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What Google's improved Flash indexing means for your website

A month ago, Google announced that they had improved the way it indexes Flash files. Has something changed in Google's search results in the meantime? Is this change good news for you if you have a Flash site?

What has changed?

Google can now index the textual content in SWF files of all kinds, including buttons, menus and self-contained Flash websites.

Google can also discover URLs that appear in Flash files and it adds these URLs to the crawling pipeline.

What has not changed?

Google still doesn't recognize the text that appears on images. FLV files, such as YouTube videos also won't be indexed because they don't contain text.

As many Flash websites consist of images and other multimedia elements, the only text that Google finds on these websites might be "Loading", "Please wait" or "Copyright".

Google also cannot execute some JavaScript types. If your website loads a Flash file via JavaScript, Google might not be able to find your Flash file.

In addition, Google cannot attach content from external sources that are loaded by Flash files. If your Flash page loads an HTML or XML file then these files will be treated as separate documents.

Why is Flash still a problem for search engines?

Flash content and regular HTML pages are fundamentally different. Just because Google can now index some text from Flash files doesn't mean that Flash files are now search engine friendly. Here's why:

  • It's hard to divide the text into meaningful sections. Flash doesn't use <h1> or <p> tags to separate different sections of text. It's hard to tell what's important and what's not. Even worse, Flash designers often break down words into their individual letters to create "cool" text effects. That means that search engines cannot index these texts.

  • Usually, the complete content of a website is presented on the same URL. You cannot link to a special part of a Flash website. That means that it is also difficult for search engines to find the relevant section of the Flash site.

    In addition, this means that Flash websites don't get good inbound links to the right pages. Most Flash websites only get links to their home page.

  • The structure of Flash websites makes it difficult to get high rankings. Many Flash files are linked from other Flash files and no other websites link to these internal Flash elements. The lack of links from other websites makes it very difficult to get high rankings for these elements.

  • Flash doesn't use the basic SEO methods. You won't find proper link texts, headline tags or even properly optimized title tags in most Flash sites. That makes it very difficult to get good rankings.

  • Most Flash content is still not crawlable. As mentioned above, Google won't index content in images and it has problems with JavaScript calls.

What can you do to improve your rankings if you have a Flash site?

If possible, avoid pure Flash websites and use Flash elements only when needed. If you must use Flash on your website, the following tips will help you to get better rankings:

  1. Include the text and the links from the Flash file in an HTML version on the same page.

  2. Use JavaScript and CSS to find out if the website visitor can parse Flash and then present the CSS DIVs that contain the corresponding content. Regular website users will see the Flash file, visitors who cannot parse Flash (for example search engines) will see the HTML version.

  3. Use CSS and create a layer with your regular HTML content and then position another layer with the Flash content above the HTML layer so that your website visitors only see the Flash content.

    Note that search engines might misinterpret this method as a spamming attempt.

  4. Use different URLs for different sections of your website. Each set of content should have its own unique URL.

Flash has not been designed for search engines and it is extremely difficult to get high rankings with pure Flash sites. Using regular optimized web pages is the best way to get in Google's top 10 results.

If you have a pure Flash website, you should make sure that your website has as many good inbound links as possible.

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August 2008 search engine articles