How to optimize Flash for search engines
Many web pages nowadays are embellished with Flash animation products, offered by Adobe. Flash technology allows, in a very simple manner, to insert small animated, vector-based drawings into your web pages.
Of course, these animations have some influence on the way your site is "seen" and indexed by the search engines. The problem of Flash Search Engine Optimization arises, which is a very serious matter in terms of conversion and web site profitability.
What Are Flash Animations?
First, let's see what the structure of a Flash file is. When you create an animation, you get a file, named, for example, banner.fla. The ".fla" represents the Flash format extension. In order to display this file in a web page, you need to export it in Shockwave Format (extension .swf). It is this file, once exported, that you will be using for your web site.
If the animation you have created contains text, it won't be taken into account by most of the search engines, as they don't pay much attention to this format. Still, there are search engines (e.g. Google, dir.com, FAST Search) that know how to read the text inserted in the Flash animations. A web page (or even a site!) that is built entirely in Flash will therefore pass almost "unseen" by search engines, which index, almost exclusively, text content in HTML format. Nevertheless, the HTML file that launches the Flash animation will be crawled by search engine's spiders.
Why Use Flash for Sites?
It is not a secret for anyone that search engines don't really like sites that are built using Flash exclusively. These sites rarely contain enough relevant text to allow a good indexing. Above that, not all spiders can read the content of a .swf file. Flash is used though every now and then for mini-sites or for campaign sites.
Flash is interesting for at least two reasons:
- It maximizes the animation's impact, which is appreciated in the Internet interactive and visual environment. Also, leaving aside the size of the files, it is worth mentioning that Flash (mainly vector-based) is still "lighter" than videos (not interactive) or simple pixel photos (not animated).
- It can be combined successfully with other technologies (e.g. PHP, MySQL, XML, images, video, sound, etc.). It is therefore perfectly possible to create a dynamic web site in flash that also has content.
A Flash animation placed on a web page has certainly more significance than a simple image. People like to be visually stimulated, and this is the perfect instrument to attract prospects and eventually convince them to buy a product. Perception is everything. Marketers want to offer a great looking package, and customers want to receive it.
Is Flash Friendly or Evil?
- It allows the designer to put more content in a small-sized space without damaging the layout.
- It is an easier way to present slide shows or movies.
- It is a great tool to create banners and ads, and even Flash videos.
- It's a good instrument for creating great visual impact and drawing attention to specific points of interest on a web site.
- Flash requires quite a lot of bandwidth - Flash files, especially if they use sounds or embedded movies, will take a long time to load, and the visitor may not have the best connection to the Internet and, obviously, the patience to wait.
- Most search engines don't like and don't index Flash - not all the search engines can crawl and index the content of Flash, and if they do, it's not free of errors. They won't be able to direct the visitors to the proper page.
- You could be at the mercy of the Flash developers - if you use 3rd party Flash developers, they might code the project so that you won't be able to make any changes and - hire them again, even for the smallest modification. This could actually cost you a pretty penny.
- The "Back" button is usually disabled - if the Flash designer has used some trick such as meta refresh in order to disable the browser's Back button, it is highly probable that the visitors might get frustrated and not want to start browsing your site over and over again. So they will leave. Besides that, Google's AdWords doesn't approve pages that have the Back button disabled. So, beware of this if you intend to promote your web site by using a PPC campaign.
- Flash doesn't care about the visitors' needs - movies that seem endless- sounds that you cannot turn off they will drive your visitors away.
- Splash Pages don't favor your visibility - they lack the text that contains the keywords identified as pertinent to your services / products; they only include one outgoing link and, most of the times, no back-link from another page; they often include re-directions, and most of the search engines will not include re-directions in their page index.
What You Can Do About It
Optimizing Flash for the so-demanding search engines is not an easy task. The effort that must be done and the amount of energy that must be spent on SEO for Flash are far greater than for the optimization of a HTML site.
Following are some tips on how to optimize Flash on your web site:
- One of the best methods to optimize your Flash pages is to use the NOEMBED tag, the same way the NOFRAMES tag is used to index the sites built on frames. It's between the noembed and noembed tags that text content must be inserted after you have defined a clear search engine optimization strategy for Flash.
- If you're going for the "all-Flash" approach (although most SEO practitioners strongly advise against this), there is also the possibility to create a HTML version of the Flash site and to offer that one for the spiders to index. You can create distinct HTML pages for each Flash page, and install the Flash movie on each page. If the visitor can handle Flash, they will see it. Otherwise, there will still be the HTML version, also accessible to search engine spider for indexing. You might lose the seamless effect that comes with Flash, but you will gain visibility and, possibly, some good ranking.
- Use the Flash Search Engine SDK tool called swf2html. It will extract the text from the Flash file and transfer it into a simple HTML document, so you don't have to do it manually. You will thus be able to see what the search engine spiders see.
Also, it would be useful to take into account some other aspects that might make a difference in your endeavor to make your Flash site compatible (and readable) with search engines.
Seriously consider the following suggestions:
- Avoid creating all-Flash-sites. They lack page structure, content and internal linking, while page titles cannot be well organized.
- Create descriptive page titles and META descriptions (use the title and meta tags).
- Check that your Flash links point to HTML pages and not to other Flash pages.
- Make sure you use a clean design for your pages and your site.
- Allow web users to choose if they want to skip or turn off animations and sounds.
- Go through all the possible solutions for Flash search engine optimization.
- Make sure your site is accessible for a variety of browsers (don't leave out WAP compatible mobile phones).
- Check that your code is valid and that it complies with standards. (read also: "Does your Website Need W3C Validation?")
- Make sure that your Flash web site functions correctly in Internet Explorer.
We suggest that you also read the related article Effective SEO through good code structure.