Optimize Your Flash Site for Search Engines

It’s my second most hated site to optimize: Flash. For an SEO, Flash websites list right up there with Javascript sites, which is my first nemesis. More and more of my clients are having their sites done in flash, then handing me the site, and saying, “Now, turn water into wine, please; and make it a Chardonnay…” So instead of moaning, complaining, wheedling and whining, I’ve found other things to do instead.

The first time I optimized a Flash site, it was a disaster. But since then, I’ve learned some very effective ways to optimize a Flash site. What seemed miraculous in the beginning isn’t as daunting a task as it needs to be. While I still hate to optimize flash, and I question the wisdom of doing so, there is no getting around it these days.

Flash does provide a great user experience, and can definitely increase sales. After all, people are very visually stimulated, and it is often the flashy sites that attract the customer to actually buy the product. If it looks great, then it must be great, right? I admit, I counsel against using Flash sites because they are so difficult to optimize, and frankly, make my job harder. But even I love to watch movies, and Flash is very impressive. People like interactivity, and Flash does provide them a method to get potential customers involved in a site.

As an SEO, you understand the importance of search engine rankings, and the best methods on achieving positioning. But to your client, what they really want are sales, and for visitors to buy their product and turn into customers. They want all that and more. So even if they understand the importance of what you are trying to convey to them, they still want the pretty site, because perception is everything. They know they may have the best product in the world, but if the package is ugly, people are less likely to buy. And they believe this about their website also. So it’s your job to make them happy, and ultimately, bring them the sales. They want the pretty site, packaged in the glossy box, and they want it optimized in the same breath. You can try to convince them of your view, but in the end, they want their cake and eat it too.

So how do you accomplish all that? Here are a few ways to increase user experience without sacrificing ranking.

Use Flash movies, not sites
Crawler based search engines still prefer html versus images, flash, and other scripts. But if you embed your glitzy flash movies into your content-rich HTML, you will still get the benefits of optimization. While search engines like Google, AtomzSearch, HotBot, and FAST engines (AlltheWeb, InfoSpace, and Lycos) are getting better at extracting links from flash sites, it is still very difficult for them, and other third party search engines have made no mention of extracting useful information from Flash. Yahoo claims they can read .swf files, but so far I’ve not seen any evidence that they read enough content to usefully rank a Flash site in its index.

A better way to incorporate Flash, if indeed your client must have it, is to first create an HTML site, and then use Flash movies in place of images, buttons, and banners. These areas are usually of little importance to a search engine anyway, so it seems fine to do it this way. In which case, optimizing this type of site is no different than optimizing a plain ole HTML site. This is my top recommendation for Flash.

Just as you would caution against using images for your important text, keywords, and other important aspects of your site, the same reasoning applies to Flash in these cases. If you are using several competitive keywords, then you will be well advised to split your pages up by topic, instead of using one web page, and then using multiple Flash movies for each page.

Use Splash Pages Sparingly and Appropriately
Everyone seems to love a great Flash intro. But even to a charmed visitor, multiple splash pages with no way out get tiresome. You should give your visitors the option to advance past the intro on their own, without the nasty redirect, which a lot of Flash intros use to send the visitor to the actual content of the site. We know the search engine spiders do not like redirects. So let your visitor take control over their experience.

On the flip side, you should have more than a single entry point into your site. No, I’m not talking about creating a bunch of doorway pages and redirecting them to your Flash site. I’m talking about optimizing each page of your site according to its content.

Don’t have one splash page as your entry point, and then compile all of the movies into that single page. This forces the visitor to have to return to the beginning just to get to another place in your site. If you need an “About Us” page, then create a separate page, and optimize it. Create another “Articles” page, optimize it, and so on. But please, don’t create a splash page for each. Even your visitors won’t like that very much.

The Macromedia Software Developer Kit (SDK)
Macromedia’s Search Engine SDK includes an application that is called swf2html, which extracts links and text from a flash movie, then returns the data into an HTML file. Users of this SDK can add functionality by adding Flash file decompression, parsing, and indexing features to their server-based search applications. While Macromedia is working with a number of third-party search engines in this regard, they haven’t announced any specific search engine support.

The Macromedia Search Engine SDK is designed for search engine application teams. What this means to you, the SEO, is an insider’s view to what the search engines actually see. Do your homework: simply to know which search engines utilize the SDK, and optimize the site for those specific search engines.

You can obtain a license for the Search Engine SDK, and extract the text from a flash site itself, so that you know exactly what these types of search engines will see. Usually, the first line of text extracted is perceived as the title, so it is extremely valuable for you to know how to place the text in the flash file. Will this require you to become an expert Flash programmer? No, as long as you are able to convey what you want effectively to the Flash developer.

Be familiar with the filetype operator in Google (filetype:swf typed after a search term). Try any search in Google with this operator. This will demonstrate that this content is extracted from the Flash itself. But just how deep does this extraction go? No one is certain, but with the SDK, you can get a pretty good idea. We do know that all the text from top to bottom is read, which is tested this way: choose an exact search term that’s near the end of your movie, the run your swf2html application. You will see your search term show up in your HTML output file.

You can find more information about Macromedia’s Search Engine SDK at: http://www.macromedia.com/licensing/developer/search/faq/

Increase your Link Building Strategy
There is more to SEO than just your content. If you must give up some of your crucial text in favor of the slick Flash content, then it is even more important for you to concentrate on your linking strategies. Of course, every SEO should concentrate on this area, but it’s even more important for the Flash site. Use anchor text properly (i.e. “Best SEO Tip” versus “Click here”), link to relevant and complimenting sites, and achieve those precious one way links.

If it is indeed harder for a search engine to find your Flash site, then make it accessible to them by back links. This will also help your traffic when you are not being indexed the way you like in the search engines, especially for those search engines that do not incorporate the SDK technology like MSN.

Prepare to use Pay Per Click Heavily
Web developers must factor in the cost of Pay Per Click (PPC) when building a Flash site. A budget for this type of advertising must be included in the cost of developing the site, as it seems that the search engines may be getting better at reading Flash, they still don’t index Flash sites quickly, if at all. In fact, one AltaVista engineer reported that it wasn’t a priority, and had no intentions on including reading Flash into their search engine. Be aware, also, that Google’s AdSense officiallydoes not read .swf files. So in this sense, you may rely more heavily upon PPC than if you used a full HTML site.

Build an HTML site, and incorporate Flash later
Some web developers choose to develop a website in HTML first, then once they’ve established search engine positioning and PageRank, add Flash later on. While this sparks a bit of controversy in the ideology of this method, it appears that established sites that already index well who add Flash to their sites at a later date do not seem to suffer the same effects of a new site done in Flash. It would be a good topic of discussion in the SEO Chat forums.

Better yet, create a low-res HTML version of your Flash site, and let the users choose their preference. That way, you have the best of both worlds: a Flash site for the visitors wanting the glamour, and an HTML site for the search engine spiders and for those visitors on dial up.

Using CSS Layers
A method I have seen used is creating invisible layers in CSS, which can place invisible text over the Flash text, readable by search engines, yet not appearing to the human eye. I will caution strongly against this method, as I believe it is very similar to cloaking. However, the controversy arises because while cloaking is presenting one set of text information to visitors, then another to search engines, the search engines can detect this type of practice as spam, and the likelihood of banning exists.

The logic behind the invisible layers theory though, is that if the search engines can’t read the Flash in the first place, then how can it know whether or not the text is different than the text presented to the visitor? I believe this is a very risky practice. The moral standard would be that anytime you are presenting information to a search engine that is different than the information presented to a visitor, especially if it is intended to be deceptive, it is considered cloaking; therefore, a black-hat SEO practice.

Because I truly believe after having explored the SDK option, search engines do have the capability of reading flash files, not only will invisible CSS layers duplicate your content, but also these efforts will be perceived as spam. If not right now, then it will happen soon. So my advice is to stay away from this technique, or you could likely find yourself not showing up in the search engine results pages (SERPs) at all.

Other Flash Tips:

  • Use accessibility features in Macromedia’s Studio MX to enhance the Flash. This will help accessibility readers purvey the content to visitors that rely upon the options in their browsers.
  • Make sure Flash links point to HTML pages, not other Flash pages. While the ability of a search engine to follow links in Flash is improving, it may not index content if the link just points to another Flash page.
  • Use static text in a Flash movie, so that these instances are not duplicated, and then are perceived as spam.
  • Recommend to the Flash developer that he use motion tweening as much as possible. Tweening is a term that comes from “in between”. Motion tweening is used when an animation occurs between two keyframes, and the Flash application creates all the frames in between. This also reduces the occurrence of duplicate text.
  • Leave the user with the ability to skip or turn off sounds and animations.
  • Never try to hide text within Flash.

You may have to educate your client on the downside of using a Flash site, and persuade them to use other methods of designing their website, but if you must optimize a Flash site, all hope is not lost. In fact your chances of your Flash movies being read by search engines are very good, and improving all the time. I do believe that the text in a Flash movie can indeed be read by those search engines that implement the SDK technology, whether with support from Macromedia, or with similar technology being utilized.

So can your client have their Flash site without sacrificing rank? You bet. By working with the developer, effectively communicating your strategies to both them and your client, and by understanding the technology used by the SDK, you will find that optimizing a flash site is not miraculous, but sometimes, rather worthwhile. Your client will be thrilled to know that not only can they have their cake; they can eat it too.

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