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The Truth About Search Engines and Flash

March 23, 2011

It seems that once a year for the past five years or so, a search engine representative will stand up at a conference and announce that they are now indexing Flash. Website designers jump with glee, and SEOs lament that all the work they did educating their clients on why they need to curb their use of Flash will be for naught.

Think of it this way: If Flash were a food, it would be an herb or a spice. Let's say it's basil. While basil is great in pesto, it's not something that you'd make an entire meal out of. You use it to add flavor to your tortellini. And yet designers around the world – as well as CEOs who want to appear cool – want huge chunks of their websites in Flash. Sigh.

Of course, if the search engines truly are indexing Flash this time around, then what's the problem?

Flash Can Be Cool

Flash sites certainly can do some neat tricks. People can interact with them in ways they can't with a plain-Jane HTML website. Interaction is certainly good, because it can make a site "sticky." And people pass around fun websites to their friends so they can make the little balls spin, or play with the cool virtual cubes. This is great for some websites that are looking to entertain people.

Your Business Website is Not the Place for Games

If, on the other hand, your company wants people to actually understand what you do when they come to your website, how does playing with the spinning balls further this goal? I don't personally find it endearing to have to guess what's behind each ball or cube when I mouse over it and it makes a funny sound or explodes and perhaps shows a single word or cute saying. If I'm looking to kill time, I might visit your site. But if I'm wondering if you're a good fit for my needs at the moment, I don't want to do a puzzle to figure this out. Instead, I am likely to seek out your competitor who provides me with information, rather than games.

Do You Really Need Flash?

As you can tell, I'm not a fan of cool Flash sites for a typical business. But what about thoseiPhones and iPads Can't Use Flash who have a more basic Flash site that does indeed provide information? For them, I would ask, why Flash? If you don't need to allow your visitors to interact with your website, then why not just use HTML with Flash accents? Because even if the search engines are indexing the information contained in Flash (more on this in a bit), there are other reasons not to use it. First and foremost, not every browser has Flash installed. In fact, currently on an iPhone or iPad, Flash shows up as a little blue cube. Second, many Flash-based sites use only one URL for the entire site. Besides the search engine implications of that, it is also a nightmare for bookmarking, as well as for most web analytics programs.

So, even if search engines are indeed indexing the information in Flash, my recommendation is still to not design your entire website with it.

With that out of the way, I just rolled up my sleeves and started looking at how Google is currently treating Flash and whether websites can do just as well in the search results even if important information is contained within Flash.

Guess what?

Most Flash is Still Highly Invisible in Google

To test this, I went directly to some Flash sites and pasted exact words contained within their Flash into Google (using quotes). Result? Most of the sites did not show up in the search results. When I reviewed the source code of two sites that did show up, I found that one was using the phrase I looked for within their Meta description and the other site had lots of text within the code beneath the Flash so that search engines and browsers without Flash would have some meaningful info. While that's a good alternative, the info they had was very different from the info contained in their Flash. That's a bit of a dangerous game to play with the search engines, if you ask me. If that info is good enough for search engines and iPhones, why isn't it good enough for your most important users?

Do You Want Your Flash Files Indexed?

The other thing I noticed was that even on pages that used Flash sparingly, if they had words in the Flash files, a search for those exact words would not typically pull up the HTML page where the Flash was embedded. However, when I searched for the exact phrase and limited the search to only .swf file types (which is what most Flash files use as an extension), the Flash files themselves did show up in the results. This tells me that the Google reps were kind of telling the truth about Flash being indexed, but that it doesn't do website owners much good in a real-world setting.

Cool But Not Smart

Google searches for the brand names of Flash sites do bring up the sites in the search results (note that their brand is typically in the Title tag). So if that's all you care about, then using all Flash shouldn't be a problem for you. However, if you're interested in showing up in the search results for people who may not have already heard of you – i.e., those seeking out exactly what you offer rather than your brand name – then you may want to rethink the cool factor and go for the smart one instead!
Jill Whalen is the CEO of High Rankings and an SEO Consultant in the Boston, MA area since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalenJill Whalen

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Post Comment

 Don Kaufman said:
I understand there are techniques that can be accomplished via XHTML and Java that emulate Flash movement and are viewable on Apple devices. True? If so, I see no reason why adding life to our sites is detrimental, as long as the balance of the site is well optimized. Your thoughts?
 Jill Whalen said:
@Don, it depends on your site and your target audience and whether your hiding the information people want behind pretty spinny things that should just be there front and center.

There's never anything wrong with using Flash or any other cool stuff if it's used for accents. (Like I said with the basil analogy in the article.)
 Jeremy Martin said:
Thanks for this info Jill. I also have been paying attention to this because many of the clients I get come in with a full or mostly flash website. They wonder why I suggest tearing it apart. Once they see the benefits, they don't ask anymore questions. Great post and helpful, because now I have more ammo to back it up.
 SEO Mofo said:
Here's another angle to consider:

  •  Google doesn't promote SEO.
  •  Google doesn't promote non-open technology.

So how much of its engineering resources is Google willing to spend on making Flash more "SEO-friendly"? Probably not a whole lot. So regardless of the "advancements" in understanding Flash, Google is always going to understand HTML much better. Any website built completely in Flash is always going to be out-performed by its HTML equivalent.

Besides, what can Flash do that HTML5 can't? I can't think of anything.
 Alan Charlesworth said:
Preaching to the converted as far as I am concerned ... I still endorse Jakob Nielsen's mantra of 'Flash: 99% bad'.

One niggle: I love the phrase 'Your Business Website is Not the Place for Game'' - but could you replace 'business' with 'organization'? Games have no place on the likes of not-for-profit and government sites either.
 Pete Eveleigh said:
While search engines can certainly index text content within a Flash site it there are two caveats;

1. The text needs to be prepared correctly.
Using a graphic of some text won't work. Likewise, "breaking" a text object down so it becomes a bitmap within Flash will prevent it being read by a spider.

2. You lose semantic meaning.
This is the critical point. When text is marked up with HTML, providing it is done properly, a search engine can attach meaning to the words. For instance, text marked up as a level 1 heading will carry more "weight" than a plain old paragraph - but you all know that anyway.

Within a Flash document there is no such marking up. All text is seen as equal and so a search engine, while being able to index the text, cannot assign any relative value to different parts.

If Flash is done "right" it can work but I agree it should be the sprinkles on the top. With the increasing growth of mobile and adoption of HTML5, CSS3 and well written Javascript (note NOT Java!) Flash is becoming redundant for most sites that use it. It certainly still has its place but that place is becoming ever smaller.
 Marcus Miller said:
An additional problem that builds on the article and the comment by Pete Eveleigh above is that in many sites a single flash object tends to represent multiple pages of content. So, in addition to the lack of HTML mark-up on a given page, even if the flash was indexed, there is not so much as a title tag to represent additional pages (that is if it was even browsed by the search engine bot in the first place).

Equally, flash is useless as a landing page as you are always dropped in at the beginning (technically, there is a way around this by passing an argument into the movie but I have never seen it indexed).

So, Flash, are it's day's numbered? I am not sure about that, it has it's place and certain sites / experiences are enabled through the use flash but certainly, the lack of support on Apple mobile devices and the onset of HTML5 are certainly going to keep eating into the small slice of the pie that remains for Flash.
 Tomas said:
I say the opposite: be careful with html5 it doesnt work in all browsers and isnt consistent. Flash is och will still be great in future for multimedia and games! Not whole sites ;) I top-rank with my flash urls because they are popular and going vital.