Flash sites can be a nightmare from a user experience perspective, so we were surprised by Google's decision this week to begin to indexing content from Flash files (SWF).
One major argument against the use of Flash has been that the major search engines have been unable to effectively index the content contained within these files, so websites using this software have been losing out in the search rankings.
But the main arguments are that Flash sites are often inaccessible and their architects often try to reinvent the wheel, which leads to all manner of user experience nightmares.
I talked to iCrossing's head of natural search Nilhan Jayasinghe to find out more about the development with Google, and why - like us - he believes that using Flash is still a bad idea from an SEO perspective...
Why has Google decided to index Flash content?
Google wants to index as much content as possible, and the problem has been that it hasn't been good at reading SWF files. If Flash files don't have the HTML tags that 'normal' websites have, Google cannot compare those elements.
Will sites using this software now begin to rank higher than non-Flash sites?
The only time you are likely to see this is if a Flash based website has a ranking based on a high number of incoming links. Car manufacturers, including BMW, tend to use a lot of Flash and these sites rank well because they are popular brands.
Google looks at a number of factors, including deep links, textual navigation and internal linking structure so unless it discards these parts of its algorithm then Flash sites will always struggle to rank better than 'normal' websites.
Will this be a green light for web developers to use more Flash?
My first concern is that a lot of creative agencies are now going to use this to persuade clients to build expensive Flash websites. There are alternatives which can do most of what Flash does, but remain indexable, such as Silverlight.
Is this a bad from a user experience perspective?
You may find a Flash site that matches your search term on Google, but unless the file is split into unique URL sections, then clicking on the result will just take you to the beginning of the file, not the part that matches your query.
Mobile users accessing the internet from their phones cannot access Flash websites, so companies may be missing out on a growing mobile audience.
What would you recommend to clients using Flash on their websites?
We have a large web development arm in the US, and we use Flash very sparingly, using it to present rich media content, and making sure that the majority of the site is in HTML.
For websites that already have Flash content, this is good news, as they will be ranking better than before, but I would not recommend it for a brand new site. If Flash is used well, it shouldn't have any text in it.
Greenlight CEO Warren Cowan has a similar take on the issue:
First things first, this isn't entirely new; Google has been able to access Flash files in a limited capacity for several years, as has Yahoo. Having said that this is a clear step up for Google and it will undoubtedly impact on what we do in the future.
Don't expect Flash sites to start dominating natural search rankings anytime soon. Being able to access content isn't the be all and end all of SEO. Among other things we're also concerned with what's being accessed and what isn't, and how that content is structured, both in isolation and within the context of the site as a whole.
For example, one of the worst things you can do to a site is built it entirely on a single URL, a trap that full Flash sites fall into all too often. This eradicates any semblance of structure and makes it impossible to link to specific content within the site.
The fear here is that Google's announcement will give the green light to Flash designers who, knowing no better, will now see - and probably advertise - their work as "search engine friendly" when in all likelihood it's anything but.