Commentary

Flash: The Death Of HTML

Quick question for all you power-marketers out there: Is Flash any good for SEO? If you answered in the negative, have I got news for you.

Historically, marketers have been torn between using Flash video content to engage an audience, and static HTML content for search engine optimization. In recent years, HTML has emerged as the better solution, as the process of optimizing Web content for search has become more fully developed. In a perfect world, marketers would be able to create dynamic and engaging video content without sacrificing popular best practices for SEO.

Now this is possible. Search-optimized Flash video content can be embedded on search optimized Web pages to boost the search rank for targeted keywords. And best of all, the code that allows for this functionality can be generatedautomatically. 

Traditionally, SEO objectives have been achieved, in part, by incorporating keyword-rich HTML Meta tags into a Web page, filling the page with relevant text content, and letting the search engines crawl all of it. The problem is that search engines only search text; rich-media content like video (and especially Flash video) is essentially invisible to search engine spiders.

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In fact, with HTML it is impossible to optimize a video for search. It may sound counterintuitive, but the only way to optimize a video object for search -- and I mean the object itself, not the page on which it resides -- is with Flash.

 It's true. Flash content -- including Flash video -- can be optimized for search. The trick is to use a process called SWFObject to insert searchable text within the lines of code that you use to embed your video onto a website. And no, this isn't a black-hat technique. Many large corporations use this same process to help them rank higher for specific search terms.

SWFObject requires a little bit of know-how in order to use properly. The process requires JavaScript to program, and basic Web design skills to implement. But if your Webmaster isn't quite up on his JavaScript, don't worry: a complete implementation guide is available on code.google.com.

But SWFObject alone isn't enough to sound the death knell of HTML. After all, Flash still needs to be programmed, implemented, and then amended with JavaScript. Fortunately for marketing-communications professionals, software exists to effectively automate this process, allowing video to be optimized for search without programming or IT resources.

So what does this mean for the future of HTML? While it may seem like a minor development, the major advantage of using HTML over Flash has traditionally been that the former was searchable, and the latter was not. Considering that Flash is nearly ubiquitous, and that Flash content has far greater potential to engage viewers than static HTML content, the fact that the SEO barrier has fallen for Flash might be very bad news indeed for HTML.

17 comments about "Flash: The Death Of HTML".
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  1. Langston Richardson from Cisco, January 21, 2010 at 12:50 p.m.

    Great article that help clear up a few misconceptions over the use of Flash. I'm sure you will receive insights from others who may disagree but it's refreshing to see a marketing publication that speaks to executives who may tend to only here one side of the debate.

  2. Brian Mays from NewsOK.com, January 21, 2010 at 1:04 p.m.

    Thanks for this article. Google can also crawl inside Flash and find text and links. Using technology like SWFAddress can help break your Flash pieces apart into separate 'pages' like HTML. It enables the use of history, bookmarks, and the back button within Flash.

    I don't know that it will be the death of HTML, which has been proposed since 1998 when the first full flash websites (specifically Gabocorp) burst onto the scene. It's still proprietary software with a steep learning curve. And there's still an outdated bias against it from the 1990s days of intro screens. Many HTML developers view it as something that's not in the spirit of the internet (I think I read recently someone saying it "hurts the web"). And in my opinion there's also some resentment because it brings "sizzle" along with it.

    Glad to see the debate continues. I love the medium, I love what it can accomplish, and I love the reactions that it gets from the general public that will use Flash products the most.

  3. Mai Kok from So What, January 21, 2010 at 1:15 p.m.

    Talk is cheap Matthew. Prove it.

    Time and time again, Flash under performs compared to an HTML site or a site balanced between Flash and HTML.

    Time and time again HTML provides a better and more reliable user experience.

    But since we are talking SEO, the simple litmus of your hypothesis here is PROVE IT.

    Target a keyword using only Flash. Target a keyword using and HTML site. Make all things equal. Age of domain, inbound links (at zero). all of that.

    Then come and make a declaration.

  4. Jonathan Mirow from BroadbandVideo, Inc., January 21, 2010 at 1:39 p.m.

    The core of the entire freekin' internet is based on HTML. Flash video with tags may work - but I'm here to tell you that if you have a site ENTIRELY made up of goofy flash and one made up of HTML, which one do you think is going to show up on search engines? How do I know this? I was #1 for 7 years on Yahoo with a niche HTML based site. Try getting there with a SWFObject tag.

  5. Eric Oliver from TheCosmonaut, January 21, 2010 at 2 p.m.

    I do a ton of Flash development and I love hearing someone talk favorably about Flash in respect to SEO for once! That said, I think it's probably going a bit too far to say that Flash is the death of HTML :)

    Jonathan and Al are missing one important thing about SWFObject -- there aren't weird "SWFObject tags" or anything like that; the code that SWFObject displays is native HTML. So it gets indexed just like any other HTML website. You could actually build a fully-functional site to display inside SWFObject if you wanted -- SWFObject would display the Flash to Flash-capable browsers and the other site to non-Flash capable browsers (including search engines). So Al, for your test, if the Flash were built to display the exact same code as the HTML site, rankings should be identical. It'd be a wonderful experiment... one that I just may do.

    Not to plug my own blog, but I've written on both Flash indexing in Google (http://www.thecosmonaut.com/2008/10/17/flash-indexing-on-google-revisited/) and optimizing Flash websites for SEO using SWFObject and SWFAddress (http://www.thecosmonaut.com/2008/11/09/5-steps-for-building-a-seo-friendly-flash-site-using-swfobject-and-swfaddress/). Thought it might be relevant to readers here.

    Like Brian says -- I'm glad to see the debate continuing. This debate encourages Adobe and Flash site developers to continue to improve the SEO capabilities of Flash and ultimately to build better sites.

  6. Matthew Shaw from Flimp Media Inc., January 21, 2010 at 2:19 p.m.

    Hi all! Thanks for reading and spurring a lively debate.

    @Eric -- You hit the nail right on the head. If you decide to go ahead with that experiment, let me know. I'd be happy to help.

    @Jonathan Mirow -- As Eric pointed out, SWFObject is not a "tag", per se, it's a method of embedding native HTML behind a Flash object so that an engine can crawl it just like HTML. In other words, if your 7-year running #1 site (congratulations, by the way) was designed with Flash and SWFObject, in theory you would have had the same result. Which brings me to my next point:

    @Al Kao -- Your point is a good one. At some point I'll pull together a couple of case studies that give more credence to the idea that SWFObject works in practice as well as it does in theory. (And perhaps MediaPost will once again be kind enough to help me share them.) Until I do, I'm sure a few of our friendly neighborhood Flash developers would be willing to weigh in with their experiences.

    Anyone else out there using SWFObject for SEO?

  7. Brian Mays from NewsOK.com, January 21, 2010 at 2:42 p.m.

    @Matthew I hope your detractors will try what you suggest in your article with SWFObject, and push it further from there. Remember, Flash doesn't make bad sites, people make bad sites.

  8. Matthew Shaw from Flimp Media Inc., January 21, 2010 at 2:50 p.m.

    @Bryan Mays -- Couldn't agree more. Thanks for reading!

  9. David Culbertson from LightBulb Interactive, January 21, 2010 at 7:15 p.m.

    As someone who does SEO for a living - and regularly attends advanced SEO conferences - it's clear from both the experiences of myself and my peers that an HTML website always wins in search engine rankings. While the processes described here will provide content to the search engine spiders, it's still an additional layer between the content and the human view - which I think matters to Google.

    Secondly, the most popular mobile phone (iPhone) doesn't support Flash and may never.

    Thirdly, here comes HTML 5 with YouTube leading the charge. The following is an early test that's a bit crude but shows the possibilities and works on the iPhone:

    http://www.gesteves.com/experiments/starwars.html?nouacheck=1

    And great coders have already been making cool stuff without Flash for a while now. Check this iPhone and SEO friendly map:

    http://ncmarinescience.com/

  10. Tony Nino from PADV Pasadena Advertising, January 21, 2010 at 8:05 p.m.

    This has got to have been one of the best laughs I've had all day. HTML is dead?!
    Again?
    Poor HTML has died more times than Kenny in South Park, and just like Kenny, never seems to go away.
    Flash is a useful tool, and I'm sure some day it will be visible on iphone, but that's not really the point. On sites like Fox studios, Flash is indispensable. On Catholic Charities Los Angeles, it's irresponsible. One site caters to hip web surfers in search of entertainment. The other, to desperate people in distress and the folks who want to help them. At least half that audience lacks the speed and know how to use Flash.
    Bottom line: HTML and Flash are just tools like sledgehammers and staple guns. Each tool has it's place, and neither can replace the other.
    Now can we PLEASE get back to talking about MACs and PCs, politics and religion?
    =)
    Tony

  11. Ross Hall, January 22, 2010 at 3:53 a.m.

    I like the "get the attention" tag line of killing off Flash. Big problem I have is accessibility. Flash is still not easily accessible to those with sight difficulties, and to be honest, is still lacking discipline in its design and use in many quarters.

    (I saw a site a couple of days ago that actually made me feel seasick with its zooming animations!)

    My concern is that we're now going to see a plethora of websites built on Flash that could be better constructed using simpler tools "just because we can."

  12. David Thurman from Aussie Rescue of Illinois, January 22, 2010 at 8:39 a.m.

    Nice, another article claiming Flash is SEO friendly, and that we can now ditch HTML, tsk, tsk, tsk, we know side by side HTML will always out rank the best efforts of a properly optimized Flash site, and with H5 coming out the need for Flash as the way to create interaction is also in question, maybe the HTML 5 folks will instead sing Flash is dead... and it will be a truth...

  13. Matthew Shaw from Flimp Media Inc., January 22, 2010 at 9:54 a.m.

    Lots of great comments here. I'll try to address them as best I can.

    @David Culbertson -- It may be true that the extra layer between content and consumers matters to Google, but the problem is that we just don't know. The point is that SWFObject allows Google to read a Flash object, which means that it can see elements on a page that were previously invisible. I think we're in agreement that this is very important for SEO, even if we're only talking about a Flash element (a video player, say) in an HTML site.

    And it's true that the iPhone doesn't yet support Flash. But as of this moment, the majority of Web searches aren't being performed on iPhones. SEO and mobile optimization are two different things. And while we can speculate as to the future of Flash for mobile devices, I'm of the opinion that because Flash is nearly ubiquitous on internet-connected computers across the world, mobile devices will eventually follow.

    @Tony Nino -- Of course you're right. A poorly-designed (or poorly conceived) Flash page is a very bad thing. The same is true of HTML. That's not really the discussion here, though. The point is that when you're choosing the language for your page (or for elements of your page), SEO shouldn't be a factor in making your decision.

    @Ross Hall -- I can only dream of having enough sway to write a single article and create an influx of Flash-based sites. Of course, I agree that some Flash sites are gaudy and inappropriate (and apparently nauseating). But that's not the fault of Flash; it's the fault of the designers.

    @David Thurman -- Do we "know" that HTML outperforms properly-optimized Flash? I'm curious to see research on this. As for HTML 5, I haven't seen enough of it to call it a Flash-killer. Reports indicate that it may be, but until it is more widely implemented we'll just have to wait and see.

    Thanks for reading, everyone! Good stuff!

  14. Micah Touchet from NewBirth Creative Design Agency, January 22, 2010 at 10:22 a.m.

    This is hilarious... Ditto, @Tony Nino and several others. By the way, images, Flash and ANY other media are at best a tag within html... and simply will never replace html.

  15. Kyle Phillips from Freelance, January 22, 2010 at 11:02 a.m.

    I wouldn't call HTML dead yet. It's a tool, like flash, and both have their uses. it's nice to see flash improving in terms of SEO, but I don't think I'll necessarily want to write a text article in flash anytime soon. And text still is very important, at least for what I do, which is wine and food and travel writing.

    Important enough that I have never felt the need to learn flash.

    Kyle

  16. Matthew Shaw from Flimp Media Inc., January 22, 2010 at 1:23 p.m.

    @Micah Touchet -- This is exactly the kind of misconception that this article addresses. Read Eric Oliver's description of SWFObject below for more info on why Flash objects aren't just "tags."

    @Kyle Phillips -- You're right. If HTML works for you, then far be it for me to say you should change media. Flash and HTML are, as you say, tools to help you achieve an end. The point I tried to make in this article is that if your goals are engagement AND search optimization, don't automatically discount Flash.

    Thanks for the input!

  17. Micah Touchet from NewBirth Creative Design Agency replied, October 21, 2016 at 1:36 p.m.

    Just coming back to this article to ask — again, what is Flash?

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