[update: This post is from February 2008 prior to Google/Yahoo/Adobe announcement for the latest tests please see Flash Indexing revisited.]
Back in April last year I wrote a piece called Are Flash only sites the SEO Devil? it wasn’t ground breaking but did manage to bring out an Adobe Developer who made some pretty odd comments. Since then a few things have changed not least a range of new relationships between Adobe and the search engines so its time to re-look at Flash and how search engines treat flash.
Back in the original piece the lovely gent from Adobe responded to my statement that as far as SEO that’s search engine optimisation not friendliness but actual optimisation was concerned Flash was still a no no, he said:
A search on “swf seo” beforehand would likely have showed you engines do grab the text within SWF.
A search for SWF SEO today will in fact find the same employee saying:
“that using SWF on a site means search engines won’t find you. Hasn’t been true, but the story keeps recurring.”
He then goes on in the same article to discuss Sitemap protocol as the solution to the Flash issues! I’m not going to pick on the man he is a Flash developer not a search engine engineer or an SEO and he was right Search Engines can crawl flash files and have been able to for some time!
The problem I have is there is a huge gap between being able to crawl a file and being able to rank and optimise the file for search engines.
To see how well Flash SEO has improved it’s time to do some experiments, so using 4 domains and nearly 30 different swf’s I have tested for a range of common uses of text and actions in Flash here is the breakdown with some additional commentary.
|Text As Graphic||Yes||No||No||No|
|Text As Symbol||No||No||No||No|
|Text With Links||No||No||No||No|
|Pages via SWF||No||No||No||No|
|Deep links (swfaddress)||Yes||Yes||No*||No|
File Name and crawling content
The good news is Google and the other engines could identify SWF files and index them it was also taking their name into ranking consideration just like any file. So if I have example.com/mykeyword.swf emphasis is being applied to the ranking of mykeyword.
Basic text from all the test could be crawled by the big search engines, so by that if you place a piece of text using the text tool on to a layer it will be read, this is good news and in parts vindicates those that say Flash can be crawled!
But (you knew there was a but you read the table) The moment you convert the text to a button, or a symbol or indeed anything else other then static text the search engines start to have problems, a good example would be turning menu text into symbols a pretty common task. Any text that is called via ActionScript can not be crawled, and while some text which appeared on Keyframes could be crawled this was not always the case. Overall while files were being read the contents were not being indexed and none ranked well.
Why is that Tim?
All those useful SEO tricks you learnt about H1 tags and careful use of strong etc are thrown out of the window content that is indexed in a flash SWF file is treated like content in a text file with no additional weight or factors, other then those outside of the Flash file. Many people outside of the SEO community and for some reason particularly inside the Flash community seem to discount these tiny little boosts instead focusing on inbound links and Page Rank guff.
Flash – Action Script and Links
Deep Linking with SWFAddress
Asual SWFAddress is a little library that uses Ajax and Flash to provide deep linking capabilities its not the only one around but certainly the most well known. When combined with htaccess it can provide a seamless method to allow people and links to deep link inside your flash file. Google & Yahoo crawled, indexed and showed deep linked pages created with SWFAddress and htaccess, Microsoft Live/MSN sort of worked but every entry returned duplicate content and the Deep links while showing would return for results of terms only found in the first keyframe of the document.
The future of Flash SEO is good?
On first glance nothing much has changed since I wrote about Flash SEO in April it still sucks 10 months on but there have been some really encouraging signs from Adobe and the Search Engines.
- More swf files are appearing in the SERPs
- Some of them are even returning for results in which they have text within the file relating to the term
- Google switching to Adobes Search engine SDK – this could be the big one and was half confirmed by Matt Cutts back at PubCon last year
So what is the way forward?
The same as it has been since the start, if you want your content to rank well don’t use Flash! Simple but true, if however you need/want to use Flash then use SWFObject, UFO or the new CS3 method to provide alternate and optimised content. By combining these with SWFAddress + htaccess you can provide a feature rich full flash site, with an underlying well optimised site and have the best of both worlds. Such a site is not complicated to produce but requires two things; Flash designers to understand there is a huge difference between a site being indexed and a site being optimised while for SEOs to embrace the tools available to them and stop burying their heads in the sand with all the RIA around Flash SEO is going to be a growth area in SEO are you ready to take on the challenge?
Please note SERPs were monitored for between 1 week to 2 months Ask is notoriously slow at crawling so maybe I will revisit in 3 months time
[Update 01/07/08] Adobe have announced a new modified version of the Adobe Player rather then the old Search SDK to help improve the results this test was done prior to the new technology however the results are unlikely to change substantially. For more info on Adobe new Search Indexing and why it will hit the same problems try Adobe you just don’t get search!