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Fortune 100 Study Demonstrates Limitations of Responsive Web Design

responsive-design [1]

The mobile era is booming. Now that more than half of the adult population owns a smartphone [2], marketers and webmasters are taking practical steps to ensure their websites render properly on mobile devices.

In reaction to the steadily increasing rate of mobile adoption, Responsive Web Design (RWD) has emerged as the industry standard for configuring mobile-friendly websites across devices.  Because RWD offers a number of significant advantages over other mobile formats, developers have adopted this format with gusto. In fact, Google officially recommends RWD [3] as the best way to render the same HTML across different devices.

The major advantages of RWD include:

For this reason, RWD not only provides long-term SEO value but also offers a highly adaptable format that can accommodate for new device types in the future.  With such significant advantages, Responsive Web Design seems like the obvious choice – in theory.  In practice, it’s a different story.

To better understand the mobile landscape, The Search Agency recently published a report that evaluated the mobile sites for each of the Fortune 100 companies.  In developing the Mobile Experience Scorecard [4], we were initially most interested in evaluating load speed and other performance factors to see how mobile-ready the largest companies in the United States were.   One factor we evaluated was the mobile site’s format, of which there were three types: responsive web design, a dedicated mobile site, or the desktop version of the site.   Because Google, and the majority of mobile marketers and developers, endorse RWD, sites with RWD were more heavily weighted, receiving an extra point over sites that used a dedicated mobile site. Sites that simply served the desktop version of their site were given zero points (see full methodology).  After consolidating all of the data, we compiled these unexpected findings:

  1. The top 20 sites with the highest scores ALL used dedicated mobile sites, not responsive web design.  This is despite the fact that RWD sites have a slight point advantage.
  2.  Although Google officially recommends RWD, only 9 of the 100 sites we tested used RWD, while 47 of the 100 sites used dedicated mobile sites, and the remaining 44 simply served the desktop site.
  3. Average load speeds for the different formats varied widely:  dedicated mobile sites took the shortest times to load, with an average of 2.90 seconds; interestingly, RWD sites took the longest time to load, at an average of 8.42 seconds, even exceeding the sites that served desktop versions, at an average of 6.57 seconds.

 Limitations of RWD [5]

This last point is the most provocative – RWD sites took significantly longer to load than dedicated mobile sites, explaining why dedicated mobile sites occupy the top 20 spots on the list: even though RWD sites gained an extra point in our study, they lost more points in our ranking for having lengthy load times.

Keep in mind that our report is based on objective and subjective ratings– the point system was created based on industry best practices and the authority of our team of mobile experts to best reflect the overall mobile experience.  In that determination process, we weighted load speed as the most important factor, following Google’s recommendation [6] that mobile load speeds should not exceed one second.

However, Google’s recommendation for a one second load speed seems to conflict with its other recommendation for RWD.  As our report reflects, the RWD sites in our sample had a significantly longer load time, with zero of the 9 RWD sites loading in under 1 second.  Google’s two recommendations seem difficult to achieve in tandem, as using RWD simultaneously makes it very difficult to achieve fast load speeds.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that RWD is inherently slow.  Long load times could indicate that websites implementing RWD may be having trouble editing down the bulk of their sites into sleeker and lighter mobile formats.   However, the results from this report indicate that, at present, RWD’s implementation may not be producing the speedy results that mobile users have come to demand.  In theory, RWD remains the most promising format because of its adaptability for different screen sizes, particularly considering the unknown device types that could enter the market in the future.  But in the meantime, dedicated mobile sites seem to offer an alternative that many businesses prefer to use in practice because they produce reliably speedy results.

In our next blog post, SEO architect Kirby Burke will suggest some solutions for dealing with slow RWD load speeds.