Best Practices for Search-Optimized Flash Development

In spite of what you may have heard, it is possible to have both engaging Flash content and happy search engine spiders.

For several years, there has been tension in the web design and development community regarding search engine optimization (SEO) and the use of Adobe Flash for site content and applications. Flash naysayers have and still do argue that you should almost never use the platform if you care at all about search engine performance and site traffic. Meanwhile, Flash aficionados argue that the user experience is more important than Google experience.

So which is it? Who’s right? In this post, I am going to:

1. Explain why both naysayers and aficionados make valid points
2. Describe the state of Flash indexability, and
3. Share several Flash development best practices that you can begin using in your projects right away.

All told, I hope this post eases tension and encourages more developers to consider using the powerful Adobe Flash platform in a way that is good for both users and spiders.

Naysayers vs. Aficionados

Both sides in the Flash SEO debate make good points and have good intentions.

On the one hand, developers and designers concerned about site traffic and getting found on search engine results pages are very focused on site success. Websites, in general, and ecommerce websites, in particular, are built to attract site visitors. In online retailing, these site visitors are shoppers and customers whose purchases are the company’s fundamental focus. If no one finds a website, it is of little use.

Acknowledging that getting potential customers to a store is vital, Flash advocates often emphasize that it is user experience that converts a site visitor into a store customer. As an example, we know that customers often buy from those company’s they most trust, and a 2003 Stanford University study of 2,440 people found that site aesthetics was the single most important factor in conveying site, and therefore, company credibility.

Furthermore, site interactivity such as hover effects, draggable elements and the like can convey professionalism as users imagine that these advanced features require a more sophisticated company to support them. The Flash platform simply allows developers greater flexibility in site design than would be possible in HTML alone. That flexibility in turn allows for more appealing site aesthetics and more engaging site interactivity, including advanced merchandising techniques, video presentation, and non-product content.
Ultimately, websites are for people, so it is user experience that should be our first concern. We want to present good site content in a way that is easy for human users to access and understand.

In HTML, we use a framework of tags like title, h1, or p to organize content in a way that is best for human users. Over time, the software engineers at companies like Google and Microsoft have discovered how to programmatically recognize content structures that organize web content in a human readable and usable way. Having recognized these useful structures—as well as the value of backlinks—search engines tend to deliver results from pages that are thus organized.

After the fact, SEO practitioners monitor search engine behavior and test theories to determine which structures and links search engine algorithms favor. With data in hand these SEO practitioners then instruct their clients to emulate these useful structures and linking strategies.

Put another way, search engine algorithms trail actual user experience, and SEO trails search engine algorithms. Here we find the crux of the problem, those that say we should avoid using Flash for SEO’s sake are encouraging us to follow user experience trends of the past, and those that encourage us to develop rich Internet experiences are asking us to lead.

We need to find a middle ground. If we get too far behind the latest design trends, we are not really focusing on providing good customer experience and conversion will suffer. If we get too far ahead of search engine indexing capabilities, we do risk losing potential traffic.

The State of Flash Indexability

So where is this middle path? What is the current, up-to-the-moment state of Flash indexability, and what can you do to incorporate Flash for the user’s sake while making content readily available for search engine spiders—your virtual users?

Google, and presumably other leading search engines, can index SWF content, execute server calls to retrieve external files for indexing, and in some cases, link back to the proper state in the Flash movie where the content originated.

This is important since the two main issues related to indexing Flash—or similar rich Internet applications (RIAs)—have to do with (a) finding content and (b) linking to content.

In the past, search engine spiders could not see inside of a SWF. It was a black box. But thanks to collaboration between search companies and Adobe, virtual users operating on servers can now, in fact, access textual and other content inside of a SWF file. Need proof? Run this search on Google right now, filetype:swf + “comic books.”

Google announced the capability in its blog on June 30, 2008. An Adobe announcement the next day summed up the change.

“Until now it has been extremely challenging to search the millions of RIAs and dynamic content on the web, so we are leading the charge in improving search of content that runs in Adobe Flash Player,” said David Wadhwani, general manager and vice president of the Platform Business Unit at Adobe. “We are initially working with Google and Yahoo! to significantly improve search of this rich content on the web, and we intend to broaden the availability of this capability to benefit all content publishers, developers and end users.”

“Google has been working hard to improve how we can read and discover SWF files,” said Bill Coughran, senior vice president of engineering at Google. “Through our recent collaboration with Adobe, we now help website owners that choose to design sites with Adobe Flash software by indexing this content better. Improving how we crawl dynamic content will ultimately enhance the search experience for our users.”

“Designers and web developers have long been frustrated that search engines couldn’t better access the information within their content created with Flash technology. It’s great to see Adobe and the search engines working directly together to improve the situation,” said Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of SearchEngineLand.com. “The changes should help unlock information that’s previously been ‘invisible’ and will likely result in a better experience for searchers.”

That was 18 months ago, and you can bet that Adobe, Yahoo!, and Google have not been resting on their laurels.

In fact on June 18, 2009, Google announced that it could load external Flash resources, including text, HTML, XML, additional SWFs, and more. This feature means that you can create a Flash application that draws its content from a structured and external XML document.

This was an important advancement, because it is a best practice to separate content layers from presentation and behavior layers (i.e. Flash). Remember that Flash Player does not actually make calls to a network stack for external resources, rather it relies on its host to make these calls for it. When Flash Player loads on your web browser it is your browser that requests any associated XML files, text files, or the like. And when Flash Player for Search (Google and Yahoo!’s special player for indexing content) is hosted by a search engine spider, it relies on that host to make these requests. As of this past summer, Google can and does retrieve this external files.

“That’s really important for search though because think of how many SWFs that are out there on the web,” explained Justin Everett-Church, a senior product manager for designer/developer relations at Adobe in a December 2009 interview. “[Search engines] are able to search and index these amazingly fast, and the way they have to do that is actually whenever a request is made, they can go out and cache that data, so it’s available very, very quickly, and they may even just say, ‘We’ll wait until we get all the data,’ and then rerun all the searches to make sure that it’s all there. You can’t really work in the same sort of go out and wait for a piece of content every time you need it just because it is an automated process.”

But once a search engine finds content, it may still have trouble linking to that content.

Flash content is fluid content. It does not adhere to the single page paradigm, so it is possible that particular states or frames will not necessarily have a unique URL. Without a unique URL, search engines that wish to link back to the content must link to the beginning of the Flash file or at least to a nearby state.

“This is the same problem you encounter with AJAX-based pages, “ wrote SEO experts Eric Enge, Stephan Spencer, Rand Fishkin, and Jessie C. Stricchiola in their October 2009 book, The Art of SEO. “You could have unique frames, movies within movies, and so on that appear to be completely unique portions of the Flash site, yet there’s often no way to link to these individual elements.”

But not all is lost.

A technique called deep linking, allows Flash developers to provide specific URLs for specific states in the application or page.

“If you are building your applications in Flex, you can [link directly to content] — a lot of our components are already pre-configured to work with navigation management. So, for example, in a Flex application, if you’ve got things like tabs, you can click between various tabs and you can then see a URL change and use the Back and Next button. That can certainly be enabled and disabled. I believe the default is enabled, but for people that are not using Flex, there’s actually a lot of really good libraries out there like SWFAddress that have been built by the community to address the same thing,” said Everett-Church.

The system is not perfect, since even with links in place search engines face some challenges with using these links. But it is feasible to offer both human and virtual users a way to link back to particular content in the SWF.
To summarize this section, Google, and presumably other leading search engines, can:

  • Index SWF content
  • Execute server calls to retrieve external files for indexing
  • And, in some cases, link back to the proper state in the Flash movie

Flash Development Best Practices for SEO

Given search engine capabilities plus a desire to both make site content indexable and to create good user experiences, there are some best practices that will help ensure search engines and people alike are getting the most out of your Flash applications.

  • Use external XML or text files. XML offers search engines a structured and semantic format for indexing site content. And it makes it easier to implement multi-language versions of an application. By keeping your content layer separate from your presentation layer you’ll have a better overall application.
  • Create Unique URLs for Important Sections. “Creating unique URLs for important sections of your SWF file, based on the keywords for which you want to optimize, will help search engines navigate into your SWF application and provide targeted results for the most relevant content,” wrote SEO expert Damien Bianchi, in a March 2009 article. To create these unique links, you may want to employ SWFAddress or UrlKit.
  • Use the HTML noscript Tag. It can be a good idea to put important site or application content in side of HTML noscript tags, which effectively puts your content into a search engine spider’s favorite language. If you are using external XML, files, you can even load the content dynamically on the server-side.
  • Use XSL When Feasible. XSL can define XML formatting and presentation, so you can use it to single XML source to control both Flash content and HTML content, like navigation. You’ll make the entire site’s content searchable and you will be using an effective site development strategy.

This post was contributed by our guest columnist Armando Roggio. Armando is a journalist, web designer, technologist and the site director for Ecommerce Developer.

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33 Responses to “Best Practices for Search-Optimized Flash Development”

  1. It is difficult to get Flash content indexed by search engines, regardless of what the search engines claim. It is better to provide alternative form of navigation if your site uses fully Flash for navigation purposes (for example by providing an alternative, non-Flash version).

  2. @Armando – I see that you have taken a holistic view of the HTML and flash sites and also you have very well described the synergies that now exists in Search Engines and flash content.

    You sited an example of a sample google query: filetype:swf + “comic books.” However, here is a question for you:
    Is this a natural way how people search?

    If you remove filetype:swf and search for “comic books” right now in google, you will see TOP 10 results without any site listed with a slash file.

    I hope that answers the broad question. Probably, if a company is really concerned about the user experience and they think Flash is the best platform for them, then probably they need to build both the sites in parallel and once the Search Engines index both the pages then let the users decide which one is the best for them.

    • Armando says:

      @Sachin Uppal, you are correct folks do not generally search filetype:swf + “comic books.” But it does demonstrate that the content is indexed.

      • Content being indexed is a point well taken. The only concern for a business owner is whether his / her site comes on top 10 or not, off-course while giving good User experience. Unless flash sites are able to compete with HTML sites, its a risk which people wouldn’t bet on. Unless, someone has enough money to build 2 sites in parallel and let the user choose.

  3. Hi Armando,

    Do you have a reference for the “2003 Stanford University study” that you mentioned? Is the study available online? (I didn’t immediately see a link to the study when I did a quick Google search for it, so I figured I’d ask you before poking around further.)

    Thanks!

  4. I agree with having HTML / flash synergy. There are both aficionados and naysayers in our team and, perhaps because of that, we generally end up with a healthy mix.

    Full disclosure: generally I’m a naysayer :)

  5. From personal experience I know that the “HTML noscript Tag” method worked really well the last time I used it (around 2 years ago). But don’t know how much value Google assign it these days?

  6. Interesting! I’m curious to see how Google will handle Microsoft’s Silverlight SEO as it becomes more popular.

  7. [...] link: How to SEO Flash in 2010 « Get Elastic Tags: adobe, adobe-flash, been-tension, community-regarding, search-engine, seo, [...]

  8. [...] How to SEO Flash in 2010 « Get Elastic – it’s possible to have Flash content and keep the search engines happy. [...]

  9. Ziller says:

    I find it hard to believe that a technology like flash will continue to develop as a strong web technology when it still requires to much work to make it SEO friendly. Search is the future and if a technology struggles to work with it then it will die.

    What is the point of creating a flash nav and then re-creating it in html for the bots, why not create a just s nice menu using html and css that will work for both. We rarely recommend flash to clients unless they request it, I feel the effort required to make flash work in search engines is rarely ever worth it.

    • Jim says:

      I prefer Flash over just HTML and I think there’s a place for both (with more places for Flash these days), but there’s no way you can create a rich, interactive environment as Flash offers with only HTML. Your clients must feel greatly disadvantaged when they open a well-designed competitor’s Flash site compared to their ho-hum HTML one.

  10. The things is the search engines cannot index flash as they advertise but we have to think outside of the box for this issue suppose if we optimize images what we will do we will write alt tag with keywords. In this case we will write detailed description on that so that search engine treat it as a infomration so there is no problems of flash indexing or not.

  11. [...] How to SEO Flash in 2010 « Get Elastic – it’s possible to have Flash content and keep the search engines happy. [...]

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  16. [...] Armando Roggio/GetElastic: Best Practices for Search-Optimized Flash Development [...]

  17. Ingrid says:

    It’s great that the googlebot can read swf format now, but one caveat for indexability is that the text cannot be converted to outlines, and in practice most designers do convert the text to outlines because if they don’t they run the risk that the user will see a default face instead of the typeface they’ve so carefully selected. Using external text or xml files may be great for loading information into the swf but the font incompatibility issues remain so in that sense, using Flash as a designer is still not entirely SEO friendly.

    • Great discussion for sure, except for the folks who post spam replies! That’s crap! The spirit of this article is one that will lead to solutions, and the author presents good solutions and ideas, whether they can be proven remains to be seen.
      External files for text written in XML and XSL, HTML, and CSS seem to use a lot more identifiers similar to HCard micro-formats for addresses, dates, and location identifiers, which seem to demonstrate specifics that the search robots can pull and use directly on the search engines.

      What I am concerned about SEO and Flash is load times; regardless of CMS a website needs to load fast. Some of the current solutions for ranking a Flash site are bulky containing wrapping a Flash site with HTML. The load times could really keep a site down.
      A lot of research to be done on my part though. Keep up the good work and keep the solutions coming.
      Thanks.

  18. [...] Armando Roggio/GetElastic: Best Practices for Search-Optimized Flash Development [...]

  19. [...] try to avoid flash implementation of area maps. If absolutely necessary, use external XML or text files. XML offers search engines a structured and semantic format for indexing site content – read more here [...]

  20. Flash SEO is important, without alternative text- based content, google and yahoo only see a blank page on your site. and that hurts your ranking as well as your traffic.

    BTW: Beware of using blackhat SEO techiques, dont stuff keywords too much otherwiste your site will be invited to black name list

  21. [...] flash as far as scanning the text (just read this somewhere, I can't remember where) . Edited: here is it. This article is fairly current, within 2010. [...]

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  23. [...] How to SEO Flash in 2010 This entry was posted in Web Development. Bookmark the permalink. Social Media Marketing 101: In-House Team, Agency or Consultant? → [...]

  24. Christian says:

    Really nice discussion going on here! :-) As a flash designer/developer, I have spent a lot of time in creating my own framework which adresses SEO and Flash on a high level. Please check it out, I call it “Fleb”. It’s open source and free: http://www.turtlebite.com/en/fleb-framework/

    This website is based on the framework: http://www.findanddine.ch. It’s a full flash website with more than 25’000 pages in the google index.

  25. Has anybody experimented with the addition of a blog such as WordPress added to the client’s server so that there is at least crawlable content written in HTML?

  26. Aaron says:

    Interesting facts on flash and SEO. But there really is no difference when SEO Flash from HTML if you create Dynamic content as a web page for flash to load. Check out this blog post and example and I am sure you will see some interesting SEO practices with Flash you may not know.

    http://steamwalker.net/blog/?p=79

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