First introduced in 1996, Flash quickly became a popular tool online, allowing the combination of different types of graphics in animation that could be displayed in web browsers. These became known as Flash websites.
As a tool for enhancing the look of a website, Flash can be very visually effective, and its rapid rise in popularity soon led to sites that were literally dripping with Flash. In fact, as the technology improved, it became reasonably common to encounter sites that were entirely made of Flash animation. (And we’re not too proud to admit that we did it too. (But we’re ashamed of it now.))
The thing is, making websites out of Flash is bad. It was bad then, and it’s even worse now. And there are two main reasons why a Flash website is bad.
Flash Usability Issues
Flash is slow. Flash is filled with bugs. Flash updates are slow to address the issues.
If your site uses Flash, or even worse, if it’s entirely Flash, then every person who visits your site has to have the right plug-in installed to view your version of Flash. If they don’t, all they get is a screen telling them they need a new version to see the site.
Your Site Should Be As Universal As Possible
I don’t know about you, but 99 times out of 100, when I see a message like that, I hit the back button before I’ve even finished reading about it. It’s very rare that any one site is so important to me that I’ll go to the trouble of updating my Flash plug-in. Especially in South Africa, where bandwidth isn’t exactly cheap, and I have to pay for every Mb.
When I started finding out about online usability, one of the first principles I learned was that sites should be as universal as possible. No matter what browser, no matter what device, a visitor to your site should always be able to see the most important information that it contains.
That’s not always strictly possible these days, as technology has improved to the extent that some old things just don’t work. But the information contained in your site should be accessible, even if somebody uses Lynx (an old, text-only browser) to visit.
On Flash heavy (or Flash only) sites, the only way to see the information is if the visitor has Flash installed, and the version that they have is compatible with the version you used to make the site.
Another usability issue on many a Flash website is that hitting the “back” button won’t move you back to the last Flash page, it’ll move you back to the last website you were on, because all Flash driven content happens on the same page, as far as your browser is concerned. (Sometimes they’ll disable the back button on a flash website, to stop that from happening, but it’s hardly better.)
Load Times Are Important
Now, if your visitor does have the right version of Flash installed, they have to wait for your Flash site to load. And although Flash was originally designed to make it faster to stream audio and video and animations, that only worked while the file sizes were fairly small.
Whole sites built out of Flash tend to be graphic heavy, and you’ll sit for a while waiting for that little progress bar to tell you that you can finally view the site.
With today’s demands for instant information, the general rule is that you have 5 seconds to convince a visitor to stay on your site. There is so much information, and so many sites, that without a compelling reason, nobody is willing to wait around. (And honestly, most new visitors to your site won’t have a compelling reason.)
The other part of site load time that’s important relates to search engine optimisation, and we’ll cover that shortly.
Flash And Search Engine Optimisation
If you’re looking for a more important reason to hate Flash than mere usability issues, then this is the really important one. Google hates Flash. Google hates Flash because Google can’t see it.
And by that, we mean that the millions of automated spiders that Google uses to crawl the web, indexing pages as they go, can’t read Flash very well. It’s too complicated. Google, (well, their spiders, but it amounts to the same thing) sees the web as text. In fact, they can’t even see pictures, unless you describe them in the “Alt” attribute.
As a result, anything made with Flash is effectively (although not totally) invisible to Google. And it doesn’t look like it’s going to change any time soon either.
So if you’d like your site to rank high in the search engine results, then there’s a perfect reason for you to hate Flash right there. If your site depends on Flash, your chances of a high search engine ranking are automatically reduced, unless you’ve already got a famous, world-class brand.
If you’re working for rankings like the rest of us though, Flash is only going to hurt your chances.
Load Time Really Is Important
As we already mentioned above, (told you we’d get back to this), the load time, or time your site takes to load, is an important factor for a variety of reasons. A few paragraphs back, we talked about the importance of load time when it comes to usability. In short, the longer it takes for your site to appear on the visitors screen, the less chance they’ll stick around waiting for it.
When it comes to search engine optimisation though, load time has an entirely different application. Website speed is important for optimisation as well.
Google knows that sites only have a limited time to appeal to their users. And they know that the time it takes for a site to load can be a factor in how likely people are to use that site. As a result, at the end of last year, Google’s Matt Cutts mentioned in an interview that Google might soon be using load time as part of the factors that affect where your site displays in the rankings.
And if your site has to load a complicated Flash environment, then that’s just one more place that Flash can lose out in the search engine optimisation game.
Flash Can Be Good
No, really, it can. As long as you keep its use to a bare minimum.
Flash can be a great tool for creating visual appeal. The effects that are possible with it can be very engaging, and used right, it can bring something to the look and feel of your site. But only when it’s kept to a minimum.
Don’t keep your content in Flash. Don’t make your navigation Flash based. Google won’t be able to see it, and if Google can’t see it, then where search engine optimisation is concerned, it’s the same as if it wasn’t there in the first place.
You should never sacrifice usability, user experience, or search engine rankings just because you think your site will look good in Flash.