Flash & Search Engines : Indexed in a Flash

When it comes to SEO, Flash can be a polarizing topic. Whenever I’m speaking with clients about their SEO initiatives (along with their creative and technical staff), it only takes one mention of flash to suddenly get a mixture of angry, excited, and confused looks.

When you break it down, some brand managers love how engaging flash can be, designers love the boundless creativity it offers, IA directors can do without it, SEO’s cringe at the thought of it, and C-level marketers don’t know who to listen to! But one thing is clear. Flash isn’t going anywhere…as you can see by the massive number of websites that employ flash content.

Indexed in an [Adobe] Flash

I bring a somewhat unique perspective. I started developing with Flash in 1997, and yes, I once developed highly interactive and engaging flash movies that would make most SEO’s go for my jugular. My roots are in interactive development, and flash was a key tool in my arsenal.

Today, I still understand the power of flash when used properly, but I also know the incredible power of SEO. I’m not against the use of flash, but you better believe I want it optimized if it’s going to be used by my clients. I like to think I’ve come a long way. :)

Since I have a broad background in flash development and have developed hundreds of flash movies and applications over the past 12 years, it’s been interesting to delve deeply into flash SEO to see how it has evolved. Although I’ve written previously about using SWFObject to provide crawlable alternative content for flash (along with flash video content), I’ve also been heavily testing and analyzing how the engines index flash (SWF files).

Personally, I’m tired of showing clients the big blank cache of their flash sites in Google! It’s a great visual and is usually a jaw-dropping experience for them, but that simply can’t remain the standard. That’s why I was excited last June when Adobe, Google, and Yahoo announced their partnership.

Improved Flash Indexing, June 2008

In June of 2008, Adobe announced that it was working with Google and Yahoo on improving flash indexing. As you can imagine, I was chomping at the bit to test and analyze how the engines were indexing flash, based on this announcement.

Just to clarify, Google was indexing SWF files prior to the partnership, but they weren’t working with Adobe on streamlining and improving the process. I can remember one of my clients a few years ago sending me a link to one of their SWF files in the SERPs, along with one line of text, “What the heck is this?” :) What was presented in the SERPs wasn’t exactly pretty, but it was a start.

My goal since the announcement has been to make some sense out of how the engines index flash, what are some best practices you should follow when publishing flash content, and what are some things to watch out for as you develop more flash content.

After yet another round of testing over the past few weeks, I decided to write this post so I can help lead you down the right path. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as that last sentence sounds since this is a highly dynamic area of SEO… It has even changed since July and I fully expect it to keep evolving. That said, I’ll provide some findings and guidance below.

First, since I’ve heard every flash pun in the world over the past year, let me get something out of the way:

This post will not be over in a flash, nor will it be a flash in the pan, hopefully your seo life won’t flash by before your eyes, and Flash the superhero won’t be helping you with your projects… OK, enough with the flash puns! :) Let’s jump in.

GOOGLE IS CRAWLING FLASH, FORGET ABOUT SEO, LET’S DEVELOP EVERYTHING IN FLASH, WOOHOO! But wait…

I remember a flash designer commenting on one of my blog posts about flash seo saying, “Your post is now irrelevant! Google is indexing Flash! Let’s all binge on flash.” Not in those exact words of course. I think my first reaction was “hold on a second buddy…” Nothing has been perfected yet, and actually, this was just announced! By the way, I was right. It wasn’t perfected yet. It was a step in the right direction, but there were other factors that impacted how your flash files were being crawled, namely how you publish your flash content.

In addition, all flash content was obviously not being indexed so it would be premature to think you could disregard providing the engines with alternative html content (which has been a standard practice from an SEO standpoint). It would be crazy to think that Google and Yahoo would instantaneously index all flash content on the web, right?

Glenn Gabe
Featured SEO Writer for SEJ Glenn Gabe is a digital marketing consultant at G-Squared Interactive and focuses heavily on SEO, SEM, Social Advertising, Social Media Marketing, and Web Analytics. Glenn has over 18 years of experience and has held leadership positions both in-house and at a global interactive agency. During his career, Glenn has helped clients across a wide range of industries including consumer packaged goods (CPG), ecommerce, startups, pharmaceutical, healthcare, military, education, non-profits, online auctions, real-estate, and publishing. You can follow Glenn on Google+ here.

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34 thoughts on “Flash & Search Engines : Indexed in a Flash

  1. This is probably the most detailed article on Flash/SEO I’ve read. Thanks for writing this.

  2. To very badly paraphrase Jeff Goldblum from Jurassic Park, shouldn’t we spend more time discussing whether or you should want your Flash content indexed and less time on whether or not the engines can index it?

    I can tell you did a lot of research and worked hard on this piece, but isn’t this somewhat of a silly issue? Isn’t Flash indexing the least important variable in the equation?

  3. Glenn
    Thanks for this detailed article. As someone who is not a professional SEO but rather a Enterprise Content Management consultant who has to interface with customers on both external websites crawled by Google, Yahoo, etc. and internal enterprise search engines, I needed to better understand how to look at Flash and search engines.
    Some customers are absolutely addicted to Flash and we can’t tell how their usage will be read by the various search engines they employ or are exposed to. This article at least gives us a clue on what to recommend the customers try to see what will work in multiple environments.
    P.S. It’s common in a corporate internet implementation for the customer to want to optimize for Rank, but most customers impression of what works is based on 3-5 year old info and they try to hold their success to our software and that set of assumptions. Our standard line is to hire a SEO firm but less than 1 in 5 has accepted that recommendation by the time we have completed a project.

  4. Thanks @Marjory, @M.L. Stone

    I’m glad you liked my post. There was a lot to cover, based on my testing and what’s going on in the industry. I definitely plan to write more about flash seo in the future.

  5. @Jason, I defintely hear you, but many websites (both large and small) employ flash content. I can tell you that almost every company I have helped has used flash in one form or another on their sites.

    In addition, the bigger brands I have helped utilize a lot of flash. So, if tens of thousands of dollars were approved for a viral site built in flash, then we still have to optimize it! :)

    So, following how flash is being indexed, along with using best practices for providing alternative content has been important for me. But again, I hear your concerns.

  6. Thanks @Mark. Most of the flash movies I tested are for clients, so I unfortunately cannot provide links. That said, I definitely plan to write more about this and I have several flash pieces running now where I am gathering more data. Maybe that’s an idea for a future post. :)

    If you want to analyze your own flash movies, I can definitely provide some guidance. Thanks again.

  7. To Jason, I would say it depends on what is in the Flash. If you main site navigation is in the Flash and can’t be indexed then your going to be a significant disadvantage. And therefore for many people it is not a silly question.

  8. By the way man, I use the name Catfish SEO on all my forum comments on every site and its really annoying that your “anti spam” guard prevents me from using that name on your site.

  9. Even a page blocked off using robots.txt collects PageRank, it is whether links pass juice and anchor text that is most important.
    Google will use nofollow links for discovery – crawling doesn’t mean the links have value.

  10. @catfish

    I hear you there, but I think there is another valid viewpoint, which is, if your main site navigation is in Flash, then you’re optimization has already failed.

  11. Very solid post Glenn. Just about every SEO/Flash post out there basically says “use SWFObject” and that’s about it. I appreciate how you went into more detail about the different versions of SWFObject, the object/embed method, etc.

    Through you testing, were you able to see how well Flash-based main navigation was being indexed? Would you be willing to suggest Flash navigation to a client who wants a pretty robust Flash site experience, or would you suggest other methods for the main nav?

  12. Great nuanced post

    Flash is not the devil, but the users of flash are related to the guy below. I made a test of the sites from 8 of the most prominent web-development firms in Denmark, and two out of eight did fail the flash test.

    The two sites primarily used flash, no meta description and other tags to improve keyword density.

  13. Great post Glenn – thanks for your unique insight (Flash + SEO Developer) into the issue.

    One thing that I think should be added to the discussion is the difference between Indexing and Ranking. While Flash-based content can now be indexed in many instances, how is this content actual ranking when compared to plain-vanilla HTML?

    Google determines ranking according to their 300+ criteria, many of which are based on on-page cues (Hn headers, anchor tags, kw location on page, etc). Given that a plain-text extract from a SWF file is unlikely to include many of these cues, how are these SWF indexed pages likely to rank when compared to HTML competitors?

  14. Great detailed write up on Flash. Call me old school but I still detest Flash for anything other than a few bells and whistles. I would imagine that with HTML and Flash option websites that they may start running into duplicate content issues? If anything I’d robots.txt out my Flash version for anytime in the foreseeable future.

  15. Thanks for sharing your testing results – Great article. Always lots of opinions on this topic but facts are facts.

    I think we can all agree that “we’ve still got a long way to go”.

  16. Thanks @Eric Pender. I’m glad you enjoyed my post!

    Great question regarding flash navigation. I did test some sites that use a flash navigation and saw mixed results. I still wouldn’t recommend using a flash navigation for several reasons. I always think a robust text navigation is a critical component for SEO.

    In addition, since I saw some websites that had none of its flash content indexed (for no apparent reason), I’m not sure anyone could rely 100% on their own flash content being indexed. I plan to explore this more over the next few months. I hope that helps.

  17. Thanks @Marshall Clark. You bring up a great point, and one I talk about often. It is about ranking and not just being indexed. During my testing, I saw some swf’s ranking, some parent webpages ranking, and then both swf’s and parent webpages ranking together! Odd, to say the least.

    I believe the engines want to use text content from flash to influence the parent webpage’s ranking, and not necessarily rank the swf (although there are cases where the swf should rank). If that’s the case, then the core on-page elements wouldn’t necessarily be needed in the swf. Again, that’s a great question.

  18. Thanks @Robert. Overall, I agree with you here. I often tell clients to use flash only when needed (and never for an entire webpage or website). I know the power of flash for providing certain functionality, but it should never be overused (which unfortunately happens sometimes.) :-)

  19. Thank you @Kevin Pike! I’m glad you liked my post. Yes, we definitely have a long way to go, but at least we’re on the path. :) I’m eager to see how Adobe works with Google, Yahoo and the other engines to keep pushing this forward. I’m optimistic that this will greatly improve.

  20. @David Johnson I didn’t see your comment until now for some reason! Thanks and I’m glad you found my post helpful.

    You definitely bring a unique perspective, since you are dealing with content management systems, traditional SEO, and then enterprise search. I agree that some companies are addicted to flash and need to learn more about how their content is being crawled (or more importantly, if it’s not being crawled).

    I’ve also worked with various content management systems and have seen several types of publishing methods employed. Some good and some bad…

    I was glad to hear that you recommend hiring an SEO consultant or agency to help. Then I wasn’t thrilled to hear the rate at which they listen to your recommendation! :) Thanks for your comment.

  21. I remember a flash designer commenting on one of my blog posts about flash seo saying, “Your post is now irrelevant! Google is indexing Flash! Let’s all binge on flash.” Not in those exact words of course. I think my first reaction was “hold on a second buddy…”

    Thank you for that… And don’t forget user experience. 90% of websites should not even consider going all-Flash. Flash is a user experience nightmare, and is a horrible fit for content-heavy websites. Or websites in general. Flash is good for web apps, video content, movie sites, or anything where visuals and interactivity are more important than content.

  22. Next time a client or designer tells me Google can crawl Flash and therefore my SEO advice is out of touch, I’ll send them to this post and save myself hours of arguing. Check and mate. Well done! :)

  23. Thanks for the great article. I’m not a Flash developer, but you made sense all the way through. I’m still going to use my strategy of having a Flash page for users and a fully functional HTML site for the search engine bots.

  24. You’re welcome @redwall_hp. And I agree with you. That’s exactly the philosophy I use with my clients. Utilize flash only where needed (when you need its power.)

  25. @Melanie, great idea! :) I’ve been part of those debates also…which is part of the reason I always emphasize testing before advocating solutions!

  26. Thank you @Paul and @Chuck. I’m glad you enjoyed my post. I’ll be writing more about this in the future as the situation changes and progresses. Again, stay tuned.

  27. Thanks @Damien. I’m glad you enjoyed my post! I will definitely check out your articles. My hope is that Adobe keeps developing that area for both the Flash and SEO communities. Thanks again.

  28. Awesome. Can you put the examples online of the examples that you used? For me, see the content, make searches on google and yahoo and try that this is real. I like to know more about this.
    Thanks.