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 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.