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Is it Time to Block Flash for SEO Purposes?

Whenever I interview or otherwise evaluate an SEO, I eventually find my way to The Flash SEO Question: Name 3 ways to SEO a flash-heavy web site for Google/Yahoo!/MSN, not including “make an HTML version”. I consider it a Fermi question for Competitive Webmasters.

Now Google has formally announced it is indexing the contents of Flash web sites. The Official Google blog announced it as an academic achievement (Google learns to crawl Flash). The Google Webmaster blog practically denies ever having been unable to properly handle flash, with it’s version Improved Flash Indexing. Adobe attempts to take credit with “Adobe Advances Rich Media Search on the Web“, even though it seems to admit what it seems to have always vehemently denied in the past – that Flash websites were failures because people couldn’t find them.

The accurate reality? Google has been struggling to understand Flash for years, has read and indexed the readable text portion of Flash files for quite some time. Last year Google started exploring Adobe’s Flash SDK for better understanding of the meaning of Flash content. Good SEO consultants have devised ways of helping Google understand Flash web pages for years as well, using various techniques beyond the obvious “create an accessible version for search engines”. Some of those methods work very well. Others are risky, because they permit Google to classify them and whenever Google classifies something, it suffers in the risk/reward department.

So why does this “news” scare me as an SEO consultant? A few reasons:

Google says it will not find nor index Flash that is loaded by “certain” javascript which it does not read nor follow. This statement maybe a lead in for future /enhanced discrimination against js loaders, which have already received a fair share of PR attention since they are effective at cloaking Flash content and thus are ripe for abuse by unscrupulous competitive web publishers. It is true that one bad apple doesn’t spoil the whole bunch, but it is also true that Google highly prefers algorithmic approaches to content censorship over anything more cognitively challenging. Hence they are all too often happy to pass on bunches of perfectly good apples in order to avoid one bad one or even the risk of a bad one. I’d love to debate the importance of naturally ocurring acetylsalysilic acid with Google’s engineers, but I doubt they have the patience for my analogy. The truth is that we use js loaders because they are a reliable means of loading Flash in all browsers, under webmaster-controlled conditions. Google’s statement that it “might” not folow “certain” js is all a gray cloud of uncertainty. We can’t trust Google if we don’t know what it is doing. We shouldn’t let Google dictate web technologies to protect Google unilaterally. Let’s not let that fact get lost in the F.U.D. of SEO vs. Google.

Google Gospel Spreads Fast in Web Land. I can already hear the gears of misinformation turning as designers and even so-called SEOs prepare to tell clients “Flash is okay now, Google indexes it“. Truth is Google is trying to understand it, which is more important than indexing. This brings a new frontier to SEO for Flash; a frontier of research that has very little to do with indexing of the content within existing Flash files or the content in Flash files built the traditional way.

SEO for Flash just got more expensive, because it got more sophisticated. Flash websites have always been expensive because they look good and work poorly. Clients of Flash web sites think the site is all included – looks good and self contained within the Flash. But for web sites that demand a search presence for marketing purposes, the up-front cost of a Flash web site is a small fraction of the total cost of making a Flash website perform as intended on the web. Flash-based navigation has never worked well, unless heavily supported by program logic. Where SEO for Flash used to be limited to a reasonable set of success metrics, we now have an opportunity to help Google much more as it seeks to understand what the Flash content means for the user. Flash now plays an important semantic role, where it used to be ancillary. The first thing smart SEOs need to do now is block Google from indexing Flash, simply because we don’t control Google’s interpretation of the meaning of Flash content. I don’t think that is what Adobe intended.

It is early yet, but someday Google will understand a Flash-based mortgage calculator is just that… and grant it relevance accordingly. Until then, SEO for Flash is once again a competitive arena in need of research and SEO attention. Until that hard work has been done, I’m sending Flash back down to the minors for basic training and evaluation. If you have your own, add them in the comments. I’d love to hear your meaningful thoughts on the subject.

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10 Responses to “Is it Time to Block Flash for SEO Purposes?”

  1. Nebraska Says:

    Excellent post. I am contracting at a large Internet Design shop here in Chicago and the first thing in the email was some JR art guy wetting himself over the announcement.

    He was all over the idea that Google can read Flash – all ahead full!

  2. Todd Mintz Says:

    I’m treating this like Firefox 3…ignoring it until we see how everything shakes out in the SERPS.

    Plus, it’s pretty rare to see a Flash page contain all the other elements that a well optimized page should have. Most Flash pages don’t just fail in SEO because they are in Flash…they fail in all aspects of SEO which means they’ll still suck in the SERPS even if Google can understand them.

  3. John Slimak Says:

    Great Post I will be adding to my blog to help bridge the gap. Unfortunately 4 of my clients have already called and asked the great question “when can we redesign the entire site to flash so it looks good”? Wow and it begins! Please keep up the info – much appreciated!

  4. Best Web Designs Says:

    I just read at matt cutts blog that google has improved indexing flash. This means flash is becoming more important at SEO.

  5. paisley Says:

    todd said it best…

    “Plus, it’s pretty rare to see a Flash page contain all the other elements that a well optimized page should have. Most Flash pages don’t just fail in SEO because they are in Flash…they fail in all aspects of SEO which means they’ll still suck in the SERPS even if Google can understand them. ”

    it’s not hard to optimize Flash for SEO now… what you need to read between the lines is there will be more opportunity for abuse in flash than you can possibly imagine, henceforth.. “start hacking so we at Google can figure it out and code against it.”

    lol.

  6. Eric Oliver Says:

    I strongly agree with much of what you say. I’m a Flash developer and as much as I’d love to be able to say that all the Flash work I build will now be properly-indexed, there’s no way I can tell my clients this right now.

    The real question raised by this new development is “HOW is Google indexing Flash sites?” How will it interpret the text it finds within Flash files and assign relevance? There are no standardized links or tags (like <a> tags or <h1> tags) in Flash that relate to semantic significance. The reality is that as much as I long for the day that Flash sites are on equal SEO footing with non-Flash sites, that day has not come (you can see my blog entry for more thoughts on this).

    I do disagree, however, that we should block Flash sites from being indexed. I think our job now is to get the ball rolling with Flash indexing which will hopefully speed the development of both Google’s ability to index Flash sites properly as well as a more standardized set of Flash programming standards for SEO. Instead of waiting for the ideal scenario to be developed (by Google or Adobe or anyone else), I believe we as SEO professionals need to take an active role in creating the ideal scenario, and that means mucking about with messier solutions until we get them into a clean form.

    It would be such a tremendous boon for users to have all Flash content (including animations, videos, etc.) properly-indexed, I think it’s worth the extra effort on our part.

    @Eric: As a Flash designer, you have the right perspective. As an SEO, so do I. And when we both understand better what Google is doing with the Flash content it finds, you and I can work together to  win the SERP wars for our webstes and our clients. Until then, I don’t trust Google, I don’t trust that your Flash properly represents my page to Google, and I can’t afford to just put it out there and see what happens. In fact, it is precisely because so many designers are willing to just put visual things out there without concern for their extra-visual impact (especially with Google’s rankings), that I am so busy these days. As for getting the ball rolling and hopefully speeding the development of Google’s ability to index Flash, that’s a great job for test sites and perhaps PR-centric sites intended to praise/embarass Google when it gets things right/wrong. But that’s not for real websites. Until Google gets way more transparent about its indexing and ranking of  websites, Flash is a risk for anything dependent on Google search traffic.

  7. Anthony Says:

    I couldn’t agree more with what Eric Oliver has posted. Nothing on the web is ever clean, and every innovation brings new problems and new opportunities. Flash is one of the best ways to deliver multimedia content on the web. Why would anyone passing themselves off as an SEO professional want to walk away from an opportunity to make the search experience for multimedia better?

    @Anothony: it is precisely because I am a professional SEO that I need to block out the ill-prepared, unauthorized flash content  from search engines. I’ll pass on every opportunity to “make the search experience for multimedia better” when it profits someone else at my or my client’s expense (as this currently does). I could go on for days with specific reasons why I can’t trust Flash and Google right now, but suffice it to say that until we know what Google is doing with whatever it finds inside the Flash, and we know what the designers are doing with whatever is invisible inside the flash file, we professionals cannot afford to assume the risk of including that in the page content. Nuff said.

  8. Steve W Says:

    “Flash websites have always been expensive because they look good and work poorly”
    I’d wear that if it was on a T-shirt – HaHa

  9. Gab Goldenberg Says:

    Why make Google’s life easier? I quite agree. Besides, this allows us to keep an advantage over the foolish designers who keep building 100% flash sites.

    That aside, as with nofollow, a few posts from Matt will suffice to spread Google’s desired techniques around the web.

  10. Vinyl Banner Boy Says:

    Flash is like peeing in a wet-suite- It gives you a warm feeling, but nobody notices.