SEO Debate: HTML vs. Flash

The Adobe Flash platform has grown from a crude animation software to a mature application development environment. Many design agencies specialize in spectacular Flash websites, and their creations are often rich interactive experiences built to wow the audience. Flash has a bad reputation for harming search engine visibility.

Not all flash on a web site is considered to be bad. A flash banner or gallery slideshow can add a lot of interactivity to a boring HTML website and your ranking in the SERPs can remain high. However, while it is possible to build a website entirely in Flash, it is not recommended in any online marketing or organic SEO campaign.

Flash SEO Disadvantages

There are several key flash SEO disadvantages to using the platform:

  • Slow Loading Time

Most Flash sites can take minutes to download before the visitor even reaches content - often times forcing the viewer to sit at a 'loading' screen. Despite the courtesy of these status bars showing the remaining load time, it is still aggravating to wait for content that should be instant. If you only have a few seconds to catch the attention of the viewer, a loading screen will no doubt scare off some users.

A great deal of the frustration in this point stems from the fact that business sites are almost always created with content as the focal point. When a person has to wait for a Flash interface to load, they are being withheld the real meat of the web site because some designer placed their interests - a glamorous but painstakingly slow design - ahead of the interests of the general audience. This is the definition of bad usability.

  • Inaccessibility

Although Adobe promotes the accessibility features of recent Flash versions, the fact remains that the tools are weak, and few developers even use them. If a blind or motor-impaired user ever visited a company’s Flash-based website, there’s a good chance they would be completely unable to discern the content.

  • SEO / Search Engine Hindrances

Because Flash obfuscates text inside SWF files, search engines have no means of reading and indexing the content, because they rely on HTML text to not only see the actual words, but also how those words are organized into a meaningful structure, like headers, paragraphs, and links.

You have essentially locked up all of your text and links in a format that search engines can't crawl. The search engine spider simply cannot "see" your web site text in your HTML because there isn't any. If your entire website is in flash, it cannot follow your links as well so basically you have a one page website with no text or links making it hard to employ Flash SEO which will most likely put you last in the search engine rankings.

  • Usability Issues

Besides the load-time and accessibility hindrances, Flash introduces other usability concerns, such as breaking the browser’s Back button and the inability to bookmark individual pages.


How to SEO Flash?

Technically speaking, most of today's search engines can spider and index flash (see example search for design portfolio). However, they do a poor job at describing the website and generally do not rank very well for meaningful keywords.

For these reasons and more, traditional HTML is usually the best route when it comes to corporate information websites. The markup language is fundamentally designed to handle text, and browsers are by nature built to quickly and accurately display HTML pages. This allows the greatest number of users to access your information with the fewest possible hindrances.

However, if you must use a flash web site here are a few tools you can use to increase your Flash SEO visibility and user likability:

  • HTML Version

Create an 'HTML version' of your website that represents each page in your flash site. If you do this, Google recommends that you "be sure to include a robots.txt file that disallows the Flash pages in order to ensure that our crawler doesn't recognize these pages as duplicate content."

  • Browser Detection

Simply include an easy JavaScript what when a visitor requests the page, they'll see Flash if they can handle it. Otherwise, a non-Flash visitor, such as a search engine, will be directed towards the HTML version of the page (see above) and will be able to spider or crawl the site.

  • Advanced JavaScript

Using the JavaScript Text Replacement (JTR) technique, you build your pages almost as you normally would with lots of indexable text and links in HTML. Then you use a JavaScript program to automatically detect if your user has Flash installed. If they do, you serve them your Flash movie. If they don't, then they simply get your HTML content. Because search engine spiders will not have flash player installed, they will be directed towards your HTML pages.

By using Javascript, or more specifically, a script like FlashObject you can setup your site to be seen and crawled by the search engines. First you lay out your page as if you aren’t using Flash, then you use FlashObject to replace this content only if the user has Javascript enabled and the required Flash plugin version. This causes Google or any search engine to skip the Flash and only index the HTML you place on the page. This gives you full control and much greater predictability over what content Google will index.

  • <NoEmbed> Tag

You can also use the <noembed> tag to hold the HTML version of whatever Flash you're using on that page. Not only does this give the search engine something to read, but it also provides an alternative for site visitors who don't have Flash installed on their browsers.

  • More tips for using flash:

    • Not everyone will have Flash player installed so make sure you give them a page that makes sense and tell them why they can't view your site.
    • Create descriptive, unique and useful page titles and meta descriptions.
    • Embed the flash into HTML pages and use regular text links on the page if possible.
    • If it does not alter your website design, you can add HTML text and links to your pages.
    • Create textual representations of what is in the flash using noembed tags.
    • Instead of including everything in one flash file it may make sense to break the content into different flash files so you can create different HTML pages around the different ideas contained in it.
    • Macromedia has a Flash Search Engine SDK. It includes an application named swf2html.exe which extracts the text and links from your flash (.swf) file. Once that content is extracted, you can read it in a DOS window or output it to a file as an HTML document. However, most sites are still best off using textual representations of the flash files on the HTML content of pages.

You should always stay focused to your users and simply display what you want your site to accomplish. HTML vs Flash? Which one to choose? If Flash is the best way to achieve your goals, then use it sensibly. Remember, if no one can find your site, then you might as well not have a website. If your success is dependent upon search engine rankings, then your Flash design plans must take a back seat to the above Flash SEO considerations.

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