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The rich media demo serves to assure parents of the ability of young children to operate the roller coaster while also sparking more interest from children themselves, Almond says. “If you use rich media to create too many bells and whistles, you run the risk of distracting shoppers from finding what they want to buy,” Elliott says. “Flash is a really useful tool, but you don’t want to use Flash just for the sake of using Flash. It’s best to use it only where you can lend extra functionality to help consumers understand a product better.”
Moreover, if not applied properly, Flash in particular can prevent a web site’s appearance in the results of Internet searches, says Chris Winfield, president of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based design firm 10E20 Web Design. “The problem with Flash is that a search engine spider sees a Flash web site as mostly one big image, one file, so there are fewer keywords for it to read,” he says. “You can lose about a third of your search engine results.”
“Flash is great for a site like Nike.com, which doesn’t have to worry about search engine optimization because it has a brand people see 20 times a day,” he adds. “But smaller retailers have to rely on search engine optimization. The most important thing for smaller retailers is to get consumers to their site instead of to the 40 million other sites selling the same products.”
Matt Corey, vice president of e-commerce and marketing for home furnishings retailer The Bombay Co., says he’s concerned about providing a consistent shopping experience for all shoppers, regardless of what type of bandwidth or rich media player they use. “I don’t see us doing rich media any time soon, because I want everyone to have a common experience,” he says. “You could be on broadband at work and go home and be on dial-up, and I want you to find us at home as well as at work.”
Macromedia and other web designers say Flash can be modified so as not to interfere with web searches and doesn’t have to pose a problem with bandwidth. Sadowsky of Vendaria notes that web pages can be designed so that HTML tags are not only kept separate from Flash files but include data from rich media files themselves, making both a web page’s textual content and information related to the rich media file show up in Internet search results. “It all depends on how you build Flash onto your site,” says Forest Key, senior product manager for Macromedia.
Key adds that he expects Flash to be used more widely on web sites, as developers use it for building applications as well as enhancing images. “Flash started as a pure animation tool, but it’s moving into a position as a powerful application development tool,” he says. The latest version of Flash supports more high-level application development, plus new techniques that can combine Flash with HTML, he adds. Elliott cautions that such wider usage of Flash would place stronger demands on consumers to have the latest versions of Flash readers on their computers.
Elliott adds that all but the oldest of personal computers should be able to easily support Flash reader technology. And with rich media readers built into all new personal computers with Windows and Macintosh operating systems, it’s becoming rare that a computer isn’t equipped to view rich media - although consumers often still must download new versions of readers.
Sadowsky says Vendaria designs rich media systems that detect the type of bandwidth and media players in use on a consumer’s computer, then adjusts the rich media output to suit their equipment. “We know what they’re using, so we deliver a Flash experience designed for the user,” he says.
To be sure, rich media is raising the image of the online medium as a merchandising and advertising venue. “Rich media can make my job easier,” says Almond, “because manufacturers may choose to demonstrate products online instead of, or in addition to, running a TV ad.”
Building an alternative to Flash
To assure performance in Internet searches as well as to avoid other frustrations that Flash rich media technology can bring to shoppers, such as making them download the latest rich media reader, it’s often better to use methods other than Flash to jazz up displays, says Chris Winfield, president of design firm 10E20 Web Design.
For example, he says, 10E20 will write more code to connect multiple GIF image files, making them alternately appear in the same space as if they were one moving image. Although this can take more time than installing Flash, it takes up less bandwidth and will not interrupt search engine crawlers, he says. “You won’t see an image traveling around a page this way, but you won’t lose out on search either.”
One e-retailer that has taken this approach, PCS-Ltd.com, has reported strong results in Internet searches while dressing up its pages with multiple text graphics that alternately fade in and out of the same banner space. A recent redesign of the site that emphasizes search engine placements while limiting moving graphics to alternating GIF files will lead to a 25% increase in sales this year over last, after several consecutive years of 15% growth, says president Anthony Croucier. “We’ve already seen an increase in visitor activity just by moving up in web page searches,” he says.