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July 10, 2007

Search Engine Optimization & Flash: An Unlikely Love Connection

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The topic of Flash and whether it is or is not lethal to your search engine optimization campaign has come back around thanks in part to a post by Adam Lasnik on the Google Webmaster Blog.

In his post last week, Adam gave readers a brief in history in Google and Flash’s very complicated love affair and concluded that though Google can now typically extract the text and links found within Flash files, the context and true meaning is often lost. He encouraged blog readers to use Flash only when necessary and offered up some useful best practices.

Eric Enge commented on Adam’s post over at Search Engine Watch yesterday and likened Flash to a movie, arguing that you don’t build a movie and then create text rich pages around it. I was 100 percent with Eric until he wrote this:

"The point is that once you have decided to make a movie out of your site, you have already moved away from the premise of a search engine friendly site. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, but just don’t expect to get much search traffic after you put it up."

My problem with that statement is that I think site owners are going to misinterpret it. They’re not going to read that designing a Flash-only site is veering away from search engine optimization; they’re going to read that incorporating any Flash elements will kill their rankings, and that’s obviously not true. You don’t have to sacrifice search engine rankings and traffic just because you’re using Flash. You do, however, have to be smart in how you use it.

The argument against Flash is rooted in that it’s a visual medium and the search engines, even Google, are deaf, blind and dumb. They learn about your site through text and by following links. They can’t watch a video and understand who you are.

However, they are getting better. The search engines have made strides since last spring with their ability to read and understand Flash. As Adam commented in his post, today Google is confident in their ability to read text and extract the links, but they’re still unable to put these elements into context. It seems logical that if search engine optimization is at least in part about getting all of your site content indexed, then Flash and SEO may not be the chocolate to your peanut butter.

But that doesn’t have to be the case. You don’t have to choose between a well-ranking, boring text-based site and an engaging site that doesn’t rank. You can incorporate Flash into your site without giving up your search engine optimization goals, it just takes more work.

In his post, Adam mentioned creating a splash site where the root URL of a site contains a Flash intro which then links to the HTML content deeper into the site. Similarly, during last month’s SMX, Todd Friesen spoke about how in order to get a client’s Flash-heavy site to rank, his company built the entire site over and made it text-based. The text based site was then served to the engines by using a user-agent cloak. It’s the exact same site shown to visitors; only it’s readable.

You can go that method, but frankly, that’s a lot of work (and could potentially get you in trouble with the search engines for cloaking). And remember, it’s not only the search engines who don’t like a Flash-only site, user’s don’t like it either. Your visitors want text to learn about your site. Too much Flash gives people headaches. It may seem creative the first time a visitor views it, but looking at the same Flash movie each time you land on a site gets old. When it comes down to it, visitors are on your site because they’re looking for information. Provide them with that information; don’t make them watch a movie.

I’m Shari Thurow has a little phrase that I like to quote which is "think Flash elements, not Flash sites". For me, that’s the best way to combine Flash and search engine optimization. Design your navigation, home page and important site pages in HTML and save the fancy stuff for enhancing your content, not replacing it.

When you are using Flash elements, the HTML used to complement it should follow traditional search engine optimization elements. You want to be paying attention to things like Heading Tags, Alt attributes and using appropriate anchor text.

If you’re afraid that you’ve just spent a million dollars on a site that will never rank, a good check would be to run it through a text browser. If you can’t read your site, neither can the search engines. Fix it.

The engines are smarter today then they were a few years ago and because of that I don’t think adding Flash to your Web site is as much as an optimization killer as it once was. As with most things, you just have to be smart about it.

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4 responses to “Search Engine Optimization & Flash: An Unlikely Love Connection”

  1. Ciaran writes:

    Great post Lisa – but then hey, what’s new there?
    We’re just putting the finishing touches to our new site and plan to incorporate flash elements in the header bar, to make it really engaging. We’re also using SIFR to allow post headlines to use a sexier font.
    Flash – it can be your friend; so long as it’s not your only friend!

  2. beussery writes:

    Hey Lisa,

    Great post and I couldn’t agree more, folks could misinterpret Eric’s statement.

    Flash like other image formats is an important part of visual presentation and design. That said, if you wouldn’t create an all .gif site you shouldn’t create a site entirely in Flash either. Unlike SWFObject, sIFR provides the ability to provide one “version” of text content and one that is not not hidden in a DIV.

  3. rich writes:

    Hi everyone,
    I’m a freelance designer of flash, HTML, and every element there in. First, Flash isn’t an “image format”. It is an application capable of designing any interactive scenario one can conceive, which HTML is not capable. if you know what you’re doing you can optimize a flash site by coding each scene, or “movie”, so that it appears as a new page. You can use the back button. A little ingenuity is all it takes. Flash is not just used for banners and intro animations. A flash site is emedded into HTML; thus, you code the HTML for optimization as you would any other site. I suggest that the search engines adapt to flash, rather than vice-versa. I know it’s hard to learn new things, people; just learn to adapt. By the way, Claran, many sites are made completely in .gif. You know, Photoshop?

  4. neura writes:

    nice post… but for me, I hate site with flash header…

    I have consulted to some SEO expert, they said that if you are on on-page optimizing, it is better to use pure text than flash…spider only recognize text..



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