What is a Responsive Theme? Mobile-Friendly Solution?

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One solution to Google’s Mobile-Friendly Ranking Algorithm is a responsive theme. In this post we will explore: What is a responsive theme? How can you get a responsive theme? How can you get it to look more like the site that you want?

What is a Responsive Theme?

WordPress themes are how you get basic format and styling for your blog or website. A responsive theme is one that will look good on mobile, tablet and desktop. On a site with a responsive theme, if you move your browser to a narrower width, you can see the format change so it fits on tablet or mobile (and other browser widths as well). As shown in the image at top, this Websites for Small Biz blog has a responsive theme. Try this now – take any website, re-size the browser slowly so you can see the changes as the size of the screen gets smaller – does the site move properly as you narrow the browser or does it stay fixed? If it looks good as you narrow the browser, that’s what’s called responsive design.

How can you get a Responsive Theme?

This leads to a basic question: how to pick a theme? Which one should you pick? Easiest, safest and cheapest method is pick any of the WordPress default themes. All WordPress default themes since Twenty Eleven are responsive. If you go to Administration Screen > Appearance > Themes (in your WordPress backend), you should find all default themes since Twenty Twelve.

You can also go to the WordPress Theme Directory and find themes labelled responsive. However, and this is a huge however, how do you know the theme is a good quality theme? Not easy for a non-expert to tell. User beware. Years ago someone I know used a free theme that looked great. Then one day her site got hacked. Why? Her beautiful free theme had security holes. Best bet is to choose a theme and check with other sources if it is reputable.

Then there are premium themes. In theory, this may sound good. You pay for the theme, support and updates. However, even if a company has a good reputation, you may be purchasing code bloat. Your theme may make your site slower than it need be, and it may be hard to make modifications. So, once again, proceed with caution! In general, I’ve heard great recommendations for sites built with the Genesis framework.

For my own clients, I built custom themes. Lately, almost all have been with the Underscores theme as a basis. This means all the code is lean and for a purpose. And if you think this costly, think again. Depending on your budget, I may be able to meet your needs.

Finally, there is an interested website called There is a Theme for That. No guarantees, but it’s a good place for searching.

Why Switch to a Responsive Theme?

Some of you may desire to keep your old themes and use some solution to keep those running. I would suggest now is a good time to update, because your old theme has old code of which you may not be aware. Using up-to-date code will give you more options for your website. Also, the newer WordPress theme code is cleaner and more succinct. You don’t want a theme that does everything; you want what you need, and that is all.

Let’s say you have an old theme with out-dated code. It is possible to take a basic theme and tweak it so it looks more like the one that you have now. There are several approaches to this. When I work for a client, I generally pick a framework such as Underscores and build the site on top of that. That would give one a custom theme with up-to-date code. Another approach would be a theme based on the Genesis framework. Using current theme code one can rebuild a site so it looks like the older site. To get each page or post to work, one uses what are called: media queries. A media query is code that tells the browser to display the elements of the page with different style rules for different media types/devices. So, for example, if you on a mobile device, you might not display a certain element at all. On a tablet, you might make the width narrower. There are infinite options – but the more you want to tweak, the more time it may take.

What if I want a specific design?

If you have a basic look that you like, it is quite possible to make this look on a website. The best method is to build a site for what you need, and add media queries (see definition above) to get it look good on various devices and browser widths.

This post was inspired by a post that Sherryl Perry wrote about the new Google Mobile-Friendly Ranking Signal update.

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43 thoughts on “What is a Responsive Theme? Mobile-Friendly Solution?

  1. Jeannette, thanks for your comment. Yes, it is possible to use a mobile plugin as a solution. However (and there has been much written on this topic), I tend to favor responsive design for a business. You then have one website, and you can tailor the look as you need. Google seems to be favoring responsive.

    Read more on this Search Engine Watch post: “Mobile only sites may be a “quick fix” but Google recommends responsive site design. Responsive Web design has removed the need for alternate mobile versions of websites and given you the ability to host a single website that automatically adjusts to the size screen that it is displayed upon.” http://searchenginewatch.com/sew/how-to/2402354/mobile-optimization-and-the-google-algorithm-change-7-steps-to-stay-friendly

    I went unto your site and did the browser-narrowing test, and I’m afraid your site is *not* responsive. The header, menu and text do not get narrower as you make your browser narrower.
    Leora Wenger recently posted…Local SEO: Finding a Business in a Local AreaMy Profile

    1. Leora — I’m not sure I understand. I’ve done the mobile-friendly test on Google’s site and passed it. Also, when I go into my site on my smart phone, my site has horizontal tabs with sections on my website. When you click a tab you’re taken to the mobile view. Did you click on the Classic view, by chance, which is an option? I will read the post in the link you provided. Thanks.
      Jeannette Paladino recently posted…Now You Can Create Perfect Posts for Social MediaMy Profile

      1. Jeannette, there is more than one way to pass the mobile test. Responsive is only one option. You must have a plugin that is working.

        On a desktop or a laptop computer (not on a phone), move your browser narrower with your site. Then move your browser narrower with my site. Do you see any difference? That explains responsive.

        If your mobile plugin is working, I would move on to other things and not worry about this much.
        Leora Wenger recently posted…What is a Responsive Theme? Mobile-Friendly Solution?My Profile

  2. Hi Leora,

    I love the browser-narrowing test. Of course, I had to try it out using your site. I can see exactly what you mean by a responsive design.

    You know I’ve been talking about redesigning my site and switching to a new WordPress theme for a while now. My plan goes beyond a new look. I’m working on a business strategy that encompasses landing pages, building my email list and creating/marketing a product(s).

    It’s for those reasons that I decided to not switch to a responsive theme at this time. I realize that the 21st is the date when Google begins rolling out their mobile-friendly update. However, I don’t want to rush into this decision. I’m not about to launch something now and then again when I have all my “ducks in a row”.

    For now, I’m using the WP Touch Mobile plugin. I recognize that it’s only a stop-gap solution but my intention is to temporarily appease Google. (So it won’t affect my ranking in searches performed from mobile devices.)

    The service that you perform for your clients (coding a customized site using a framework such as Underscores) provides the best UX (user experience). Bottom line, that’s what Google’s update is about and it’s what’s in the best interest of our clients/customer.

    This is such a timely topic. Thanks for continuing the conversation. I appreciate the link to my post and your insight. (In one email, you steered me away from making a choice that could have been detrimental to me down the road.) Good job!
    Sherryl Perry recently posted…Are You Ready for the Google Mobile Friendly Algorithm?My Profile

    1. Sherryl, given all that you’ve told me, it makes sense for you to go with the mobile plugin for now. The April 21st date is just for mobile searches – whenever you are ready with your site (and all its new pages), the search will catch up soon with your new theme and look and content.

      I appreciate the dialogue we have had on this topic. If it weren’t for you, I would not have written this post!
      Leora Wenger recently posted…New Website: Coming Soon Page?My Profile

    1. Jeri, your theme probably has extra code – sometimes themes that have choices mean there is more coding than you need. Always a trade-off. One way to improve speed is go with a faster web host, but that also comes with a price as well.

      The mobile plugins are fine, but in the long run, I prefer responsive (one has more control over the many details). And currently Google is saying they prefer responsive as well.
      Leora Wenger recently posted…What is a Responsive Theme? Mobile-Friendly Solution?My Profile

  3. Hi Leora, Our old themes can seem like an old friend and are hard to let go of. But alas the time comes to move forward and upgrade. I’m so glad I did. I now have the capability to do many new things. And having a responsive theme is imperative nowadays with the number of people reading on the mobile devices.

  4. Aaah, this responsive theme is the bane of my existence right now. I paid a lot of money for someone to do my site, only to learn that I don’t have a responsive theme. I asked him what it would take to switch it, and he kept giving me the run-around. (I chose him after multiple people recommended him so I’m totally confused by all this). I’m in the works to add some major changes to my site, so I’m not sure I want to pay a whole new person a lot of money to change my theme, when I want to change the layout of my site by the end of the year anyway.

    As a side note, I’ve learned to tweak my site myself and have gotten pretty comfortable with wordpress. I’ve decided not to change my theme myself as I’ve learned you can do real damage if you aren’t 100% sure what you are doing.

    So, I have an unresponsive theme. It makes me sad, but I just tell myself that won’t always be the case and I will be in Google’s good graces again some day.
    Erica recently posted…Amazing Add-ins to Transform Your Smoothie Into a Nutrient Filled PowerhouseMy Profile

    1. Erica, if you want to learn how to tweak your theme (or some other theme) on your own, all you need to do is install WordPress locally on your computer and play to your heart’s content there. When your theme is finally ready, just give it a different name than your current theme. You can do a preview. Of course, learning all the CSS necessary will take time and effort on your part, but it is possible.

      Sorry to hear you got sold an un-responsive theme. I’ve been doing responsive themes since 2011, so naturally I think highly of them. I won’t create a theme for a client that isn’t responsive, even if they claim not to care about mobile or tablets.

      Meanwhile, you can always install a mobile plugin as a fix.

      1. Thank you Leora for writing this post. I didn’t know there were plug-ins that can do that. I installed WP Touch Mobile and I’m so happy to have a temporary solution.

  5. Hi Leora, I don’t know how or why but when I did the mobile-friendly test a few weeks ago, I was told everything was fine. Since some people were having different results, I tried it several times and came out ok each time. If it’s mobile-friendly, I hope that is the same as being responsive.
    Lenie recently posted…How I started An Etsy ShopMy Profile

  6. Leora- I know I need to make my main website responsive but have put it off because I am in the process of redesigning my website which is a major undertaking. I have checked my Google Analytics and I am noticing more people are searching my site through their mobile devices. This is the wave of the future

  7. When I recently created my new site, a responsive theme was one of the criteria because so many people are accessing the web now via mobile devices of varying size. I hadn’t known anything about Google’s upcoming ranking changes.
    Donna Janke recently posted…Goodbye Winter HomeMy Profile

  8. Decided to get a new responsive theme that Google would consider mobile friendly. Have to admit Google’s deadline was a blessing in disguise because I would not have made the effort otherwise.

    Am much happier with my new theme. Still have to tweak a few things but it will be OK. Could have been more attractive but it’s fair enough:-)
    Catarina recently posted…Could your visual presentations be better?My Profile

  9. I thinks it’s totally essential to have a responsive theme these days. I forget what the percentage is of people who view the internet with mobile devices but its huge. For myself I use them about 75% of the time. Its just easier I think, and I don’t even have travel issues. But finding a reputable theme is not any easy task. I switched to a Genesis theme last year, but it was an agonising process of trying to decide .
    A.K. Andrew recently posted…Oscar Wilde:120th Trial Anniversary in National #Poetry MonthMy Profile

  10. One of the reasons I went with the theme I have is because of its responsiveness feature. I have never actually looked at it on a mobile device but others have and they seem to be reading my posts without issue. I will check it out on an iphone just to make sure though. Thanks.
    Tim recently posted…The Veiled Truth Kalahari BushmenMy Profile

  11. This is where I say, If you don’t know what you’re doing, hire a professional. I thought I had a responsive theme for almost a year. It wasn’t until I hired someone when everything started falling apart on my site because I’m a neonate at this stuff. And the first thing he said was, You theme isn’t responsive.
    The trouble is a site can be up and running but not running correctly. It’s like a person who looks healthy but has a virus brewing waiting to knock him out
    Pamela Chollet recently posted…4 Things Not To Do If You’re DepressedMy Profile

    1. ” It’s like a person who looks healthy but has a virus brewing waiting to knock him out” – interesting analogy. I think computers are easier to keep healthy than people are. But I’m probably getting off topic with that statement.

      My friends were telling me that with computers I’m brave (that’s how I’ve learned enough to be a professional – it’s by trying stuff in a safe way). So I “operate” on my own stuff first; when I’m confident at a procedure, I do it for others!
      Leora Wenger recently posted…What is a Responsive Theme? Mobile-Friendly Solution?My Profile

  12. I had a mobile responsive theme built on the Genesis framework and then my blog stopped showing on mobile devises. After MANY calls to technical surrport with the theme developer, it turned out to be a Go Daddy problem. Again, after many calls, they fixed it and now everything works fine (until the next time). A very, very frustrating experience

  13. I always feel like I’m walking on a frozen lake every time Google changes its ranking algorithm. Just one wrong move and the whole thing will crack with me on it. Glad I have kept my theme simple. So far, it has stopped the lake from taking me.
    Kire Sdyor recently posted…Mass AppealMy Profile

  14. Thank you for this post. I was, until recently, a card carrying Luddite. Post like this help me navigate the changes going around today, and allow me to be somewhat educated in the process of technology. Thanks for sharing.

  15. Leora,

    There are two ways to get a mobile friendly site, first is having a mobile site built and other is to get a responsive site.

    I prefer responsive site because it opens exactly fine on any kind and size devices.

    My blog theme was not responsive, but I loved the theme so I myself spent a week and learned to make responsive. Finally, I was able to completely change my theme’s look as well as make that responsive.
    Atish Ranjan recently posted…Step-by-Step Technical Guide to Set up a WordPress BlogMy Profile

    1. Atish,

      You did it! Great job on making your site responsive. One comment: look into ways to do the menu. You can collapse the entire menu into one button just for phone. Then the user can see more of the content, and click to see the whole menu. This is a basic feature that comes with any Underscores theme. There are other approaches as well. I once did a site where you click at the top and it goes to a special mobile menu in the footer, one just for mobile alone.
      Leora Wenger recently posted…Boring Backups: Backup WordPress or ElseMy Profile

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