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Does Flash work for small business?

Does Flash still have a place in web design? If so, should small businesses use it?

The next time you talk to any web designer, ask them about Flash animation and watch their expression change. This reaction is bewildering for many people. After all, Flash allows for the creation of the kind of websites that make customers marvel and your rivals sweat. The truth is that Flash is not as vital a web design tool as it once was.

The issue with the Adobe animation software is that it shifts the focus of a website to its appearance and away from its purpose.

“Flash started its life as a pure animation tool, breathing life into otherwise pretty dry websites,” explains Lachlan Pottenger of Market United.

In 2010, when someone types a keyword into Google, they’re not looking for a fancily animated website; they’re after information. Anything that stands in the way of that information will only work to deter or confuse them. Due to the immense content saturation online, most people have become very discerning when it comes to detecting whether content is relevant or not. For many, lavish animation just presents another barrier between their search term and its desired result.

“From a marketing perspective, most websites that use flash are not adding any value to their marketing by using it,” says entrepreneur and business author Carl Taylor.

“Internet Users are looking for information and they are looking for it quickly. They don’t want to wait for loading of pretty headers or splash welcome screens.”

Flash is also not easily indexable in search. A small business could have the most compelling, punchy, and perfectly optimised copy on their website, but if it’s couched in a Flash animation, Google will bypass it. This indifference to the Adobe software has even extended into Google’s recent modifications; Instant Preview replaces all Flash content with an ominous grey puzzle-piece.

Finally, many smartphones and mobile devices either don’t support Flash or are still only just adopting it. There is a long-standing feud between Adobe and Apple over the latter’s reluctance to support Flash. Businesses that commission websites that rely heavily on the software risk excluding themselves from exposure to millions of iPhone and iPad owners worldwide.

Despite all of this, Flash is not completely worthless as a tool, and is in no danger of dying out. The potential of the software means that it has formed the basis for a number of things vital to the internet as we know it. For example, most video found online is flash-based.

“Flash’s number one use outside of the production of banner ads these days is for video delivery, such as YouTube,” says Pottenger.

“It is also used for enterprise-level applications that can be published not just within the browser but also as stand-alone applications with the AIR framework and as apps for mobiles.”

Flash has also birthed an extensive and vibrant industry for online games, which in some cases has fed back into the use of the software as a branding tool. Cadbury, for instance, has recently commissioned a series of flash-based games to promote its Freddo products.

When small to medium businesses use Flash for the purpose of bolstering their online branding, they tend to try to create an immersive experience for their site visitors, the logic being that a greater ‘wow’ factor equates to better engagement and conversion.

“It is appropriate for business websites to use flash if they are trying to get a complicated message across to a customer,” explains Ian Jacob, online business and web advisor at EeZee Web.

Despite the software’s potential for communicating complex ideas, Robert Steers of Creative Development is still not a fan, given the availability of other methods that achieve similar results.

“My normal answer would be ‘never use Flash’, as now, with HTML5, almost all of the functions that Flash used to do can be performed better with other technologies,” says Steers.

He acknowledges that it shouldn’t be abandoned completely, however – if only for the fact that it’s still so prevalent online.

“There are still a range of legacy browsers that rely on Flash to view video,” continues Steers, “and if you want customised controls on your video player Flash is still probably the best format to do it in.”

In keeping with Jacob’s assertion that Flash can be valuable for communicating more complicated messages, Steers also acknowledges that good work is still being done with the software.

“For instance, creative agency The Furnace’s website is Flash and it is excellently well done. It is unlikely you could do anything that well with other technologies. Basically anything that has animated interactions, or where aesthetics override other functions like SEO or function, Flash is probably the best thing to use,” he concludes.

But what about the small business case for Flash? It comes back to the idea of people searching for information online.

“Never on anything that is critical to usability or conversion. A flash video player is about the extent of what I would support on a business website, anything else is unnecessary,” says Chris Bates of Frontbox.

The purpose of having a business website, especially in e-commerce, is to provide searchers with information that fulfils their search motivation, but that also drives conversions. With this in mind, it makes sense to avoid Flash in e-commerce.

Image credit: Thinkstock

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  1. Jay Killeen says:

    I’m curious to know why you say “Flash is not indexable in search”. I manage my local karate club website and I developed it using Wix. Wix allows us to make a website using flash and it is inexpensive and I was able to create the website overnight. My site http://www.BrisbaneGojuKarate.com comes up in Google searches. Maybe it is just that Flash doesn’t allow the full potential of it to come up in search. Or am I missing something?

    • Luke Telford says:

      Hi Jay,

      Flash itself presents significant problems for search indexing, but text doesn’t. Text is the main thing search engines look for when indexing a site. If you have a look at the source code for Brisbane Goju Karate, you’ll see that amidst the Flash that Wix has used, there is text; and therefore something to show your business’ site to search engines. If you look at the source for the aforementioned site of marketing company The Furnace, you’ll note the absence of text, except for meta-tags. This is because the site is almost entirely flash-based. It communicates the purpose of the business quite well, doesn’t it? But none of the flash-based visual ideas can be communicated to search.

      Note that the more relevant text you have, the more detail a search engine can glean from your site. If this detail convinces the search algorithm your site is more relevant than that of a competitor, you rate higher in search. The more text you have, the more text you can optimise for search. The more flash you have (and you don’t have too much), the less space for perfectly SEO’d text.

      Hope this answers your question,

      Luke

  2. Simon says:

    Fortunately Web is not only about information… if it were then all us graphic designers would be out of business. It is quite possible to have a website with many flash elements in it… that are text searchable… causing both an aesthetic and pleasing smooth appearance to designed elements and introductory images… and still be top of your search on a search engine.

    As for hindering

    The major thing that hinders are badly designed sights that only inform without the communication factor.

    The fact that this blog is aimed at web designers is obviously a benefit to me as I will have less competition to design if people arent benefitting from the quality that a flash animated site can bring.

    Currently I am ranked 1 for low cost graphic design… the fact that both sites use flash and the third position site is extensively flash with almost no other text… proves that this post maybe simply detrimental to adobe’s flash software and not actually to google.

    Simon

  3. Ace says:

    Most good Flash developers know how to over come the SEO issues and can make their sites indexable in search. And yes, Google can now index flash files for your information.

    “My normal answer would be ‘never use Flash’, as now, with HTML5, almost all of the functions that Flash used to do can be performed better with other technologies,” says Steers.

    Steers can keep dreaming that HTML5 will do all the functions that flash does.

    When HTML5 can pull of something like the following video, give me call.
    http://labs.adobe.com/technologies/flash/molehill/#video

  4. Buj says:

    Hi Luke,

    As I understand it, like most things on the web, there’s a good way and a bad way to do things. Just because some Flash text content doesn’t get indexed, that doesn’t mean that none can. Compare Google’s announcement:

    http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2009/06/flash-indexing-with-external-resource.html

    …with your statement that “Flash is also not easily indexable in search.”

    Also, see the experiments here: http://www.yourseoplan.com/google-flash/

    If I’ve misunderstood something please correct me, but I think there’s more to the story than what you’ve presented here.

    Cheers.

  5. Ash Nicholls says:

    If the pocket lining business junkies had their way, the web would be a very drab place. I’ve spent the last 6 years earning an extremely good living designing and developing flash based web sites and games for the kids industry. ALL of which have gained top 10 Google rankings – ALL of which offer in-depth Analytics. The fact of the matter is this “saturation” or clutter in the web that is brought up early in the article, cannot be remedied by a spoon full of minimalism. Or by trimming back your site so it works on EVERY single crappy hand-held browser. You need to review your audience, look at how they access your site and cater the look and functionality accordingly.

    Frankly, more time should be spent writing articles on the real reasons why portable devices like the iPhone/touch/pad etc offer sub-par, outdated browsers. It’s not because plug-ins like Flash aren’t effective, its because they restrict profit – I would be fine with it if there was a suitable replacement, but all we are offered is HTML5 which is way off from being able to do the things I need the web to do.

  6. The Lorax says:

    I take issue with this statement:

    “My normal answer would be ‘never use Flash’, as now, with HTML5, almost all of the functions that Flash used to do can be performed better with other technologies,” says Steers

    The problem here is:

    1. There is no HTML5 authoring tool that designers can use to create HTML5 content.
    2. HTML5 is still poorly supported by very popular browsers (e.g. IE6) whereas Flash will run on 99% of desktops.

  7. Julie says:

    Flash is good for websites that are entertainment based sites e.g. games, movies, television but I wouldn’t recommended for a business site. As the article stated people are only interested in getting information and they want to get it as quickly as possible. Even those with IE6 browsers prefer a text based sites as that browser has its own problems with updated versions of Flash.

    Producing a website with HTML5 presents no problems if you hand-code and don’t depend on WYSIWYG editors.

  8. Wizard says:

    It would seem that I’m one of the few developers to agree with this article.

    I first animated/programmed in Flash around v4.0. Later used it to build compiled commercial Home Automation software. I love Flash!

    However, I rarely use it in web site design because (aside from SEO issues) most of the time it’s just a great waste of bandwidth (where Bandwidth = Energy).

    For largely the same reasons that I detest the truly phenominal energy waste that is ‘Spam’, I avoid using Flash unless it really is the only tool for the job.

  9. Mat says:

    Oh here we go again… this magical HTML 5! Oh praise heaven, the second coming of Christ! I am really getting sick of people who keep looking to HTML 5 as the one one solution to ALL of the internet’s problems, and the darn this hasn’t even been finalised or fully implemented yet. I personally feel sorry for the folks developing HTML 5… with everybody claiming it’s going to be able to pour everyone’s coffee in the morning, that’s a lot of pressure.

  10. Jay Killeen says:

    Hi Luke,
    Thanks for that explanation. I definately agree with you now that flash makes it more difficult to do SEO if it is all done purely in flash.

  11. Toni says:

    I have to say that all here have valid points. Personally I have degrees in 3 areas: graphic design, IT and Multi-media and have been working in the industry for 12 years. I design and develop websites and web-based applications using a variety of software options including flash. I have definitely restricted my use of flash for smaller business applications, due to the developmental cost for clients that require frequently changing, dynamic content.

    Of course there are some things that only Flash can do. Of course there are some requirements that are better fulfilled by excluding the use of Flash. Each job is different, requirements are individual and the requirements should determine the development technology chosen.

    Flash is totally appropriate for a small business site that rarely require updates to the flash structure, but as mentioned earlier, for small to medium businesses with vastly dynamic content that require the content and structure changed regularly Flash should be avoided or used in a minimalist manner.

    This is a battle akin to the designer vs. developer battle – except these days the lines between the two are blurring. My final word is that all development tools are valid and extremely useful, Flash and HTML5 included, and lets not forget PHP, mySQL and, of course, CSS, but ultimately the requirements of each specific project should be the determining factor when choosing the development technology, not your own personal preference.

  12. Michael Collins says:

    Honestly, the concept of Flash being used for Splash pages! This article is tossing around an old argument put forward by hardcore Web Developers who care more about code validating then how a website works as a marketing experience. If I were to generalise along the same vein as this article, one might suggest that anyone who claims Flash has “no place on an e-commerce website” likely has no design aesthetic to warrant making such a claim. I’d say it’s less of a stretch to say that if one if ruling out Flash, they certainly never made an effort to learn how to use it properly.

    There is absolutely no reason why using Flash has to mean “search engine woes”. Flash offers a library of extra features right now that will likely never be implemented into the HTML5 specification such as Peer to Peer connectivity, universal font selection, full touch screen implementations, incredibly advanced control and servicing of all types of media in a scaleable environment, fully matured security that protects your content and clients, and of course an unparalleled platform for interactivity and immersive screen based experience that is belittled to a truly uninspired implementation: “Splash pages and pretty headers”. Are you serious? What web are you viewing, the one from 1996?

    The truth of the matter is: Use the right tools for the job.
    Anyone who is staunchly opposing technology is following herd mentality that has been regurgitated once again in the article above. It’s all too easy to sound like you know what you’re talking about by being overly critical whilst nodding your head knowingly.

    I’d encourage all of those in digital marketing to think without limits. Be conceptual, and create something that engages, excites, and separates.

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