SEO. Responsive Webdesign vs. 301 redirect –fight!

von Henry Zeitler

Responsive Webdesign seems to be the first choice of approach to mobile optimisation. Google strongly recommends serving the same HTML to all devices and using CSS to change the way how the page is rendered on several devices (Recommendations for building smartphone-optimized websites). But does this approach really make sense in every case and with the gloves off? This a blog post about conceptional thoughts mostly from a SEO point of view without any detailed technical coverage.

Different demands need different solutions.

Fortunately, many private people and companies running websites see the benefit of mobile optimised content nowadays. It mostly results of the growing pressure to stay competitive and in relation to the rising graph of mobile device users.

But regarding the conceptional and strategic considerations there’s always the questions which approach to choose best. Is there really the need for Responsive Webdesign? When should I use it and which alternatives have I? Ok, let’s bring some light into the dark…

Responsive Webdesign

Responsive Webdesign is actually the most discussed thing in the web. For a good reason. It’s new and innovative and makes sense to use in most cases. Yes in most cases, because Responsive Webdesign always deals with the original content of a website no matter if the visitor uses a desktop or a mobile device.

The trick is to rearrange the content depending on the viewport size and by the use of media querries. But rearranging content means not initially optimizing the content. CSS3 and its media query feature is actually not working properly or – let’s better say – as expected in most browsers. There are still problems with the most important things on websites concerning the file size for mobile devices and their often reduced connectivity. The images.

And there can be several other conditions making the realization of a Responsive Webdesign economically not reasonable. For example an existing and well running website without the requirements in the HTML structure to turn it into a responsive layout. Or another example –  a Flash site (cough).

Responsive Webdesign from a SEO point of view.

As mentioned in the teaser, Google strongly recommends the responsive approach. If implemented right it’s really a very powerful approach to accomplish a mobile optimized website, because the whole content lives under one roof and can be changed and actualized at once. But on the other hand there really seems to be a special reason why Google recommends Responsive Webdesign first. It means less effort to index a single site with single content because Google just has to deal with one single URL and one content instead indexing two sites by following a 301. It’s a real time saver for bots, don’t you think so?

Ok, now let’s take a closer look at the 301 thing…

The subdomain/subfolder with a 301 redirect

For those sites, which are already running and for technical and economical reasons not worth to be transferred into a Responsive Webdesign, Google keeps a backdoor open anyway. A 301 Redirect.

This means in particular, both sites – the desktop as well as the mobile optimized version – live in a peaceful coexistence, each at their own place on the same server. And for this coexistence it doesn’t matter if the mobile content lives in a subfolder of the domain or in a special subdomain like Let me explain why.

Google introduced its new Googlebot-Mobile in December 2011 and it crawls for smartphone relevant sites and contents now. The Googlebot-Mobile discovers smartphone optimized content as well as smartphone specific redirects. That means for the Mobile SERPs that both types (the Responsive Webdesign and the separate mobile optimized site) will rank there. But what’s the point for SEO now?

301 for mobile optimized sites from a SEO point of view.

When a 301 redirection depending on user agents of mobile devices was implemented into a website, the Googlebot-Mobile will crawl the mobile optimized version and its content. The mobile version will appear in the Mobile SERPs and Google will not consider double content or cloaking even if the desktop version is delivering the same content.

Furthermore, there is no need for additional SEO offpage efforts like linkbuiling. If Google receives a signal, that there’s a already a desktop version running it will use it for ranking purposes. The signal can be simply set by a <link rel="canonical" href=""/> in the head section of the mobile site and that’s all.

The hybrid solution.

And in the end, implementing a 301 redirect to push the visitor to the mobile optimized version doesn’t mean to abandon the responsive approach at all. The mobile version at the subdomain or subfolder should still serve the content depending on the screensize of the user via media queries.


There’s no masterplan about which solution to prefer. It’s a question of budget and technical precondition. Be creative in tailoring and providing the best solutions and set the goal on user experience and conversion.

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