4 November 2009

Optimizing Flash Sites

If there is a really hot potato that divides SEO experts and Web designers, this is Flash. Undoubtedly a great technology to include sounds and picture on a Web site, Flash movies are a real nightmare for SEO experts. The reason is pretty prosaic – search engines cannot index (or at least not easily) the contents inside a Flash file and unless you feed them with the text inside a Flash movie, you can simply count this text lost for boosting your rankings. Of course, there are workarounds but until search engines start indexing Flash movies as if they were plain text, these workarounds are just a clumsy way to optimize Flash sites, although certainly they are better than nothing.

Why Search Engines Dislike Flash Sites?
Search engines dislike Flash Web sites not because of their artistic qualities (or the lack of these) but because Flash movies are too complex for a spider to understand. Spiders cannot index a Flash movie directly, as they do with a plain page of text. Spiders index filenames (and you can find tons of these on the Web), but not the contents inside.

Flash movies come in a proprietary binary format (.swf) and spiders cannot read the insides of a Flash file, at least not without assistance. And even with assistance, do not count that spiders will crawl and index all your Flash content. And this is true for all search engines. There might be differences in how search engines weigh page relevancy but in their approach to Flash, at least for the time beings, search engines are really united – they hate it but they index portions of it.

What (Not) to Use Flash For?

Despite the fact that Flash movies are not spider favorites, there are cases when a Flash movie is worth the SEO efforts. But as a general rule, keep Flash movies at a minimum. In this case less is definitely better and search engines are not the only reason. First, Flash movies, especially banners and other kinds of advertisement, distract users and they generally tend to skip them. Second, Flash movies are fat. They consume a lot of bandwidth, and although dialup days are over for the majority of users, a 1 Mbit connection or better is still not the standard one.
Basically, designers should keep to the statement that Flash is good for enhancing a story, but not for telling it – i.e. you have some text with the main points of the story (and the keywords that you optimize for) and then you have the Flash movie to add further detail or just a visual representation of the story. In that connection, the greatest SEO sin is to have the whole site made in Flash! This is simply unforgivable and do not even dream of high rankings!
Another “No” is to use Flash for navigation. This applies not only to the starting page, where once it was fashionable to splash a gorgeous Flash movie but external links as well. Although it is a more common mistake to use images and/or JavaScript for navigation, Flash banners and movies must not be used to lead users from one page to another. Text links are the only SEO approved way to build site navigation.

Workarounds for Optimizing Flash Sites
Although a workaround is not a solution, Flash sites still can be optimized. There are several approaches to this:

Input Metadata
This is a very important approach, although it is often underestimated and misunderstood. Although metadata is not as important to search engines as it used to be, Flash development tools allow easily to add metadata to your movies, so there is no excuse to leave the metadata fields empty.

Provide alternative Pages
For a good site it is a must to provide html only pages that do not force the user to watch the Flash movie. Preparing these pages requires more work but the reward is worth because not only users, but search engines as well will see the html only pages.

Flash Search Engine SDK
This is the life-belt. One of the handiest applications in the Flash Search Engine SDK is the tool named swf2html. As it name implies, this tool extracts text and links from a Macromedia Flash file and writes the output unto a standard HTML document, thus saving you the tedious job to do it manually.
However, you still need to have a look at the extracted contents and correct it, if necessary. For example, the order in which the text and links is arranged might need a little restructuring in order to put the keyword-rich content in the title and headings or in the beginning of the page.

Also, you need to check if there is no duplicate content among the extracted sentences and paragraphs. The font color of the extracted text is also another issue. If the font color of the extracted text is the same as the background color, you will run into hidden text territory.

These approaches are just some of the most important examples of how to optimize Flash sites. There are many other approaches as well. However, not all of them are brilliant and clear, or they can be classified on the boundary of ethical SEO – e.g. creating invisible layers of text that is delivered to spiders instead the Flash movie itself. Although this technique is not wrong – i.e. there is no duplicate or fake content, it is very similar to cloaking and doorway pages and it is better to avoid it.
contribute by, the SEO guru

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