Is SEO Your Priority? Avoid All-Flash Web Sites

The issue of Flash (define) and SEO (define) is a never-ending one at our company. It’s an ongoing struggle between designers and SEO experts to find a solution that offers the bells and whistles that Flash Web sites deliver, while avoiding the potential SEO pitfalls that come along.

In a June 2008 column, “The New SEO Perspective on Flash,” I attempted to dispel the myth that Flash and SEO can’t play nicely together. The next month, Google and Adobe announced they had forged a partnership to enable Flash content to be more easily indexed. So I still believe that SEO can indeed be successfully implemented on a site with Flash content.

But what I didn’t necessarily clarify is that all-Flash Web sites are the one exception. That’s because they’re built entirely in Flash, using the Adobe Flash platform (ActionScript programming language), versus another platform like HTML.

This is an important distinction. A couple Flash movies, widgets, or applications shouldn’t negatively influence your Web site’s SEO potential to a high degree, particularly if you follow some best practices. But having your entire site built in Flash? That stands to have a large, discernable impact on your search engine rankings even if you follow best practices.

Yes, all-Flash sites look pretty and garner awards. But do they enable a site to be easily found in the search engines? Simply put: No.

But that’s not to say you shouldn’t use Flash at all. You can use Flash on your Web site and still gain search engine presence, provided it’s implemented correctly. And oftentimes, Flash is essential to really deliver on your site’s objectives and provide an interactive user experience.

You can’t, however, create an all-Flash site and expect the same results that you could get from a pure HTML Web site, which likely will always be the most desirable format from an SEO perspective. You can implement all of the SEO best practices for Flash you want, but all other things equal, an HTML version of an all-Flash site would fare much better in the search engines.

But don’t take my word for it. Countless articles and blog posts have been written on this topic. Here’s a sampling of few more recent ones:

Some reasons given for avoiding all-Flash sites are as follows:

  • All pages on an all-Flash site have the same URL, so how is Google supposed to index all of the internal pages on your site if they all have the same “location”? How is another site supposed to link to an internal page if the URL will simply bring them to the home page?
  • Even though some search engines can now access text within SWF files, the Flash output can often be much more difficult for them to read and understand than the HTML text would be.
  • Search engine spiders only read the text embedded within the Flash, not the tags on your site. That means your keyword-rich meta-data, like page titles and descriptions, won’t be relevant to the search engines on an all-Flash Web site.
  • Semantic and paragraph mark-ups are not enabled in Flash, so you can’t let the search engines know relative importance of various sections on a page through the traditional methods of header tags and the like.
  • Flash sites tend to get less natural inbound links than HTML-based sites. Maybe it’s because they’re harder to find, or maybe because they are frowned upon by the tech-savvy crowd who tend to share links.

Even though some of these challenges can be met through SEO best practices for Flash, it is clear that we still have a long way to go until all-Flash Web sites can flourish in search engines. A commenter on the post by Website Magazine recently said: “Just because Google is indexing Flash sites it doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to rank high on the SERPs.” Bingo!

If SEO is your top priority, don’t build an all-Flash site. Go ahead and use some Flash, but make it a supporting player in your Web site lineup rather than the entire roster. A hybrid approach of HTML with Flash elements is often the best way to satisfy both the need for a “flashy” site and the desire for it to be visible in the search engines.

Join us for Search Engine Strategies New York March 23-27 at the Hilton New York. The only major search marketing conference and expo on the East Coast, SES New York will be packed with more than 70 sessions, including a ClickZ track, plus networking events, parties, training days, and more than 150 exhibitors.

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