Optimizing Flash for Search Engines

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference in Dallas, Texas December 11th and 12th, 2002.

Your glitzy Macromedia Flash animations may dazzle and impress, but over-reliance on Flash may render your website all but invisible to the major search engines.

Picture this situation. Your web site design firm has just completed a beautiful, functional site designed in Macromedia Flash. The animation in your site navigation is much more attractive, flows more smoothly, and downloads more quickly than the animated GIFs used in previous site designs. Plus, focus groups clearly indicated that your target audience loved the slick, new design. You are all ready to launch your site and promote it in the search engines.

Since crawler-based search engines were primarily designed to index HTML text, web sites built with Flash may be difficult or impossible for crawlers to read. However, FAST Search, which is the search engine powering AlltheWeb.com and Lycos, recently announced that it is indexing sites using Flash.

"FAST is the first web search engine to support the Flash file format using the Macromedia SDK," said Tim Mayer, Vice President of Web Search at FAST. "This will increase the coverage of the FAST search index as well as making Flash sites visible to the end user via a search engine. This enhancement makes both the text and the links within the Flash file visible to the FAST crawler."

Google is another search engine that can, at least partially, index Flash sites.

"Google has the ability to extract links from Flash files, said Matt Cutts, Software Engineer at Google. "In fact, in our own internal testing, we were able to extract more than 50% more links from Flash files than by using the standard Macromedia developer's kit that some other search engines use."

Let's go back to our hypothetical Flash web site. Three months after submitting your Flash site to the search engines, it is nowhere to be found except for the pay-per-click programs available at Overture and Google. Both Google and FAST Search said that they crawl Flash sites. So why isn't your Flash site easily found in these search engines?

"The search engine listings arena has never been more competitive and crowded. Any site concerned with search engine traffic should have an integrated search engine optimization/search engine marketing plan in place from inception, ESPECIALLY Flash sites, with their inherently unique structural challenges to search engine spiders," said Gregory Markel, Founder/President of Infuse Creative, an entertainment and technology consulting company. "Therefore, a plan/budget to address these issues either at the time of site design or thereafter is still critical."

"I believe the Macromedia Flash SDK, though implemented by FAST, does very little to help Flash sites be found for any keywords base outside the site title tags, which 9 out of 10 times are STILL lacking in purpose!" continued Markel. "I've also been told by an AltaVista engineer that 'it's not a priority' and wonder if the other engines will even bother."

Markel offered a number of guidelines for sites designed in Flash.

1. Question the wisdom in building an expensive Flash site that will deliver next to zero search-engine marketing benefit. Building both a Flash and HTML version of your site can help with search engine visibility since the major search engines should be able to crawl the HTML version of your site.

2. Factor the search engine optimization (SEO) budget into the Flash site budget. Flash sites might have to participate in the pay-per-click programs available at both Google and Overture to get search engine visibility.

3. Think Flash movies, not Flash sites. A site built in HTML, with Flash movies placed inside of the HTML documents, can also have the strong visual impact your target audience wishes to see.

Markel also warned about some risky practices that search engine marketers might use for promoting Flash sites, such as placing them inside of invisible framesets and using invisible layers in Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to present content to the search engines.

"Clients should not count on their site designers/webmasters to provide a search engine solution, said Markel. "The majority of site designers are not aware of the problem or the solutions of marketing a Flash site. An SEO/SEM company/consultant is needed."

AlltheWeb - Add URL
Sites using Flash content should submit to AlltheWeb, which will index them for its own site and make them available to its search partners, including Lycos.

Google - Add URL
Google will follow links embedded in Flash content - submit these pages to have Google's crawler extract these links for indexing.

Macromedia Flash Software Developer Kit
More information about Macromedia tools that allow search engines to index Flash content.

Shari Thurow is the Marketing Director and Webmaster for Grantastic Designs, Inc. <http://www.grantasticdesigns.com/> She has been design and promoting web sites since 1995 for businesses in a wide range of fields.

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About the author

Shari Thurow is the founder and SEO Director at Omni Marketing Interactive, a full-service search engine optimization (SEO), website usability, information architecture (IA), and web design firm. Acknowledged as a leading expert on search-engine friendly websites worldwide since 1995, she is the author of "Search Engine Visibility" and "When Search Meets Web Usability".

Shari's areas of expertise include search engine optimization, user-experience design and development, searcher behaviors, findability, and search usability.