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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: 1465

Tags: Adaptive, Infographic, Responsive, Website Design

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Comment by Alexander Lau on November 1, 2013 at 6:28am

LOL @ Chip. Yes, unfortunately you're right. I wouldn't necessarily say 99%, but it's the the 90 percentile range. Google WILL force the hand of dealers in the future. Besides, what dealer gives a crap about look and feel if the performance of the website equates to more leads and sales. Ease of use, the path to less resistance is the answer.

Comment by J.D. Rucker on October 31, 2013 at 2:52pm

Chip, Alex, I'm forwarding your comments to our design team. Seriously good stuff.

Comment by Chip Dorman on October 31, 2013 at 2:27pm

Let's be honest, 99% of automotive websites are butt ugly. They are designed to appeal to automotive managers who know nothing about web design, front or back end. The truth is dealers are scared to death of whitespace and insist on cramming 20lbs of stuff into a 5lb sack. RWD is going to win this battle as soon as somebody that knows what they're doing is actually allowed to create a good site with a CMS that doesn't suck at SEO and site customization.

Comment by Alexander Lau on October 31, 2013 at 1:30pm

Nice! Someone is going to come along and build the best RWD sites for the automotive market and they are going to CLEAN UP! :-)

Comment by J.D. Rucker on October 31, 2013 at 1:28pm

Alex, you inspired a follow up post. I have it on Soshable now but I'll schedule it for ADM here in a couple of days... http://soshable.com/build-websites-mobile-first/

Comment by Alexander Lau on October 31, 2013 at 1:15pm

Right, I tend to agree. Using current RWD solutions (front-end frameworks), etc. might not work very well with automotive websites (at least not right now), especially for inventory and VDPs.

I was referring more to the infographic, too many generalizations.

The fact of the matter is most automotive websites are using some form of adaptive website technologies, but don't truly analyze how their sites could convert better on numerous devices and resolutions. Most are still in the dark.

It's coming...

Comment by J.D. Rucker on October 31, 2013 at 1:09pm

I don't disagree at all, Alexander. As I said, I've been pushing for responsive for over two years. The challenge is that today's current automotive website using responsive design are not performing well. That's not to say that none of them are, but the ones that I've seen have had problems. It's not anecdotal - I examined around 30 of them and saw the stats for 8. RWD is definitely the future but the automotive industry's penchant for lots of photos, lots of calls to action, and lots of plugins on their VDPs and other pages has shown poor performance so far, at least on the major platform providers. I have not looked at any of the smaller ones who are offering responsive and I am confident that our platform currently being built will address that as well.

Comment by Alexander Lau on October 31, 2013 at 11:51am

It's all about the user experience to Google and that includes the manner in which a site displays and easy access to all content. Responsive design has been around for ages, it's just now catching fire in the web world.

I'm not going to argue adaptive versus responsive, because there's too much minutia, however, I disagree with SkyRocket's infograph assessment on 'page loading'. That's COMPLETE crap, each site is built differently, with different amounts of media, plugins and code that need to be loaded, etc. No one should make general, blanket statements like this.

Additionally, converting a site to a RWD site doesn't necessarily require a complete rebuild. It greatly depends on the pre-existing website structure. Again, a massive assumption.

RWD sites do not perform poorly on a multitude of devices, sorry I have a number of responsive sites up and running and they perform excellently on all devices. 

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