Flash: The Pink Elephant or the Spark

Last week, I discussed the difficult process of Predicting the ROI for Future SEO Efforts, and this week I’m moving from one difficult topic to the next by talking about another hot topic in the search space: the use of Flash in designing a Web site, and the potential for that site to be ranked within search engines.

This topic is either ignored in site planning meetings, or it becomes a spark that lights a fire between the design and SEO teams that can be difficult to put out.

Today, we’ll look at the history of this epic battle between SEOs and designers, and look toward some of the most popular methods used to circumvent the SEO/Flash issue. We’ll finish by providing you with one of the latest technologies developed to deal with the issue that Flash does not provide search-engine crawlable content.

History of the Flash Designer vs. SEO Wars

Instead of reinventing the wheel, I am going to analyze some past writings on this subject, allowing readers to reach their own opinion as to who makes the most valid points, designers or SEOs. The first piece I’ll highlight is a January 2006 article by David Wallace for Search Engine Guide. David did a great job in titling his piece, “Can’t We All Just Get Along? – The Battle Between SEOs and Web Designers.” David got his inspiration for the article from a classic SEW forums thread on the same subject, Do Designers Hate SEO?.

David quotes “seomike” as saying there are essentially three options for dealing with Flash if you want search rankings.

  1. Cloak (way to risky).
  2. Build an HTML version (way to expensive/time consuming).
  3. Go hybrid with Flash elements in table or div/CSS holding it all together (just right).

I love the Goldilocks-and-the-Three-Bears analogy, as most SEOs will take the “just right” option as being the best. In fact, the search engines also recommend using either an additional HTML version or a combination of Flash files within HTML. In one of the many illuminating posts she wrote before leaving Google, Vanessa Fox was very clear about the topic on the Google Blog when she stated:

“Images, flash, and other multimedia make for pretty web pages, but make sure your core messages are in text or use ALT text to provide textual descriptions of your multimedia. This is great for search engines, which are based on text: searchers enter search queries as word, after all. But it’s also great for visitors, who may have images or flash turned off in their browsers or might be using screen readers or mobile devices. You can also provide HTML versions of your multimedia-based pages…”

Designers and developers, as well as marketing executives who prefer the look and excitement of Flash, have consistently been against using the non-Flash versions of sites, since those versions will often end up being the ones that rank in search engines. Although it is possible to provide a call-to-action that hopefully leads visitors to the Flash version, this is not often the best possible compromise.

Kicking It Up a Notch: sIFR, SEFFS and other Flash-Related Workarounds

Since the problem of Flash for SEO has long been known, many people have worked on a better mousetrap to find a solution that works for all parties involved. Scalable Inman Flash Replacement (sIFR) and the XHTML Search Engine Friendly Flash Site (SEFFS) are probably the most recognized and accepted “2.0” solutions for enhancing the ability of Flash-containing pages to rank organically in search engines.

Avenue A | Razorfish’s team in New York has also been working on a project to help alleviate the issue of non-indexability. This week, we published a whitepaper on the corporate site detailing a new system dubbed “SOFA – Search Optimized Flash Architecture” (PDF). The whitepaper details the methodology that has already been implemented for a very prominent client, and it seems to be working very well in early testing. Sorry, but we cannot yet link to any examples until this method has been closely evaluated and blessed (hopefully) by the search engines as being kosher.

We invite you to discuss this new methodology within the SEW forums.

Making Peace: How to Reach Agreements with Internal and External Clients

SMTrends Issue #20 covered the topic of Flash, and it led to some further internal discussions, since so many AA|RF clients use partially Flash-laden sites. These discussions were sometimes a little heated, since the SMTrends piece essentially pitted our own SEO team versus our own designers, and since so many like-clients read it.

Of course, the issues were worked out, and it helped AA|RF personnel gain a better understanding of the problems, and improved the ability of our account representatives to speak to the subject with external clients.

In some cases prior to my employment at AA|RF, I witnessed much friction between developers and SEO specialists, actually seeing it lead to the severing of relationships. Some clients chose to stick with the SEO-focus and switched the design work over to the company promising more search-friendly results, while others cut their losses and stuck with the prettier design, deciding to live with relying on paid search listings alone.

The best result is when the agency and the internal or external client can reach an agreement and find a way to work together. Most often, this means a compromise where best results are achieved with Flash pocket-use within HTML pages. The bottom line when dealing with this kind of major decision is to remember that everyone is essentially on the same team, and that friction can sometimes yield a better result than what was originally planned.

Hopefully, SOFA and other future technologies will make this kind of argument a thing of the past. Currently, if the Flash/SEO topic isn’t brought up during the design phase of a Web site, it will likely lead to finger pointing once the site has been live for months without achieving any rankings; or even worse, achieving some rankings for a branded term that shows absolutely no description. In an agency setting, where literally dozens of sites can be created for large corporations’ unique brands, this will allow SEO/design synergies to continue to grow.

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