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March 23, 2011

The Truth About Search Engines and Flash

It seems that once a year for the past five years or so, a search engine representative will stand up at a conference and announce that they are now indexing Flash. Website designers jump with glee, and SEOs lament that all the work they did educating their clients on why they need to curb their use of Flash will be for naught.

Think of it this way: If Flash were a food, it would be an herb or a spice. Let’s say it’s basil. While basil is great in pesto, it’s not something that you’d make an entire meal out of. You use it to add flavor to your tortellini. And yet designers around the world – as well as CEOs who want to appear cool – want huge chunks of their websites in Flash. Sigh.

Of course, if the search engines truly are indexing Flash this time around, then what’s the problem?

Flash Can Be Cool

Flash sites certainly can do some neat tricks. People can interact with them in ways they can’t with a plain-Jane HTML website. Interaction is certainly good, because it can make a site “sticky.” And people pass around fun websites to their friends so they can make the little balls spin, or play with the cool virtual cubes. This is great for some websites that are looking to entertain people.

Your Business Website is Not the Place for Games

If, on the other hand, your company wants people to actually understand what you do when they come to your website, how does playing with the spinning balls further this goal? I don’t personally find it endearing to have to guess what’s behind each ball or cube when I mouse over it and it makes a funny sound or explodes and perhaps shows a single word or cute saying. If I’m looking to kill time, I might visit your site. But if I’m wondering if you’re a good fit for my needs at the moment, I don’t want to do a puzzle to figure this out. Instead, I am likely to seek out your competitor who provides me with information, rather than games.

Do You Really Need Flash?

As you can tell, I’m not a fan of cool Flash sites for a typical business. But what about those who have a more basic Flash site that does indeed provide information? For them, I would ask, why Flash? If you don’t need to allow your visitors to interact with your website, then why not just use HTML with Flash accents? Because even if the search engines are indexing the information contained in Flash (more on this in a bit), there are other reasons not to use it. First and foremost, not every browser has Flash installed. In fact, currently on an iPhone or iPad, Flash shows up as a little blue cube. Second, many Flash-based sites use only one URL for the entire site. Besides the search engine implications of that, it is also a nightmare for bookmarking, as well as for most web analytics programs.

So, even if search engines are indeed indexing the information in Flash, my recommendation is still to not design your entire website with it.

With that out of the way, I just rolled up my sleeves and started looking at how Google is currently treating Flash and whether websites can do just as well in the search results even if important information is contained within Flash.

Guess what?

Most Flash is Still Highly Invisible in Google

To test this, I went directly to some Flash sites and pasted exact words contained within their Flash into Google (using quotes). Result? Most of the sites did not show up in the search results. When I reviewed the source code of two sites that did show up, I found that one was using the phrase I looked for within their Meta description and the other site had lots of text within the code beneath the Flash so that search engines and browsers without Flash would have some meaningful info. While that’s a good alternative, the info they had was very different from the info contained in their Flash. That’s a bit of a dangerous game to play with the search engines, if you ask me. If that info is good enough for search engines and iPhones, why isn’t it good enough for your most important users?

Do You Want Your Flash Files Indexed?

The other thing I noticed was that even on pages that used Flash sparingly, if they had words in the Flash files, a search for those exact words would not typically pull up the HTML page where the Flash was embedded. However, when I searched for the exact phrase and limited the search to only .swf file types (which is what most Flash files use as an extension), the Flash files themselves did show up in the results. This tells me that the Google reps were kind of telling the truth about Flash being indexed, but that it doesn’t do website owners much good in a real-world setting.

Cool But Not Smart

Google searches for the brand names of Flash sites do bring up the sites in the search results (note that their brand is typically in the Title tag). So if that’s all you care about, then using all Flash shouldn’t be a problem for you. However, if you’re interested in showing up in the search results for people who may not have already heard of you – i.e., those seeking out exactly what you offer rather than your brand name – then you may want to rethink the cool factor and go for the smart one instead!

Jill Whalen is the CEO of High Rankings, a SEO Consulting company in the Boston, MA area since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen