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July 9, 2008

Bruce’s Guide to Appropriate Use of Flash

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There has been a lot of controversy over our post about Flash not being the SEO solution that a great many people hoped. Our statements, along with many other intelligent voices, claim that Flash is not off the hook yet as a search engine-unfriendly technology.

What I find amazing is that so many designers just don’t get it.

Designers, especially Flash designers, understand the impact Flash can have on an audience. In this time when engagement is important, I agree that Flash is a formidable weapon, capable of entertaining and even amazing the end user. It certainly has a place in the overall realm of Web design. Properly implemented, Flash can help your site achieve its goals in a very attractive and engaging way. However, it can also act to the point of distraction. Remember <blink>?

Some designers have apparently forgotten the software development process, probably because tools have made it too simple and it’s what schools are pushing out today. But in the beginning, programmers wrote source code. It was compiled and the output produced by an executable file was all the user could see. Today on the Web, SEO-savvy designers produce source-level design for marketing purposes (which include SEO), then it’s “compiled” by search engines and hopefully granted high rankings. From there, and after a user’s click of the mouse, it was presented in a browser. What the user sees is not what a search engine spider sees.

Remember when WYSIWYG editors changed everything, pushing the lazy designer past the source code? The search engines did not understand the generated code and rankings for sites created with such editors were poor. Most CMS systems also fail to generate optimized code, so this is not an easy task even with source-level control.

Flash is similar. It doesn’t care about search and obviously does not care about source-level design. If the search engines could only see what the user sees, then Flash would be a great tool. But search engines do not see what we see (they read by Braille) and they can only parse what is visible to them (underlying source code), similar to a compiler placed between the Web designer and the user.

Source-level design offers specific control over that presentation to the search engines. When properly prepared, site information is readily seen and understood, and high ranking can be obtained. Flash does not present the rich information to the search engines in a format they can understand, certainly not at a level that would warrant you higher rankings over another site that is properly optimized. Flash goes from designer to end user without giving sufficient care to build the quality code for search.

Question: How many page URLs are in a multi-page Flash site? How should each be indexed? To a search engine your 40 pages of content are all in that one page URL. Engaging for the user, but ignorant of the needs of the search engines. How do you deep-link into that Flash sub-page? How can a search engine index just one of those pages? How do you nofollow a link? How can you block access to the XML that may be included? Can you keep underlying content from being exposed? How can you silo by theme within a multi-theme site? And this does not address the lack of universal Flash support (like on mobile devices) or that a third-party product is needed to run it. User experience aside, we have an obligation to our clients to get them search engine traffic.

Our major issue with the recent Flash announcement was with designers who now feel it is okay to tell users that this Flash update is the answer to their ranking problems. These Flash designers simply either do not get it or they are out to scam end users. It is not okay to say that this release of Flash is sufficient to compete against an optimized HTML site, and to tell users otherwise is unethical.

Of course, if the client does not care about search engine traffic then our argument, although still very valid, would not apply. For designers that are using Flash as a high impact technology in some great niche markets, you should not be concerned because ranking is not your objective. Our only complaint is with Flash designers that are promising rankings they simply cannot achieve.

As for our own site, we believe in a tactical use of Flash. Our Search Engine Relationship Chart ® is a simple but specific use of Flash, our video player is also appropriate, and our navigation simplifies our top-of-page SEO-centric source code and I contend that this is also fitting for our SEO purpose. Even our sIFR implementation met an objective. We rank in the top 10 of Google for [search engine optimization] so we are doing something right. Our next version of the site (in progress) will contain even more Flash. But it is difficult to imagine a 100 percent Flash site ever offering the content and the links to sub-pages across domains as used on our site.

Flash has its place, as does source-level design. Including appropriate Flash in most sites can assist you in getting your site to rank (through its use in a link magnet) but that is an entirely different thread.

Just accept that the Flash announcements are not statements that 100 percent Flash sites will suddenly rank well in search engines. HTML’ers should think more about effectively using Flash, and Flash fans should keep their eyes on the ball. Traffic makes the Web go round.

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3 responses to “Bruce’s Guide to Appropriate Use of Flash”

  1. claye writes:

    As a former designer, I was excited to hear that Google is now indexing Flash, but I have my reservations: for example, Google can now pop out text and links (that aren’t displayed with images) but who’s to know that it’s the same text and links that the user sees? It would be easy to show the user some pretty pictures and links, and hide loads of content underneath and search engines would be none-the-wiser. Imagine what could be done with pages and pages of well-written content that has nothing to do with the site that the user sees.

    There are ways to change URLs for multi-page Flash sites and if search engines can read HTML code in Flash files (I always used HTML and CSS to dynamically display text) then you can still no-follow links, but very few Flash designers are (obviously) aware of SEO practices and value, and almost no SEOs are familiar with Flash by nature so it will be interesting to see how this unfolds. – At the least, the demand for Flash designers/websites just increased significantly whether we like it or not and SEOs will have to find ways to adapt and make it work.

  2. Ross Dunn writes:

    Excellent post Bruce! I am in the middle of a similar post myself and it was inspiring to read yours. Honestly I don’t see a near future where Flash can ever beat optimized HTML but it seems SEOs will constantly be at odds with Flash developers. It is really sad since we all could work together very well if everyone kept in mind the client’s need for online success.

  3. Chris Miller writes:

    It seems like everybody is talking about this new Flash angle from a design-for-today standpoint… the sandbox may be gone, but doesn’t the new Adobe Flash player on the horizon tell us Flash SEO is crucial for long term, white hat SEO?



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