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MIHMORANDUM
No. 141
April 16th, 2007


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Flash vs. HTML Websites – Which Should Your Business Choose?

This should be the first question any small business owner asks himself/herself when he/she is considering a redesign for the company’s website. Making the wrong decision can be an expensive mistake, because any work that goes into the coding of one kind of website essentially has to be scrapped if you decide to change to the other at a later date.

What’s the difference?
“Flash” is a webpage coding application that gives sites a slick, dynamic look and, typically, a seamless user experience. They typically contain all information on one URL address (the company’s homepage) or in a pop-up window after the homepage has loaded. Some of the most impressive examples of Flash websites are Nike, Rolex, and Skidmore Owings & Merrill.

“HTML” is the original webpage programming language developed by Tim Berners-Lee (the REAL inventor of the Internet) in the 1980’s that is still the backbone of most content on the web today. Its defining characteristics are what’s called “aliased” text (the kind you’re reading right now–hard edged letters with no blending), fast download speed, and, compared to flash, a more serial user experience that involves clicking links to get from page to page. Some of the most impressive examples of HTML-based websites are Newsvine, A List Apart, and The PGA Championship.

Depending on your company’s business, either or both may be effective options. Below are a few simple criteria to help you evaluate your decision.

1) Is search engine traffic an important part of my business model?
If you answer “yes” to this question, a Flash-based website is out of the question. The reason? Search engines cannot parse any content inside a Flash “movie” (well, ALMOST none) and probably won’t be able to for the forseeable future. Not all HTML-based websites are necessarily search-engine friendly, but if you hope to get traffic from Google, Yahoo, MSN, and Ask eventually, you’ll need to start with an HTML-based website.

2) Are more than 25% of my customers likely to use a DSL or dial-up connection to access my website?
If so, you’ll probably want to go with an HTML-based site. The increasing prevalence of broadband lines (and access to even higher speeds in a typical corporate environment, like T1 or T3) makes Flash a more appropriate option for a much wider variety of sites than it used to be. But it still takes, on average, 5-10 times as long for a Flash-based website to load as one based in HTML, simply because the file size is necessarily high to accommodate all the bells and whistles that go along with it. Users on a slower connection won’t appreciate the longer download time, and may click to another website before yours even loads.

3) Is the feel of the user experience absolutely critical to my product or service?
Fashion companies, high-end real estate developers or agents, art & design professionals, and young or high-end retail brands are just a few of the industries for whom user experience can make or break their website, so it would make sense to go with Flash. For these companies, word of mouth traffic is far more important than search engine traffic, where the only search terms these companies really need to show up for is their own name, or the name of their product. This limited amount of search engine optimization (SEO) can be done fairly easily without compromising the design.

4) How often will my site need to be updated?
If you think you’re going to be adding pages, changing copy around, or building out new sections of your website fairly consistently (say, more than 3-4x a year), you should stay away from Flash. Even for the most experienced Flash programmer, building out new pages & sections can be very time-consuming (and thus very expensive for you). Once an HTML layout is set up, any new content can be dropped in fairly easily. In summary, HTML is relatively scalable, while Flash is relatively UN-scalable.

5) How much content do I have?
If you’ve got a bunch of content (more than 20-30 pages), a Flash website may be not only file-size prohibitive, but cost-prohibitive. The three Flash websites I cited above either have a ridiculous ad budget (Rolex/Nike) to spend on huge sites, or a talented in-house team of designers (SOM). For small businesses, this often means HTML is the way to go.

One final comment: HTML and Flash are NOT mutually exclusive. Flash can be used in much smaller chunks, much like images, to create a sense of animation and dynamism while still yielding the benefits of an HTML-based site. Animations that are simple to code often turn out quite beautifully and can add an impressive element to an otherwise simple-looking site. Examples in my own work are the animation at the top of the homepage on Matt Heafey’s real estate website and in the header of McGrathProperties.com‘s homepage.