Flash is Nice, However Words Get You Found
The recent death of a family member has finally brought together parts of the family long separated for stupid reasons. Among them came a young man fresh out of college wanting a career in web design. His eagerness to impress me, once he found out who I was, was delightful. Together we raced to a nearby computer and his hands shook with excitement as he typed in his new portfolio domain, thrilled to get an expert opinion and review.
Well, all I can say is that it was pretty.
My brain raced around to figure out how to comment on his online portfolio without devastating him. After all, he’s family, and you have to walk a fine line with family, right?
I asked him about the work it took, the ideas that led him down this path, and slowly he started to relax and grow more confident. Finally he said, “You hate it.”
He was right.
“I don’t hate it. There are just a few things that need to be done to improve it.”
Was that careful and evasive enough? He told me to cut the crap and that he wanted brutal honesty. He told me the teachers had given him top grades but they were living in the past and he wanted a word from the present.
So I gave it to him and I’ll give it to you.
Design for the Blind
The most important thing you can do with any web page design is to design for the blind and visually impaired. Not that they represent the majority of your audience – search engines are blind.
My young relative had designed the whole site with Flash. Things shifted around, moved, danced, whirled and were clickable. It was pretty, vibrant, and showed a lot of artistic skill.
I carefully explained that this is what a search engine sees when they visit his site. They don’t see the dancing graphics or moving buttons, or visuals that flash and beg to be clicked. His name was even in a graphic, not readable from within the code.
Then I asked him, “If there are no words, no information, no data for search engines to gather or follow, what will a search engine do?”
He looked at me with grief and said, “Nothing?”
Unless search engines can “see” your site, crawl through all the links to find all the pages, and gather enough information to store in their database, you won’t be found by those searching for you and your information.
I read a lot of crap on the web about SEO techniques, often written with attention-getting intentions rather than expertise. I read recently on a popular dugg post that the top two things to do for SEO techniques were to 1) Make it pretty, and 2) Make it colorful.
SEO means “search engine optimization”. It doesn’t mean make your site pretty, colorful, covered with widgets and AJAX, or even advertising.
Search engines don’t care about what your site looks like. It’s blind. It only digs into the code under the surface. Search Engine Optimization means a search engine can get in and out of your site in the fastest way possible, gathering every bit of information it can along the way. Without anything to gather, what can it do?
Intrasite Links Feed Search Engines
Without links to follow through the various pages on the site, search engines won’t follow. You need to leave them breadcrumbs so they can find all the pages and add them to their database.
Breadcrumbs come in many different forms, leading the search engine crawler down the path of your site. Breadcrumbs are the links from the next and previous posts, links in most recent posts or related post lists, and intrasite links from within your post content. Site maps, like your blog’s table of contents, are also useful to help search engines find an entire page filled with links to your various pages.
A new technology called “XML Sitemaps”, started by Google and spread to Yahoo and other search engines, puts a hidden file on your host server listing all the published pages within your blog.
I recently highlighted how to create and fix your Google Sitemap on Is Your Google Sitemap Working?, so you can find more resources there.
Look through your blog for the breadcrumbs that will help lead a search engine through your site. Not enough intra-connecting links? Make some.
Have Content Worth Searching For
If you want to be found, you need to have something worth finding. Without words, you provide no information search engines can use to help searchers find you.
Search engines are dependent upon words as fuel to fill their database tanks. Without words, they have nothing to show when people come to search. After all, people search with words, right?
It isn’t just any old words that get you found. You have to use findable words to be found.
Findable words are called “keywords”. They are words and phrases people use to search for subjects. You need to use these keywords in your content several times, including synonyms, to help the search engine categorize your content and help searchers find you.
What if your blog is a photoblog or video blog, or one that only displays graphics and artwork? Your blog isn’t about the words. It’s about the pretty pictures. You don’t want words.
Put some in anyway.
Use captions and good titles to describe what is in the visual images. Have at least an About page to describe the purpose and intent of the blog to add some words to the mix. Use descriptive blog title or subtitle to help people understand what they will find when they visit. Use categories and tags with words to add some descriptive content and categorization and more intrasite links.
Your words don’t have to be visible. Use the “title” attribute in your links to use words to describe the link. Use the “alt” attribute to describe your images, videos, or podcasts. Go even further and use the description attribute in your image links to link to long description files of your images. Use meta tags to add words to your header. Find ways to incorporate words into your image-filled blog to give search engines, and searchers, a clue to what this site is about.
If you don’t tell search engines about your blog with words, you won’t be found when searchers search.
Help Yourself Be Found on the Web
Next time you start worrying about your lack of traffic and your low page rank in search engines, take a look under the hood to see what search engines see.
Are there words to be found or only code?
Pretty doesn’t work on the web except by the person viewing the pretty. Words work. Design for the visually impaired search engines and watch yourself get found.
The author of Lorelle on WordPress and the fast-selling book, Blogging Tips: What Bloggers Won't Tell You About Blogging, as well as several other blogs, Lorelle VanFossen has been blogging for over 15 years, covering blogging, WordPress, travel, nature and travel photography, web design, web theory and development extensively as web technologies developed.
Great article and a good primer that everyone should read.
Historically, I have been an opponent of flash for the reasons you outline, Lorelle. However, the reality is that Flash does not have to be unfriendly for SEO and in fact, Adobe has done a pretty good job of making its tools accessible. So while you may be mostly right, you’re not entirely right.
I couldn’t agree more.
Flash was from the start a tool for special features and not entire websites. Using flash for a complete website is as foolish as diluting your morning juice until it just looks and taste bland. The same happens to websites. Not only for search engines, but for people as well. Not everyone has access to a flash compatible browser, or the knowledge on how to get one.
Aaron, you are right. Flash doesn’t have to be SEO unfriendly, but when in the hands of someone not aware of SEO standards, it is. A fresh college graduate desiring a career in web design and development should have known better but I’m meeting a lot of students like my relative who graduate without some of these most basic standards.
Then there are huge sites relying totally upon Flash without thinking it through. Visit the SCI-FI Channel and you will have nothing to work with if you have Flash turned off. I get nothing but blank screens with no links, navigation, or information to help anyone move around the site without turning Flash on. This is just stupid and short-sighted. They should know better.
Yes, Flash can be SEO friendly and meet accessibility standards, if the human behind them thinks about it.