Building Functional Alt Sites using SWFAddress

My position on Flash changes from time to time, but to be brutally honest, I’m not a big fan. I absolutely see its worth, and understand that using Flash can enhance the experience of a website in a wide variety of ways. To me, though, Flash is not the Web at its greatest. The Web, to me, is information. It’s a living, ever expanding library of data available for our interpretation and digestion. That’s not to say that the Web can’t be used as an entertainment platform, however. The Web is becoming more adaptive to the entertainment industry than it has ever before, and all for good reason.

When it comes to websites though, seeing a website built in Flash is a near guaranteed turn off personally. To me, a website built in Flash forks away from the inherent purpose of a website, and turns into a novelty. From the most generic standpoint, my opinion doesn’t even generate from the accessibility and performance concerns that come from a website built in Flash. It’s the usability of the website, the fact that it’s just, different.

However, many clients are attracted to websites built entirely in Flash. To me that comes from an interest rooted in everyone: motion. Things that move are, by default, more interesting to look at. I think I’ve discovered that my distaste for such things comes from a personal appreciation that has evolved as a Web designer. To me, a website with a solid design, solid information architecture, is extensively more pleasing than something that glows and animates left to right simply for the sake of visual stimulus. Information architecture, to me, is that visual stimulus, and making it move around completely detracts from my experience.

I don’t mean to say that a Flash site, by default, lacks anything from an information architecture point of view. In fact I’ve seen many Flash based websites that were designed terrifically, I simply would have preferred to view it as markup and style. I have the upmost respect for Flash designers & developers, as some of the work is simply stunning. I’m speaking from an abstract personal preference here, full of my own bias. I don’t mean to offend and I hope this isn’t coming off with any sort of attitude.

Working with Flash as a front end developer

I think my opinion of Flash based sites comes from my position as a Web designer. Specifically I’m a Web designer with a focus on front end architecture, quite different from a Flash designer. I’m a big believer in great teams working very well together, and my company has some terrifically talented Flash developers that I work with every day to create stunning pieces that please our clients. I need to put my opinions aside and make sure that the client gets what he wants, all the while making sure the website has an equally effective and useful alternate site to use. That involves a revised design to accommodate the variation in medium, as well as the development and deployment of that website for use.

One of the greatest things to ever happen to Flash, in my opinion, is SWFAddress by Asual. SWFAddress is:

SWFAddress is a small, but powerful library that provides deep linking for Flash and Ajax. It’s a developer tool, allowing creation of unique virtual URLs that can point to a website section or an application state. SWFAddress enables a number of important capabilities which are missing in today’s rich web technologies including:

  • Bookmarking in a browser or social website
  • Sending links via email or instant messenger
  • Finding specific content with the major search engines
  • Utilizing browser history and reload buttons

Basically, what SWFAddress does is give Flash the ability to behave that much more like a regular website by enabling the built in functionality of the browser within the Flash movie itself.

Using SWFAddress is necessary when working with a Flash website, not only for the inherent functionality improvements, but also to the benefits of your alternate site. The Asual team has included many examples of SWFAddress as well as documentation for each, the one to focus on is the SEO Example. This sample demonstrates what SWFAddress can do to integrate your Flash site with your alternate site seamlessly, allowing for effective search engine indexing, as well as equivalent access to your alt site.

The demo provided gives you access to a bit of PHP that handles quite a bit of redirection when it comes to processing a URL request. The script will help to determine if the visitor does indeed have Flash/JavaScript and in turn provide the proper “enhanced” URL, while passing site content to a user without the ability to view the Flash site. Clean URLs are retained and it’s actually a very effective solution.

Making an effective alt site

Building a Flash site is quite a bit of work, not only on the Flash side of things, but the development and maintenance of the alternate site as well. SWFAddress will route your traffic effectively, but you’ll need to manually distinguish which pages should serve which content and make sure equivalent content is represented in both websites.

With a content management system, you’ll be able to pull the same data per page via XML or otherwise, allowing both the Flash version of the site as well as the alt site, to pull from the same data source which will remove any discrepancy when it comes to content.

The inclusion of SWFAddress helps to tackle many of the baggage of Flash, and allows Web designers to create a very effective alt site both for the sake of search engine saturation, but even more importantly the benefit of accessibility.

What do you think?

What’s your opinion on Flash? Has that boat sailed when it comes to full websites? Will we see Flash only used when really necessary, for rich site widgets, video (until HTML5 becomes available), or other implementations limited to Flash? Does it bother you when you find yourself at a website built entirely in Flash? Does SWFAddress help with any issues you’ve got with Flash? With the advancements in front end technologies such as CSS3, CSS animations, canvas support, and O3D, do you think Flash is steadily taking a back seat for things to come? I’m just not sure if I’m alone here, and would love to hear some other opinions.