Flash… aaaaahhhhh… Saviour of the Universe!

Love it or hate it, we’ve all seen it. Flash sites built for beauty and not spiders have often been the source of grief and stress within the SEO community as we try and explain why it was a dumb idea to do it that way. Ya, that’s harsh but so it trying to force a use to guess where they need to mouse over to find a menu.

I have a site I love to use as the perfect example of how flash lets you down. This chocolate company has some of the most yummy looking chocolate treats. Problem is, Google doesn’t think it has much to do with chocolate. Take a look at the Sweet Thoughts chocolate site which looks like this to Google and results in the Cadbury UK site along with many others to outrank it for a search for chocolate. In fact, the spidered flash is there but just not ranking. So the new spidering of flash content by Google should be a RankSaver for sites like this but I would caution everyone for the moment against complacency and encourage adoption of existing best practices.

From July 1st, Google started spidering the content of flash files to help to unlock some of the last places on the web left unlookedat. However, rather than looking normal, these sites are clearly marked with [FLASH] next to the search result. Yahoo! have had the technology made available to them as well but have not yet committed to a timeline to implement this enhanced spidering. Who knows what Live will do – maybe Ms. Dewey will simply take her crop and beat the offending sites in to HTML submission. Or run over them on her motorcycle. Mocking them might work as well :-)

Google’s help files specifically state that In general, search engines are text based. This means that in order to be crawled and indexed, your content needs to be in text format. This doesn’t mean that you can’t include images, Flash files, videos, and other rich media content on your site; it just means that any content you embed in these files should also be available in text format or it won’t be accessible to search engines. So while this is changing for flash, I would still continue to create a mirror site for those with things like old browsers and flash turned off.

While being able to spider Flash content may seem like a solution to the issue of invisible content like the chocolate site above, it can present additional problems. Any flash currently loading via JavaScript will still be inaccessible since Google’s spider will not be having the ability to execute javascript added anytime soon if they tell the truth over in Mountain View. Recent personal experience leads me to believe they are sometimes painfully honest about some things so I’ll trust the news on this.

A lot of the Flash content has no text basis to it since it has been created out of images and possibly links. This spidering change will have no impact on the ranking of these sites until it combines image recognition with flash spidering. Sometimes, flash files are better left hidden :-D but it may help with the ability of Googlebot to access and possibly rank deeper pages previously inaccessible.

Some flash content has multiple text-based pages buried within the program. So lots of text, no context. If this causes one page to become authoritative for multiple keywords, it could cause issues with ranking. With the chocolate shop example, it could cause all items to be lumped on a single page, diluting a stronger authority if similar products were grouped logically together with unique textual content. So really, to catch chocolate lovers like myself that will want to include a different version of the content which breaks up text through a set of logical, focused pages to help Google rank each page for what it is authoritative for.

While duplicate content will be less of a problem with Flash since it’s all lumped together, the underlying code itself would need to be clearly understood by a robot. So you’ll suddenly need very clean, very well structured and very well written code. Since sometimes code which executes well is not necessarily written well, this may also pose potential spidering issues.

With the potential for so many problems, best practice remains the same. Include alternate, text based information for search engines in order to help them spider, understand and rank your site. Especially if you sell chocolate :-D

Next time, I’ll look at the problems of javascript driven chocolate sites and how to overcome problems of the type the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory has.

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8 Responses to “Flash… aaaaahhhhh… Saviour of the Universe!”

  1. So here’s a concern…. Search results labeled {FLASH} amid a sea of distrust from searchers concerned about malware and other snakeoil… Or even just concerned about having to download a Flash Player. Additionally, just forget about any AOL visitors as they have to jump through hoops and search out a proper Flash installation to even thinks about clicking into that page. This is worse than NOT spidering them.

  2. @Melanie I can understand your points. I think that for those worried about such things, [FLASH] marked sites will provide them with a signpost about what sites to avoid. To others, it will offer them a chance to find something yet undiscovered.

    The point really was that best practice still applies and so using the good old fashioned “cloaking” (which it really isn’t) is still essential.

  3. Maurice says:

    >> Ms. Dewey will simply take her crop and beat the offending sites in to HTML submission

    be still my beating heart :-) do ou wonder if ypou type max mosley into MS dewey you get and easter egg.

  4. Tom says:

    I’m a videogame programmer and I can tell you it’s not really possible to look at a piece of javascript or a flash program and know what it’s going to do, unless you run it. You can write infinitely complicated programs that can produce any kind of behavior. I don’t think the spider bots can sit around at all sites to wait and see what happens in each program. It’d also be hard to label or index what a flash program is producing, too.

  5. @Simon *giggles* I have to read you more – I hadn’t realised you’d done that but it seems great minds think alike!

    @Maurice I have to agree tho – I’m going to be looking to Ms Dewey to really whip those sites into proper submission *LAUGS* damn that’s far too geeky :-)

    @Tom I don’t think it’s an execution thing to figure out what’s happening (and it can’t read Javascript), it’s more of an understanding of what the code means and understanding where equivalent HML elements would be and understanding them then ranking the site. So my issue isn’t that it’s hard to understand the execution to understand what is going to happen but that you can compile crap code and it’ll still look beautiful – but it then still presents a search engine with confusing code even though they can now understand it.
    So best practice remains to create an HTML equivalent because of crap code more than lack of SE understanding.

  6. Chris Morin says:

    That Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory are the type that drive me crazy… you have to guess where to put your mouse to find the secret door into the secret passageway that leads to actual information about the site… I just run away screaming!! Except in this case, there is one of these stores at the mall so that’s a better choice anyway.

  7. Laura Design says:

    Great article! – it is extremely important you take into consideration how flash will affect your website and how Google will ‘spider’ it. Looking at the website as mentioned – The Rocky Factory’ this does indeed present many problems. For one, the navigation is hidden and can only be accessed by simply guessing where the buttons are placed. Based on the evidence above, it clearly shows that all flash that is embedded must be text based to allow for search engine compatibility.

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