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Learn How to Make Flash and SEO Play Nice Together

October 30th, 2008 | | Crawlability, Usability

The year was 1998.  A new windows OS came out, the iMac appeared and a president was impeached … and I discovered Flash.  In a dimly lit computer lab, I came across eye4u.com – a German website that was built solely in Flash.  Its galleries and intro were stunning.  I never saw anything like that on the web before.  In general, the web was getting used to not being so “Netscape Gray.”  I remember saying “this is the future of the web.”

Now it is 2008 and Flash hasn’t dominated the net as “the system” to build a site and 10 years is a long time on the net.  We’re not flying through Flash-made tubes of 3D interfaces or having content fly out at us on comical handcranks.  Flash is powerful and can be entertaining if done right, but why hasn’t it “caught on?”  These days the bulk of Flash seems to be primarily used for games.

A long-term SEO consultant told me that when he would talk with a webmaster who had a Flash-made site, he would hold up a piece of paper and state “this is how Google sees your site.”  His point was that though Flash was powerful and great-looking, a site created using plain HTML had the distinct advantage of being more easily crawled versus the Flash version. 

What a blow!  The webmaster probably spent thousands creating a site that would be both entertaining and organized; yet Google didn’t know what to do with it.  Yes, the search robots that determine what is relevant and what content is indexable, could not crawl a site that was basically viewed as a really big picture.

The next few years led into a battle of Web Designers versus SEO consultants.  Rhetorics of design theory clashed against rhectorics of SEO compliancy.  Then, in June of this year, Google made a small announcement saying that it is learning to crawl the text elements of Flash files. 

Wow.  No longer is a Flash file flattened as an image, Googlebot can parse Flash files to see the text.  After thinking about this, I remembered how I was able to extract text from Flash files by taking a screenshot and converting the image into a PDF.  The simple OCR (optical character recognition) was able to determine what parts were text and what was an image.  Whether using an OCR or just able to parse files, there are major strides being made in reading Flash technology.

Why do some Flash sites have high PageRank?

Optimized content is good, but relevant content is better.  A site that is linked to over and over again will be considered relevant by the search engines.  My example from the beginning holds a PageRank of 5, yet if you look at the source view, it doesn’t have a lot there.  Link building will always have tremendous power.  Over 10 years of being shown as an example of “what Flash can do” helped carve themeselves a nice PageRank.  Then again, that’s 10 years of being on the internet.  Most companies don’t have that much time to wait.

Even though Googlebot is learning to parse text elements, that doesn’t mean you can go all willy-nilly in creating your 3D tube-traveling interface.  The language of the announcement is very “just started-ish” so the chances of your Flash site being indexed and ranked just as fast as a hand-coded HTML site is very slim.  Though if you do choose to incorporate Flash elements be sure to keep the following in mind:

  • Keep the heirarchy of your content clear
  • Use text for your links, not images
  • Add relevent HTML text around your Flash element

In another 10 years they may be able to easily fly through your 3D landscaped Flash page.  Until then try to make it easy for the search engines to crawl your site and keep them happy!

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