New technology, user demand, and search-engine-optimized design are making it possible for search engines to index, rank and display sites developed completely with the Adobe Flash platform.
To be sure, rich Internet applications (RIAs), like those created with Flash and Flex, are a challenge for search engines to index, rank, and link to. But, now, Flash is not a barrier to search engine optimization. In fact, it is possible to have great SEO and great Flash.
With a minimal amount of care, you can create Flash-based websites that work and play well with leading search engines. In this edition of “Ecommerce Know-How,” I am going to (1) briefly explain why search engines have had trouble indexing Flash content in the past, and (2) mention two software advances that make it easier for search engines to index text associated with Flash.
Why Flash and Other RIAs Are a Challenge for Search Engines
Imagine for a moment that it is your job to make reference copies of important documents for a law firm. Everyday reams of affidavits, contracts, and briefs come across your desk. You photocopy those documents, organize them by topic, and file them.
All is well, until one day a DVD lands in your in basket (think wire container on the corner of a wooden desk). The DVD contains important contractual information, but you don’t have a DVD player. All you can do is photocopy the cover from the DVD case and hope that cover provides enough information to make integrating it into your filing system possible. And, let’s face it, your photocopy of the DVD cover is not going to be much help as a reference copy of the DVD’s content.
This photocopying scenario is analogous to the problem search engines have faced (note the past tense) when trying to index, rank, and display results for RIAs.
The two most important challenges that I want to illustrate are (1) search engines had a hard time getting at Flash content and (2) search engines had a hard time referencing and linking to Flash content.
Hello, Is There Any Content There?
Search engines have had trouble getting at the content—even the text content—inside of the Flash’s SWF (the small web format file, used for many Flash applications). At best, search bots were able to get at whatever “state” of the Flash that was displayed when a page loaded.
The Problem with Linking Back to Content
And search engines could not link back to content even when they found it since Flash-based pages can provide a lot of interactive content, such as product details, descriptions, or even a shopping cart, on a single URL without reloading the browser.
All of the site content is at http://someurl.com. There is no http://someurl.com/some-product. So, even when a search bot discovered a given product description, it could only link back to the beginning or first “state” of the Flash not to the particular state that included that product description.
This is vital for SEO because even if Google, Bing or Yahoo! finds and indexes a web page, the user search for the page’s content won’t be happy because instead of arriving at the desired product description, he or she will land on the Flash home page and have to navigate to the proper page. And if a customer wants to email a link to her friend, she could only point to the first state of the Flash.
To use our DVD analogy, even if I had a DVD player and could get at the content, I would not necessarily have a way to reference a particular section on the disk, rather I just have to play through it.
Flash SEO Solutions
So, should we just give up on using Flash and go back to HTML table-layouts? No way. New software improvements have made creating Flash sites that search engines can index relatively easy.
A Headless Flash Player for Search Engines
For more than a year, Google has been able to index some Flash content. And recently, Adobe announced that it was working with Google and Yahoo! on a headless Flash Player that exposed much (if not all) of a Flash application’s text content to the search engine.
Nicknamed Ichabod after the literary figure, the headless player has unlocked SWFs in a similar fashion to how PDF content is now available to search engines. Just a few years ago, no search engine could index PDFs, either.
Separately, Google announced in June 2009 that it is now indexing external content that SWF files call into a RIA. “This means that when a SWF file loads content from some other file—whether it’s text, HTML, XML, or another SWF,—we can index this external content too, and associate it with the parent SWF file and any documents that embed it,” wrote Google Software Engineer, Janis Stipins on the Google Webmaster Central Blog.
Now that Google and other search engines can get at Flash content—and they can—Flash is no longer a barrier to indexing.
In fact, according to Stipins, Google can:
* “Index textual content displayed as a user interacts with the file. We click buttons and enter input, just like a user would.
* “Discover links within Flash files.
* “Load external resources and associate the content with the parent file.
* “Index sites scripted [with ActionScript even if it] is obfuscated.”
Accessible Flash Content Means There Is SEO To Do
Certainly, there are lots of things Flash designers can do to either improve their SEO or make their content invisible. But these “things” are now similar to standard HTML SEO best practices. This can include, for example, whether or not some content has a title, an
tag, or even some body copy. These are not so much about HTML or Flash but about planning and design considerations.
Now Flash Supports Deep Linking
The second major problem that search engines faced where Flash content was concerned had to do with links. There was only one URL and no way to link back to a particular state in the Flash. Well, that problem is now solved. Several resources, including Asual’s SWF Address make it possible to link directly to a particular state in Flash. So if Flash designers want to have a URL for every state in a Flash site, they can.
Search engines and customers alike can link directly to the part of the Flash content that they want to. And a site can even develop back links (for Google PageRank) that aim to particular Flash states.
Both of the major challenges that search engines faced when indexing, ranking, and displaying query results from Flash sites and applications have been, essentially, overcome.
Does that mean that SEO for Flash is now as familiar or even as easy as SEO for HTML? No. It just means that a site owner and a site developer can take steps to optimize a Flash site without fearing that their Flash is “invisible” to Google or Bing or other search engines.
There are still dozens of considerations and problems with SEO for Flash. As an example, all of your Flash content may look like a single page to search engines, and not a series of pages like HTML would. But now the issues are similar to how SEO professionals plan for HTML optimization. A conscientious site owner will still need to pay attention to SEO and employ techniques to ensure that he or she makes it easy for the search bots visiting her site.
Finally, I suspect there are some naysayers among my readers, but I must remind them that the Internet, email, television, radio, and even the automobile have all had naysayers in their time. RIAs are the next phase of Internet evolution, and Google, Yahoo!, Bing, and Ask will make delivering search results from pages created with Flash (and other rich media technology, like Microsoft Silverlight, AJAX, and Curl, to name a few) as common as HTML-based search results, or they will be replaced as the search leaders by new services that do display RIAs in search results.