By:Mark Angeletti, Published:2003-9-14

Flash’s Weaknesses

Plug-In Required

Flash movies still require a separate plug-in installation in order to run in most browsers. Many companies do not allow their employees to install applications on their computers, which automatically denies some Flash site owners access to a portion of their potential userbase.

Video Woes

Video compression and playback in Flash MX is not of the same quality as some of the players developed exclusively for this purpose, such as QuickTime. For example, Flash video does not take advantage of enhanced video drivers for optimized playback at enlarged sizes.

Search Engine Issues

Typical Web search engines (or spiders) cannot index content within Flash movies. If you create a 100% Flash-based Website, you may want to provide some text or HTML, displayed or hidden, on your Web pages if you want your content to be indexed by search engines. When I say hidden, I mean that the content should be available via a no script tag or other means that is search engine acceptable. This is perhaps the biggest shortcoming of Flash, and yes — it’s a biggie.

Lack of Screen Reader Support

Although the integration of MSAA compatibility into Flash Player 6 is a big step forward, and has been heralded by accessibility experts, many kinds of screen readers do not support MSAA of the Flash Player yet.

Print Problems

If your site is based around delivering text-based information to the viewer, then don’t distract or delay them from getting what they want with unnecessary animations. Printing and selecting text in Flash movies is often not as simple (or familiar) to users as that on HTML sites.

CSS Steps Up

The growing trend, as it should be, is to separate design from content and with that said let’s give thanks to CSS, after all, that’s what CSS was designed to do and does so well. CSS allows for you to create the look and format of a website while not tainting your content. You the developer benefit as do the search-engine spiders and text readers.

In addition, CSS makes Website maintenance easier. With a single modification to an external CSS file you can effect a change across multiple pages of your site. For an in-depth look at CSS be sure to check out HTML Utopia: Designing Without Tables Using CSS by Dan Schafer.

So with the ability to serve up content in its purest form making it attractive to search engines and legible to text readers combined with the ability to make modifications across an entire website with a change to a single file it’s easy to see why so many people have fallen in love with CSS.

…but, not so fast there CSS

Flash Forward

Think for a moment of all those things CSS gives you — those benefits that made you fall in love with CSS, including search engine-ready content, text reader accessibility, and the ability to modify the look of your entire Website from a single file…

Guess what? It’s quite conceivable that in the not-too-distant future, Flash will also provide you with these capabilities.

Tim Mayer, Vice President of Web Search at FAST explains, “Search engines were originally built to index and serve HTML documents, but now the Web has become more diverse in content types, knowing how to treat Flash and other types of content has become more important for search engines.”

Mayer notes that, “FAST built its Flash indexing capabilities using the Macromedia’s Flash search engine software developer’s kit (SDK). The SDK was designed to convert a Flash file’s text and links into HTML for indexing.”

However, not all search engine spiders have the ability to crawl or index Flash. As far as I’m able to determine, Google has not included the Flash-SDK setup for indexing the way FAST has. But Google can follow embedded links.

The Macromedia SDK solution is far from perfect and still has a long way to come. However, we can see that search engines are making an effort to embrace Flash and I believe that in the future we’ll see Flash make an effort to embrace search engines.

It’s conceivable that before too long, search engines will see only the content of a site — they won’t care what that site looks like. The content will be separate from the movie and could even be marked up with HTML tags or XML. This provides the designer with the ability to have their site look however they choose and still have search spiders feast on the content. Search engines will be able to do what humans have always struggled with – they’ll have the ability to see past the outward appearance and get to what’s really important.

It’s also worth noting that when this day comes — and all signs point that it will come sooner rather than later — not only will search engines get close to your Flash content, the text readers will also find it more accessible.

Lastly, Flash, like CSS, also allows users to modify a single external text file and in so doing, make changes across an entire site. Because Flash stores all the elements of a movie in a library file, you can easily make sweeping modifications across an entire site or, with Flash’s shared library feature, multiple Websites.

The Future is Bright for Flash

Remember my original statement, “HTML / CSS will never be able to do what Flash does – NEVER” Yet, it’s quite possible that in the future Flash will be able to do what HTML and CSS does. The short comings of Flash as outlined above may not be there in the future. It’s conceivable that Flash will be able to separate content from design and serve up pure content to the search engines and text readers; after all they are working on it now.

A day will come when a typical Flash site will be as friendly to search engines as are its HTML/CSS counterparts; it may even surpass HTML and CSS sites in terms of accessibility, for the simple reason that it supports sound and video.

Flash at least has a chance to fix its weaknesses and in time will likely do so. But, HTML and CSS will never be able to do what Flash does – NEVER.

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