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Flash - benefits, challenges and search engine compatibility.

The exciting world of Flash animation and graphics. I've seen some very impressive Flash work out there, designs that really make you stop and take note. If you're looking to make a big impression from a graphical point of view, Flash is definitely one of the best solutions.

But.....

There are also many more very bad Flash presentations - including my own first attempt nearly 4 years ago, which thankfully I had the good sense to remove from Taming the Beast.net very quickly. I was awarded the "Services to the Internet Community" award for that decision! 

Just because something spins, whirrs and glows when you move a mouse over it, it doesn't necessarily make it a good thing. I doubt very much whether it will increase your online sales, unless it was for Flash related products.

Flash is a powerful technology that should be treated with care and respect. The bottom line is before making your decision on whether to use this technology, ask yourself - who is your target audience?

Research your online audience before Flashing at them..

If you run a games or otherwise very youth oriented site, Flash is probably well suited to this demographic - if you are selling life insurance to mature age people, I can't see the point of it. If information is the crux of your site, then in most cases it's best to stay away.

A survey was carried by Knowledge Systems & Research Inc between March 30 and April 3, 2001, based on responses from 990 online users. While these results are over 3 years old and the uptake of broadband services has grown substantially, from the feedback and comments I hear from people in relation to web sites, I don't feel that things have changed much. 

The ratings were based on percentages, the higher the percentage, the more important the aspect:

Ease Of Use/Navigation: 74% 
Fast Download Time:  65%
Regularly Updated Information:  58%
Quality Of Content:  57%
Organization Of Content:  40%
Access To Customer Service:  40%
Quantity Of Content:  30%
Search Engine At The Site:  25%
Front Page Layout:  20%
Fun:  19%
Look And Feel Of The Site:  18%
Inclusion Of Animated Graphics:  9%

I found this survey to be particularly interesting in that there seems to be a strong message that people don't want eye candy - they want quality information, and they want it fast.

Aside from graphic design issues it boils down to bandwidth and load times. A well thought out and presented Flash animation will be impressive to a visitor a couple of times and then become a monumental pain in the butt afterwards while waiting for it to load. Those "skip intro" links are a great idea, but still an extra click is required and they have a habit of not forwarding you past the Flash element until certain processes have completed.

If a Flash site is your burning desire, perhaps it's worthwhile considering just incorporating certain elements - such as a Flash movie for a banner, or Flash buttons etc.

There's another very good reason for limiting the use of Flash on a site - search engines, but we'll get to that later in this article.

Flash and Non-Flash web site versions

You could always offer a Flash and non-Flash version of your site, but what is the point unless you already have a Flashed site and you have discovered that the technology is actually doing you damage? 

Increased development dollars and administration time are two powerful factors against planning to build two versions of a new site - again, this wouldn't apply to all industries. If you're a web designer, then having two versions of your site may actually increase your clientele through the demonstration of versatility.

As I mentioned in a previous article, we don't all have broadband connections. I am fortunate enough to have a broadband connection and even with the greatly increased speed, I still find Flash splash pages to be highly annoying after the initial ooohs and aaahs of the first visit.  

You become accustomed to fast page downloads very rapidly when you have a broadband connection. An extra 5 second wait becomes as equally frustrating as an extra 25 second wait under a dial-up connection - it's the nature of the beast....

Flash and Search Engines..

Another important factor is the effect that Flash elements have on search engines - up until very recently, search engine spiders have not been able to "read" Flash based web site components. 

FAST (alltheweb.com and also powers Lycos)  announced in 2002 that they are able to spider the textual elements of Flash presentations. 

Google also provides some Flash spidering capabilities (since October 2001), but this has been limited to following links embedded in presentations.

I've been following the developments of FAST in relation to the indexing of Flash sites since their announcement. From what I've been able to ascertain, it hasn't been a major breakthrough, nor have other search engines bothered with implementing the technology required to index fully Flashed sites. Non-Flash sites still consistently rank higher, even on FAST.

Need to learn about  search engine ranking and optimization strategies or want to monitor the SEO health of your web sites (and those of your competitors)? One of the most comprehensive set of online search engine optimization tools around -  SEOMOZ.

Also bear in mind that FAST only have a very small share of the search engine market and now they've been assimilated by Yahoo, their future isn't clear. 

For the time being, if the majority of your web site content exists within Flash elements then you are going to have a very hard time climbing your way to the top on the most important search engines.

There are other ways to optimize fully Flashed sites for search engines, but they are somewhat limited. Be very wary of any SEOP (Search Engine Optimization Professional) who claim they can get your site into the top 10 on Google. The tricks they use may boost traffic in the short term, but in the long run you'll get caught out and probably banned. 

The road back from a Google ban can be very long and sometimes impossible - many webmasters have had to rebuild their sites from scratch, change domain names and shift hosting services in order to get back in.

If you have a fully Flashed site, one of the best (ethical) ways to boost your search rankings is by having other quality sites with good rankings link to yours. Also make sure you are listed in DMOZ (Open Directory). A listing in DMOZ is free and assists in gaining better rankings on Google.

Never underestimate the value of search engines as a source of visitors to your web site - without search engine traffic, Taming the Beast.net would lose over 100 000 visits a month.  Search engine listings still provide some of the best value for money sources of targeted traffic.

Flash - the conclusion

As with other graphic elements on your site, if overdone, Flash can totally detract from other site offerings. Flash in the hands of a master can be truly stunning, but using it in an amateurish fashion or as a gimmick could really work against you.

The balance between artistic impact and effective online marketing is truly difficult to achieve. My suggestion  - leave Flash to the real experts. The time spent on trying to get a button to spin could be better spent on the real meat and potatoes of the web - useful content that keeps visitors coming back for more.

Further learning resources:

Search engine optimization tutorials and resources

To use frames or not to use frames

Building a basic ecommerce web site

Identifying search engine spiders

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
http://www.tamingthebeast.net 
Tutorials, web content, tools and software.
Web Marketing, Internet Development & Ecommerce Resources
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