Promenade, a music & technology blog, penned by Eoghan O'Neill.

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Choice Music Prize: Drop the Flash into the pan?

Jan 16

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008  RssIcon

Choice Music Award WebsiteSomething that never fails to get up my nostrils is websites that use Macromedia Flash. Used when appropriate Flash can create nifty looking and often informative websites - I'll concede that - but such niftiness comes invariably with a pretty hefty downside for both user, and for the website.

In a nutshell Flash based sites break all sorts of well established best practices for user navigation in addition to making the website, for all intent and purpose, 'invisible' to search engines (i.e. invisible to one of most important WWW 'launching pads' for surfers around the world). A few years ago on the CLUAS Discussion board I let rip about such sites, pointing out the numerous shortcomings of this technology before I went on to name and shame various Irish music websites guilty of using Flash.

In the last week another prominent Irish music site that uses Flash came to my attention and, in so doing, gave me an opportunity to resurrect my Flashy rant. I'm talking about the official website of the Choice Music Award (www.choicemusicprize.com). The website is, if you ask me, the one weak link in an otherwise well organised, professionally executed and credible music award initiative. It is unfortunate though that when it comes to its official presence on the interweb the Choice Music Prize has fallen short. Big time.

Flash SucksFor me there are five key reasons, all of them detailed below, as to why it has fallen short. I should note that while the reasons below are presented with regard to the specific case of choicemusicprize.com, each of these reasons remains valid for any music website tempted by the - er - seductive, skin-deep charms of Flash:

  1. Non-standard user navigation: Normal WWW navigation practices go out the window with Flash. For example on the Choice Music Website if, after viewing the home 'page' you then click on 'Shortlist' on the horizontal navigation bar you will, as you'd expect, be brought to the Shortlist  'page'. Once you've read that to your satisfaction and you want to, say, go back to the home page you may – out of habit – click on the browser’s ‘back’ button thinking it will bring you back to home ‘page’. Wrong. It will bring you back to the previous website you were on before you hit the Choice Music Prize website. Why is this? Basically because your browser treats a flash-based site as a single web page, no matter how many ‘pages’ it has. It may look like it has several ‘pages’ to a human visitor, but it’s only got one in the eyes of the browser (and also in the eyes of search engines for that matter, which brings me nicely to the next point…)
  2. Website content is invisible to Search Engines: While humans can read any text content of a Flash based website search engines still have major difficulty in doing so. In recent years Search Engines have started to work out how they can index content of such websites but they don't always do so and if they do it is done inefficiently and superficially compared to how they handle HTML based websites. For example the only bit of text that Google can read of the Choice Music website is the first sentence of the 'content' meta tag that appears in its HTML file. That's it. As a consequence the official Choice Music Prize website is not even in the running for many relevant searches for which it would - normally - be the number 1 result. For example try a search on Google for 'previous choice music prize winners'.
  3. Very slow download speed for some 1 in 16 users: The usual practice when trying to access an individual page on the WWW is to tell the browser the address of the page you desire by either clicking on a link or typing in the address. The browser then scuttles off and downloads that single page, it certainly does not download every page of the website you are trying to access. However ChoiceMusicPrize.com insists you download, in the form of a 215KB Flash file, every single 'page' of the site in their entirety before you can see anything. That's kind of okay if you are one of the many who nowadays have some form of broadband connection. However it is a bit of a nightmare for the 7% of users who still use a dial-up modem when visiting an Irish Music website(*). For them they will typically have to wait a full 44 seconds for the website to appear in their browser (according to www.websiteoptimization.com). Does a website owner really want 1in 16 of his or her visitors to wait that long? This would not be an issue if they had used standard HTML, as CLUAS does. By comparison the CLUAS home page appears in a web browser after a super light 15KB HTML file and a 3KB CSS file are downloaded. There are also 38KB of images to download on our home page but, once the HTML is downloaded, all text-based content of the home page is visible to a visitor who can read it while the browser heads off to fetch the images (which, for someone on dialup connection, takes about 15 seconds). The rule of thumb to take from this? Flash websites often take much longer to download, and websites that take a long time to download are really, really annoying.
  4. Plug-in Requirement: Today it is typical that 1 in 50 visitors to an Irish music website (**) do not have the plug-in installed in their web browser necessary to view a Flash based website. Straight off the bat, if you choose Flash for your website, you are excluding 2% of your potential visitors. Granted, many web owners are prepared to put up with such a loss of potential visitors if it means they can have a snazzier, more attractive website that a normal HTML based one, which brings me neatly to the final - and most preplexing - point...
  5. Choice Music Prize's use of Flash brings no advantage over basic HTML: Every single ounce of content on choicemusicprize.com could have be presented in exactly the same way using standard HTML and CSS positioning. I would even go so far as to say that it could look even better using HTML+CSS. There was simply no need to use Flash for this website. Its use here was akin to cutting a piece of paper using a chainsaw - yes, it will probably do the job but a scissors would have been so much easier and more effective. The decision to use Flash, in this case, has not just brought zero design advantage but it brings all this other baggage outlined above.

Okay enough riffing about the problem. Time to talk solution. The period for the most intense activity on the site is going to be in the days/week just after the winner is announced, i.e. after February 27. A goal should be set to have the site converted to HTML by then at the very latest but ideally by mid February (in order to give the search engines the time to index any new version of the website). Doing this should not be too difficult as the site has, as far as I can see, a total of 11 'pages' embedded in the Flash file. Converting these into 11 HTML files (with a bit of basic CSS styling and positioning) should be a reasonable goal in the next four weeks for Red Berry, the design company who created the current site in Flash (who I am assuming have HTML & CSS expertise in-house).

So let's see it then, a revamped Choice Music Website that is primed and ready for a surge in traffic (both human and search engine) from February 28 onwards.

Final point: any bands or business out there who are thinking of launching a website where the content is embedded in a Flash file, think carefully. Very carefully. And those of you who are already lumbered with a Flash-based site? Time to start converting it to good ould reliable HTML.


References:

* Over the entire course of 2007 6.6% of all visitors to CLUAS.com for whom a connection speed could be identified used a dialup modem.
** Over the entire course of 2007 1.8% of all visitors to CLUAS.com had no Macromedia Flash plugin installed in their broswer.

(Both these percentages were then rounded up to nearest interger for purposes of this blog entry).

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3 comment(s) so far...


Re: Choice Music Prize: Drop the Flash into the pan?

1) Requires a very thoughtfully developer, but possible:
http://www.tm5150.com/
http://www.google.ie/search?q=flash+back+button
2) Google are on this one
http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=35267
http://www.google.ie/search?q=google+index+flash
3) Bad Developer
http://www.google.ie/search?q=flash+loading+external+file
4) Agreed
http://www.adobe.com/products/player_census/flashplayer/
5) Total agreement

By Flash developer on   Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Re: Choice Music Prize: Drop the Flash into the pan?

Wow ye are giving out about other websites, you gotta love irony.

By Flash developer on   Wednesday, February 06, 2008
Gravatar

Re: Choice Music Prize: Drop the Flash into the pan?

And why does Adobe rapid4me.com/?q=Adobe need to have Javascript in their PDF reader?

By darron on   Thursday, May 28, 2009

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