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A Hot Topic: Getting Burned by Flash and Session IDs

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In early 2006, Frank's RedHot was in a pickle. The condiment maker had built a nice-looking Web site, yet they were only getting 50 unique visitors a month.

Here is a summary of their situation.

  1. The site had only 14 pages in the Google index.
  2. They only had 2 pages in the MSN index.
  3. They were not ranking for their key terms.
  4. All the product information was embedded in a single Flash movie.
  5. Content depth on the site was limited.
  6. The site used session IDs to track visitors.

Search engines are generally able to crawl Flash, and can find the text content in the movie – this is not really the problem with Flash. The problem occurs because movies are not designed to carry lots of text. No one is going to implement a movie like a Star Wars opening, with lots of text scrolling across the screen for the whole movie.

Once you decide to make a movie, you want a movie. In addition, search engine crawlers see the movie as one page. As the user looks at different parts of the movie, they may feel like they are going to different pages, but the crawler does not see that.

This was what was happening with Frank's RedHot. They had many different pages embedded in their Flash movie. But all of these pages were invisible to the search engine crawlers, except the first page of the movie.

Session IDs are a classic problem in SEO. They came into being as a means for tracking the progress of a user through your site. It works, but it runs into problems with search engine crawlers.

When you tag users to your site using a session ID, you are effectively creating new pages. The first time the crawler comes to your site, it might see the page: http://www.yourdomain.com?sessionID=57824. The next time the crawler comes to the site, it might see the page: http://www.yourdomain.com?sessionID=85949.

Even though both of these pages are the home page, and bring up exactly the same content, the crawler thinks these are different pages. Worse still, the crawler sees them as different pages with duplicate content. It just does not know what to do with that.

It's logical to ask why the search engines can't figure out such a simple thing. Well it turns out that there are lots of times people put parameters on their URLs when they intend to pull up different content.

So a parameter on a URL can be used for tracking purposes, or it can be used for database lookup purposes, and the crawler does not know which it is. All of the major search engine crawlers default to assuming you are intending to use the parameter to lookup different content from your site database.

The final problem is that people generally link to your site using http://www.yourdomain.com. This is seen by the crawler as yet another page, and this is the page that gets credit for all your inbound links. So the pages that the crawler sees (with the session IDs) has no links at all.

By the time you are done with all this you have a rankings mess!

In April 2006, the site was modified to get rid of the session IDs. The Flash movie was modified so that there was a separate movie for each product. In addition, more content was added in the form of a recipe section. This provided more content for search engine crawlers to find and index, as well as giving users additional reasons to come back to the site.

So what were the results? Here are some numbers from the site after the work was completed:

  1. Google is now indexing more than 500 pages.
  2. MSN is now indexing more than 750 pages.
  3. Site traffic is now more than 5,000 unique visitors per month

This is a great example that shows how SEO can really help many online businesses who got off to a slow start. People tend to forget how many companies like Frank's RedHot there are that need help understanding how to deal with the search engines. With a few (relatively) simple changes, their numbers changed dramatically.

It's also interesting to note that the site still uses Flash. What caused much of the improvement was separating each of the pages of the Flash movie into separately crawlable pages.

Thanks to Harmit Singh Kamboe of dthree, the online marketing management company that did the work, for submitting the case study.


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