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Is FLASH Appropriate in a Business Web Site?

The short answer is maybe. The long answer is that the question might be better asked, “Is a 100% FLASH web site appropriate in business?.” The answer to this question, in my humble opinion is, absolutely not. In fact, we have had several clients come to us this year who have 100% Flash web sites that are going to completely remake their web sites because they simply do not work for them. They are having issues with search engines and with clients who can’t see their web sites.

Of course, they do work in terms of visuals. If you visit a Flash web site you will see it. Just because a visitor can see the web site doesn’t automatically mean that the web site is working for your business.

What is Flash?

Flash is technology developed by Macromedia, a leader in web development tools. Flash movies are a compilation of many images, elements and text that is then compiled into a nice, tight little digital file that then gets put on the internet. Some designers build entire web sites using this technology. Graphic designers quite like the technology because it gives them a great opportunity to show how talented they are by developing interactive, moving, and quite honestly some very entertaining web sites. Remember though that the purpose for your business web site is to communicate with your existing and prospective clients, not to show everyone what a talented designer you hired.

What is Flash Good For?

Flash is great as an add-on element for some graphic components of a business web site. Recently the ability for web masters to compile digital audio and video into flash movies has been simplified and using flash to stream a video is a great example of a perfect use for Flash in a business web site.

Another example of where Flash is well used and well received is on web sites that are about presentation and not information. For example a rock band, kids web sites with little games, a photo gallery, a movie clip are all places where Flash is particularly well suited.

Does Flash have a place on the internet? Absolutely it does, but as a web site purchaser though, you have to ask yourself the question, “does Flash have a place on my business web site?”

Can Everyone See Flash

The short answer is no. Although widely available and a component of most web browsers when they are installed, not everyone has flash installed with their web browser. If a visitor who does not have a flash plug-in on their PC visits a site that requires the Flash plug-in, their web browser will prompt them to install it. PC and web savvy visitors will likely go ahead and do it, but some users (like my mother) panic if a pop-up window asks a question and they walk away, or surf away, thinking they just infected their PC with the latest doomsday virus. All of that said, a large percentage of people can see Flash without too much anxiety.

Things to Consider

The Intro Flash Splash

Flash is commonly used for “splash” pages or “entry pages” into web sites. We have all seen them, the animated movie or commercial that leads us into a more traditional marketing web site. Have you ever wondered why the Flash designer almost always places a “skip intro” link on this page? I believe it’s because they know that if they don’t allow people to skip the Flash splash screen that they are going to lose the visitor. Remember that most internet surfers are impatient and they are usually looking for information, not another commercial. Get people to your main web page and do it fast.

The trend of using ‘splash’ pages has declined in the past couple of years as the internet has matured. It is my belief, and widely shared, that if your web site is about good information, then an entry screen is just a road block to your visitors.

The Search Engine

Search engines send out automated robots called “spiders” that crawl through the internet and create massive databases of web pages. People then search for web pages based on key words that are embedded in to the web page in hidden tags as well as in the text that is on the web page itself. If it is important to you that people find your web site then it is important to you to create well written text and links on your web pages that the search engines can find, read and follow. Search engines can not see the text in a Flash page. Search engines can not see hyper-links on flash pages and therefore can not follow the links. Your web page will not seem very important to most search engines because to a search engine your web site will consist of one page and the only relevant information that the search engine will see is your meta-tags if they exist.

Having said all of that, there are arguably ways to get a Flash site indexed and catalogued by a search engine. It simply is not the easiest thing to do and you will likely require a Search Engine Optimization specialist to assist you.

Reciprocal Linking

If you are kind enough to put links on your web site for other web sites then you are providing them with a “vote of confidence” in terms of search engine rankings. The more web sites that link to a web site, in the eyes of the search engine, makes the linked web site more important. Taking that a step further, the more important the web site that links to you the higher the potential ranking your site will get. Likewise sites that provide you with a reciprocal link are in effect giving you their “vote of confidence” and in turn making your web site more important.

Remember what I said earlier? Search engines can not see hyper-links when they are embedded into flash. So although the links are appreciated they will not contribute to the search engines perception of how valuable your web site may be to the world and as a result all those “votes of confidence” are going to waste.

Make sure that people who provide you with a link from their web site to your is not embedded into a flash page. Links should be in pure HTML or Hyper-Text MarkUp Language. If you provide links to other web sites on your site, the same applies to you, use HTML.

Don’t Break my Back Button

Web-browsers all have a back button. As software users, and more specifically as web surfers, we use the back button as a matter of course. It is a good practice as a web developer to not ‘break the back button’. Unfortunately because of the nature of Flash, the back button doesn’t work for backward navigation in the flash web site.

Create a Bookmark if You Can

People like to bookmark pages on the internet so that they can quickly return to them later on. Web surfers do not always bookmark the index page, or the main page, of a web site. For example if you site has a nifty currency converter or a great mortgage calculator on it, people may simply want to bookmark just that page. You can not bookmark an internal page within a Flash site. You can only bookmark the main page. Try it. Visit a 100% Flash web site, surf around a bit, then try to bookmark the page you are looking at. It doesn’t work, because you literally haven’t changed pages from when you first arrived at the site, you have simply “played the animation” which made it appear as though you went to different pages.

Cost

The cost to develop a traditional marketing web site using standard design graphic, HTML and text is in most cases less expensive than using Flash. If you designer proposes to use Flash, ask the question, “how much would it cost to do the same thing without flash?”.

Making Revisions and Updates

If you have your web site built 100% in Flash, you have subscribed to a certain skill-set in your designer. If you want to make revisions you will always need to use someone who can work within Flash. The same theory applies if your web site is images, HTML and text. The distinct difference is that there are far more web masters that work with the later than in Flash. It also typically will take longer to make revisions to Flash sites and as a result your cost of maintenance can be quite steep.

The Source Files

Flash source files are the heart of a flash movie, element or web site. The file will be names something like mywebsite.FLA. This is the native un-compiled source file for a Flash file. Once the designer is ready to deploy the Flash to the web server the file is compiled into a different format. The compiled file in our example would be called mywebsite.SWF.

So to clarify, the original artwork and design is worked on in the .FLA format and the final file that goes on the web server is .SWF.

I see it time and time again where the designer does not provide the client with the source file for their flash elements or web site. They protect the .FLA files, and guess what, you have to go to them for updates and revisions. It does not matter how talented your new web master or designer is, if you do not have the source file with the .FLA extension for your Flash site you will not be able to update it. You should ask your designer to provide you with this source file if you decide to use Flash elements on your web site.

A Final Note On Flash

Please do not interpret my remarks here as me being “anti-flash” the fact is, it really is a great media technology. If you have the budget and want to develop your web site using 100% pure flash, there are some things you can do to mitigate some of the pitfalls that I have described here.

Use a javascript to detect the browser capabilities of the visitor and ensure that they have Flash plug-in to support the Flash on your site. If the result of this simple test is ‘no they do not support Flash’ then the right thing to do is direct them to an alternative HTML based web site with your content. So, although you can overcome the missing Flash plug-in you have to have two web sites designed (the Flash one and the HTML one).

In Summary

Flash is a great design tool to add elements to your website to ‘spice it up’.

Flash is great for delivering rich media like audio and video.

Use the theory, add flash to your web page, don’t add your web page to flash and you will deliver a great experience to your visitors.

If your web site is about delivering information, make the information first and the design second. Web sites that provide great content do not need to wiggle, giggle, blink, click and buzz.


About the Author: By David West of eKzact Solutions Inc. www.eKzact.com... "We Put Small Business Online" Helping small business to jump start their online success, profit and growth. We make putting your business online affordable!

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© eKzact Solutions Inc. 2005

David West is a Director and the operating partner of eKzact Solutions Inc. A full service web site design and web-application development company. eKzact Solutions puts small and medium sized business online! Visit us at http://eKzact.com




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