Adobe, Google, Yahoo and the New and Improved (Sort of) Flash

7/23/2008

- Michelle Stone, SEO Specialist

As Adobe® has made elements of its Flash® technology open to Google™ and Yahoo!®, both search engines are now able to improve their indexing of Adobe Flash files. After the announcement, the Internet went wild with speculation. Some sectors took this as a sign that Flash is the way to go with web design and web development. Others sounded a death knell for optimizing Flash files for natural or organic search. The rest stayed tellingly quiet and calm in light of this announcement. So, how exactly has this indexing been improved and what does it mean for Internet search?

Since we’re all primarily familiar with their service as a search engine, let’s go ahead and focus our attention on how Google is now better at indexing the Flash files they find on the Internet. With the detailed information they received from Adobe, Google is able to index textual content in Shockwave® Flash (also known by its two suffixes, SWF for Shockwave Flash or SWV for Shockwave Video) files of all kinds, including items ranging from buttons or menus to self-contained Flash websites. While this is an improvement over how the search engine crawled and indexed Flash in the past, within the context of search engine optimization (SEO), the only index-able text contained in Flash is the text that web users can see as they interact with the file. It’s the textual content in a Flash file that is used when Google generates a snippet for a given website.

Thanks to the information received from Adobe, this advancement in reading Flash files means that Google is now able to actually see the in-Flash text that appears to any visitor to your website, in addition to the on-page plain text. With this in mind, if there is text contained in a Flash file that could be considered less informative or not as unique or descriptive, you may consider replacing it with an image. As Google is currently unable to “view” text-as-images, this will make such text effectively invisible.

Additionally, the words that appear in Flash files can be used to match query terms in Google searches. This is because the text found in Flash files is treated similarly to text found in other files, such as HTML, PDFs, and the like. If the Flash file is embedded in HTML (as many Flash files typically are), its content is associated with the parent URL and indexed as a single entity, as shown in the two search engine results page (SERP) examples here.

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Figure 1: A Flash file in a Google SERP prior to the Adobe announcement

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Figure 2:The same Flash file in the Google SERP after the Adobe announcement

In addition to finding and indexing the textual content in Flash files, Google is also able to discover the URLs that appear in those files. This means that such URLs are now crawl-able in the same way as non-Flash web pages. Ensuring that Flash files are well inter-linked to appropriate pages on a website is now of even greater importance then before.

What are some SEO Best Practices that you can adopt for your Flash files? Here is a list of some of the ways in which you can optimize such dynamic elements:

  • Create descriptive, relevant, and keyword-rich page titles, meta descriptions, and meta keywords. While Google’s and Yahoo’s ability to actually crawl and derive text from Flash files will improve, this doesn’t mean that some tried and true practices will go away.
  • Embed the Flash into HTML pages and use regular text links on the page if at all possible. The use of regular links means that you can add both unique keywords to the page and then assign greater semantic weight to those keywords by using them within a link reference (anchor text).
  • If the site design can bear it, consider adding text content to the page to add relevance for the Flash object. The search engines have always favored text content and the more relevance you can assign to your site’s pages, the better for search.
  • Create textual representations of what is in the Flash object using <noembed> tags.
  • If your site is Flash driven, instead of including everything in one Flash file it may make better sense to separate the content into different Flash files. This way you can create different HTML pages centered on the ideas contained in each piece. Not only will this give you more opportunity to create keyword-rich, spider-able text content, but it will also grow the number of pages on your site. This is of additional SEO benefit.

Now that we’ve opened the topic of SEO, here are some further things to consider when optimizing Flash:

Software Development Kits (SDKs)

The leading web development tool, Adobe Dreamweaver®, embeds Flash in web pages with coding that fails to provide accessibility for visitors or search engine spiders that cannot handle Flash. Dreamweaver has a search engine SDK available for Flash Player development at www.adobe.com/licensing/developer/.

Scripting

There are several JavaScript plug-ins available for Flash detection. SWFObject is an easy-to-use and standards-friendly method to embed Flash content, which utilizes one small JavaScript file. The script can detect the Flash plug-in in all major web browsers (on Mac and PC) and is designed to make embedding Flash movies as easy as possible. It is also very search engine friendly, degrades gracefully, can be used in valid HTML and XHTML 1.0 documents, and is forward compatible, so it should work for years to come. More information on the script can be found here: code.google.com/p/swfobject/

What’s the one take away to get from this important announcement from one of the world’s leading software developers? Whereas Google and Yahoo, two of the “Big Three” search engines, now have additional insight into the inner workings of Flash files, this does not mean that a Flash-only site is a search-engine friendly or SEO-friendly creation. It’s important to remember that when it comes to advancements in technology, there is an element of wait-and-see. Before planning to add Flash files to your website, or to even turn your website into a Flash-only work, it would be beneficial to keep an eye on how Google and Yahoo begin to index such files.

Additionally, it’s important to keep in mind that content is still king; that is to say, content in the form of plain text in paragraph structure, is what helps the search engines to determine what your site is about and how best to serve up your website in their results. The only way in which the search engines’ spiders can establish relevancy is by actually reading what your site is about. While Flash is certainly attractive and attention-grabbing, it still doesn’t beat a well-written paragraph that utilizes your key phrases. In the long run, both your human site visitors and your automated visitors will benefit from having something great and helpful to read, in addition to something fun and interesting to see.

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