Practical Ecommerce

Ecommerce Know-How: Adobe Flash vs. Search Engine Optimization

New technology, user demand, and search-engine-optimized design are making it possible for search engines to index, rank and display sites developed completely with the Adobe Flash platform.

To be sure, rich Internet applications (RIAs), like those created with Flash and Flex, are a challenge for search engines to index, rank, and link to. But, now, Flash is not a barrier to search engine optimization. In fact, it is possible to have great SEO and great Flash.

With a minimal amount of care, you can create Flash-based websites that work and play well with leading search engines. In this edition of “eCommerce Know-How,” I am going to (1) briefly explain why search engines have had trouble indexing Flash content in the past, and (2) mention two software advances that make it easier for search engines to index text associated with Flash.

Video: The State of Flash SEO


Why Flash and Other RIAs Are a Challenge for Search Engines

Imagine for a moment that it is your job to make reference copies of important documents for a law firm. Everyday reams of affidavits, contracts, and briefs come across your desk. You photocopy those documents, organize them by topic, and file them.

All is well, until one day a DVD lands in your in basket (think wire container on the corner of a wooden desk). The DVD contains important contractual information, but you don’t have a DVD player. All you can do is photocopy the cover from the DVD case and hope that cover provides enough information to make integrating it into your filing system possible. And, let’s face it, your photocopy of the DVD cover is not going to be much help as a reference copy of the DVD’s content.

This photocopying scenario is analogous to the problem search engines have faced (note the past tense) when trying to index, rank, and display results for RIAs.

The two most important challenges that I want to illustrate are (1) search engines had a hard time getting at Flash content and (2) search engines had a hard time referencing and linking to Flash content.

Hello, Is There Any Content There?

Search engines have had trouble getting at the content—even the text content—inside of the Flash’s SWF (the small web format file, used for many Flash applications). At best, search bots were able to get at whatever “state” of the Flash that was displayed when a page loaded.

The Problem with Linking Back to Content

And search engines could not link back to content even when they found it since Flash-based pages can provide a lot of interactive content, such as product details, descriptions, or even a shopping cart, on a single URL without reloading the browser.

All of the site content is at http://someurl.com. There is no http://someurl.com/some-product. So, even when a search bot discovered a given product description, it could only link back to the beginning or first “state” of the Flash not to the particular state that included that product description.

This is vital for SEO because even if Google, Bing or Yahoo! finds and indexes a web page, the user search for the page’s content won’t be happy because instead of arriving at the desired product description, he or she will land on the Flash home page and have to navigate to the proper page. And if a customer wants to email a link to her friend, she could only point to the first state of the Flash.

To use our DVD analogy, even if I had a DVD player and could get at the content, I would not necessarily have a way to reference a particular section on the disk, rather I just have to play through it.

Flash SEO Solutions

So, should we just give up on using Flash and go back to HTML table-layouts? No way. New software improvements have made creating Flash sites that search engines can index relatively easy.

A Headless Flash Player for Search Engines

For more than a year, Google has been able to index some Flash content. And recently, Adobe announced that it was working with Google and Yahoo! on a headless Flash Player that exposed much (if not all) of a Flash application’s text content to the search engine.

Nicknamed Ichabod after the literary figure, the headless player has unlocked SWFs in a similar fashion to how PDF content is now available to search engines. Just a few years ago, no search engine could index PDFs, either.

Separately, Google announced in June 2009 that it is now indexing external content that SWF files call into a RIA. “This means that when a SWF file loads content from some other file—whether it’s text, HTML, XML, or another SWF,—we can index this external content too, and associate it with the parent SWF file and any documents that embed it,” wrote Google Software Engineer, Janis Stipins on the Google Webmaster Central Blog.

Now that Google and other search engines can get at Flash content—and they can—Flash is no longer a barrier to indexing.

In fact, according to Stipins, Google can:

  • “Index textual content displayed as a user interacts with the file. We click buttons and enter input, just like a user would.
  • “Discover links within Flash files.
  • “Load external resources and associate the content with the parent file.
  • “Support common JavaScript techniques for embedding Flash, such as SWFObject and SWFObject2.
  • “Index sites scripted [with ActionScript even if it] is obfuscated.”

Accessible Flash Content Means There Is SEO To Do

Certainly, there are lots of things Flash designers can do to either improve their SEO or make their content invisible. But these “things” are now similar to standard HTML SEO best practices. This can include, for example, whether or not some content has a title, an <h1> tag, or even some body copy. These are not so much about HTML or Flash but about planning and design considerations.

Now Flash Supports Deep Linking

The second major problem that search engines faced where Flash content was concerned had to do with links. There was only one URL and no way to link back to a particular state in the Flash. Well, that problem is now solved. Several resources, including Asual’s SWF Address make it possible to link directly to a particular state in Flash. So if Flash designers want to have a URL for every state in a Flash site, they can.

Search engines and customers alike can link directly to the part of the Flash content that they want to. And a site can even develop back links (for Google PageRank) that aim to particular Flash states.

Summing Up

Both of the major challenges that search engines faced when indexing, ranking, and displaying query results from Flash sites and applications have been, essentially, overcome.

Does that mean that SEO for Flash is now as familiar or even as easy as SEO for HTML? No. It just means that a site owner and a site developer can take steps to optimize a Flash site without fearing that their Flash is “invisible” to Google or Bing or other search engines.

There are still dozens of considerations and problems with SEO for Flash. As an example, all of your Flash content may look like a single page to search engines, and not a series of pages like HTML would. But now the issues are similar to how SEO professionals plan for HTML optimization. A conscientious site owner will still need to pay attention to SEO and employ techniques to ensure that he or she makes it easy for the search bots visiting her site.

Finally, I suspect there are some naysayers among my readers, but I must remind them that the Internet, email, television, radio, and even the automobile have all had naysayers in their time. RIAs are the next phase of Internet evolution, and Google, Yahoo!, Bing, and Ask will make delivering search results from pages created with Flash (and other rich media technology, like Microsoft Silverlight, AJAX, and Curl, to name a few) as common as HTML-based search results, or they will be replaced as the search leaders by new services that do display RIAs in search results.

Resources


Armando Roggio
Armando Roggio
Bio  |  RSS Feed


Get the Practical Ecommerce RSS feed

Comments ( 10 )

  1. Michael Stearns July 28, 2009 Reply

    Very important article, Armando.

    There is no question that some work is involved to get a Flash-centric site well-indexed. But for sites that can really benefit from a Flash UI, there is no reason to ditch those plans just for SEO reasons.

    The whole space of getting rich application well-indexed is a fascinating and rapidly evolving one.

  2. Tag44 July 29, 2009 Reply

    Thanks Armando for such useful info…if this going to happen then we will soon see some more beautiful flash sites that also been search engine friendly.

  3. Dejanseo July 29, 2009 Reply

    Hmmm… I’ve completely dropped flash apart from using it for pretty site headers and banners, mainly for SEO reasons. I guess Adobe is pushing for Flash to be seen as a serious functional element and not just a decorative piece.

  4. tenchi July 30, 2009 Reply

    Indeed, the combination of "Asual SWFAddress" type of technique with a headless player sounds very promising… and opens a lot of new perspectives of work for the future. Lots of room for creativity too.

    Thank you for this enlightening article, Armando.

  5. Iron Fox Designs July 30, 2009 Reply

    Thanks, Armando. Well said. First, I’m glad to learn that search technology has advanced so as to crawl and index Flash content. And secondly, it was inevitable, as you say, that the web would progress with more multi-media content and it is the search technology that can handle it that will take the lion’s share of the search market.

  6. Angela Hill July 30, 2009 Reply

    Great article. Unfortunately, Flash like Drupal or Joomla will continue to experience SEO challenges until the developers work out all of the kinks in enabling the kind of optimization and control that online specialists are looking for. And don’t get me started on their content management issues!

    In the short term, I’d stick with good old html or PHP to be safe and enjoy Flash as an integrated component rather than a whole source solution. All the benefits of dynamic imagery with none of the SEO or CMS headaches.

  7. eoschlotz July 30, 2009 Reply

    Thanks, Armando. I enjoyed it and it helped me understand Google’s strategy for dealing with Flash. I was wondering if they do basically the same thing for Silverlight? In Scott Guthrie’s blog announcing the Silverlight 3 release, it says "Silverlight 3 includes a new navigation framework that enables deep-linking and forward/back button integration within the browser. This also enables search engine optimization (SEO) support so that content within a Silverlight application can be indexed by search engines – including Google, Bing and Yahoo." (If you don’t follow Scott’s blogs or presentations, I recommend him as a great resource. He is a Microsoft VP in the Developer Division. He runs the teams that develop Silverlight, ASP.NET, the .NET core, …)

    I’m not advocating Silverlight over Flash, just wondering if they have rough parity as far as search engine visibility. Actually, I hope both have solved the problem and SEO will become a non-issue for RIA apps.

  8. Armando Roggio July 31, 2009 Reply

    @eoschlotz,
    I have to confess, I know very little about Silverlight. But I have started to look into it. I will see if I can find something out and report back to you.

  9. Armando Roggio July 31, 2009 Reply

    @Dejanseo, I really believe that RIAs are the future of the Internet, within the next decade RIAs should dominate website design and development.

    For a glimpse at the future of ecommerce, consider visiting [knickerpicker.com](http://www.knickerpicker.com). I have to warn you, this is a woman’s underwear/bikini store so don’t be surprised by what you see. But KnickerPicker has implemented an RIA that could provide a clue to what ecommerce sites might do with Flash or similar technologies in the coming years.

  10. eoschlotz August 5, 2009 Reply

    Armando, I had a dissenting opinion of some of the RIA sites you featured in a previous article, but I agree that knickerpicker is well done and an excellent use of Flash. It enhances the usability (and coolness) of the site without distracting the user from their purpose. If, when you select a new model, the old one walked offstage instead of vanishing they really would have kept the impression of a private fashion show going.

Email Newsletter Signup

Sign up to receive EcommerceNotes,
our acclaimed email newsletter.

And receive a free copy of our ebook
50 Great Ecommerce Ideas