rage. But the concept extends much further into pure UX territory. Consider how, and how often, the function and content of a mobile site should differfrom the desktop experience. Good responsive design makes the most of every situation, by removing or reducing the visibility of less relevant content; repositioning and swapping out elements (such as replacing the desktop map with a ‘click for directions’ button on the smartphone); rethinking the clickpath, etc.
From this perspective of ensuring glorious user experiences across channels, platforms and devices, responsive design does spell more work. Whatever the potential development efficiencies, doing this well means sophisticated consulting, qualitative research, creative and user testing – not just combining two sites into one. Still, there are upsides: it is possible to align with Google’s guidance early and relatively quickly. And, as always, best practice has its rewards – in this case, higher conversion rates leading to increased value, and enhanced user experiences leading to better… SEO! It would appear that the hitherto siloed universes of brand marketers and web marketers are finally colliding. From hereon in, SEOs, strategists, creatives, designers, developers and analystswill all need to be peering over one anothers’ cubicle walls, and perhaps even working in unison.