Flash is the leading vector graphics technology used in thousands of interactive and design-focused websites. According to estimates, over 98% of Internet users have Flash player software installed in their browsers.
Well-created Flash animations can make sites more attractive, provide a better experience for users than text-based content, and allow designers to show off their creativity and skills.
However, Flash websites are usually much slower to load, very often lack the content users are looking for, do not cater for users with disabilities, and cannot achieve the same search engine rankings as their text-based counterparts.
Some of these shortcomings can be overcome, others cannot. The following post deals with both the drawbacks and possible remedies.
1.1 Download speed
Despite the expansion and lowering of broadband connections prices, the vast majority of Internet users still use slow dial-ups. Flash is not bandwidth friendly and these users have to wait about for a Flash site to load. Many people are not willing to do that even for the most beautiful Flash site.
1.2 Lack of content
Flash is the medium for creativity and design, not for accommodating large amounts of text or information in general. Not many content-focused sites are likely to use it. The problem is that most people use the Net to search for information. As they would not expect to find much of it on a Flash website, they are likely to avoid them. Content is what most users are looking for, and a website lacking it will be unsuccessful regardless of its appearance.
1.3 Accessibility issues
Flash is unfriendly to screen readers of visually impaired users. Screen readers work with plain HTML text and cannot read properly images or text embedded within Flash animations.
1.4 Search engines
Search engines were designed to index and work with HTML documents, not Flash or other non-HTML formats.
Although Google and FAST search engines are now able to crawl some Flash sites, they are still a long way from being able to retrieve and index the content in full. No other search engine has even this very limited ability and so cannot index any information at all.
Many suggestions abound about how to overcome these shortcomings. A few can partially improve the situation, some are likely to get a site penalised or banned by search engines, and the influence of others on rankings has still to be gauged.
Building ‘doorway’ HTML pages no longer works, because search engines now hate them almost as much as they are quick to detect them. In the past, doorway pages were used for ‘keyword stuffing’ and cloaking, and as result, they trigger anti-spam filters on all important search engines.
<noframes> / <noscript> tag
Another trick suggested to contain Flash content is by using invisible framesets and to fill the <noframes> tag with ‘alternative’ and index-able content in plain-text format. Although a true replication of Flash content in HTML format might seem as a legitimate use of this tag, search engines are unable - as well as unwilling - to reach this conclusion.
Search engines succeed or fail on their ability to provide useful information. They are unlikely to understand why any site information should be presented in one form to them, and in another to potential users.
CSS invisible layers
Placing content on a Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) layer set to be invisible is yet another risky plan. It also offers search engine spiders content that is different for human users and, therefore, could be interpreted as ‘spamming’.
Until recently search engines spiders avoided external CSS style sheets and would have been unable to discover the “display: none” declarations. However, in the past few weeks Googlebot has begun to crawl style sheets ignoring all “robots” exclusion statements. Of course, it is impossible to be absolutely certain why it was re-programmed this way, but searching for hidden content is a likely reason.
Another possibility is to add text content to a CSS layer and to position it either off-screen by negative margin, or behind the Flash content by putting both on layers and setting a lower “z-index” value to the content layer. A site’s visitor will see the Flash movie in a browser, but search engine spiders will find the ‘keyword-rich’ text in the source code.
Many experts argue that if the off-screen content truly reflects the Flash content, there cannot be issues with spamming. They might be correct. Then again, they might not. If search engine spiders cannot see the Flash content, they cannot establish whether it really matches the plain-text content. And because they cannot do that, they could never know whether the ‘alternative’ content is there to help them, or to fool them.
2.2 A possibility
In theory it is always possible to reproduce a Flash site in a ‘plain’ HTML version and offer search engine spiders and visitors the choice.
In practice it doesn’t seem to be a very cost- and time-efficient or labour-saving solution.
2.3 Recommended solutions
Using the <applet> element for embedding Flash is an ‘old-school’ technique that has featured on the W3C “deprecated-feature” list for quite a long time.
However, it does allow textual content to be place between the opening and closing tag, and in the “alternative description” inside the tag itself. Which is about the only reason why is it listed here.
Another tag for embedding Flash movies is the <embed> tag. Although the <embed> tag is now deprecated too, it is the only tag that works equally well across browsers.
Its sibling - the <noembed></noembed> tag – allows alternative text description to be placed in between. This is its legitimate use.
The <object> tag is the latest element for embedding Flash movies. It is recommended by the W3C. However, it is likely to crash some versions of IE 4.01 and is not supported by older versions of NN.
The text alternative is placed between the opening and closing tag.
Macromedia MX features
Macromedia Flash MX 2004 comes with many great features designed to improve accessibility, and as a consequence, also search engine spiderability, such as:
- Providing text equivalents for all visual elements via “Name” and “Description” fields. The name field is used for shorter text equivalents (similar to the <img alt>), the description field is used for longer descriptions (similar to the <longdesc> attribute in HTML.) Both can provide search engine spiders with useful information about the site’s content and relationships between individual site elements.
- Specifying reading order of Flash content. When reading the text equivalents in a Flash movie, a spider does not necessarily have to read the content in the order of the visual layout. Specifying the correct order helps spiders associate content of individual site elements, and in mapping internal structure.
- Captioning audio content. Captions added to narrative audio provide spiders with useful information about the audio’s content and its relationship to the rest of the page.
Google and FAST (AllTheWeb / Yahoo!) search engines are able to extract some content from Flash pages. FAST uses the Macromedia Flash search engine software developer's kit (SDK), which was designed to convert text and links from a Flash file into HTML for indexing. What technology Google employs is not known.
Both seem to be able to follow embedded links. It remains unclear to what extent they are able to extract the textual information from a page, or from the text equivalents.
Further, XML and XSL can be shoehorned into a supporting role for Flash SEO.
Both Google and FAST can extract some links from Flash files and, as a result, crawl a certain proportion of their content. It enables them to at least partially map the site’s internal structure and analyse relationships between individual pages. In addition, it allows Google to distribute some of the Page Rank allocated to the home page throughout the rest of the site.
This represents an opportunity for well-structured Flash websites with good internal structure to improve their rankings in Google and FAST search engines’ networks.
Page titles and meta descriptions
All search engines use page titles and meta descriptions in conjunction with the page’s content for ranking algorithms.
As most spiders cannot read the content of a Flash file and, therefore, cannot match it to the page’s title and metadata, it is unlikely that even the most carefully written titles and descriptions could significantly improve a site’s ranking.
By adopting correct design techniques, it is possible to overcome some of the inherent shortcomings of Flash. A few search engine spiders will then be able to crawl such a site and at least partially index its content, which means an increase in site rankings in these search engines. The site will also become more accessible to individuals with disabilities.
However, even the best optimised Flash website can improve its rankings only in comparison to another Flash website. Regardless of the thoroughness in design, or advancements in search engine retrieval technologies, a Flash website will never outrank a well-optimised HTML site.
Search engines work with text and reward sites that provide it. Therefore, if search engine visibility is the factor, a site cannot be designed in Flash. It is as simple as that.
- Do not create a website entirely in Flash
- Build a website in HTML instead
- Use Flash movies as a supporting visual medium for plain text content