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Join Our Research Team at DMA 2014
Mar 12, 2009
How To

Flash and SEO Primer, Part II: How to Get Flash Content into Search Results

SUMMARY: The multimedia platform Flash has always been like a pariah in natural search. Full 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, search and Flash are not totally incompatible.

In the second half of this two-part series, discover an alternate way to get Flash indexed by search engines, and what Google’s 2008 Flash announcement means for your website.
In Part 1 of this series, we reviewed why brand marketers like Flash, why search marketers don’t, and one way to create Flash websites that can be found by search engines. In Part 2 below, we describe another method for getting Flash content into search results, and what Google’s 2008 Flash announcement means for your website.

How to Optimize Flash Content

Method #2: Dynamically Create Flash or HTML Content

This less-common method partially solves the problem of deep-linking into Flash content presented by Method #1. Developers can use a tool called SWFAddress (see links below) to deliver deep-linked content in either Flash or HTML. Searchers clicking a deep-link result are taken to the content they want, even if it’s in Flash. The Flash file does not start from the beginning of the site as in the first method.

From the examples we’ve seen, these systems deliver similar but not identical experiences to Flash and non-Flash visitors. If Flash users click a deep-link search result for a Flash video, they will see the video. If they don’t have Flash, they might see screenshots from the video, a text description, and some links.

Benefits

#1: As with the first method, Flash sites created using this alternate method can deliver index-able HTML content to search engines and mobile users. Visitors with Flash will see the Flash content.

#2: This method enables users to find and access deep-link Flash content in a search engine. They’re taken directly to what they’re looking for, whether in Flash or HTML. Under the first method, Flash-enabled visitors are taken to the beginning of a Flash site.

Criticism

This method creates problems for link building. Developers use “anchors” to jump to certain parts of a Flash file. You can identify anchors in a Flash site by looking for the “#” symbol in the URL. The problem is that when Google sees that symbol in a hyperlink, it treats the URL as if it ended at that symbol.

For example, if the URL for a hyperlink to a Flash file is www.example.com/#aboutpage2, Google treats the URL as if it only read www.example.com/.

To put this information into perspective, consider the following hypothetical situation. Let’s say a visitor finds your deep Flash content, likes it, and links to it from his or her blog. That link will work normally for the blog’s readers, but not for Google. Google will attribute that link only up to the “#” in the address.

This creates a problem for link building for the following two reasons:

#1. “Link juice” isn’t applied to the deep-Flash page

When the blogger creates a link to a deep-Flash page, his or her readers will be able to visit that page. But the page will not receive credit for the link in search engines. The page’s parent page (everything before the “#” symbol in the URL) will receive the credit.

#2. The method dilutes the keyword relevancy of a parent page

Under this method, people creating links can unwittingly attribute a link’s SEO power to the wrong page. The pages that receive the natural-search benefit of that link (AKA “link juice”) might be unrelated to the hyperlinked keywords (AKA anchor text) because the link is intended for another page. That can dilute a parent page’s effectiveness for its true keywords.

“One way we found to alleviate that was to write a script to remove that anchor symbol (#) from the URL when users click to submit the pages to social-media sites (e.g., Digg). That way, when a link is shared on those sites, it will provide a benefit from the search engines,” says Joe Maki, Senior Programmer, Del Padre Digital, who uses this method.

Note: Visitors to the HTML version of a page will be able to copy the URL in their browsers and create an effective link because the HTML version does not contain the “#” symbol.

Google’s 2008 Flash Announcement

Google announced in late July 2008 that it will start indexing the text and URLs in Flash files. It will not index images, videos, or any other content in them. Flash files loaded from external sources (not on the website’s server) are not indexed (see links below for Google’s announcement and explanation).

This means that Google now has some visibility into all-Flash websites and Flash parts of websites. It can index this content and serve it as part of its search results.

What This Means for Marketers

o Marketers using Flash without HTML

Marketers using Flash without an HTML backup will now have more visibility in Google’s search results. By doing nothing, you might get more traffic from Google, but only from Google. Other search engines cannot index Flash. If you’re in this boat, you can do some minor tweaks to your Flash to help Google’s indexing be more relevant.

Google Webmaster Central Blog advises: “If you prefer Google to ignore your less informative content, such as a ‘copyright’ or ‘loading’ message, consider replacing the text with an image, which will make it effectively invisible to us”.

If you want greater visibility, you should create alternate HTML versions of your Flash content, as described in Method #1.

“You can’t have the best possible result by creating a Flash piece and letting Google spider it. That just does not produce the best possible result,” says Jonathan Hochman, President, Hochman Consultants.

o Marketers using Flash and HTML

Google’s announcement has created some uncertainty for this group. Previously, Google ignored the Flash and indexed only the HTML. Now, Google can index both.

This raises the possibility of duplicate content penalties for some marketers. When Google hits a SWFObject, it’s now opting to see the Flash version of a website. If you have a 10-page website, you might have 10 unique HTML pages. In order for the Flash version to be accessible from all those pages, the entire Flash file must also be on each of those 10 pages. That involves 10 identical Flash files at 10 unique URLs. After Google indexes them all, it might perceive them as duplicate content.

While no marketers we spoke with mentioned that Google’s announcement is negatively impacting their search results, many are taking the safe route.

o Playing it safe

Many marketers are choosing to keep their Flash hidden from Google, and leaving the HTML to be optimized and indexed. There are two ways to do this:

-Using a robots.txt file to deny access to the directory holding the Flash files (see links below)
-Loading the Flash content from an external source so Google cannot access it

“Essentially, I don’t like unpredictable results,” Hochman says. “I don’t really know how well Google will spider Flash…To get a predictable result, we suggest to just spider the HTML content.”

Google’s Flash crawling is a relatively new phenomenon, and no one is 100% sure of its results. What is certain is that HTML is much better for optimizing content and is more predictable, so marketers are relying on it for rankings and hiding their Flash. Remember to keep your Flash and HTML content as identical as possible to avoid charges of cloaking.

o What marketers are seeing

So far, the marketers we interviewed haven’t seen a difference in their search results since Google’s announcement. Most are using either a robots.txt file or an external database to load their Flash content so that Google cannot see it.

Useful links related to this article:

SEO and Flash Primer: How to Be Seen by Search Engines and Avoid a Clash: Part 1

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

Flash Website Example: Creaktif!
http://www.creaktif.com/


HTML Website Example: MarketingSherpa
http://www.marketingsherpa.com/


Method #1 Example: Fuzz Productions
http://www.fuzzproductions.com/


Method #2 Example: Del Padre Digital
http://delpadre.com/


Adobe Flash Player Statistics
http://www.adobe.com/products/player_census/flashplayer

Google Webmaster Central Blog: Flash announcement
http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2008/06/impr
ved-flash-indexing.html


Search Discovery
http://www.searchdiscovery.com/


Hochman Consultants
http://www.hochmanconsultants.com/


Jonathan Hochman: How to SEO Flash

Brian Ussery: 2009 Google Flash SEO
http://www.beussery.com/blog/index.php/2008/10/google-f
ash-seo/


Asual: SWFAddress
http://www.asual.com/swfaddress/


Google Code: SWFObject
http://code.google.com/p/swfobject/


About Robots.txt and How To Use it
http://www.robotstxt.org/robotstxt.html


Google: Cloaking
http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?
l=en&answer=66355


Google: Duplicate content
http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?
nswer=66359


Comments about this How To

Mar 16, 2009 - Eric Oliver of TheCosmonaut says:
Hey there! I'd like to emphasize that SWFAddress should be used with SWFObject and alternate HTML content pages so that at least search engines will promote the correct link. If you use that method, then at least search engines will index the correct subpage content and your chances of having correct external links are better. That said, the SWFAddress solution still has a lot of holes in it. At this point, I'm looking into writing on a script which takes first-time people who land on a page, compares the anchor tag with the page name, and if the two are different, updates the page name to be the correct one. Hopefully that would encourage correct links down the road, but it still doesn't fix the problem of people on the site copying and using SWFAddress URLs which are difficult for search engines to interpret properly. The battle for correct Flash indexing goes on...



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