I make no secret of the fact that i’m not a huge fan of Flash. It’s not really because I feel there is anything inherently wrong with Flash. I am opposed to the gross overuse and misuse that happens every day. Sometimes only Flash will do, and in those circumstances it is the answer. Sometimes Flash is the answer to a question that is totally incorrect.
When someone proposes making a website, I immediately start asking questions of scope, regularity of updates, audience, intent and so-on. Typically I don’t ever ask what technology the client is interested in using. When it comes down to brass tacks, I’m typically uninterested in the technology the client wants because the user is the important piece of the puzzle, so the tech that fits is the tech that gets used. I can only imagine what goes through the minds of people before building a website that is run only with Flash.
“Hey Joe, what do you think of building a site using only Flash?”
“Cool idea! How do you think users should interact with it?”
“I hadn’t really thought about it. I just think it would be neat to have an all Flash site.”
“Let’s do it.”
This conversation may be out of touch, but this is how I feel any time I find myself looking down the barrel of an all Flash site. It simply feels like people were putting tech before the user. Flash is a great tool, but it seems to thwart some of the elements of the web I consider to be key.
Before I go further, let’s agree to use a naming convention so I don’t have to keep typing things out over and over. I’m going to refer to an all Flash site as an AFS. Please be aware of this.
Now, That's Degrading
An excellent AFS will have been built to degrade gracefully, allowing for access by disabled users. The content will be repeated in an HTML format which can easily be read to the blind or accessed through a disability-geared browser. I have seen sites like this and I applaud their effort to keep accessibility in mind.
Many of the AFS examples I have seen do not degrade so beautifully. Some just show a broken plugin indicator. Others test for flash on a system, then display a message stating, “this site requires flash.” The worst test for flash, and if it is not installed, they display the main menu, without links and without content, as if to say, “this is everything you could have if you weren’t such a luddite.”
Users really dislike being told they are bad because they aren’t like you.
Unfortunately, even if an AFS is designed to degrade wonderfully, the content for the site is locked away in a Flash file which causes undue strain on the user. Suppose, for instance, an AFS has a really incredible article about a relevant topic. Since the site is built into a Flash file, the user cannot pass the article along to other potential readers. This means the site is losing potential traffic. Lost traffic is always a good indicator of bad design and development.
Johnny 5 Requires Input
Marketing teams should always be against an AFS on principle alone. If a user visits the site and spends a large amount of time in one section, how is anyone to know? I am unaware of any analytics tool that will track this, as all of the tools I’ve used rely on a standard HTML site. This lack of site analytics should elicit horrified reactions from your marketing team instantly. A complete lack of marketing feedback is always a little frightening.
What Search Engines?
Even the best AFS leaves something to be desired in SEO. Supposing your site degrades perfectly and any Flash-disabled browser hits your site, the content is on the ready in plain text and markup, you are still committing an SEO faux pas called cloaking. In simple terms, cloaking is when you display different content for the search engine than what is provided to the real user.
Understandably, the argument would be made that the content is identical to what is in the Flash file. It isn’t. The look is different and there are pages which can only be accessed if Flash is disabled, while, if Flash is enabled, you have to navigate within just a single page. What this translates to is, you are lying to the search engine. You are saying there is content directly accessible on your site which, in reality, is not.
Google doesn’t look kindly upon this and has banned websites doing legitimate cloaking in the past. What makes you think you are any different or better?
Now, supposing you don’t have all of the degrading features we love so well? In plain terms, you don’t exist to the search engines at all. Your site comes up on Google or Yahoo and the description is, “sorry, you must have flash to view this site.”
When I see that in any search result, I skip it immediately. Fortunately, since you have chosen the path of Darwinian self-selection, I never come across that message since I don’t look for that phrase.
I am certain I haven’t covered all of the evils that ride on the coattails of an AFS, but I believe these few are a strong enough case on their own. In the end, if you opt for an AFS for your company, be prepared for many difficulties, which will, undoubtedly, outweigh the benefits you gain by having a pretty transition from one page to another.
Please, keep the web a beautiful and accessible place.