The problems Flash creates for SEO are well-documented. I covered the topic in April.
Less-often discussed are the numerous reasons, other than SEO, that building a website with Flash is the lame sauce.
1) It takes longer (increasing costs)
It takes a developer more time to build a Flash page than an HTML page. Period.
Add fancy animations and interactive elements and development time skyrockets.
When you’re paying a developer, time = money. That doesn’t mean you cut corners to save time and lower your overall costs, but consider whether that intro movie is really adding value to your user’s experience. Chances are it isn’t.
2) Maintenance is more involved and costly
How often do you change something on your website?
Once a month? Once a week?
With a Flash-driven site adding pages or tweaking content isn’t straightforward. The developer often needs to go back to the original website file, navigate to the right section, make the change you’ve requested, re-export the website file and upload it to the server. They might have to tweak the ActionScript code (Flash’s programming language).
Compare this to making a change on a WordPress site, where you yourself can log in and make the change instantaneously – no coding or uploading required.
Depending on what you’re paying your developer for edits the costs here can really add up. If you plan to have your website updated regularly you’ll probably want to stay away from Flash.
3) Flashy doesn’t mean usable
You ever sit down with a salesman who’s on autopilot?
You walk into the room and he’s off and running, tearing through a script he’s practiced hundreds of times. Waving his arms. Pointing his fingers. Smiling widely. Not a care in the world for what you’re saying.
Flash websites are like that salesman.
You land at them, they start spinning around, dancing, lights are going off, music is playing – meanwhile you’re just looking for a phone number.
And forget about bookmarking pages or avoiding the song and dance the next time you return. Most Flash websites live on a single URL (the home page) and run through the same introduction every time the page is refreshed.
Flash websites are usually too busy showing off their tricks to actually serve users’ needs.
4) You lose the ability to track user behavior
If I had to pick the most important advantage of online marketing over traditional offline methods, I’d pick trackability.
The ability to track where your visitors came from and what they did when they arrived is so crucial. It allows you to optimize your online marketing spend, focusing on the traffic that pays the bills and chopping out the dead wood.
Most analytics platforms (including Google Analytics, which we use for UnstuckDigital.com) track behavior based on page views. In other words, every time a page loads, information about the last page, the time so far spent on the website, the referral source (how the user found your site), etc is all recorded (or re-recorded).
The problem? Most Flash websites load on a single URL. The home page. That’s it. So when a visitor hits your site and starts viewing pages, the most you’re going to track is where they came from and how long they spent. That’s it. Not enough information if you’re looking to improve your online marketing ROI in the future.
5) It’s a dog when it comes to load times
Flash is pretty intense when it comes to file sizes.
When you arrive at a Flash-driven website, ever notice the loading bar that takes 1-2 minutes to fill up?
It’s there because the website is loading every single page ahead of time. That’s how most Flash websites work – the entire website file has to be downloaded to your computer before you can see even a single page.
When your users are in a hurry (and online everyone is in a hurry 24 hours a day) your “loading…” sign may as well read, “piss off!” It says, “if you were looking for speedy browsing you came to the wrong place.”
6) Design updates are a nightmare
Outside of the general maintenance tasks (adding pages, fixing spelling, updating “news,” etc) a time will inevitably arrive when you want to update the look and feel of your website.
Guess what? Flash doesn’t make that easy either.
In fact, most Flash websites are better off developed from scratch when a major design update is called for. Can you say $$$$? (Me neither that’s not a word)
Now consider the proper use of HTML and CSS. A thing of beauty. Content and presentation totally separate. Not convinced? Head over to CSS Zen Garden and take a look. Every design variation there uses the same exact source code. Read that again. Same source code. The only changes are the image and CSS files.
7) Disabled users are banished
Ever hear of the concept of web accessibility?
It basically refers to building your website in a way that allows impaired users to have the best experience possible.
Users without strong-enough eyesight often browse using devices called screen readers that, you guessed it, read the words on the screen to them so they can read and navigate your website.
And Flash doesn’t play nice with these assistive devices.
Combine this with the fact that browsers can’t enlarge the type on a Flash website, and you’re talking about a web that is exclusive only to those with good vision.
There have been some efforts to require by law that websites are built accessibly. While that may be a long time coming to fruition the incentive of improving the experience of impaired visitors should be reason enough.
8) Browser navigation doesn’t work
Just a quick point on this.
You know the “back” button we rely on so frequently?
On your single-URL Flash website it’s useless it helps people leave and never come back. Since they’ll always technically be on your home page a quick click “back” sends them to wherever they came from. And my guess is that they won’t be in a hurry to return. Just a hunch.
9) Mobile users are up the creek
The mobile web is here.
The most heavily-used mobile web browser is the iPhone. That doesn’t look like it’s going to change any time soon. Something to the order of 25 million iPhones have been purchased so far. The BlackBerry is still popular as well.
And neither of these mobile devices support Flash.
Even when the iPhone gets Flash support (any day now, Apple!) without a wireless internet connection download speeds are slight at best. Your 2mb Flash website file is going to be overkill for a casual mobile visitor. Think they’re going to wait 15 minutes just to view your home page? Not bloody likely.
10) No semantic markup
Not sure semantic markup matters?
Three letters. S.E.O.
I know I said I wouldn’t mention it, but come on now. SEO is crucial.
Semantic markup is about reinforcing the meaning or topic of a page. Critical for SEO.
Flash files don’t contain semantic markup. Sure, Googlebot can crawl Flash (sort of) – but that doesn’t mean Googlebot can assume semantic relationships between page elements. In other words, it’s going to get a garbled bunch of content and little/no indication of what’s what. Not the best situation when your page is up against a few million others in a relevance contest.
A closing note to Flash developers: I am fully aware that there are (expensive) work-arounds to most of these issues. I started my web development career building in Flash. I love Flash as much as you guys. But let’s be realistic: the vast majority of Flash-driven websites do not offer solutions for the issues in this post. Most of them suck for the above reasons and more.