A Flash in the Pan: Flash vs. SEO

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There’s a war going on: between web designers and seo consultants.  There’s an old adage in the web business that “ugly sells.”  It’s true.  Take a look at some of the most high-trafficked websites.  There are not a lot of bells and whistles, as bare boned as can be.  Drudgereport comes to mind, or a commerce site like Lower My Bills (lowermybills.com) or even Amazon.  Some drop down menus, a search bar, and that’s about it.

If you’re starting out in the web business, this is a pretty tough comparison to make.  Of course Amazon doesn’t use a lot of fancy Flash graphics: they don’t have to.  They’ve already got a huge and growing customer base.  There’s no reason for the site to be graphically intense to stand out from the crowd.  They’re already a household word.  At the same time, part of what has made Amazon such a force online is that their reliably simple: someone can understand the site who doesn’t have a lot of experience online.

This also depends on the type of site you’re putting up.  For example, if you’re creating a website for an architecture firm or other design-related field, your website is going to need to be a bit more design-heavy, but this isn’t generally the case for most websites.  Most websites are going to need to strike a balance between flashy design (pun intended) and readable content.  If you ask me, I’d side with the latter, as you won’t face any problems with Flash.

How to Index SWF Files

Now, I’ve got to mention that Google can index Flash but it won’t show up in typical search results.  For example, a person can perform a Google search using .swf as part of the search string and Google will post Flash-based results.  That’s great, but how many people are going to do that?  Probably a bunch of Flash and web designers and that’s all.  For your average web searcher, you can’t rely on this type of traffic.

Another significant problems re: Flash files is that an entire site can be held within a single SWF file.  So while Google can indeed index this site and have it show up in a search, this is terrible for SEO. Yes, Google has taken a step forward in how SWF files are indexed, but for SEO purposes it is far better to have a collection of single files, all with different links in and backlinks and keyword structure, rather than one fat SWF file.

The alternative, then, is to break up a site into many tiny SWF files, but this can be unwieldy and difficult to compete with non-Flash sites for competitive keywords.  Yet another alternative is to cram Flash information into metadata.  But this also poses problems because Google can red-flag metadata stuffing.  It’s similar to keyword-stuffing content.  This workaround could actually be damaging.

One new development is indexing Flash is called sIFR, or Scalable Inman Flash Replacement.  This is java-based technique that converts Flash to HTML.  Wow!  Sounds perfect.  The problem is that using sIFR on your entire site could slow it down to a snail’s pace.  In addition, Google’s outlook is that overusing sIFR is a way of gaming the system: something that Google frowns on and tries to stop.  For instance, if you provide HTML content that is not identical to the Flash content, this could be seen as a form of invisible content, which could be penalized.  sIFR is mainly meant for headlines and other small bits of text.  So while it is a partial solution, it is by no means a complete solution for converting Flash to HTML.  It also requires that you design two separate websites: both the Flash site and its HTML counterpart, if you’re attempting to use it throughout a site, which is not wholly recommended.  Basically, the jury’s still out on how Google will react to an sIFR-heavy site, so it is not a risk-free operation.

Benefits of Simple Websites

As I mentioned, simple is better.  Sure, Flash-based websites can make your website stand out from other sites once people reach your site, but really your prime concern is getting people to your site. There are plenty of ways to make a professional site without any technical wizardry on the site.  For example, posting a video introduction on your site via Youtube can be as effective as a Flash intro movie (depending on the quality of your video) while having the added bonus of uploading your intro movie to viral networks. That’s one idea.  In the post-Youtube era, website-based movies are not nearly as important.

This blog entry is hardly gospel, as new technology is going to come out in the future and Google is going to change its terms and conditions.  This is especially evident in a new design technique like sIFR.  For the moment, though, HTML is still king in terms of search engine placement.  And given the amount you can do with web design without the aid of Flash animation, there’s no overwhelming reason that you should risk low placement in search engines or outright banning.

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