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Feb 26, 2009
How To

SEO and Flash Primer: How to Be Seen by Search Engines & Avoid Clash: Part I

SUMMARY: While many brand marketers like Flash, most search marketers don’t. Also, natural search and Flash often clash.

In Part I of our two-part series on SEO and Flash, you’ll find out if you should use the platform to build your website and other content. Plus, discover the best practices for optimizing Flash content for the search engines.
The multimedia platform Flash has been like a pariah for natural search. Websites, navigation links, tools, and ads made from Flash can have great visual appeal to users, but can be virtually invisible to search engines.

However, there are ways to use Flash and be recognized by search engine spiders. Last July, Google announced that it would start indexing text and URLs in Flash files. Despite this progress, the marketers and developers say that using Flash is not optimal for natural search, but it is possible.

In Part I of a two-part series, find out why brand marketers like Flash, why search marketers don’t, and the best practices to satisfy them both. Your next SherpaSearch newsletter will bring you Part II -- it will describe another way to get searchers to Flash content, what Google’s Flash announcement means for your site, and the impacts other marketers see.

Clash of Search and Flash

Why use Flash?

Well-designed Flash websites look great. They can have moving elements, seamless page transitions, fancy graphics, interactive features, and a host of other benefits. This can be great for brand marketers. Flash enables talented designers to give a website an aesthetic appeal not often found in HTML (see links below for examples of Flash and HTML sites).

Flash can also be used to create smaller site elements, such as:
o Site navigation
o Videos
o Interactive and animated ads
o Games
o Widgets/gadgets/tools

Websites can be all Flash, and Flash features can be incorporated into all HTML sites. About 99% of Internet-enabled desktops in mature markets use Flash, according to the platform’s inventor, Adobe.

Great, so what’s the big deal?

Compared to HTML, Flash is not nearly as easy to optimize for search engines. Until Google’s 2008 announcement, no search engine could index information in a Flash file. That means a beautiful website created entirely from Flash could not get much more than its title indexed – even if it had loads of great content. That hurts a Flash website’s ability to rank well.

Google says it can now index the text and URLs in some Flash content (more on that in Part II). However, getting Flash content indexed is still less optimal than getting HTML content indexed. Through HTML, search engines can see words you’ve emphasized in headings, bold and italics. Marking up certain keywords can improve your chances for ranking well in searches for them. Google cannot distinguish emphasis in Flash content.

Despite these challenges, marketers are using Flash and finding ways to get the content indexed in search engines. Below is one strategy that marketers used before Google’s announcement that is still effective today.

Set Your Priorities

“If your only goal in life is to get the best possible search engine ranking, then don’t use Flash. It’s never going to get your site ranked better, and it can make it worse if done incorrectly,” says Nathanial Trienens, Partner, Fuzz Productions.

“That said, usually people have more goals than a higher search ranking,” he says. “They also want to have content that people are looking for or are interested in. If Flash can help you make your customers interested, then there are ways to create Flash without negatively impacting your search rankings.”

How to Optimize Flash Content

Method #1: Create Flash and HTML Versions of Content

Marketers who use Flash and want the content seen by search engines will often create an alternate HTML version. This can be done for all-Flash or partial-Flash sites. But this method requires a fair amount of work, says Brian Ussery, Director SEO Technology, Search Discovery.

“When you’re building an HTML site, you’re building an HTML site. When you’re building a Flash site, you’re building a Flash site and an HTML site, and you have other issues to address, too,” he says.

After the two versions are created, the website has to decide which version to show visitors. Developers can use the JavaScript file SWFObject (pronounced swiff-object) to detect whether the visitor has Flash installed. If visitors have Flash, they will see the Flash website or feature. If they don’t, they will see the HTML version (ask your resident coder to visit the links below).

“The objective is to get the same rankings you could get with HTML, but to provide a Flash experience,” says Jonathan Hochman, President, Hochman Consultants.

Variation: Combine Flash and HTML

Rather than delivering content in Flash or HTML, some marketers deliver both versions on the same page. For example, a page may feature a Flash video above the fold. Below the fold, in HTML, a page can show a screenshot of the video, a text transcript and navigation links. Another example: Some sites have Flash-based navigation above the fold and HTML-based navigation at the bottom of the page.

Previously, search engines could only index the HTML. This variation has become more risky since Google announced that it can index Flash.

Note: Look for Method #2 in your next SherpaSearch newsletter.

The Benefits of Method #1

o Good for engines

Most search engines cannot read Flash. Their spiders arrive at sites created this way, hit the SWFObject, see the HTML version, and index the content. This is good because search engines read HTML very well.

o Good for mobile visitors

Most mobile Web browsers are not Flash-enabled (yet). That means visitors from smartphones cannot see Flash content. Having HTML versions of that content will ensure that mobile visitors can find you from their phones.

o Good for regular visitors

The point of using Flash is to have it seen by website visitors. Using this system, you can be sure that visitors who have Flash installed on their computers will see your interactive features. Those who don’t will see the HTML version.

Criticism of Method #1

One issue with this system is that Flash files typically start at their beginning. This is a problem for all-Flash sites. If you create an alternate HTML site, your deep-link HTML pages can be spidered and appear in search engines. When visitors with Flash click on those deep-link results, the Flash module starts from the beginning, forcing visitors to click around to get to the deeper information they want. And, the increase in clicks usually means more abandonment.

Word on Cloaking

Cloaking is the black-hat SEO tactic of deceptively showing one type of content to the search engines and another to the users. Search engines levy harsh penalties on sites caught using this tactic.

When you’re alternating a page’s content between Flash and HTML, be sure that the two versions are as identical as possible. If not, you run the risk of hurting your rankings rather than helping them.

“It’s very important to have the HTML be a legitimate reflection of the Flash. They should say the same thing. If they’re pulled from a database, they should be pulled from the same database. If it’s static, then they should be updated at the same time,” says Trienens.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where we break down another method, and learn what Google’s announcement means for your site.

Useful links related to this article:

Special Report: Missing Links? 7 Traffic-Building Tips to Boost SEO

Flash Website Example: Creaktif!

HTML Website Example: MarketingSherpa

Method #1 Example: Fuzz Productions

Method #2 Example: Del Padre Digital

Adobe Flash Player Statistics

Google Webmaster Central Blog: Flash announcement

Search Discovery

Hochman Consultants

Jonathan Hochman: How to SEO Flash

Brian Ussery: 2009 Google Flash SEO

Google Code: SWFObject

About Robots.txt and How To Use it

Google: Cloaking

Google: Duplicate content

See Also:

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