Optimizing Flash

Often when people talk about Flash and search engines, they say search spiders can’t read the content within a Flash file and this will reduce the ranking of your site. While this is true, read about how this is not the root of the problem at all.

Question: “How do you get an all Flash website to rank well?”

Answer: “The exact same way you get a non-Flash website to rank well!”

I often get asked the question, “How can I optimize my Flash website?” It may surprise you to realize that your problem doesn’t lie with Flash. While it’s true that search engines still lack the ability to extract content from within a Flash file (swf), this problem can be easily rectified and, as you will see in this article, is not at the heart of your problems anyway.

Most articles in the past have simply said to avoid Flash without giving adequate details why or pointed out that FAST — via means of the Macromedia SDK and Google through use of its own technology — can now extract text and follow links, but go on to point out that neither of these do a sufficient job. This article may surprise you when you see the real issues you face by using an all Flash website.

I should point out that we’re talking about a site done entirely in Flash. If you have simply dropped a Flash animation into a page, that has about as much significance as an image.

The Perceived Problem and Solution

Oftentimes when you talk about Flash and search engines you hear about how the search spiders are incapable of reading the content within the Flash file and thus your site will likely not rank well within the results of a search. This of course is true, and since it is widely known I will only briefly touch on this subject and its remedies. I will later point out that this is not the root of your problems.

Because search engine crawlers were designed to index HTML and still have difficulties reading content from within a Flash file, one must take alternative steps in getting their content on the page. Below is a list of some steps that can be taken to get your content on the page.

  • Place your content within <noscript> tags
  • Place your content within <object> tags
  • Use keyword descriptive <title> tags
  • Use keyword descriptive <meta> tags
  • You could also place your content in a <div> and set the visibility to “hidden” in your external CSS file that has been placed off limits via a robots.txt file. I wouldn’t consider this method spamming because you’re not misrepresenting your site in any way; you are simply making the content that’s already on the screen available to the spider. However, just because I don’t consider it spamming doesn’t mean I can speak for the search engines.

So now that we have our content on the page, life is good and we can expect our website to show up in the results of a search, right? Not quite, you still have a major problem. One that often gets overlooked – that is until now.

I have often heard it said, “If you want to get an all Flash site to place well in the search engines you need to build up quality inbound links.” The problem with this statement is it’s mistaking PageRank for positioning. While PageRank plays an important role in the achieved position of a search, it is not the sole factor. If it were, then sites like Adobe, Macromedia and W3C that hold PageRanks of 10 would rank first for every conceivable search. They don’t, so something else must come into play. That something else is content. More specifically concentrated content.

Yes, but you have already told us how we can get our content on the page and have it indexed – so the problem’s solved right? Wrong!

Even though you have now found a way to get your content on the page you still have a major problem – you have a website that consists of but a single page.

If you were to ask a search engine marketing company or individual to help you with your search engine ranking position (SERP) and proceeded to inform them that they only have a single page to work with, they would certainly have their work cut out for them – Flash or no Flash.

Ever notice how some pages that have a PageRank of 4 or 5 can be listed above a page with a PageRank of 6? While there are a number of reasons why this can happen, much of it is attributed to how focused the content on the page is as well as the content of the pages that link to it and the actual text of the link itself.

A website more closely resembles the form of a newspaper than any other medium. This is because a newspaper has sections to it that can easily be explored on their own. For example I often read the sports and business sections of the paper, while my wife is reading the entertainment and funnies. Now imagine if all sections of a newspaper had to be confined to a single page. While this would make the newspaper challenging to read for a human it makes it even more difficult for a search engine which is trying to zero in on what the main theme of the page is.

Getting back to our all Flash website – you have a single page to use in telling about your product(s), service(s), company, how to contact you and everything else. If we keep in mind the optimization rule that you should only focus on 1 or 2 keywords per page that really puts you at a disadvantage. If you try and fit into 1 page what 10 to 30 pages should hold you dilute the content to the point that it’s now impossible for the search engine to understand what the main topic of the page is.

This is the real reason why an all Flash site will have a difficult time achieving higher ranks than an HTML site. HTML websites naturally encourage the use of multiple pages. An HTML site starts out with the advantage of x number of pages, thus giving it backward links from the start. In addition, each page can be dedicated to a specific topic. A page that has specific focus will have an advantage in ranking over a page that is eclectic. For example, a page the focuses on fishing lures will have a better chance on ranking for the keywords “fishing lures” than a site that has fishing lures, fishing rods, and fishing reels, all on the same page.

At this point hopefully it’s become clear that you need to find a way to have multiple pages with each page concentrated on a specific topic. This of course is true regardless of Flash. But how can one do that with an all Flash website? That indeed is the real question; let’s look at our options.

The most obvious solution is to create an additional version of your website done in HTML. The problem with this solution is oftentimes a company’s budget may not include the development of 2 websites. In addition, you now have 2 websites to maintain.

Another solution to explore is to place your content within plain HTML pages marked up appropriately but with no design at all, just text. This way you don’t spend time and money on design and development consists of simply copying and pasting text. Yes, but we don’t want our viewers to see this boring white page with content on it when we have a jazzy Flash site to offer them.

Hold on to your pants, I’m going to say 2 words that make some SEO’s cringe, “Auto-Redirecting!” Auto-redirecting is the process of sending viewers to different pages, based off of a characteristic, such as browser type, language settings, IP address, or perhaps they don’t have a plug-in installed so you redirect them to another page. All these things sound reasonable so why does auto-redirecting make SEOs cringe? The reason is because auto-redirecting in the past has been used by some to abuse the search engines by serving them beefed up pages, while serving viewers different pages.

However, in our example, which is a website done in 100% Flash – making it impossible for the search engines to do an adequate job indexing the content it makes perfect sense to implement auto-redirecting. If it’s a spider visiting one of the HTML pages you just let it do its thing, however, if it’s not a spider then you redirect to the Flash page.

You are in no way misrepresenting your page as something it’s not. You are simply allowing the spider to do something it couldn’t otherwise do on its own and that is have an understanding of what the web page is about.

It should be said, that while I am confident that Google and other search engines would not treat this as spamming I cannot speak with certainty.

Summary

This article has pointed out the real reason why an all Flash website has a difficult time placing well within the results of a search – not just because the spiders still don’t do an adequate job indexing a Flash file, but because any website, Flash or no Flash, that consist of but a single page will struggle to place well. Because of this you must find ways to ensure your website consists of multiple pages. Then you can implement standard optimization procedures (SOP).

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