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Flash is Evil. Flash is Good.

The FlasherOf the folks who took my totally unscientific survey on "Web Pages That Suck" about Flash, 55% basically said “It sucks” while only 7.6% of survey respondents thought it was “great.” What gives?

Web designers are bored—it's no fun making regular sites. Sales and marketing departments are bored—they like shiny things that move (I used to work in marketing so I know). I did some consulting work with a bunch of folks from a Fortune very- small number corporation and asked, “Didn't your Web design firm try to talk you out of your 693KB Flash splash page?” They responded, “Oh, yes. They advised us against it.” Logically, I asked “Then, why do you have a Flash splash page?” They responded, “The sales and marketing departments wanted it. They liked it.”

The Epiphany

The final solutionI knew there had to be a logical solution to the Flash/no Flash problem. I just didn't know I'd discover it at a dental convention. Initially, you'd think talking about Web design to a bunch of dentists and their assistants would not expand my horizons. Wrong. Every group has its own fascinating stories about how they use the Web and as I walked the exhibit floor (seeing sickening photos of bad teeth), I heard some very interesting stories. The most fascinating thing I learned is that many dentists don't really need Web sites—today. Pardon the pun, but they get most of their business through “word of mouth.” Many dentists are located in small towns where there isn't a lot of competition. In fact, I began to wonder if any dentist needed a high-end site, and then I met “Fred the Dentist.”

As part of my speaking contract, I was obliged to attend an end-of-the-day party on the exhibit floor. What happens here is that conference attendees will come up to me and start talking about their site and then say, “Let's take a look at it on one of the terminals and see what you think.” Translation: a free Web site consultation. A dentist named Fred was the first to grab my arm and take me to the booth of a company that creates high end Flash-based sites for dentists and physicians.

Fred wanted my opinion of his Flash-based gem. Here's the conversation:

Fred: Well, what do you think?

Vincent: (looks at the site, runs the site through WebSite Garage, etc.) Well, the front page is a splash page, and that's bad. It's 270K, which is too big. There's no code to check to see if the visitor has the Flash plug-in, and there are no text links.

Fred: Hmm.

Vincent: Are you getting any business from the site?

Fred: Yeah, I get one referral a week.

Vincent: (feeling sorry for Fred) What does one referral mean?

Fred: (voice lowered) They buy $10,000 worth of services.

Vincent: (voice rising at least an octave) $10,000!?!? You mean each referral gets you $10,000 every week?

Fred: Yeah.

Vincent: Off this Flash site?

Fred: Yeah.

Vincent: Forget what I said. Your designer is a genius. He's a god among men.

Fred: Well, I was thinking about dropping the Flash and going to an HTML-based site and maybe I'd get two referrals a week.

HERE'S WHERE EPIPHANY #1 OCCURRED:

Vincent: No. Keep the Flash-based site and have an option for an HTML-based page. Maybe you'll get three referrals.

Fred: Hey that makes sense.

Vincent: You have two choices. You can have the designers create the site so it checks to see if visitors have the Flash plug-in and then give the visitor the right version of the site. The other choice is to put up a Splash page and ask your visitors to choose whether or not they want to go to the Flash or non-Flash version of your site. The site for the actor Michael Douglas gives you the options of clicking on “Flash Enhanced” or “Non-Flash.”

It's a variant of the splash page, which I'm against and which I call the Choose Flash page. The real problem with Choose Flash pages is that designers only use the page to ask folks to choose which version of the site they want to view. They forget to include information to help the search engines index the site. There's a great site called SearchEngineWatch that studies search engines, and I heard Danny Sullivan from SEW say that many search engines give a higher weight to the root page—the dot-com page as in webpagesthatsuck.com. He said if there isn't enough information on the root page, the page often is not indexed correctly and the sub-pages aren't checked. Many search engines can't index Flash pages, so your site might not get indexed correctly.

At least some sites are using <META> tags on their Choose Flash pages and that will help with some search engines (not sure how many engines today support <META>. Then there are some sites that don't use <META> tags or even use text descriptions, like Renault in Mexico. They don't even check for the plug-in.

Fred: So the solution is?

Vincent: The solution is to put up a root page that contains information—“I'm Fred the Dentist and I offer great cosmetic surgery featuring blah, blah, blah.” List the important topics— just like you put in your <META> tags—and then give your visitors the option of choosing a Flash version or an HTML version. In fact, you could do what this one company does except they do it badly—and offer a skip the Flash intro button on the front page. This way, you're covered. You have the search engines indexing you correctly, you can let visitors choose their experience—HTML, Flash, or Skip The Damn Flash Intro. It's a win-win situation.

Conclusion

Like all solutions, this one entails its own problems. Cost is certainly a problem. Not everybody can afford two versions of their site. On the plus side, Web designers everywhere will love me because their firms will make more money.

The key issue—and the one everyone overlooks—is to make sure your root page has enough information for the search engines. Checking to see if the visitor has the Flash plug-in doesn't solve the indexing problem. Neither does the current crop of “Choose Flash” pages. However, if you take my suggestion and put information on the Choose Flash page that can be used by search engines, then you've significantly improved the “findability” of your site. If customers can't find you, they can't buy from you and if they don't like the interface, they'll leave. Not being found is bad. Leaving is very bad.