Flash Sites on Mobile Devices May Hurt Rankings

Published Oct 18, 2014 by John Boitnott in SEO
The views of contributors are their own, and not necessarily those of SEOBlog.com


Somewhere in the neighborhood of ten years ago, Macromedia’s Flash was an extremely popular tool for doing just about anything.  Flash animations were all the rage.  Games of varying quality, from button-based choose-your-own-adventures to well-programmed RPGs abounded.  The range of animation and design options available in Flash meant that website owners started creating entire websites out of Flash.

Today, Flash is at once more popular and less.  The Flash player powers YouTube and embedded media throughout the web, but the proliferation of Flash-based websites has disappeared.  There’s a good reason for this – several in fact – with one major factor being the effect of smartphones.

Flash Content is Hard to View on Mobile

Flash has a rocky history with mobile devices.  Of the two major players in the smartphone industry, Google and Apple, one side never allowed Flash content on their devices.  Apple has a lot to say about that decision, but many of the other issues brought up throughout this article are touched on in their piece.  Flash is an old piece of technology that, while widely used, isn’t exactly as robust and beneficial as it otherwise might be.  As a contrast, competing technologies like HTML5 are much more open and available.  They comply with modern standards, both in coding and in web design.

Of course, Flash has a few technical reasons it’s left out of the mobile world.  Flash suffers from a typically poor video decoding process, which means it eats up battery life like nothing else.

Apple cites their biggest reason for avoiding flash is that they don’t control it.  Needing to rely on Adobe to update their software to push new features, or needing to hold back on iPhone features because Flash doesn’t support them, is a bad working relationship.  Apple simply chooses not to make that gamble.  Android had a bit of a longer run, but it fell behind as well.

Flash is Demanding on Bad Connections


Flash animation, even the smallest Flash-based advertisements on the sidebars of a website, takes up space.  Flash animations are large.  They’re essentially poorly-compressed video files requiring a special player to view.  This is why most Flash content begins with a loading bar; it’s necessary to keep users around, knowing that the content is loading rather than that it failed to load.

This kind of limitation is particularly relevant for mobile devices.  Wi-Fi connections aren’t quite as ubiquitous as they seem in some of the larger cities around the world, and many people are forced to rely on somewhat spotty cell data connections.  No matter how fast the phone company claims their 8G++ super connection is, it’s still slower than the average household broadband connection.

There’s also the issue of data limits.  Many phone plans still include data limits, which can be devoured by large uncompressed video, which you find very often in Flash.

Flash Content Isn’t Indexed

So, what about issues with Flash and SEO?  Speaking broadly, rather than just in a mobile sense, Flash has issues with search engines.  Much like how the content of a video file isn’t indexed unless a transcript is provided, Flash content is impossible to organically index.  As far as Google knows, there’s a flash object on the page.  It could be a simple 2-second video loop or it could be a deep site full of content, and there’s no way to tell the difference.

Any content published on a Flash site, then, is functionally invisible.  That’s one huge hindrance to SEO in both a desktop and mobile perspective.  From mobile, however, the issue is that much worse.  Mobile devices can’t even begin to render Flash content.  From a search perspective, a mobile site based on Flash may as well not exist.  Obviously, this would hurt your chances of ranking in search.

If your site is only using Flash elements, you have a better chance of ranking, but you will still have issues.  Some sites like to make their logo a small embedded Flash object.  On a mobile site, this would just display as an unrenderable object, which hurts usability.  The problem grows if you’re using Flash objects for more important content, like navigation buttons.

Flash Violates Internet Standards

Flash-Violates-Internet-StandardsFlash violates a number of modern Internet standards, relating to usability and search indexing.  For example:

• If you build a site entirely out of flash, that site will have pages and subpages. However, those subpages do not have unique URLs of their own. You can’t bookmark or link to those subpages. Anyone visiting the site would have to start from the equivalent of the homepage and navigate their way to the subpage in question.

The browser back button doesn’t work. To go back a page in a Flash site, you need to find whatever built-in navigation the designer incorporated. Often, this navigation is worked into the design so it doesn’t stand out, which can make it hard to use. If you do hit the back button, you’ll go back to the previous webpage you were on, and your session will restart when you visit again.

• While Google technically can index Flash content, no other search engine can, and Google doesn’t like to. This means many of your common SEO factors won’t work, including on-page optimization.

• With subpages built in Flash, you don’t get the benefit of unique meta content for each page. Your website is effectively built entirely on one page, with content hidden until it is called for.

Without subpages with unique URLs, your site can’t build a robust link profile. Links are the foundation of good SEO. Sacrificing the ability to have incoming links in exchange for some design features is a poor trade.

All of this combines into a massive negative weight.  SEO is about climbing a mountain to reach the peak, where you’re as visible as possible.  Designing a site in Flash is the equivalent of starting that climb from a trench you dug deep into the earth.  You’re handicapping yourself.

Even if you can successfully rank with a Flash site, you’re fighting a steep uphill battle.  You’d be much better off if you released a Flash-free site design and focused on traditional SEO factors.

Written by John Boitnott

John Boitnott

John Boitnott has worked at TV, newspapers, radio and internet companies in California for 20 years. He’s an advisor at StartupGrind and has written for NBC, Inc, Entrepreneur, USAToday and Venturebeat.

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