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5 reasons to prefer HTML5 over Flash

May 1, 2010

Steve Jobs dropped a bomb on Adobe last week, setting off a firestorm of debate about  what this means for the Web. Most of the significance for Jobs is about video on mobile devices, which is only tangentially relevant to the audience for our book. So I will set it aside. But the core of his objection is about the openness of content, which is highly relevant to our audience.

HTML5, the new web standard that has been adopted by Apple, Google and many others, lets web developers create advanced graphics, typography, animations and transitions without relying on third party browser plug-ins (like Flash). HTML5 is completely open and controlled by a standards committee, of which Apple is a member.

Jobs is promoting HTML5 as much as he is saying Apple will no longer support Flash. His argument is about open technology more than open content. But his support of HTML5 has important implications for content developers and strategists. Choosing HTML5 over Flash on your pages has five important implications for the effectiveness of your content.

1. Flash is closed to search engines

One of the main problems with Flash from a content strategy perspective is that flash modules are black boxes for search engines and other automated content retrieval systems such as RSS readers. If the site is built on Flash, you can never get enough keyword density on the page (using alt attributes and other hidden text) for search engines to rank the page well against pages built on HTML5. Pages built on HTML5 are basically open books to search crawlers. This is the biggest single reason to prefer HTML5 over Flash.

You might say: so what if Google won’t rank it well? Flash gives us the ability to build pages that do everything we want, to control the engagement of users. You can spend thousands of dollars building this great site full of animations that users love to engage with, but, if they can’t find it through search, you’re wasting your money. You will likely need to buy a whole slew of advertising to drive users to the site in the first place, hoping against hope that they bookmark the site. If they don’t bookmark the site, your traffic will go down as soon as the ad dollars run out. It’s just a colossal expense–one that makes it really tough to get any ROI for your Flash experiences.

If you insist on using Flash, we advise you to do so as a module on an HTML page, similar to a video or white paper that you want users to engage with. That way your page will be findable after the ad campaign is done. However, there are good reasons to prefer HTML5 for these modules as well. I list them below.

2. HTML5 is much easier to edit

Because HTML5 is part of the HTML/XML family, it is much easier to make fine adjustments to a page built on HTML5 than it is to Flash modules. Basically a Flash module is like an executable file, which you have to replace completely every time you want to make a minor change. This can be very costly and time consuming. Because of this, there is a lot of resistance to changing Flash files.

The whole approach we advocate in our book (borrowing liberally from Mike Moran’s Do it Wrong Quickly philosophy) is to build A/B and multivariate testing into your content plans. As much as you want to get your content right the first time, the reality is, your odds of doing so are pretty long. So you do your best to create relevant content for your target audience, and then you test, and you fix, and you test, and you fix…lather, rinse, repeat.

If testing is the foundation of your content plan, ease of content editing/management must be one of the pillars. Ideally, editors have web-based dashboards that let them tweak pages based on how they are performing in their analytics tools. Obviously, you can’t do this with Flash. You have to take the module back to a Flash developer, have him or her deconstruct it, change something, and rebuild it. This is often not feasible. HTML5 gives you the opportunity to change animations on the fly. It would seem to be a key aspect of the content editing/management pillar.

This is especially true if you want to translate your content. When you present your content to other geographies in Flash, you basically say, “Take it or leave it.”  Colleagues in countries like Japan will choose to leave it.

3. Flash usability is a double-edged sword

Monolithic Flash applications can be a real problem for users. Sure, they might look pretty and perform all kinds of cool animations, but they are constraining. The argument I often hear related to Flash modules is that you can control the way users consume information within a Flash experience. You basically force them to click certain things, then you measure how many click versus abandon the experience.

There are two problems with this. First,  Flash artificially pumps up engagement. Users don’t like to abandon experiences unless they absolutely have to. So they will click things hoping to get what they need. Second, users like to be in control. Every user’s tolerance for being led down the garden path is different. But they all have limits. If you force them to do things they don’t really want to do, you create a negative attitude in the users.

HTML5 experiences can be built much more flexibly because they’re built into the fabric of the page. So you can give users more options to experience the content the way they want without forcing them to do anything. This results in more accurate engagement data and better user satisfaction.

4. Flash is data heavy

A lot of Flash developers forget that people will access their content from low-bandwidth devices or geographies. Especially in the Asia/Pacific geography, you need to serve light-weight animations to your users. They will abandon your experience before it even loads if it takes longer than 6 seconds. HTML5 enables you to build lighter weight pages.

5. It always pays to support open standards

I remember when I ran, we made a key decision early on to build the site on Linux servers with Apache Web Server and MySQL database–all open standard, open source technologies (MySQL has since been bought by Sun/Oracle–boo). Our Webmaster Garth Gillespie was adamant about this, despite the fact that the  owners of the brand were heavily invested in talent trained in Microsoft platforms.

Beyond the usual arguments about cost, customization and performance, the argument that carried the day was how important this was for our audience. Garth estimated a 20 percent increase in average monthly traffic just by being able to say “Powered by Linux/Apache/MySQL” on the site. If your site serves a technology audience, you will earn major credit by adopting open standards such as HTML5.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. May 3, 2010 2:11 am

    Wanted to point out that your first point is not necessarily true:

    Although otherwise, and in general, I agree with the post.

    • May 3, 2010 1:42 pm

      Hi Caesar,

      I know Google has this technology, but in our tests, it doesn’t work as well as the raw text crawler. We were hopeful that it would eliminate the problems with our Flash pages, but we have found that the only things you can count on Google crawling in the Flash pages the agency builds are the alt tags and metadata. Alt tags make a minor difference in the algorithm. Metadata is only good for the SERP. So we have them build parallel HTML experiences, with limited success.

      Perhaps the problem is with the Flash pages themselves. If the whole thing is a collection of images, there won’t be enough text to get any kind of keyword density. Most Flash experiences lack enough body copy. But our tests indicate it’s more than that. Even though Google has the ability to crawl Flash files, that ability pales in comparison to their text crawler.



  2. John permalink
    May 3, 2010 12:27 pm

    You obviously have absolutely no experience I’m working with Flash, the points you raise are things that were valid years ago.

    Please do some research before writing this sort of thing.

    Moving forward HTML 5 CSS3 & JavaScript will/could be a better choice for rich interactive experiences, I’m talking along the lines of sites that are showcased on, not yet.

    Each of these technologies have their place.

    • May 3, 2010 6:37 pm

      We have a lot of Flash experiences–in the tens of thousands. We have a lot of XHTML experiences–in the millions. We find it’s a lot easier to do organic search with XHTML, and most of our countries require it because Flash is data heavy. HTML5 is emerging, but it is a viable alternative that does not have the negatives that Flash has for SEO or data intensity.

  3. May 3, 2010 1:48 pm

    The codec issue needs resolution right now. Currently the licensing of H264 (not mandated by HTML5, but of course being used by many sites such as youtube) is causing problems with open standards efforts such as firefox.

    Nigel (@planetf1 on twitter)

  4. May 24, 2010 9:55 am

    Gotta say hey first !🙂 After reading, honestly I’d rather not leave something that is going to anger anyone by me being too opinionated that might see my comment lol so I’ll just say it was a good read and who knows maybe I’ll leave something a little more substantial later on.

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