Flash and SEO
There has been a lot of discussion and debate lately about the use of Flash on websites in the context of SEO. The discussion was intensified last June when Google announced (again) that they had improved their support for crawling and indexing Flash content.
The conventional wisdom (and my personal opinion) is that if you are really focusing on SEO, and that is a high priority, Flash is still not way to go, for a variety of reasons discussed below. However, there are many great reasons to use Flash, so you can’t just dismiss it. Flash is very effective for showing video, interactive applications and other rich media, and it just does things you can’t do with regular old HTML.
From a practical standpoint for many website, the question is not using Flash or not, but rather how to best use Flash on a website to meet user objectives, and still have that website work well for SEO.
Why is Flash an issue for SEO?
Flash presents some challenges for search engines, since most search engines have little or no ability to read and index content within Flash files as effectively as they can with HTML/CSS. Flash files are not structured to present content directly, but are rather more like a program or script. The information is structured for execution, not presentation. This makes it much harder to process and interpret Flash from the perspective of a search engine.
In addition, Flash is often used to present non-textual content (video, games, interactive applications, etc), and search engines are driven by textual keywords. The very nature of “rich media” goes against the use of text for keywords.
Finally, with websites that are completely or mostly Flash based, search engines can’t crawl and index the content like they would HTML pages, where each HTML page has a specific URL and content that can be optimized for specific keywords. These sites have all their content inside a single (or very few) Flash modules, all referenced by one (or a few) URLs. For SEO, you can’t optimize and target lots of keywords with one URL.
What are search engines doing to get Flash indexed?
Google has been working to crawl and index Flash content, based largely on Adobe’s toolkits and Flash file specifications. As of this writing (January, 2009) they have made some progress, mainly adding the ability to read Flash files, locate and index certain text objects, and to follow certain URL links. Note the word “certain” here – the Flash file has to be coded correctly for Google (or any search engine) to find text and links. If text is not kept in Flash text objects, and links are not in standard Flash link objects, they will not be found.
Yahoo has said they will soon crawl and index Flash. No date yet on that. Microsoft/Live also intends to crawl Flash, but again no announcement date.
Given the importance of Flash, we can expect that progress will continue. However, due to the challenges of Flash noted above, it is likely that Flash will never be as “optimal” for SEO as other content elements such as HTML.
How can Flash be optimized for SEO?
Even with the limitations of Flash for SEO, there are things you can do to make web sites that use Flash still work for SEO. It may not be quite as optimal as pure HTML/CSS websites, but you can strike a good balance of serving great content via Flash and still get good SEO results.
Some techniques to consider include:
- For any page that uses Flash, include HTML text on the page that contains good text content and keywords that describes or relates to the Flash content. This could be above, below or to the side of the Flash module.
- For Flash-intensive websites and pages, create alternate pages that are entirely HTML and contain text content related to your Flash content, and link those pages into your site so they are crawled and indexed. Be sure these alternate pages link into the equivalent Flash pages so users will find your rich content. If you use this technique, you may want to use robots.txt or robots meta tags to exclude the Flash pages from crawling so you focus search engines on the HTML versions.
- If you use Flash for navigation links, be sure to include equivalent HTML links elsewhere on your site, such as in your footer, site map page, and XML site map.
- Use the swfObject to launch Flash applications, and use the alternate HTML text capability of swfObject. swfObject helps search engines find the Flash file, and gives alternate content that can contain keywords.
- See an additional blog post on swfobject use for Flash and SEO.
- For Flash modules that display lots of text, use techniques such as SIFR, which put the text displayed by Flash modules in the HTML stream so it can be read and indexed by search engines.
- Code your Flash modules so that search engines that read Flash can find any text content. Use keywords in standard String variables, and also use the Metadata tag.
While Flash is still not optimal for SEO, progress is being made by search engines to get it crawled and indexed. With a little planning, you can find a good balance of the benefits of Flash vs SEO.