The use of Flash to build websites skewers business owners and web developers firmly on the horns of a dilemma.  How do you balance the beautiful design and interactive user experience offered by Flash, with the rigorous demands of search engine optimisation?

Flash is one of several Rich Internet Applications, alongside Ajax, Curl and Silverlight, that presents big challenges in the quest for a Search Engine Friendly website.

My advice to small businesses is simple:  avoid building the entire websites in  Flash, when possible.

For every rule there is an exception, but my rule of thumb is based on my own experience of the search results and working on SEO projects.  It is rare indeed when you find a small business Flash site ranking highly in the search results.

I know the Flash developers out there will come charging at me, throwing spears and baying for my scalp.  And so there are the exceptions to that rule.

If Search Engine Optimisation is a requirement of the site, there are number of steps the sufficiently skilled developer can take to move the site towards becoming SEO friendly. These are “workarounds” that are essentially extra steps to take to get the Flash content visible to the spiders.

  1. Create keyword rich URLS for each section of the site that needs to be search engine optimised.  Flash sites that have a single URL are a flashing amber signal that they won’t rank well in search
  2. Use variables in the SWF file that presents keyword rich content appropriate to the unique URL.  The spiders can “see” content in the Flash file, but the developer must have the skills to present this content in a search engine optimised manner.
  3. Create both HTML and SWF versions of your content
  4. Make the primary navigation on the site HTML
  5. Create both an HTML and XML sitemap

What are the risks for small businesses who are persuaded by the developers to build the site using Flash?

  1. The developer has to have the right skills set. Finding a developer who has demonstrable experience of optimising Flash may be difficult, and will certainly be more expensive than the alternatives.
  2. Businesses are locked into a design that is not easy to update. Some developers are offering content  management systems that enable the user to update Title Tags and meta tags, but this isn’t updating the bulk of the content of the site, and it would need to be updating both the HTML and SWF files
  3. Flash SEO is still its experimental phase. Businesses might be told that their Flash site isn’t ranking well because “it takes time to rank well in the search engines.”  That might be true, but I expect it is an excuse for bad programming, and the site won’t ever rank well.
  4. Your SEO will really be about linking.  Having a Flash site will place extra demands in terms of the quality and quantity of topical inbound links.  Inbound linking is fundamental to the Google algorithm, but high ranking Flash sites will have had special emphasis placed on acquiring those perfect keyword rich anchor text links.

Adobe have just published a search engine optimisation guide for rich Internet applications and Google are working on improving their Flash indexing.

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