Too Flash for their own good? SEO on Flash sites

Keep your website simple for improved SEO

Sometimes designers let style get in the way of substance. It happened with the sleek new iPhone 4 case which caused the phone to lose signal, the cars which are modified to be so low they can’t tackle a speed bump and the concave surface of the Las Vegas hotel which is so shiny it magnifies burning hot sun rays onto people near the pool below.

Adobe Flash Player iconSEO is often sacrificed in the design of websites too. Some site designers are creating attractive Flash based sites which are virtually invisible to search engines. These websites may have enough text and information embedded in images, video and Flash to satisfy the average user, but it’s not just the user you have to satisfy. Despite this, 98% of enterprises rely on the Flash player and 85% of the most-visited websites use Flash. KPI’s website design team understand the importance of pleasing the search engines too. After all, a website which isn’t effectively optimised won’t attract many users in the first place.

Why is Flash so difficult to optimise?

Flash Returns No Results

Search engines such as Google work by ‘crawling’ websites and indexing their content, but the Googlebot robot crawlers can only ‘see’ content which is pure text. This is why photographs and graphics should be accompanied by relevant alt text; it serves the purpose of providing textual information about the image for search engines’ robots. Google’s crawlers do not support Flash, so a clever and attractive Flash-based site will be seen by them in basic HTML. Search engines will also not recognise text which is featured inside images, graphics and videos.

In addition to this, Flash doesn’t use the traditional HTML tags which Google recognises. KPI routinely use HTML tags to define parts of text as more important than others. Marking up keywords as titles and subtitles is a key part of SEO; search engines learn what is important through HTML tags and these words are ranked more favourably than other words in ranking scores. Flash does not use HTML tags so robot crawlers will be unable to discern important words you want to optimise for from any other words on your site.

Image or Flash based content is all very well if you are confident enough in your content that it will be shared on a huge scale, but for businesses relying upon content about services or products Flash sites are often a marketing disaster.

In 2008 Google announced that it was teaching its robots to learn how to index Flash websites effectively. Four years on and many Flash sites often still aren’t SEO friendly. Google is still having difficulty in recognising the content of a Flash website, and although Flash content can sometimes gain good SEO results, they are often difficult to achieve and unpredictable. There are a number of problems with optimising Flash content in addition to the difficulty in properly indexing content.

When web pages contain clickable links within the Flash animation any change of content is all based within a single URL. When an entire site is founded on Flash, that website only has one URL for Google to index and register keywords for. Separate keywords cannot be optimised for on separate pages, and there is only one link to build off-page content for. There is also only a single page for users to link to or bookmark, and once this has loaded the user will have to navigate through the Flash to get to the appropriate page.

Adobe Flash Builder

Another disadvantage of Flash is that it isn’t supported on Apple’s range of mobile devices; the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. As a further blow, Adobe confirmed late last year that it is no longer developing the Flash Player for ANY mobile devices. So if your business has a Flash website and no HTML alternative you may be completely ruling out the increasingly important mobile user market.

If you have the budget, ideally you could develop both a Flash and HTML website. Search engines will then guide their robots and users (when a browser is unable to support Flash) to the more suitable HTML counterpart. This technique can be considered ‘cloaking’, meaning the search engines can see a different version of the website to users, but it is not a black hat technique as it is not purely focusing on search engines but users too.

If you crave the design features offered by Flash but want successful SEO (and do not have the budget for both Flash and HTML sites), the latest version of HTML, HTML 5, bridges the gap nicely. HTML 5 is universally supported on mobile devices, allows for semantic markup SEO, and is effectively read and indexed by robot crawlers. It does this while offering some of the features which Flash offers; YouTube for example, is experimenting with the possibility of switching to HTML5 video.

But it isn’t just Flash which poses a threat to SEO. There is no search engine optimisation value in images, graphics and videos, or text embedded in images, graphics and videos . Despite this, between 2003 and 2011 the average web page grew over seven times larger and the number of individual objects on a web page tripled as website designers forgot the thing which really matters; the ability for users to find your content in the first place.

So next time your developer offers you an all-singing, all-dancing update to your website, remember that search engines, and often users, prefer things kept simple. Your site may be able to learn from the Las Vegas hotel; don’t build it too shiny.

For more advice on website design or optimising your site contact KPI

About Kadie Dobson

Kadie is a member of the web marketing team at KPI. She is a Journalism graduate of John Moores University. Email: Google+
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