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March 5, 2008

Flashing your Goods

When I think of flash I immediately think of Flash Gordon or simply “The Flash” himself.  While growing up these genres of demigods were heroes of mine.  Even now as an adult and I use that term very loosely as all it really means is that I can buy beer and am allowed to vote, I still think back on how cool they were, particularly Flash Gordon* who went on to save the world.

These days when people speak of Flash they are referring mostly to Macromedia and the impressive interactive designs that adorn many of the top websites today.  Initially, Flash was a pet hate of mine, I just couldn’t see it working for an e-commerce website.  The splash pages that so many websites had were for the most part poorly designed, the files were well oversized and they were devoid of any accompanying text.  It succeeded in slowing down entry into the website and leaving the page impossible for the spiders to index.  It would seem that these days many of the splash pages have been replaced (thank goodness), although recently there has been an increase in the number of sites that do have a Flash Intro.

As with so many good things Flash has been brutally abused.  It seems that for such a long time Flash was seen as a massive “cool factor”.  The biggest disadvantage for me has always been the size of the file.  While navigation files may be quite small the splash pages and, often headers were just way too big.  While many people have dedicated digital lines at work they often only have access to dial up connectivity at home.  I am sure that everybody knows how frustrating it can be trying to browse a website that has large images and other multimedia files with a mere dial up connection.  Beyond this frustration there are a number of reasons why Flash is just a bad idea, these include:

  1. Flash breaks the back button.  If you navigate within a flash object and you hit the “Back” button it takes you back to a previously viewed page and not back within the flash object itself.
  2. The standard link colours do not apply.  This can lead to confusion as to which pages have been viewed and which ones have not.
  3. Flash integrates badly with search functions.  More of this will be explained later.
  4. The design is set.  Text can not be enlarged for people with limited vision.  The view can’t be changed to suit the end users needs.
  5. Flash in general is difficult to access by visitors with disabilities.

Recently Google has announced that it can indeed read .swf files looking for text.  According to Dave Taylor of askdavetaylor.com, Google can parse through the text contained within a .swf file and present that information in a Google search. But due to the fact that an entire website can be contained in a single .swf file, whereas a traditional HTML site may consist of hundreds of individual pages, the weightings and rankings given to certain pages may not be accurately portrayed in Google’s results.”

This would mean that Flash still comes up short when it comes to ranking favourably in the search engine results.  While I don’t see this hurting major household name brands (such as Coca-Cola or Pepsi), it certainly means that the smaller emerging business with a total Flash website is going to struggle to rank well.

As mentioned earlier, Flash integrates badly with search functions.  This is mostly due to the fact that the flash file itself can’t be indexed in the same manner as plain text.  While Google has managed to index the plain text within an .swf file it has become plain that from a search point of view, the Flash file is treated in much the same way as an image.  The ability to read the text in these files would seem to have little more than benefit than using an “Alt” or “Title” tag.  However this may change in the near future.

Perhaps in time the search engines will be able to index Flash files correctly, perhaps not.  Personally I would prefer it if they don’t.  Some things really should be discouraged from corporate websites.  While Flash is a great way to build a site with all the bells and whistles, it also removes some of the functionality.  I imagine that a website for Ozzy Osbourne could easily include Flash as fans are more than happy to sit and wait for the objects to download.  But what works for Ozzy might not work for your business.  As with all website additions, the main thought should always be, “will it improve the average visitor’s experience?”  If not then it shouldn’t be used.

For now, I’ll just keep thinking of Flash (Gordon) as a hero.  I know my brother does and, believe it or not, even plans to name his child “Flash”.  I think that’s how things should stay.

Author:  Robert Cerff is a search engine analyst and marketing consultant for Prop Data Internet Solutions. He has ten years experience in e-commerce, online marketing and web development. http://www.propdata.co.za

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