Is Flash safe to use in the context of SEO?
“To Flash or not to Flash, that is the question”
Bad jokes aside, the issue of using Flash in the development of a site is serious. For many, Flash represents a great tool to build a more graphically rich page with the capacity to provide interaction with the visitor. The expectation is this will lead to more engagement with the visitor and lead to a commercial transaction (sale, booking or subscription depending on the nature of the site.)
As with much technology, there are positives and negatives associated with this choice. You need to be aware of the consequences before you make your final decision. By the end of this article, we hope you will be well placed to make that decision for your situation.
First, what is Flash? Flash is a plugin tool available from Macromedia (http://www.macromedia.com/). It is vector animation software, designed to display animations in web pages, or, in simpler english, a tool to display mini movies while you are browsing a site.
What’s good about Flash? It does display animations, it is vector based (which can keep the animations smaller), the plugin is free, the plugin is available for most browsers and the animations can be very persuasive (if built well).
So what’s not to like? These are the serious issues we can identify:
- Not all browsers have the plugin loaded. This can be for a variety of reasons: corporate policy, no value due to visual impairment and download performance. If the plugin is not available nothing is shown in it’s place, unless the web page is designed to provide an alternative.
- Search engines can’t see the animations and therefore there is no Search Engine Result Placement value. This is especially important if Flash is used as part of the navigation within the site or provides all or most of the significant page content. The search engine will not follow any of the links or read any of the content displayed by Flash.
- Animations can break usability guidelines by continuing to update the browser after the page has loaded.
- Download of Flash content may be slow, especially for a visitor using a dialup connection, which may frustrate the visitor and cause them to go elsewhere to find the information or buy the widget.
So does this mean we don’t think you shouldn’t use Flash? Not necessarily. Flash is reasonable to use if you follow these guidelines:
- Don’t rely on Flash for navigation. Search engines and some human visitors won’t be able to find your content.
- Provide alternate content when Flash is not available (and it should be more than “Download plugin here”). This is one case where 1000 words are more important than the picture. It’s best to use text that talks about the reason behind the images, not “what a great looking view you’re not seeing”. I’ve seen sites where the main page is dominated by the void created to hold the image. This looks very unprofessional.
- Make sure the layout of the page is not broken when the image is not displayed. Other sites I’ve seen have use a style sheet to define borders for the Flash object, which connect to other borders on the page attached to other page elements. Unfortunately, when Flash is not available, the borders no longer connect and page elements become separated leaving portions of the page orphaned.
- Keep the size of the Flash download to a minimum.
- Don’t rely on features in the state-of-the-art version of Flash that will cause your script to break if it
encounters an older version of the plugin.
- Provide a Flash version and a non-Flash version of your website. Be careful with this option! If you detect the presence of absence of Flash and automatically present the version to the visitor you may appear to be presenting differing content to the Search Engines. As this can look like a “spamming” technique, the Search Engines may penalise you for this behaviour. So if you go down this path, don’t make it automatic.
So it is possible to use Flash successfully, but you need to be careful. We don’t design or build Flash content but we would be happy to talk with you about it’s implementation on your website.
Update: Google (and maybe some of the other search engines) now has some capacity for reading some of the embedded text in the Flash scripts. However, this does not entirely eliminate the negative aspects. The text is seen out of the context of the rest of the site, we have no certainty they use this text in assessing the website and there is still no guarantee they will follow the embedded links. It still looks too soon to “bet the farm” on this emerging technology.