I’m not exactly a Flash fanboy, largely on the grounds that many Flash-based sites suffer from Rubbish User Experience Syndrome (RUES) and all too often they don’t play by Google’s rules.

I can never understand why a web-based business would choose to ignore the fundamentals of SEO, or why some agencies push Flash towards their clients knowing that it isn’t an especially Google-friendly technology. All style and no substance. But Flash has its place, especially for campaign-based sites, and recent improvements to the way search engines make sense of Flash-based websites have made it more acceptable than it used to be.

I’ve been talking to Skive technical director Matthew Don, who explains why he thinks Flash and SEO can be happy bedfellows, as opposed to mortal enemies.

Although Flash can be optimised for search engines, many Flash sites aren’t. Why is this?

Before I answer your question, I would like to create a distinction. Flash and SEO can be a misleading term and I would like to present my distinction. SEO is a practice that comprises many disciplines and within my answers I am looking at your questions from the predominant perspective of Search Engine Readiness / Friendliness.

There are many different specialties in an agency and sometimes not all practices are aligned. With developments happening rapidly and innovation improving in how Flash is embedded and indexed, it is vital that there is greater industry awareness and the sharing of information within a development cycle.

Content creation, copy, site architecture, and user experience are some of the disciplines that need to be aligned when creating a site. Leaving SEO to a beleaguered search specialist after the content has been developed is not a winning strategy. Yes, SEO performance is a long burn and continuous pursuit – it is not available out the tin – but steps can be made to better position your Flash content. Unfortunately sometimes consideration is only given to SEO concerns after the site or product has shipped. 

In the case of Flash this can be extremely detrimental to performance although best practice and techniques do not remain hidden for long, and – through sharing and openness – changes are underway. When we recently visited New York to look for an office I was impressed by the number of US agencies who are applying the principles of Flash SEO optimisation. Fallon, in the UK, is an example of a creative agency applying these techniques to their own site. 

Isn’t it simply the case that agencies that are obsessed with Flash don’t really understand why search engines matter so much in modern business?

Not necessarily. There is perhaps a greater emphasis on good content in creating impactful advertising regardless of search. But although conventional SEO is very desirable as a route to the user, it is not the only game in town. 

Great content does not remain buried for long as evidenced in the recent ‘Vince’ update from Google. Social media mentions and citations have an increased role to play along with content aggregation portals; offline and online media; non-organic search placements (i.e. PPC) and other channels, like blogs, mean that there is a plethora of options available to distribute and broadcast an execution or campaign. 

The positive impact on a search ranking by creating a rich experience that users find appealing is a strong factor in gaining better placement. We have created executions complemented by a modest media spend, and because people found the site fun and engaging, they have spread the cause and the site has reaped the benefit of a long and high placement in search results.

Do you believe that websites based entirely on Flash are a good idea for clients that want to achieve prominent search results?

A site with many states or pages, without the content available as another presentation, such as HTML, would not be my recommended route. However, I would question if the site has to be built entirely in Flash, not only from an SEO perspective. As with the best practices, progressive enhancement and some simple restructuring, prominence can be achieved with a Flash site that exposes its textual content in a search engine friendly form. 

Many brands use a blended architecture, with a mixture of Flash and other elements. Examples are Mars and Cadburys. We have developed sites for Nestle that use a mixture of Flash and HTML – it’s about striking a balance. 

I maintain that most Flash sites can achieve exactly the same thing with (x)HTML and AJAX, using Flash modules if necessary. Why use Flash in the first place if they’re harder to optimise for the search engines?

It is a good point. There is not one type of Flash site – they vary in their objectives and level of interactivity. Take a look at the Mars and Cadburys sites – both of which use a mixture of Flash and HTML. At what point is a site considered to be a Flash site? When the Flash content is 100% or more than 50%? It is difficult to find a commonality within them, other than the technology they use. Is YouTube a Flash site? You could argue that if you disable Flash, what have you got? 

Flash should be used for functionality not available in other technologies. Flash for the sake of using Flash is certainly misguided. If applications can be developed using an appropriate alternative technology, that is more accessible and lightweight than those offered by Rich Internet Application (RIA) vendors, such as Adobe, then they should. Obviously this is not always possible, although there have been advances in JavaScript libraries, and recently a buzz about HTML 5, as alternatives to Flash sites, RIA technologies, including Silverlight, offer benefits and features not currently available in non-propriety technology. 

Your point in the question “using Flash modules if necessary” is a concession to this – it just so happens that the rich interaction and features available in Flash mean that it is more necessary than not to use Flash for high impact branded communications. 

Can existing Flash sites be easily optimised, or is it a case of recoding them from the ground up?

As a former developer and director of a clever bunch of young coders I would have to take issue with ‘easily’, if only to retain any respect left in the studio! Skills, time, budget and business goals should all be factors when determining the benefit and ease of porting an existing Flash site to one that is more favorably indexed by the engines. Some considerations should be the age of the site, is it AS 2.0 or 3.0? Is there any documentation? Were any frameworks used in the creation of the site? Is there an external data source? Has SWFAddress been used and is there a clear site content hierarchy and structure? 

If the site is older and the text has been broken up and embedded in to one parent SWF it is going to be much harder than if the site is developed with AS 3, uses SWFAddress and has externally loaded content from XML files, or an other data source. 

So where do you start with optimising Flash for SEO? What are your key tips?

With the rise of smartphones and more distributed surfing practices, it is important to consider progressive enhancement: delivering a message or content to a user independent of their platform or plug-in support. While it is not always possible to recreate an execution in another accessible format (e.g. a complex online game), care should be given to enhancing and maximising your users experience. 

I have written a one-page overview of the subject (PDF) and I would suggest reading through to consider some of the tips we have for optimising Flash for SEO. 

How can Google ‘read’ and make sense of Flash-based content?

Many changes are being made to enable the indexing of Flash is better addressed, yet native support for the indexing of all states within a Flash execution is still not possible. To counter this limitation, developers have used a number of techniques to present a seamless journey from a search result to a “deep dive anchor” within Flash. This is achieved by repurposing the non-interactive elements from a Flash site to present the content for spidering and indexing. 

It is vital that the textual content within the non-Flash Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) is the same as the Flash site, otherwise it is seen as spamming and the URL could be blacklisted. The next stage of search engine indexing should be the ability for a SWF search result to link to a specific state within Flash. 

Of course it’s not all about content. Google likes fast-loading sites, and accessible sites, and sensible information architecture. Flash sites don’t always win in these areas, do they? 

Yes it’s true, that prudence in size of assets and solid design principles need to be considered when developing Flash content, but they should be given to all sites, whether they are Flash or not. It is worth noting that payloads of some JavaScript libraries can be quite hefty. 

With the rise of broadband penetration, optimal page weights are being readdressed – the BBC homepage load is 665KB. Less is definitely more is the case of user dwell time and indulgence with assets can lead to higher bounce rates. Flash is not alone in having these problems. 

These concerns are possible to mitigate with some solid site architecture techniques. Better optimisation of UI and form elements is also possible with complementary Flash applications such as Flex.

Can you point out some examples of Flash sites that are performing well in the search engines?

Umbro, Jaguar, and Rolex are all major brands that have Flash sites with content well positioned in search results with individual pages appearing in SERPS linking to separate Flash states. 

For a site which Skive ported for CHI and Partners Advertising Agency we saw immediate gains – natural search now accounts for over half of all visits to the site, up from 14%. Paid search advertising for agency brand names is no longer required, saving the company significant budget. The site now ranks #1 for ‘chi’ despite 57 million occurrences of the phrase within search results.

It’s pretty clear that I’m not the biggest fan of Flash sites, and there are lots of other people in the industry (and beyond) who don’t like them. What can you say to convince the doubters that standalone Flash websites have a future (and are futureproof)?

Rather than not being a fan of Flash sites, is it not a case of disliking poorly executed sites or those that use the technology self-indulgently? You are not alone in your reservations. We are a long way from the ‘skip intro’ use of Flash but there are still violations of best practice in the medium, as there are in any other web technology. 

My surfing habits are becoming increasingly mobile and the sites that I visit are textually rich and the use of Flash does not tend to lend itself to these mediums particularly well (or on the IPhone, not at all). Yet it is not just an ‘either/or’ proposition. Stories can be effectively told, and information imparted, using rich multimedia sites, an example being ‘We Choose Moon’.

Yes, a sense check should be made when looking at using Flash for a site, but Flash does many things very well and the rich experience and interactivity available by deploying Flash have tangible benefits. 

Some of Skive’s recent work – sites like the British Army campaign, Start Thinking Soldier, create a level of immersive engagement and game play that simply is not available without resorting to RIA technology. While we are seeing increased competition for the RIA space, Flash or something similar will be around for sometime. While the web would be better served by more open technology, the experiences we are afforded by Flash are enriched by its use. Through simple techniques and planning it is possible to have the benefit of this high level of interaction with the additional value of a presence within search.