February 4, 2013, 10:28 AM

The all-in-one solution

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Responsive design also means retailers won't post duplicate content on multiple URLs, a practice that can lead search engines to penalize sites, Kohl says. And there are fewer redirects, which must be maintained and can impact site performance. For example, Kohl says, if a consumer on a mobile site shares a link to a retailer's page on Twitter.com, the retailer must create a redirect so that another shopper viewing that tweet on a PC will click to a page designed for the larger screen of a personal computer.

It's such advantages that led Google Inc.'s Webmaster blog to endorse responsive design last year as the best way to present a web site to consumers on multiple devices. While Google did not promise to favor responsive sites in search results one post noted it's easier for Google to crawl a responsive site and that "can indirectly help Google index more of the site's contents."

Operational issues

Search engine optimization considerations played a role in Australian retailer Kitchenware Direct employing responsive design last year when it launched a new higher-end e-commerce site, Avago.com.au. The e-retailer saw the negative impact having separate mobile and web sites for its main site, KitchenwareDirect.com.au, had on search results. "Often we would see our mobile site rank higher than our desktop site, which was not ideal," says Peter Macauley, director of the e-retailer.

But the bigger problem is the complexity of maintaining separate product databases for the desktop and mobile sites. Even understanding analytics data is difficult with separate sites, he says.

"As far as we could see responsive design would solve those problems operationally and lead to cost savings in the long run," Macauley says. As Avago.com.au only launched late in 2012, he says it is too early to say if the e-retailer is realizing those savings. However, he's sufficiently convinced that the retailer plans to redesign its Kitchenware Direct site using responsive techniques this year.

However, he can also see that his design team has to be more aware when it creates a web page of how it will look on screens of different sizes. He says they try to use standard proportions so that, for instance, an image and block of text that appear side by side on a PC site can slide one under the other without resizing on a mobile phone screen.

"It's a lot trickier to do our day-to-day site updates and maintenance," agrees Silver of King Arthur Flour. She says development time increases about 25% with the responsive site, and testing and debugging time doubles. King Arthur Flour added a developer to its e-commerce team to help with the added work, she says.

Still, added costs are offset by not having to maintain a separate mobile commerce site. Many retailers that have m-commerce sites have turned to vendors to create and maintain those sites. A report by Forrester analyst Sheldon in 2011 estimated the cost of hiring an outside company to build an m-commerce site at $25,000 to $200,000, with similar annual maintenance fees.

Vendors respond

Sheldon also noted in a July 2012 report called "Understanding Responsive Design" that the default templates vendors provide with their e-commerce software may predate responsive techniques and require some work-arounds. Both Silver and Macauley had that experience.

In the case of Avago.com.au, a plug-in that shows what terms are trending on social media did not fully adapt to the site's responsive approach. Silver says King Arthur Flour's site search vendor, SLI Systems, had to rework its software to vary how results display depending on the device. "Subsequent implementations after King Arthur were much simpler, smoother and quicker," says Ed Hoffman, vice president of SLI.

Indeed, many e-commerce vendors are updating their software to accommodate responsive design. Demandware Inc. introduced a new version of its e-commerce platform in November with responsive elements built in; that will also be the case for the next version of NetSuite Inc.'s SuiteCommerce Enterprise Edition due out in March.

Another e-commerce software provider, eBay Inc.'s Magento, says its software is well suited for responsive design, and that it's working on a visual design editor that will let a designer drag and drop components into a page to see how they would look at different sizes. A new version of Adobe Systems Inc.'s CQ5 content management system this year will provide a drop-down menu allowing designers to preview images on screens of varying resolution.

Picture problems

For all the advances, responsive sites still face some challenges.

Resizing prominent fashion-shoot images has proven difficult for OriginalPenguin.com, the e-commerce site for designer Perry Ellis' Original Penguin brand. The site was redesigned using responsive techniques in 2010. Just making an image smaller doesn't work, says Raul Justiniano, the designer of OriginalPenguin.com.

"Our images are selling the brand," he says. "It's very important how models are cropped, and how images are displayed." He frequently has to create different marketing images for smaller screens, adding to the work of creating each new campaign. Nonetheless, the retailer will again employ responsive techniques this year as it redesigns OriginalPenguin.com with a focus on tailoring it to tablet users.

Some customization will be inevitable on responsive sites, and images are a good example, says Ethan Smith, creative director at Gorilla Group. He advises retailers to consider whether all elements displayed on a PC site are needed on smaller screens, and to eliminate superfluous elements whenever possible.

What's ahead

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