Flash, AJAX, Usability, and SEO

At the Chicago Search Engine Strategies (SES) conference a few weeks ago, I was privileged to speak on a wide variety of topics, including how both Flash and AJAX (define) can have a positive or negative effect on SEO (define) efforts.

The audience was a mixed group. Many Web developers and designers were in the audience, of course, as well as SEO professionals and other online marketers. Noticeably missing, however, were people who were educated, trained, or experienced in user-centered design (UCD). Quite frankly, I was a bit stunned at the lack of understanding about SEO and UCD, both from those on my respected panel and from the audience. “Everybody wants the ‘enhanced’ experience” seemed to be the prevailing attitude.

What’s this ‘enhanced experience’ SEO professionals, developers, designers, and online marketers honestly believe people desire? Are they really testing, measuring, and verifying this belief, or was I listening to a group of people who believe their own hype?

Optimizing Animated Content

Don’t get me wrong. I’m perfectly aware I have a big ego, so I’m always amazed when I meet people who have bigger egos than mine. However, I don’t assume end users think and act the same way I do on a Web site.

For example, I love Flash. I love to design in Flash. I also love AJAX and have begun implementing it on a number of sites. I’ve seen Flash and AJAX used well individually and together, such as teaching people how to construct shelves on the IKEA Web site. And I’ve seen Flash used poorly.

However, Flash and AJAX can be confusing to users and search engines because the same URL delivers different content. URL structure is important to search engines because it provides a means of accessing content. It also provides a sense of place to site visitors.

Even though search engines currently can’t access (or have difficulty accessing) the content within Flash or invisible layers, the problem isn’t always access. The problem is often content. A few years ago, Yahoo analyzed the content contained within Flash movies and Web sites and found the content wasn’t really useful. Extracting the links from these layers proved more useful.

So how should Web site owners determine whether or not to use Flash or AJAX on their Web sites?

Usability Testing, Focus Groups, and Web Analytics

I’m a usability professional. I don’t throw bells and whistles on a Web page because I think they’re cool. I want to know if my client’s target audience believes the bells and whistles are useful (user confidence) and if they actually use them for the intended purpose (task completion).

Usability testing is the best way to determine user confidence and task completion. Unfortunately, many of my colleagues have limited or no experience in this area. They use focus groups and Web analytics as evidence to support their beliefs.

A focus group measures opinions. Opinions have limited effect on task completion. I can think a Flash movie or AJAX effect is pretty nifty, but I may not necessarily “Add to Cart,” “Register for Class,” or “Subscribe to Newsletter.” Additionally, there’s a group (or herd) mentality that can affect opinion. For example, if there are 12 people in a focus group and one person really disagrees, that person can often be persuaded to go along with the group because she doesn’t want to be perceived as the naysayer.

My colleagues also use Web-analytics data as supporting evidence. The problem with this is users aren’t presented with other options. If users are presented with only one option, who’s to say whether they might select the less animated interface? Who’s to say whether they’ll complete the desired task, and why? Furthermore, Web site owners don’t hear users think out loud. They don’t directly hear their source of confusion (if any). All they see in analytics are click streams.

Though both user perception and click streams are important measurement tools, they’re not task-oriented. Usability testing measures how effectively participants complete a desired task. If there are roadblocks to completing the desired task, such as an inappropriately named navigation label, these roadblocks can be eliminated so the site satisfies both user and business goals.

Listening to Users

Perhaps one of the most enlightening usability experiences I had was seeing how IT department heads interact with Web sites. One might think decision makers in an IT department would appreciate the enhanced experience Flash, AJAX, and other animation technologies offer.

I was mistaken.

Our firm has performed many usability tests on Flash- and AJAX-enhanced sites. Below are some of the actual comments we received from one-on-one usability tests:

  • “The site wastes space. I am very busy. I hate it when sites like this waste my time.”
  • “I want to get down to business. I want to see things. What’s with this [expletive] animation thing?”
  • “This area takes up way too much space and doesn’t give me any information. Where’d the navigation go?”
  • “I don’t like the navigation. When I move away from it, it stays there. It’s just very confusing.”
  • “I’ve seen sites where they use that technology well. You can click on parts of the graphic and it takes you somewhere. This graphic is too big, does not tell me anything, and keeps up this annoying flashing when I am trying to do something else.”

Overall, these participants found the Flash- and AJAX-enhanced features quite annoying. And that’s just what business owners don’t want: to annoy the very people who make purchasing decisions for their products and services.


Get with the program, developers and marketers. Don’t assume your target audience wants an enhanced experience, not even advanced Web users. Analyze your target audience’s search behavior. Don’t skip SEO’s usability aspect.

If you find your target audience genuinely wants the enhanced experience, then by all means give it to them. People will link to sites that provide them with easy access to desired information, which will have a positive SEO impact on link development.

If I can put my ego aside and not use Flash and AJAX when they aren’t needed, you can, too.

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