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September 10, 2007

Flash, Search Engines and SEO techniques

Flash is a mighty web development tool undoubtedly. With Flash it becomes easier to offer a pleasing web experience to the web readers. Flash adds a lot of interactivity to your website and web applications. Moreover, Flash helps to achieve a better feel and look that most visitors get attracted to. In short, it adds the master touch to your website that you wanted to achieve for years!

On an attempt to integrate Flash with the three basic elements of Web: Content, Style and Behavior; we find that all these factors can be put together with Flash. Flash can create a long lasting visual impact, it can make lurkers participate and it can display content too. Then why Flash is not being used up to its potential? Why some people are so much rigid about not using Flash and some prefer it like anything? Let us listen to both the voices.

In general the world wide SEO lobby holds a negative feeling about Flash. SEO practitioners raise their eyebrow making multiple wrinkles over the forehead and question the readability of Flash Content by Search Engines. According to their school of thought most people search Internet for information. Search Engines index the content of websites and the content influence the ranking of a website in Search Engines to a great extent. Google LSI technique involves content too. Hence, if Search Engines cannot read the texts inside Flash how can Search Engines relate it to user queries?

There could be two types of remedies to get Flash read by Search Engines: either the webmasters implement certain techniques to feed the Flash Content to the Search Engines or, Search Engines take a step forward to read Flash Content. Let us first see what we can do to get Flash Content indexed by Google. Then we will explore what Search Engines have done or are doing for Flash?

Feed the Flash Content to Search Engine spiders:
If you are using <object> and <embed> tags to embed Flash movie on your website, you can use <noembed> tag to show the content of the Flash file to the users whose browsers do not have Flash plug-in installed and to Search Engines as well. If you are loading the Flash file through Javascript, use <noscript> tag to display the content. Alternatively, you can load the Flash file in a <div> and put the Content inside the div so that the text is displayed if Flash file does not load due to any reason.

However, for all the above cases one must show the same content, I repeat, the same content of that of the Flash file to Search Engines. Otherwise, it will be considered as a Black Hat SEO trick. swf2html application of Macromedia Flash Search Engine SDK extracts content and links from Flash files. Using this you can get your Flash files translated in to HTML.

Proper use of Meta Tags:
This is important for all the websites; however, for Flash based sites Meta tags need special attention so that the theme of the page is rightly conveyed out to the Search Engines. Remember the pages built in Flash do not have the rich-content support that other HTML pages enjoy.

If the whole website is built on Flash, it is better to have HTML based Sitemap page to ensure that Search Engine spiders easily crawl all the pages of your site. However, to get the advantages of internal links it is always suggested to have a text based breadcrumb navigation which is useful for the visitors too.

Let’s now explore what Search Engines have done or are doing for Flash?

New crawlers that read Flash files
Search Engines could not read Flash content and follow the embedded links in early days. However, the biggies have introduced new crawlers to extract content and link from Shockwave Files. It’s definitely a good news for Flash lovers, though it has certain limitations. You have to rely completely on the SWF-to-HTML conversion technique used by the Search Engines and you never know if it has any bug or not.

Moreover, not all the Search Engines have started using the technique. So if you depend completely on the Search Engines to read your Flash content, you may lose some potential customers you could get from small Search Engines which are popular locally. So take up all the steps you can to make your Flash site Search Engine friendly and useful for those whose browser does not support multimedia applications as well.

Brain Game
Now, I am sure, you are thinking that Flash is not that big No No your SEO guy has told you! There is no harm in using attractive Flash movies on your websites and make your visitors spellbound! However, as a matter of fact, Flash takes considerable time to load and people using dial up connection may not have the patience to wait that long. So you may end up losing some potential customers. And here comes the brain-game! You have to analyze the objective of your website carefully. If it is an information-based portal which belongs to a competitive niche, then it is good to go with conventional development process. However, to showcase your products, you may choose Flashy display. A blend of Flash and HTML can help you satisfy both your viewers and the Search Engines, but the Flash to HTML ratio is to be judged by you!

Author:  Saikat Sengupta has been involved in Online Marketing, User-friendly Content Development and Technical Writing for more than two years. He is also a part of Flash Charts and Flash Maps documentation team of InfoSoft Global (P) Ltd.line