Posted May 30, 2008 2:00 pm by with 21 comments

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By Lamees Abourahma

Web content has evolved from plain old text to more sassy content including video, sound and Flash. This new engaging content is more likely to attract visitors and capture their attention for a longer time (thus increasing Site Traffic and lowering Bounce Rate).

Bruce Clay, in a recent episode of SEM Synergy on Webmasterradio.fm titled “Changing definition of content” said: “…the definition (of Web content) has expanded. Content can be video, MP3 or images, even feeds or news or blogs… the search engines have to figure out how to decipher that and measure engagement… new sites have a lot of Flash files and images… we’re actually finding that this actually makes a difference. If the web has more pictures, that’s how you get more visitors.” The problem is, most search engines still can’t decipher Flash files or index Flash sites (i.e., sites designed entirely using Adobe Flash).

In this article I present a new technique for making Flash sites more search friendly and user friendly. I also show a real-life example where this technique is used.

Why SEOs Hate Flash

In 2003, Shari Thurow wrote an article for Search Engine Watch that offered very few suggestions for optimizing Flash sites, most of them mainly suggesting to minimize the use of Flash and even stay away from it. In a follow up article, Craig FiField didn’t offer a lot more recommendations. In fact, some SEOs and usability experts call Flash Sites “eye candy” and some even recommend to “trash the Flash”. The problem is that most search engines can’t index Flash files, so all they see when they visit a Flash page is the TITLE and META tags. Since Flash sites traditionally don’t have any content other than the Flash file, this jeopardizes the ranking of the entire site.

Before you Trash the Flash

In this article, I make new recommendations for optimizing Flash sites for search (and usability) based on technical insight. To see how this method works in action, visit the following site: webbrightconsulting.com two times; one time with JavaScript enabled, and the second time after disabling JavaScript. (Note: to disable JavaScript for FireFox, go to Tools -> Options -> un-check Enable JavaScript. To disable JavaScript for IE, go to Tools -> Internet Options -> Security -> Custom Level -> Scripting -> Active scripting -> Disable).

Below are two site views: one is an HTML view and the other is a Flash view:

html site view flash site view

This technique allows visitors to view the Flash animation, and allows screen readers and search engines to “see” the content. Before explaining this technique, I like to start with some technical background information.

Creating Flash Sites with Adobe Flash

Flash is “a set of multimedia technologies” created by Adobe for adding animations and interactivity to Web pages. While Flash can be used to create small components for Web sites (e.g., animated advertisement), it can also be used to create entire Web sites.

When creating a Web site using Adobe Flash, the web pages (including the style as well as the text) are designed as graphics using Adobe Flash tools. In most cases, the “page template” is designed as a graphic. The navigation menu is designed such as when selecting a menu item the corresponding Web content is loaded into the page template. This is done using Flash ActionScript coding. The resulting Web site in this case is a “movie” that is bundled (compiled) by Flash as an .swf file. To be able to display this movie in a browser, it needs to be included into an HTML file as an OBJECT using a SCRIPT tag. Since the entire “Web site” is embedded into this object, screen readers will not be able to “see” the content, and search engines will not be able to index the site.

The NOSCRIPT Element “to the Rescue”

W3 Schools defines the NOSCRIPT tag as an HTML “element used to define an alternate content (text) if a script is NOT executed”. W3.org provides detailed explanation of scripting and how to use the NOSCRIPT element for designing Web pages for “user agents that don’t support scripting” and how to hide script data from these user agents.

The good news is that the NOSCRIPT element can be used to create all the necessary HTML elements (and even CSS elements) to create an HTML version of the Flash Web site that is accessible to search engines and screen readers. Furthermore, this content can be optimized for search using common SEO techniques. The SCRIPT and NOSCRIPT elements would co-exist in the same HTML file so that the SCRIPT element displays the Flash site for users with scripting enabled, and the NOSCRIPT element displays the HTML site for users with scripting disabled as well as screen readers and search engines.

This NOSCRIPT strategy is similar to the strategy of using the NOFRAME tag for optimizing sites designed using frames as explained by Danny Sullivan in his Search Engine Watch article, “Search Engines and Frames”. To see a real example of using the NOSCRIPT element, view the Page Source for www.webbrightconsulting.com.

Depending on the size and the complexity of the Flash site, this can be a simple or cumbersome solution. In either case, extra SEO work is required for Flash sites and should be factored into the budget of the project from the initial phases.

Conclusion

The definition of Web content is evolving to include more dynamic components such as Flash files. The new “vibrant” content is more likely to attract and retain visitors. This article examined Flash sites and explained their limitation from search engine and usability perspective. The article introduced a new technique for optimizing Flash sites for search and usability, and presented a real-life example where this technique is employed.

This is an entry to Marketing Pilgrim’s 3rd Annual SEM Scholarship contest.