Now that Eric, our former CEO, is off to new heights in his career, I’ve invited him to author a few guest blog posts. This is the ninth of several that he’ll write in the coming months.
After studying at the Rhode Island School of Design, Eric Holter worked as an engraver and illustrator for Pagano, Schenck & Kay Advertising, then as a web designer at Leonard/Monahan. He founded Newfangled Web Factory in 1995.
Last year, Google announced considerable improvements in their indexing of Flash based websites. One of my chief criticisms of many advertising agency websites is their propensity to adopt the Flash platform. One of the biggest problems with Flash has been its incompatibility with search engines. This improvement mitigates this problem–to some degree.
After Google announced the new indexing, Brian Ussery performed an in depth analysis of how Google is actually indexing Flash content. Bottom line, there is still a long way to go for a truly search engine friendly Flash site.
So, though the announcement was good news to many, it didn’t change the fact that I am still concerned for agencies who use Flash. Technical problems between search and Flash have been significant, but the impulse to build a site entirely in Flash has other problems too. Problems that now, even with better indexing, may be all the more ignored. Agencies that lean too heavily on Flash may be emboldened to do so all the more.
Here are a six reasons why better indexing may not help most Flash websites.
- Content Weakness: I remember a comment from a Yahoo! engineer about indexing Flash sites. He said, “we’ve been able to do that for years, but Flash sites are typically so content poor that that it’s hardly worth the effort.” Agency sites built in Flash tend to be content weak and rarely updated. They get built, uploaded and left alone for long stretches of time. In my opinion this is one of the biggest problems with Flash sites. While it’s not inherent to Flash, the use of Flash and content weakness tends to correspond. Perhaps due to the flashiness potential of Flash, more time is spend on animations, effects and transitions than on content strategy.
- URL Linking: Most Flash sites, especially agency Flash sites, consist of one large Flash movie rather than breaking up each “page” into a separate file. This makes linking to a particular page within an agency site impossible. This new change to Google won’t fix this. While all the words may get indexed, a click through to the site will leave the visitor perplexed as to where in the site the content they found in search might be found. And in this day and age of social media, and sharing, lack of coherent URLs makes “talking about,” linking and tagging Flash site content very difficult since only the main URL can be pointed to in a link. There are techniques for creating distinct URLs in a Flash site. Kevin Merritt, CEO of Blist points out that Blist is a Flash-based web application that can link to specific “pages” within the site. Any site that either needs to be in Flash (web applications) or chooses to be in Flash should definitely adopt these practices.
- Meta Data: One of the most important SEO practices is thinking through page specific meta data like browser titles and descriptions tags (keywords not so much). Even with these Google changes, and even if a competent URL mapping technique is employed, a Flash-based site will not offer any of these SEO opportunities.
- Content Prioritization: An indexed Flash file is similar to an indexed PDF file. It’s searchable but the content lacks any underlying tags that help search engines determine the relevance and weight of the content. For example, the use of an “h1” tag to surround a headline normally indicates that these words have higher importance than say a caption to a diagram would. Flash movie content will not provide any of this kind of content parsing.
- Content Management: Flash is sometimes chosen not because it’s the best platform for the site, but because it’s the easiest tool to master (for a designer). Flash skirts around all the messy browser compatibility and CSS display issues of normal web development. But when this is the motive it’s also true that the designer is not likely to implement a a technically robust content management system. And without a decent content management system changes and additions to content must flow through the busy designer, which ultimately just means few content updates.
- Distraction of Style Over Substance: Flash is certainly capable of some cool creative effects. It’s built by Adobe after all–it’s part of their “Creative Suite.” As I point out regularly, the agency’s strong creative impulses often becomes a barrier to sound web strategy. When creativity serves the content without getting in the way it can be a win-win. But more often than not a Flash based agency site becomes the creative outlet instead of being a place where the agency showcases their work and their thinking. The creative impulse is hard enough for agencies to overcome, choosing a whiz-bang oriented platform for their site can be too much of a temptation to overcome.
I suppose a Flash-based website, if structured properly, broken out into unique URL and integrated with a content management system is a more viable option than it was a year ago, but for all the reasons above I still recommend avoiding Flash as a website development platform for anything other than web applications and movie trailer websites.