Responsive Design for Mobile SEO

Why Is Mobile So Important?

If you look just at your revenue numbers as a publisher, it is easy to believe mobile is of limited importance. In our last post I mentioned an AdAge article highlighting how the New York Times was generating over half their traffic from mobile with it accounting for about 10% of their online ad revenues.

Large ad networks (Google, Bing, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo!, etc.) can monetize mobile *much* better than other publishers can because they aggressively blend the ads right into the social stream or search results, causing them to have a much higher CTR than ads on the desktop. Bing recently confirmed the same trend RKG has highlighted about Google's mobile ad clicks:

While mobile continues to be an area of rapid and steady growth, we are pleased to report that the Yahoo Bing Network’s search and click volumes from smart phone users have more than doubled year-over-year. Click volumes have generally outpaced growth in search volume

Those ad networks want other publishers to make their sites mobile friendly for a couple reasons...

  • If the downstream sites are mobile friendly, then users are more likely to go back to the central ad / search / social networks more often & be more willing to click out on the ads from them.
  • If mobile is emphasized in importance, then those who are critical of the value of the channel may eat some of the blame for relative poor performance, particularly if they haven't spent resources optimizing user experience on the channel.

Further Elevating the Importance of Mobile

Google has hinted at the importance of having a mobile friendly design, labeling friendly sites, testing labeling slow sites & offering tools to test how mobile friendly a site design is.

Today Google put out an APB warning they are going to increase the importance of mobile friendly website design:

Starting April 21, we will be expanding our use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal. This change will affect mobile searches in all languages worldwide and will have a significant impact in our search results.

In the past Google would hint that they were working to clean up link spam or content farms or website hacking and so on. In some cases announcing such efforts was done to try to discourage investment in the associated strategies, but it is quite rare that Google pre-announces an algorithmic shift which they state will be significant & they put an exact date on it.

I wouldn't recommend waiting until the last day to implement the design changes, as it will take Google time to re-crawl your site & recognize if the design is mobile friendly.

Those who ignore the warning might be in for significant pain.

Some sites which were hit by Panda saw a devastating 50% to 70% decline in search traffic, but given how small mobile phone screen sizes are, even ranking just a couple spots lower could cause an 80% or 90% decline in mobile search traffic.

Another related issue referenced in the above post was tying in-app content to mobile search personalization:

Starting today, we will begin to use information from indexed apps as a factor in ranking for signed-in users who have the app installed. As a result, we may now surface content from indexed apps more prominently in search. To find out how to implement App Indexing, which allows us to surface this information in search results, have a look at our step-by-step guide on the developer site.

Google also announced today they are extending AdWords-styled ads to their Google Play search results, so they now have a direct economic incentive to allow app activity to bleed into their organic ranking factors.

m. Versus Responsive Design

Some sites have a separate m. version for mobile visitors, while other sites keep consistent URLs & employ responsive design. How the m. version works is on the regular version of their site (say like a webmaster could add an alternative reference to the mobile version in the head section of the document

<link rel="alternate" media="only screen and (max-width: 640px)" href="" >

...and then on the mobile version, they would rel=canonical it back to the desktop version, likeso...

<link rel="canonical" href="" >

With the above sort of code in place, Google would rank the full version of the site on desktop searches & the m. version in mobile search results.

3 or 4 years ago it was a toss up as to which of these 2 options would win, but over time it appears the responsive design option is more likely to win out.

Here are a couple reasons responsive is likely to win out as a better solution:

  • If people share a mobile-friendly URL on Twitter, Facebook or other social networks & the URL changes, then when someone on a desktop computer clicks on the shared m. version of the page with fewer ad units & less content on the page, then the publisher is providing a worse user experience & is losing out on incremental monetization they would have achieved with the additional ad units.
  • While some search engines and social networks might be good at consolidating the performance of the same piece of content across multiple URL versions, some of them will periodically mess it up. That in turn will lead in some cases to lower rankings in search results or lower virality of content on social networks.
  • Over time there is an increasing blur between phones and tablets with phablets. Some high pixel density screens on cross over devices may appear large in terms of pixel count, but still not have particularly large screens, making it easy for users to misclick on the interface.
  • When Bing gave their best practices for mobile, they stated: "Ideally, there shouldn’t be a difference between the “mobile-friendly” URL and the “desktop” URL: the site would automatically adjust to the device — content, layout, and all." In that post Bing shows some examples of m. versions of sites ranking in their mobile search results, however for smaller & lesser known sites they may not rank the m. version the way they do for Yelp or Wikipedia, which means that even if you optimize the m. version of the site to a great degree, that isn't the version all mobile searchers will see. Back in 2012 Bing also stated their preference for a single version of a URL, in part based on lowering crawl traffic & consolidation of ranking signals.

In addition to responsive web design & separate mobile friendly URLs, a third configuration option is dynamic serving, which uses the Vary HTTP header to detect the user-agent & use that to drive the layout. For large, complex & high-traffic sites (and sites with numerous staff programmers & designers) dynamic serving is perhaps the best optimization solution because you can optimize the images and code to lower bandwidth costs and response times. Most smaller sites will likely rely on responsive design rather than dynamic serving, in large part because it is quicker & cheaper to implement, and most are not running sites large enough to where the incremental bandwidth provides a significant incremental expense to their business.

Solutions for Quickly Implementing Responsive Design

New Theme / Design

If your site hasn't been updated in years you might be suprised at what you find available on sites like ThemeForest for quite reasonable prices. Many of the options are responsive out of the gate & look good with a day or two of customization. Theme subscription services like WooThemes and Elegant Themes also have responsive options.

Child Themes

Some of the default Wordpress themes are responsive. Creating a child theme is quite easy. The popular Thesis and Studiopress frameworks also offer responsive skins.

PSD to HTML HTML to Responsive HTML

Some of the PSD to HTML conversion services like PSD 2 HTML, HTML Slicemate & XHTML Chop offer responsive design conversion of existing HTML sites in as little as a day or two, though you will likely need to do at least a few minor changes when you put the designs live to compensate for issues like third party ad units and other minor issues.

If you have an existing Wordpress theme, you might want to see if you can zip it up and send it to them, or else they may make your new theme as a child theme of 2015 or such. If you are struggling to get them to convert your Wordpress theme over (like they are first converting it to a child theme of 2015 or such) then another option would be to have them do a static HTML file conversion (instead of a Wordpress conversion) and then feed that through a theme creation tool like Themespress.

For simple hand rolled designs there are a variety of grid generator tools, which can make it reasonably easy to replace some old school table-based designs with divs. Many of the themes for sale in marketplaces like Theme Forest also use a multi-column div grid based system.

Other Things to Look Out For

Third Party Plug-ins & Ad Code Gotchas

Google allows webmasters to alter the ad calls on their mobile responsive AdSense ad units to show different sized ad units to different screen sizes & skip showing some ad units on smaller screens. An AdSense code example is included in an expandable section at the bottom of this page.

<style type="text/css">
.adslot_1 { display:inline-block; width: 320px; height: 50px; }
@media (max-width: 400px) { .adslot_1 { display: none; } }
@media (min-width:500px) { .adslot_1 { width: 468px; height: 60px; } }
@media (min-width:800px) { .adslot_1 { width: 728px; height: 90px; } }
<ins class="adsbygoogle adslot_1"
<script async src="//"></script>
<script>(adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || []).push({});</script>

For other ads which perhaps don't have a "mobile friendly" option you could use CSS to either set the ad unit to display none or to set the ad unit to overflow using code like either of the following

hide it:

@media only screen and (max-width: ___px) {
     .bannerad {
          display: none;

overflow it:

@media only screen and (max-width: ___px) {
     .ad-unit {
          max-width: ___px;
          overflow: scroll;

Images are another tricky point.

img {

Here are a few other general responsive CSS tricks.

Before Putting Your New Responsive Site Live...

Back up your old site before putting the new site live.

For static HTML sites or sites with PHP or SHTML includes & such...

  • Download a copy of your existing site to local.
  • Rename that folder to something like
  • Upload the folder to your server. If anything goes drastically wrong during your conversion process you can rename the new site design to something like then set the folder to to quickly restore the site.
  • Download your site to local again.
  • Ensure your new site design is using a different CSS folder or CSS filename such that they old and new versions of the design can be live at the same time while you are editing the site.
  • Create a test file with the responsive design on your site & test that page until things work well enough.
  • Once that page works well enough, test changing your homepage over to the new design & then save and upload it to verify it works properly. In addition to using your cell phone you could see how it looks on a variety of devices via the mobile browser testing emulation tool in Chrome, or a wide array of third party tools like:, MobileMoxy Device Emulator, iPadPeek, Mobile Phone Emulator, Browshot, Matt Kersley's responsive web design testing tool, BrowserStack, Cross Browser Testing, & the W3C mobileOK Checker. Paid services like Keynote offer manual testing rather than emulation on a wide variety of devices. There is also paid downloadable desktop emulation software like Multi-browser view.
  • Once you have the general "what needs changed in each file" down, then use find & replace to bulk edit the remaining files to make the changes to make them responsive.
  • Use a tool like FileZilla to quickly bulk upload the files.
  • Look through key pages and if there are only a few minor errors then fix them and re-upload them. If things are majorly screwed up then revert to the old design being live and schedule a do over on the upgrade.
  • If you have a decently high traffic site, it might make sense to schedule the above process for late Friday night or an off hour on the weekend, such that if anything goes astray you have fewer people seeing the errors while you frantically rush to fix them. :)
  • If you want to view your top pages you could export that data from your web analytics to verify all those pages look good. If you wanted to view every page of your site 1 at a time after the change, you could use a tool like Xenu Link Sleuth or Screaming Frog SEO Spider to crawl your site & export a list of URLs into a spreadsheet. Then you could take the URLs from that spreadsheet and put them a chunk at a time into a tool like URL Opener.

If you have little faith in the above test-it-live "methodology" & would prefer a slower & lower stress approach, you could create a test site on another domain name for testing purposes. Just be sure to include a noindex directive in the robots.txt file or password protect access to the site while testing. When you get things worked out on it, make sure your internal links are referencing the correct domain name, and that you have removed any block via robots.txt or password protection.

For a site with a CMS the above process is basically the same, except for how you might need to create a different backup. If you are uploading a Wordpress or Drupal theme, then change the name at least slightly so you can keep the old and new designs live at the same time so you can quickly switch back to the old design if you need to.

If you have a mixed site with Wordpress & static files or such then it might make sense to test changing the static files first, get those to work well & then create a Wordpress theme after that.

Update: at a conference a Googler named Zineb Ait Bahajji recently stated they expect this update to impact more sites than Panda and Penguin have. And Google recently started sending out mobile usability warning messages in bulk:

Google systems have tested 2,790 pages from your site and found that 100% of them have critical mobile usability errors. The errors on these 2,790 pages severely affect how mobile users are able to experience your website. These pages will not be seen as mobile-friendly by Google Search, and will therefore be displayed and ranked appropriately for smartphone users.

Published: February 26, 2015 by Aaron Wall in google publishing & media

New to the site? Join for Free and get over $300 of free SEO software.

Once you set up your free account you can comment on our blog, and you are eligible to receive our search engine success SEO newsletter.

Already have an account? Login to share your opinions.

Gain a Competitive Advantage Today

Your top competitors have been investing into their marketing strategy for years.

Now you can know exactly where they rank, pick off their best keywords, and track new opportunities as they emerge.

Explore the ranking profile of your competitors in Google and Bing today using SEMrush.

Enter a competing URL below to quickly gain access to their organic & paid search performance history - for free.

See where they rank & beat them!

  • Comprehensive competitive data: research performance across organic search, AdWords, Bing ads, video, display ads, and more.
  • Compare Across Channels: use someone's AdWords strategy to drive your SEO growth, or use their SEO strategy to invest in paid search.
  • Global footprint: Tracks Google results for 120+ million keywords in many languages across 28 markets
  • Historical data: since 2009, before Panda and Penguin existed, so you can look for historical penalties and other potential ranking issues.
  • Risk-free: Free trial & low price.
Your competitors, are researching your site

Find New Opportunities Today

    Email Address
    Pick a Username
    Yes, please send me "7 Days to SEO Success" mini-course (a $57 value) for free.

    Learn More

    We value your privacy. We will not rent or sell your email address.