100% Flash Layouts: Good on the Eyes, Bad on the Rankings

David Vandegrift

Joe Netuser gets home from a long day of work, loosens his tie, and plops down in his comfortable arm chair to browse the internet. He checks his email, flirts with his girls on MySpace, and looks for the latest deals on iPods. What he does not do, as he partakes in the most common pleasures of the internet, is come across a website that has been designed entirely with Flash.

Of course, this does not occur to Joe as he checks the score of the Yankees game; he is just intent on passing the time until dinner. However, there comes a point that Joe receives a link from a well-intentioned friend that takes him to an artist’s website. The page pops up with a loading bar, quickly finishes loading on Joe’s upper-middle class broadband connection, and proceeds to knock his socks off with flashing and fluid imagery. After the splash page is done fascinating Joe with an in-depth look into the life of the artist, Joe begins to think.

Like any normal internet user, Joe thinks to himself, “Wow, that was really cool. Definitely very different from everything else I normally see on the internet. It just looked so much better. I wonder why everyone doesn’t have a cool website like that?” Some possible reasons float through Joe’s head, but each seems less likely than the last. It can’t be high-cost, because certainly has a larger budget for their website than some unknown artist. It can’t be artistic design, because the introduction to the artist’s website was far superior to the pictures of piled rusted metal featured in the artist’s gallery. What could it be then?

Unbeknownst to Joe, there is a very logical explanation for the lack of domination of “jaw-dropping” websites on the internet: websites designed entirely in Flash are not good websites. Dropping the allusion to a situation which no one really cares about, there are certain key elements which make a website successful. What makes a Flash website bad is that it can contain, at most, only two of the primary elements.

For purposes of this article, we will break a quality website down into five main categories, which can be referred to as VUSAF (The acronym is not particularly relevant, but I like to be able to easily refer to a paradigm). Each category covers a unique aspect of a website, some of which are often not considered by the average user. However, all of the elements are very important to a successful website, if not equally so.

The first element of a website considered by the average user is Viewability (No, this is not a word. Does it really matter?). Viewability is the ability of a website to be looked at. I know it may seem like I am phrasing this definition oddly, but give it a bit of consideration. I am positive that anyone reading this article has come across a GeoCities website in their time. Those websites have no ability to be looked at. Flash websites, on the other hand, high a very large ability to be looked at. According to Joe (I won’t allude again, I promise), flash websites have the largest viewability of any website. Joe’s view is shared by a fair number of website developers, who design websites with Flash solely for their viewability.

Usability comes next in our acronym, and also next in our rankings of Flash’s performance. Usability (a word this time) is the ability for a website to be used. How well can the average internet user get through the website and do what he needs to do? On one hand, Flash layouts can be more user-friendly, helping guide the user to where they “should” be through use of animations and highlighting. On the other hand, it can be difficult to get where you need to be if you are stuck staring at a bar slowly growing across your screen. Though the typical Flash website loads in no-time on my home cable internet connection, it is sadly not so for everyone. With a few quick rough estimates, I would say that a Flash website that takes me 3 seconds to load will take the average dial-up user up to 3 minutes.

Thus far, it must seem like I am making a case for Flash websites, not against them. At the very least, I have not provided enough evidence to condemn Flash websites to the fiery depths of purgatory. I thought I would show you how impartial and fair I could be to Flash in the beginning. Enjoy the rest of the article. If you do not mind, I will now abandon the ordered ranking of Flash websites’ capabilities in favor of our acronym. If this does bother you, please skip down to F (Come on, really?).

Searchability (my last made up word) is the ability of a website to be accessed, indexed, and ranked by search engines. Though many people do not realize it, searchability is an incredibly important aspect for the vast majority of websites. It is also the aspect of a quality website which Flash designs completely and utterly fail at. A huge part of modern internet marketing is Search Engine Optimization (SEO). SEO is all about optimizing your website’s searchability to make it rank as high as possible on the top search engines, such as Google, Yahoo, and MSN.

When a search engine finds a website, it does a lot of things to analyze how good it is and where it should be ranked. It looks at the name of the site (the URL), the title of the page (the short description at the top of the browser), the meta-tags (bits of code on each webpage specifically put there to give search engines more information about the page), incoming links (how many other quality websites link to that one), and webpage content. The importance of each factor depends on the search engine, because each is designed with its own proprietary software.

A Flash website can do fine at all of the elements except one. Unfortunately, that one is arguably the most important. No matter what, a Flash website will get absolutely no points for content. This is the inherent nature of Flash websites: the content is put in the Flash file, not the actual webpage. The primary result is that a designer can produce good looking content. The secondary result is that a search engine has no idea that the page has any content what-so-ever.

If the search engine can not find any content on a webpage, it will automatically assume there is none. It is virtually impossible for a webpage with no content to get any decent sort of ranking on any search engine. What I am trying to get at should be obvious by now: Flash websites do terribly on search engine rankings. There are ways that designers can attempt to work around this draw-back for Flash websites, but the point is that a 100% Flash-designed website simply will not fair will in any sort of marketing campaign.

Another very important feature of successful websites is accessibility, or, the ability for a website to be accessed by a user. Often while browsing the internet, a user will come across something interesting and either bookmark it so show someone later, or share the link with a friend via email or a chat service. This is a great way for any website to increase its traffic. If it can provide content which will be accessed again or shared, it is helping itself grow.

The unfortunate thing about Flash websites is that their accessibility is virtually non-existent. Flash websites do not change webpages while navigating; instead, they change frames within the Flash file. This means that the URL will never change and if a user attempts to link directly to a specific webpage, they will end up linking to the beginning of the website. Developers might try to work around this by having a different Flash file for each webpage, so that the URL does change. The result is a massive decrease in usability, as the user will have to wait for the Flash file to load again on each page.

Flash websites rank interestingly according to the last element of a successful website: functionality. Functionality is does not refer to a website’s ability; functionality is the sum total of all of the features a website offers to the user. Instead Flash comes with a built-in programming language called ActionScript which has the potential to greatly increase the functionality of a website. Any user which likes to play games online has likely witnessed this functionality. However, there is another programming language called JavaScript, which is native to most browsers today. JavaScript has the capability to do just about everything ActionScript can, but without being embedded into a Flash file.

There are certainly arguments for and against ActionScript as a means of increasing functionality, but it essentially comes down to the fact that a website designed entirely in Flash is not at all necessary to achieve the functionality offered with ActionScript.

When attempting to design a successful website, any web developer must look at all of the aspects of VUSAF. They must then come up with the best method of designing the website so that it excels as much as possible at each element. Flash websites simply are not capable of succeeding at each element, and therefore should be avoided when designing professional-quality websites.

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About the Author:

David Vandegrift is an up and coming webmaster who owns his own company, Dorsk Web Studio. He has significant experience working in the web design industry, and brings a fresh and untainted perspective to the world of web design.

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