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New Technique for Optimizing Flash Sites for Search and Usability

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.

  • http://www.maxkpage.com Max

    I used to work at Space150 in Minneapolis a couple years back and we have been doing something like this for a while:

    http://blog.space150.com/2007/1/11/faust-flash-augmenting-standards

  • http://blogs.adobe.com/jd John Dowdell

    Hi, you’re aware that search engines have actually been spidering and indexing text and links within SWF for years, and years, and years, right?

    http://www.google.com/search?q=seo+experts+filetype%3Aswf
    http://weblogs.macromedia.com/jd/archives/2004/10/seo_myths.html

    (Screenreader support was added back in 2002.)

    jd/adobe

  • IC

    this is the oldest trick in the book. I would look at swfobject or UFO before doing this…

  • http://www.webbrightconsulting.com Lamees

    Hi John, with all respect, your links don’t say that search engines have been indexing Flash files for “years, and years and years”.
    In fact, I have another Flash site that I did not optimize like I explain in this article and Google Webmaster lists the Flash file as “Non-indexable content issue” and provides this explanation “Most search engines are text-based. Content contained in non-text files such as images or Flash files may not be properly indexed, and may not appear in search results”. Read these Google guidelines for working with Flash: http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?answer=72746&hl=en

  • http://www.seoresults.co.za Web Marketing Man

    Glad to see that flash can become search engine friendly. One of the prime rules of on page optimization has always been – NO FLASH – glad this has changed now.

  • http://www.webbrightconsulting.com Lamees

    Thanks for the positive feedback. I agree, I wrote this post because I find clients like Flash sites but they’re not getting good value from their websites because search engines don’t like Flash. This is one way to please both audiences.

  • http://www.exposedseo.com seo guy

    This is great stuff here! I must say I usually advice to stay away from flash myself but this opened my eyes. The last time I had to use double css in order to have a printable, seo friendly version of the website.

    seo guy’s last blog post..23 creative ads for your inspiration.

  • http://www.jordankasteler.com/utah-seo-pro-blog/ Utah SEO

    Putting all that in the makes me cringe. There’s a MUCH better way of doing that: SEFFs http://wahlers.com.br/claus/blog/seffs-to-flash-or-not-to-flash/

    Utah SEO’s last blog post..Top 3 Unsung SEO Heroes of 2008

  • http://mobilepcnews.blogspot.com Mobile PC guy

    Adding more text info to flash site could be useful for many purposes.

    Mobile PC guy’s last blog post..ASUS EeePC 1000 (1001) on Computex 2008

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  • http://widestep.com Keylogger Guy

    I think this data might be quite useful because I’m thinking of building some flash projects.

  • http://www.aslifm.org radyo dinle

    yes this is useful for flash thanks for scharinf this article

  • http://blogs.adobe.com/jd John Dowdell

    Yes, I didn’t go back to 2002 for links, just showed that the links exist. I figured anyone would be able to confirm the info, once they know it exists.

    Google has provided mixed and untimely public info on what they do, but if you’re part of the two-way conversation, you’ll have read about the SEO mythologies for years.

    jd/adobe

  • http://www.world-of-information.com Information Man

    This can make the results better for flash-sites but it is a lot of effort to make 2 pages and updates will never make it to the HTML-Part because there is never time for this kind of work.

  • http://www.deemx.com DeeMX

    I like the flash technologies, but Flash currently isn’t a search-friendly technology and I use traditional html and xhtml markup language for my projects.

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  • http://www.mbwebdesign.co.uk MB Web Design

    An enlightening read, though convincing clients to set aside the extra money for the alternate versions of their sites can fall on deaf ears, particularly at the modest end of the market.

  • http://www.webbrightconsulting.com Lamees

    Thanks for the comment. I agree. I can imagine the higher tag price for the extra work needed to optimize a Flash site for search can be a turn off issue for a client. I believe the technique suggested here, and which I personally use, works best for small sites. The light I see at the end of the tunnel is that Google will fully index Flash sites so the designers don’t have to worry about it (Google explains improved Flash indexing in recent Webmaster Centrals blog: http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2008/06/improved-flash-indexing.html).

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  • http://naldzgraphics.com/ NaldzGraphics

    nice post:)keep it up;)

    NaldzGraphics’s last blog post..300+ Best of the Best High Quality Abstract Brushes in Photoshop

  • http://www.flysofree.com Mike

    Flash still has a long way to go as far as SEO goes. None of my flash projects rank well no matter what we do.