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Understanding the Differences Between Adaptive and Responsive Website 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.

Views: 1472

Tags: Adaptive, Infographic, Responsive, Website Design


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Comment by George Nenni on May 2, 2014 at 12:34pm

We're launching quite a few new Responsive sites each month, and have been since August 2012, here are a few recents we've built that I like:

Sharp Honda

Gambrel Toyota

Our CMS is also Responsive, dealers appreciate being device independent when working in the backend.

Keep the thoughts coming, thanks JD.

Comment by Alexander Lau on May 2, 2014 at 6:38am

Responsive Automotive Websites and done by my group: http://courtesyimports.comhttp://kellycar.com, etc. and growing. I wouldn't call these bland at all. As well as, done by Dirigo Design (David Addison) member. Just because ADP / Cobalt,, etc. has failed to jump on it (probably too much work, considering their size), DOES NOT mean smaller groups like us and Dirigo fail to understand it's important. That's not adaptive, that's responsive.  Beautiful Twitter Bootstrap at the helm.


Comment by Chris Cachor on May 1, 2014 at 10:52pm

So, to sum it up, responsive down to 768px, then mobile version using separate template(s). Templates render all the same data (inventory, pages, news, etc.) but optimized for mobile viewports. All handled server side of course. Everything down to the analytics should be handled in the same manner.

Comment by Chris Cachor on May 1, 2014 at 10:46pm

I've done a few responsive sites and they work well for content rich sites with blogs, news feeds, etc. However, I've downloaded a few iOS apps to get an idea of how they tackle search and VDP pages (, AT, and Carmax) and I'm finding that adaptive is the better approach for the user in this case.

Most of the responsive sites I've seen so far, even the ones dealer website vendors use in screenshots, have been pretty bland. They optimized the same experience for all devices. So, from doing that I feel they've watered down the desktop sites for the sake of other devices.

It should be a different experience optimized for different devices. Specifically mobile. I feel its a special use site. If your CMS is any good tackling this is a no-brainer. But getting the experience right on mobile for dealer websites I feel hasn't been done yet. Everything I've seen so far has been  ok, like I said, they sacrificed the desktop experience which I think is a win/lose, not a win/win.

Comment by Alexander Lau on May 1, 2014 at 12:20pm

And then there's worrying about 'Responsive Images'

Comment by Alexander Lau on November 5, 2013 at 7:14am

We are actively converting all of our sites into responsive applications using Bootstrap. This isn't an easy process. 

Comment by J.D. Rucker on November 4, 2013 at 11:43pm

George, I'm with you 100%. I know with a near certainty that responsive will be the way to go. Thankfully, he barrier to entry isn't huge for website companies. Those who get it right by 2014 will be well-positioned to do what's best for the dealers. I'm rooting for responsive. I'm just worried about it in the short term, as you mentioned.

Comment by Alexander Lau on November 4, 2013 at 1:20pm

Exactly George, excellent point of view and post, in my opinion.

Comment by George Nenni on November 4, 2013 at 1:07pm

Great post JD, plenty of confusion on this topic, and many folks referring to various technologies by wrong names, etc.  Especially the "adaptive" term, seeing many conflicting definitions, hopefully soon it gets sorted out.  Page load times for Responsive are definitely important, as delays equate to lost opportunities.  However I think the long-term play will be for Responsive.  In a meeting we had with the team at Google, they indicated their apps are being moved to Responsive now.  For me, Responsive offers the elusive "sophistication through simplicity", with one site controlled through one Responsive CMS.

I've been in tech since early 80's, and Moore's Law is alive and well in various iterations.  I hear folks in meetings worry about bandwidth, disk space, memory, and I agree with them...but only in the very near term.  One thing is for certain, the future will always offer cheaper storage, CPU, and bandwidth, and it always will.  Make your product plans with Gordon Moore in mind.

Moore's Law

Comment by Mathew Koenig on November 1, 2013 at 2:51pm

Great article JD. Our company uses a responsive site and there were two reasons I chose to do so. #1 I didn't want mobile viewers to miss valuable content #2 I didn't want mobile viewers to miss valuable content.

We're ranking well and thankful for it but when we redesigned our site we really felt that a responsive approach was the way to go. Rank is important because if we aren't seen, we don't exist but being seen won't matter if someone lands on a mobile site and it's a scaled back generic form of your site (this is what I see with most dealers).

IMHO it's all about the end user experience. If it sucks, they don't come back and with Nielsen/xAd/telmetrics mobile auto report last Nov showing that 50% of these folks made a purchase related to the website or app they visited - it will suck for any dealer who has a customer visit your site then leave because it isn't that appealing. (DOWNLOAD THAT PDF HERE)

Mobile phones are moving forward at the speed of light and our websites need to do the same or we'll still be hearing the comments that have frustrated me for years but are in many ways true: "Car dealers are about 5 years behind everyone else when it comes to technology"

You shared some awesome information my friend, keep up the great work!

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