Should You Move Your Site to HTML5?

You’ve probably heard quite a bit of buzz about HTML 5, especially after Adobe announced that they won’t continue to develop their mobile Flash player. It may be the future of the web, but is it really ready for prime time? And more importantly, does it offer read SEO benefits to your site if you switch?

Before I dive into this topic, you need to be aware that not all browsers fully support HTML5. In fact, as Kerry Dean notes in an article for Search Engine Land, “to date, none of the popular Internet browsers fully support all of the features and codes in HTML5.” But there are certainly degrees of support, and for all of the popular browsers (even Internet Explorer), those are growing.

Even so, why should you think about switching your site over to a fledgling “standard” that still isn’t well-supported? According to Dean, if your site fits into certain categories, you stand to gain a nice SEO boost from using HTML5. But you won’t hear very much about this from the current SEO blogs; indeed, Dean’s article is the first time I’ve seen anyone mention the possibility of SEO advantages to using HTML5. So why bother?

To start with, HTML5 is the way of the future – and you’ve probably experienced it already. Remember the Google Doodle in 2010 featuring a playable version of the Pac-Man video game? Google created it in HTML5, and gave it Flash support for those browsers that couldn’t handle the new standard. Many of us rediscovered just how addicting that hungry little yellow guy could be. If you can imagine bringing that kind of power to your website, then you know one reason it might be worth adopting HTML5.

Dean offers a lot more reasons, however. While he notes that “no one is out there providing evidence about the effects of HTML5 on organic traffic or really even SEO in general,” he also provides a list of the benefits HTML5 can give to your website. According to Dean, HTML can improve your site’s usability and user experience; help developers classify important content with several new tags; is a more-than-viable alternative to Flash and Silverlight; worth serious consideration for sites rich in audio and video media – the list goes on and on.

But two points on Dean’s list made me sit up and take notice. First, HTML5 is SEO-friendly for website crawling and indexing — which is a lot more than we can say about Flash! Second, Dean expects that HTML 5 will be heavily used for mobile apps and games. Every website that hopes to survive is looking into making themselves more mobile-friendly these days, thanks to the iPhone, iPad, and the increased ease of surfing the web with such mobile devices. If you have any interest in setting up applications that will work on mobile devices and connect  users to your website, you need to think seriously about HTML5.


 
With Google’s HTML5-based tribute to Pac-Man last year, you’d think the search engine plans to heavily support and encourage sites that use the new standard. The company actually seems to be taking more of a lukewarm approach. When Barry Schwartz brought up HTML5 and Googlebot about a year ago, he pointed to a Google Webmaster Help thread in which Googler JohnMu seemed to reflect more of a wait-and-see attitude. Dean quoted JohnMu as saying that “I have a feeling that HTML5 markup is not yet as widely in use (and in use correctly) that it would make sense for us to use it as a means of understanding content better. As HTML5 gains in popularity and as we recognize specific markup elements that provide value to our indexing system, this is likely to change, but at the moment I would not assume that you would have an advantage by using HTML5 instead of older variants.”

So why am I starting a section on HTML5′s SEO advantages with a year-old statement from Google to the effect that there aren’t any – at least, not yet? Well, HTML5′s advantages don’t stem strictly from SEO, and they may make more of a difference for some websites than others. As I said earlier, Flash-heavy sites stand to benefit greatly from switching to HTML5. As Dean notes, if you use HTML5 rather than Flash, “searchbots will be able to crawl your site and index your content. All of the content that is currently embedded in animations will be readable to search engines. In basic SEO theory, this one aspect of HTML5 will do wonders for your website’s ability to drive organic search traffic.”

To put this another way: if you run a Flash-heavy website and you’re NOT using HTML5, you’re hiding your content from the search engines. You’re effectively giving yourself an SEO penalty that you must now work hard to overcome. It would be easier in the long run to switch over to HTML5, so you don’t effectively have to tell everyone about your content twice (once in Flash, and again for searchbots that can’t read Flash).
 
Dean notes another advantage to switching to HTML5: it generates buzz. Buzz generates links. HTML5 is a continuing topic of interest. You might not find a lot of stories on the standard’s SEO benefits, but you’ll certainly find a lot of stories on the standard itself. If Facebook can generate interest with its new HTML5 iPad app, certainly your site can make the switch to HTML5 and get some good press (and links) in the bargain.
 
But aside from helping the search engines find all of your content, and collecting more links to make your site more visible in those search engines, HTML5 offers another excellent benefit: it makes your website more usable to visitors, at least those with browsers that support the standard (and that number appears set to increase with time). Dean points to HTML5 elements that “allow for easier audio and video streaming, particularly on mobile platforms,” as factors that may improve the experience of visitors. Before you dismiss all this, remember how successful the iPhone and iPad have been – and that they don’t support Flash. They do, however, support HTML5. If you want to make users from this growing demographic happy when they visit your website, you should seriously consider converting to HTML5.

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