Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Adobe Flash. Is it the ultimate weapon of site destruction?

Years after years I find, during my SEO consultancies, web sites with extensive Flash navigation structures. No wonder the website owners are complaining about poor search engine ranking, low usability and high bounce rates.
Like everything Adobe Flash can be used in a harmless way, but in the wrong hands it can have devastating effects. Let’s see why.

Adobe Flash and SEO

At present there is no effective way to optimize Flash for search engines. The main problem is not that search engines cannot index Flash content; the real problem is that search engine spiders cannot identify the content structure. While in regular HTML you can structure keywords in a hierarchical way using semantic mark-up, in Flash this is quite difficult. Additionally it is difficult for search engines to determine what is visible and what is invisible to the end user. Since this could give way to “flash content spam”, search engines take the safe approach to give extremely low priority to flash indexed content.
To make things worse many designers make the mistake to bury text into images, making the indexing task from difficult to impossible. Maybe the worst possible error from designers is to bury links into Flash objects (the spider will follow the links conservatively). A Flash website navigation bar is the best way to prevent search engine from indexing your web site completely. Make no mistakes spiders will be able to follow links in Flash object, but the weight given to these links will be very low.

Flash is poorly used by designers

To make a website look ‘creative’ designers often embed animations and slideshows in many parts of the site, often reducing the usability and most importantly drawing user attention away from calls to action. No wonder one of the best ways to optimize a landing page is to remove useless flash animations.

The Flash intro horror show

Even though the practice is disappearing little by little, you still find a lot of websites with a completely unnecessary Flash intro that takes several seconds to load. No wonder the bounce rate of these pages is terribly high as users hit the back button rather than looking for the “skip intro” link (if it is there).

Is Flash a CPU hog?

Or better said “Multimedia is a CPU hog”. Multimedia and animations are always heavy on CPUs. In this Flash doesn’t particularly help. As in December 2010, in a world dominated by multi-core 64-bit processors, the official Flash player is still running in 32-bit. There is a new 64-bit version on the horizon that, we hope, will improve things.
No need to say that navigating Flash heavy websites is the best way to drain the battery of any mobile devices. Many designers in this are particularly guilty, as they take no steps to improve Flash objects efficiency.
On this ground Apple banned Flash from iOS (there are probably other reasons that have more to do with rivalry between Apple and Adobe).

Can Flash and SEO tolerate each other?

The answer is for sure yes. By embedding small contained flash objects within the HTML code and by using few precautions it will be possible to avoid most negative effects of Flash. You have to make sure to offer to search engines spiders an alternative object or link that it will be possible to index. Most of the time it will be just a matter of designing a functional web page and as a last step pasting the Flash object into the HTML code. Arguably you could even build a Flash navigation bar, as long as behind you place HTML navigation indexable by spiders.