Can't We All Just Get Along? - The Battle Between SEOs and Web Designers
I have been following an interesting thread over at Search Engine Watch Forums entitled "Do Designers Hate SEO?"
where forum member "glengara" began with the question of whether all-Flash sites should be used in the commercial web space. It is certainly an interesting topic and one that has been hotly debated time
and time again. The SEO argues for an "optimized" site that search engines can comprehend while the web designer argues for artistic liberty and creativity.
What's the big deal anyway? What are the potential problems that "all-Flash" sites can impose? I mean Flash allows for so many benefits - animation, functionality, sizing, aesthetics, not to mention how Flash graphics are typically smaller in file size then their gif and jpeg counterparts. What could possibly be wrong with that?
One problem is that they are not very search engine friendly. A site developed completely in Flash typically does not have any html text associated with it. Search engines cannot yet read the contents of the Flash file and therefore have difficulty understanding the context of the site. Another problem is that some Flash sites are contained within one file or one URL. There are not a variety of sub pages which can be optimized for search engine visibility - just one. Are these types of sites good for the commercial web and if not, how can Flash be used in a way that is both acceptable to the person marketing the site as well as the artist who is designing it?
In some cases an all-Flash site is perfectly fine. I'll give you an example. I just recently saw the current version of King Kong starring Naomi Watts and Jack Black. The official movie web site is located at www.kingkongmovie.com. After getting past the splash page, you arrive at a single URL in which the entire site is contained within a single Flash file. It is an awesome site which provides movie trailers, cast and crew info, storyline, computer wallpaper & screen savers and even detailed info on all the various creepy creatures that Kong and the cast encounter on the island.
But is it search engine friendly? As far as positioning well due to the content of the site, probably not. But who cares? A site such as this is going to draw people because they either saw the movie or are going to see the movie. They are going to search for something like "King Kong" or "King Kong the movie" of which they will easily find the site. Now if they search for something like "movies with giant gorillas" then they may have trouble finding it but is that really going to happen? Most likely not.
There are many sites that fit into this scenario whether it be for a major motion picture, a popular music artist/group and even a popular brand of product that consumers use. They may not be "search engine friendly" in the sense that they are optimized for search engines but they are still easy to find via search engines simply due to the strength of their brand. These sites are perfectly suitable in the commercial web environment in my opinion because they do not necessarily need to be optimized for search engine positioning. As long as their brand is searchable, they will do well.
Now what about a local architect? Is an all-Flash site the best option for them if they want to attract any search engine traffic? Not very likely. Take Architekton for example, a local Arizona based architecture firm whose site is not only in Flash but like the King Kong example, all contained within one single file after you pass the splash page. Their site contains information on the services they provide, projects they have done, their awards, etc. but there is nothing within their site that would help a search engine to recognize that they are an architect based in Phoenix Arizona. This would not be a big deal if they were a well known brand such as in the case of the King Kong movie. However they are not and I would imagine they lose out on a lot of potential traffic that could be derived from people searching for architecture firms in Arizona.
So can a company have their cake and eat it too? In other words, can a site be optimized for search engine visibility and at the same time, enjoy the benefits that Flash can bring? Certainly! There are a few solutions that we will look at. In the thread mentioned at the beginning of this article, forum member "seomike" posts the following comment:
Flash is how I got into SEO. My first programming language was actionscripting. I couldn't get my flash sites to rank for squat. I figured there were 3 options
1. Cloak (Way to risky)
2. Build an html version (Way to expensive / Time consuming)
3. Go hybrid with flash elements in table or div/css holding it all together. (Just right).
Although some forms of cloaking have been acceptable or overlooked by search engines, I would say in general that this is much too risky as cloaking in general violates most search engines' guidelines. This leaves us the option of either building an html version of your all-Flash site or incorporate Flash elements into an html design. I actually prefer the later - an html site that includes Flash elements such as animation, navigation, video, order forms, etc. In this manner you get the best of both worlds and are not having to worry about keeping two sites up to date.
Here are a few examples of html sites that use Flash elements:
- Alpine Engineered Products - Flash header and animated navigation with sound.
- ClickTracks - Flash animated graphics and product tutorials.
- ETEK Services - Flash header and navigation.
What if a site such as the Architekton example above refuses any of these solutions? Can anything be done to help these gain some visibility in the search engines? Well for starters one can make sure
they have properly optimized the title tag and added a meta description tag. If the site is one Flash file with no sub pages then they are pretty much limited to that one page and very few key phrases in
which they can target. If the site has several pages, then at least they have a larger number of title tags and meta description tags to work with.
Content can also be included in a <noscript> tag. Placing content that is related to the site or page within an opening and closing <noscript> tag will hide it from end users but still be visible to search engines. Technically this is "hiding text" and borders on violating search engine guidelines. Many will call this a spam technique but my own personal feeling is that as long as the text is not an obvious attempt to either stuff keywords or place content totally unrelated to the site, it is okay. It is not the best method - html text that users can see would be better. It is more of a band aid in situations when the site owner simply will not budge on any other solution. I also feel that while search engines will recognize the text, that they don't give it as much weight as actual html text that is visible on the page.
In summary, Flash can be used in sites, either developing complete sites with Flash or using Flash inserts. If you have a strong brand recognition such as in the King Kong Movie site referenced above, then maybe you do not need to pay much attention to optimizing your site for prime search engine visibility. However if your brand is not well known and you are looking to gather some of the search traffic, then Flash has to be used intelligently.
In the original thread I mentioned above, "Danny Sullivan" chimes in with an excellent comment:
In reality, designers really need to understand that search engines are like a third browser -- and in fact a far more popular browser used by more people than using Firefox. They will spend tons of time making sure a site works for IE or Firefox, even Opera. But no time to make sure that the browsers of search engines are going to be OK with it?
Fellow moderator "Chris D" also provides an excellent example:
Web design is actually closer to architecture, than magazine cover design, in terms of accessibility.
Imagine a world where architects designed buildings just to be cool and edgy - and totally ignored physical accessibility issues.....
As more and more SEOs look beyond search engine rankings and begin pay attention to web site aesthetics, usability, conversions, etc. as well as more and more designers begin to recognize the power of search engine marketing, I think debates like this will be less likely to happen in the future. Rather the two types of professionals, both of which are necessary for a successful web site, will come to terms and work together to produce a quality site that is fully marketable online.
Article written by David Wallace (January 2006)
About the Author:
David Wallace is CEO and founder of SearchRank, an original search engine optimization and marketing firm providing keyword analysis, organic search engine optimization, link popularity enhancement, pay per click management, search engine friendly web design and ongoing campaign maintenance.