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SEO in a Flash

March 23rd, 2011 | | Site Review & Analysis

Full disclosure: I love Flash websites.  The creative in me delights in the details; my analytic side loves figuring out new site structures; and my inner child thinks hunting for menus is downright fun.  But the SEO marketer?  She’s not so sure.

Flash just throws up some huge red flags when it comes to SEO.  Take the loading time, for example.  Google has explicitly stated that long load times lead to reduced quality scores, and as SEOs we work hard to make sure that our websites become fully active in mere moments.  Flash sites, however, can take a full 10-30 seconds (or more!) to load with an average internet connection.  Not only does that upset Google and the other search engines, but it means there’s a good chance your viewer will leave the site even before they see it.  Waiting for a page to load?  That’s so dial-up.

And then there are the other problems.  For example, it’s more difficult for search engines to crawl and rank Flash sites because of the way they’re coded and structured.  Flash can be downright frustrating for users looking for quick answers, and for those with slow connections and/or old computers.  And although Adobe’s tackling the problem head-on, Flash has always had a rocky relationship with smartphones.  Laid out like this, Flash appears to be an SEO nightmare.

But.  Even with all of that, there’s that voice in my head saying “but you love Flash sites!  They can’t be all bad, right?”  Okay head, you’re on.  Let’s see what SEO principles Flash can work with.

Originality, Interactivity, & Branding

First and foremost, Flash sites can be new and, well, flashy.  Take the homepage for AgencyNet Interactive, for example.  As a viewer, this is not what I expected to find on a company website, and I immediately want to know more.  I begin by moving my mouse to see what reacts, and it only takes moments for me to find the buttons to the other pages.  While I’m looking, I come across several other details that keep me engaged, such as a playable dart game and an exploding file cabinet.  Notably, some of these smaller components work to demonstrate the company’s reach beyond web design: it’s easy for me to see what they’ve been tweeting, and there’s even a helicopter I can fly by using my smart phone.  When I do move off the homepage, I’m invited to change directions by drawing arrows on the screen, have my wishes spelled out by fireflies, and watch video explanations instead of reading text.  By the end of this, I feel awesome.  It really seems like they’ve welcomed me into their company, and included me in their products.  I’ve been in control of what’s happening, I feel like AgencyNet values my time, and I am excited to see all the new possibilities the internet offers.

This innovative, meticulous site pulls a ton of weight when it comes to branding.  Sure, this site has told me about AgencyNet’s services, past work, mission, and contact information – but that could have also been accomplished with traditional text.  Its real strength lies in how it reinforced this information in a visual/experiential way.   Because I’ve been able to see, hear, and engage with the company through its website, I feel like I know its personality as a whole, and I’m going to hold on to that impression much more concretely than if I simply had read a paragraph about what they do.  Also, because the website made me feel good (and included), I already have positive feelings towards the company.  Finally, because I’ve experienced the quality of its site first-hand, I trust that AgencyNet is an authority in its field.  And guess what – I’m going to tell all my friends.

Social & Linkbuilding

Show and tell just never gets old – when we find something cool, we want everyone else to see it too.  In terms of AgencyNet, the site is just so unusual, novel, and experimental that I want to share it with all my SEM pals, whether I link it in a blog (like, say, this one), or tweet about it.  In a way, the impressive, quirky, and interactive features of AgencyNet’s site provides ready-made linkbait for itself.

However, because Flash sites have the unique ability to be interactive, smooth, and creative, they can also be even more deliberately share-able.  For example, sites such as Romance Novel Yourself and Monoface are meant to be passed around the internet, with no other overt purpose.  This isn’t a new concept (remember Burger King’s subservient chicken?), but Flash can again bring the experimentation, heightened interaction, and novelty to the forefront.  With Flash, I only have to put the minimal amount of effort into playing with these sites, which means I can access them faster, play it more times, and be more willing to share them with others.  Of course, a well-done internet toy or tool is great for getting users to check out the designer’s home site, which can once again help establish authority and branding.

Ways to avoid SEO pitfalls with Flash

A great Flash website has enough originality, branding quality, and sharing incentive to help it make up for its visibility problems in a search engine.  For example, even though AgencyNet only ranks a measly #13 for “digital brand management” (one of their key services), they have well over 5,000 Twitter/Facebook followers, and a clientele that boasts of Jay-Z, Bacardi, Ruby Tuesday, Grey Goose, and Ice Age.  I wouldn’t mind those business cards on my desk!

However, there are ways to make sure your Flash site is as SEO friendly as possible.  Partially, these are SEO tips:

  • Set up Flash Tracking in Google Analytics.
  • Incorporate keywords wherever you can, and consider linking your flash site to a text-based site (such as your blog).
  • Double-check for broken links and other issues that come up in WMT.

But because Flash is so reliant upon happy/engaged viewers, it’s also important to keep the following in mind:

  • Consider the navigation in your site.  The Flash sites I found to be the easiest to use had the option to move to different pages at any time.  Here are two ways this can be accomplished:

  • Have the navigation elements available in every scene, even if their design elements change.  This is fantastically done in Lounge Lizard’s home site.

  • Animate the load period so that viewers know the website is working, and so they are engaged during the wait.  This can be as simple as an animated logo (such as MediaBOOM uses), or an elaborate sequence (like the initial page used by AgencyNet).

  • And speaking of wait times, give your viewer a faster way to get around the site if possible.  Watching a short animation/video between each page or part may be fun the first time around, but if this is someone who’s on their fifth or sixth visit, the wait may not be all that thrilling any more.  One good way to do this is to have a “skip” button installed in each animation, so that users can pick and choose where they want to spend their time.
  • Make the extra effort to make sure that the site is connected, both in terms of its content and how it relates to other aspects of your company or brand, such as your social media accounts.  Just having an animated Flash site doesn’t guarantee that users will like your site or stay on it long: you have to put time and effort into it to make an immersive, detailed, and hiccup-free experience for the viewer.

Flash has a bright future ahead of it, and can be optimized for SEO despite its limitations.  What have you done to make a Flash site work for you?

Jessica is a Creative Specialist at Hanapin Marketing, a search engine marketing firm focused on generating results through PPC and SEO.

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  • Deanna Hatfield

    Wow you love flash websites, this is craziness in my world.  You made some great points, I guess at the end of the day as long as the whole site isn’t flash and flash is used like you mention then yes – I love it too :).

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