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Jared Hamilton
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JD Rucker

JD Rucker Founder

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Understanding the Differences Between Adaptive and Responsive Website Design

Responsive Design

There was a huge uproar in the search marketing and website design industry last year when Google came out and recommended responsive web design. While Google has been known to make recommendations in the past, they've never tackled this particular issue definitively until June, 2012. Since then, many companies have been scrambling to convert to a responsive design.

They reiterated the need for a mobile solution earlier this year when they said that they would soon stop showing web pages that improperly redirected to a different page when called up on mobile devices. The two pieces of news were combined because of a logical series of assumptions:

  1. Google wants pages to render on any device
  2. Responsive website design accomplishes the goal
  3. Google likes responsive website design
  4. Therefore, Google does not like adaptive website design

Everything is fine until you come to the conclusion. From a search perspective, properly coded adaptive websites with identical intents on all devices combined with proper transfer of HTML content are just as easy to rank well on Google as responsive website design.

As I researched this, I found one things that was disturbing and that needs to be addressed. The opinions most commonly expressed by companies weighing in on the debate between between responsive website design versus adaptive website design always ran parallel with the offerings of the company posting the opinion. If they offered responsive design, they said that responsive design was the only way to go. If they offered adaptive websites, they said that adaptive was the best way to go.

The unbiased publications that I read almost all came to the same conclusion - functionality of the site was much more important than the type of design used. In other words, if responsive design made it challenging for a website to function properly on mobile devices, then adaptive websites were recommended. If the flow was fine between devices and the path to turning to responsive design was an easy one, then that was the way to go.

I'm going to start with the "bias" on my end and finish this paragraph with the punchline. The bias is this: my company is developing responsive website design for our clients. The punchline is this: even with this knowledge, I still recommend adaptive for any website (including my clients' websites) that are picture- and call-to-action-heavy on important pages such as inventory.

I have yet to see a responsive car dealer website that did not sacrifice functionality and speed for the sake of responsive design. I've seen both sides of the spectrum - websites that looked great and worked fine on mobile devices but that were bare-bones in their PC functionality and I've seen websites that looked great on a PC but that were too slow and rendered improperly on many mobile devices. I haven't seen any that have done it "right" yet because of the nature of car dealer websites.

Most importantly, I've seen dealer websites that switched from adaptive to responsive that watched their website leads drop as a result. I have yet to see a single one that saw leads increase. This will change as responsive technology, internet speeds, third party plugins, and image crunching (especially for dealers that load up 30+ images on their vehicle detail pages) improves, but as of now responsive has been a huge flop.

I should also note that I jumped on the responsive bandwagon back in 2011 and strongly pushed for my company to adopt it way back then. Thankfully, we didn't.

I should also note that for the majority of websites, responsive is likely the best solution. Car dealers have unique website formats. On any given page, especially the all-important vehicle details pages, there may be three or four plugins, a dozen calls-to-action, and dozens of photos that have to be brought in through 3G or 4G connections. The biggest difference between adaptive website design and responsive website design is when the changes are made to adjust for the device. On adaptive websites, the changes are server side, meaning that the data being sent is determined from the server before being sent to the device. With responsive design, the changes are client side, meaning that the whole web page is sent through and then the device is told how to piece it all together.

Here's a very slanted infographic, one that actually does have some valid points (thankfully). Whoever built it likes adaptive and while they are being too harsh in my opinion about responsive, they still bring up some real challenges.

Adaptive vs Responsive Infographic

Eric Miltsch
I don't have a horse in this race, so I'll pick my side: Responsive. Main reason: It's what Google is looking for. JD, The one item you mention that stands out to me is the fact dealership sites have multiple plugins, CTA's and images that need to organized & served - simple solution: Stop using all of those elements. They aren't helping. As mobile continues its rise the sites need to change as well. Navigation styles, content organization, page simplification - those elements must change as our behaviors change. Navigation solutions exist for the standard drop down menus; infinite scrolls also help solve content organization problems as well. There is no more "fold." Ironically enough, Skyrocket Websites has neither an adaptive nor a responsive website. Go figure - they're not even sure which way to go:)
JD Rucker
Eric, I was wholeheartedly supportive of responsive for the same reason that you are. It took actual dealer data to change my mind. Responsive websites get fewer leads. It's been hard for me to accept. I LOVE responsive web design and my own personal sites are responsive. However, if the goal of a dealer website is to get more leads, then responsive has failed miserably. If the goal of a dealer is to be up to the times and bow down to what Google recommends (and to be clear, they have said that 1-to-1 from PC to mobile is their real goal with responsive being their preferred choice), then responsive is the way to go.
Eric Miltsch
Hi JD - I'd love it if you could share some of that data with me as well. Very curious to see what the main differences were between the platforms - something had to be the culprit. What were the exact reasons that caused/contributed the drop?
JD Rucker
In most cases it's the VDPs. A good VDP with standard, mobile-perfected calls to action outperform the responsive VDPs. One website provider that I would not want to name takes 20+ seconds just to load the 30+ images on VDPs and they render prior to any call to action on mobile devices, plus the chat feature froze the page if you tried to click it on Android or Windows phone. Those silly little annoyances blow lead opportunities. I know how you feel, Eric. I believe it was you who was promoting my post a couple of years ago about how responsive design was a must-have and how .mobi was doomed. I hate admitting that I was wrong but the data is pretty darn clear. It's funny - if you look at the examples from some of the companies offering responsive, you can look at case studies they did last year, then go to the websites in the case studies and see that many have already switched. The dealers that I talked to said they held out as long as they could but they simply couldn't take the lead drops. Responsive is DEFINITELY the future for all website but today's automotive technology in responsive is simply not working. I'm working on it. Again, I hope that some credibility is accepted in my arguments based upon the fact that the company I work for is currently developing responsive as we speak. I do not make these claims with self-serving motivations in mind. I'm simply looking at the data and feeling a little sick to the stomach that I was wrong when I was promoting the concept. The technology isn't there yet, not in our industry. In other industries, responsive rocks! All of my personal websites are responsive and I wouldn't have it any other way. For car dealer websites, it causes a drop in both form leads and phone calls compared to adaptive websites.
Dave Page
I agree with JD, and its NOT because our company chose the adaptive route. We researched as a company and a few of my arguments on in the link posted. Read more here -

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