This article aims to puts an end to the debate about creating SEO friendly Flash sites. I will discuss some fundamental tips and guidelines, giving you the opportunity to create attractive and interactive Flash sites which can be indexed by search engines.
Developers and designers have long been debating search engine indexing with Flash. The conclusion has always been not to use Flash if you want search engines to index your content. Many clients have followed this mistaken belief for a long time. Whilst the client may have a real desire to choose Flash interaction, they usually avoid it to ensure that their sites will be well crawled.
The idea that search engines hate Flash means that many clients miss out on the attractive and rich content that Flash can create. Frankly, Flash did have issues with search engine crawlers. At the same time it is not a black and white situation where you have to take either Flash or search engine friendly site content; there is a wide gray area in the middle which we should consider.
It's possible to gain the benefits of both sides through some tips that can help you enhance search engine accessibility for your Flash site. Applying these tips depends on the project circumstances as we will see in this article.
These tips won't necessarily improve your Flash site, but they should help arrange ideas in your mind when you plan the first steps of your website building.
The first topic to approach is how much Flash you will have in your website. Generally, there are three types of websites based on the Flash content: no Flash sites, partly Flash sites and full Flash sites. Here we will talk about the last two types since the non-Flash websites are not our concern in this article.
Flash is an attractive media which helps you deliver content and provide a rich experience to website visitors. However, choosing between full Flash sites and partly Flash sites is mainly based on the website content and structure:
Partly Flash Content
If we have a look at news sites such as CNN and BBC, you would never imagine that these websites could be full Flash (the Adobe site itself is not even full Flash.) The conclusion we draw here is that it's more suitable for some sites' content to have partly flash content instead of full Flash content.
Generally speaking, for websites with massive content, highly dynamic sites and business sites, it is more suitable to have partly Flash content. The concept behind this idea is that such sites do not require the Flash attraction or functionality in most of its pages and content. However, websites similar to the above examples can embed Flash in areas that only requires the Flash interaction or functions.
News websites (such as the example above) only require Flash in displaying video and banner animation. Adobe's website uses Flash to display products demos, banners and video tutorials, the rest of the website content being plain text.
Full Flash Sites
Full Flash websites do not only provide content, they provide the user with an attractive media experience which helps deliver an idea about a given subject. Design studios and creative sites which demonstrate creative potential often use full Flash sites.
Famous trademarks like Nike, Coca Cola and Adidas (as seen below) intend to provide users with an attractive experience through their Flash sites. The idea is to introduce their products through a technology that provides the maximum level of attraction and joy for the user.
Page Title and Metadata
Search engine crawlers execute the navigation in web pages from top to bottom. Therefore, the first lines presented to the search engine are the page's title and metadata.
The page title is the title that appears on the title bar of the browser as the title of the page in the website. When you search for a website in a search engine, the homepage title usually appears in the title for the search. The first and most important step to increase site visibility in search engines is to provide relevant keywords in the page title.
The homepage title becomes truncated to a limited number of characters, with the amount depending on the search engine. For instance, Google only allows around 64 characters in the title.
The metadata includes both keywords and description. Keywords are separated words which represent the website content. Search engines have a limited number of keywords' characters to index, so it is good idea to make your keywords honest and relevant to your content. The character limitation for keywords is around 160 characters.
Meta description is a small description of your website; this is indexed with the page title and meta keywords. Similarly to the rest of the metadata information, it has a limited number of characters that will be noticed. Again, the amount varies from one search engine to another; it is limited to 160 in Google, 165 in Yahoo and 200 in MSN.
Flash Optimization Process
The development process within Flash is not that far from the optimization process. There are two main methods to optimize your Flash content for search engine optimization. The first method is to have the Flash site divided over multiple HTML files as follows:
While the Flash website is embedded to only one webpage as seen in the diagram below, you can split your Flash site content to multiple web pages; each page having its own URL, page title, meta keywords and meta description.
Here, each of the SWFs for Home, Products, Services and Contact is contained within a different web page. Flash Website.swf links to each of these pages.
This method can help in reducing the total SWF file size as part of the optimization process and gives you the ability to add specific metadata to each page. For example, when you have a website that include, say, a products link and a services link, you can specify in the products page meta details the name of the product etc. and also specify the relevant information in the services meta data.
Along with the separated Flash files, the Flash site links are listed in the HTML pages, which enables the search engines to index the website URL directly without any work-around solutions.
The following diagram shows how to restructure a Flash website to consist of multiple HTML pages instead of one page.
The second method is to load the whole Flash site into one HTML page and have all the links embedded into the Flash file. Although this method can hide the Flash links and pages from the search engine, there are some work-arounds that can help you gain both the advantages of having the links inside Flash and of getting these links indexed as well.
There are a couple of libraries that can improve the search engine capabilities in Flash websites: SWFAddress and SWFObject.
(Daniel Apt has discussed this method in his article Flash Websites: the Pros and Cons.)
The SWFObject documentation on Google code provides full information about this method.
Google, Yahoo and MSN Flash Indexing
One of the greatest successes in Flash's history is getting the major search engines such as Google, Yahoo and MSN to index Flash content. This trend helps index most of the Flash content over the web. Furthermore, it will put an end to the dilemma about Flash and SEO forever. Also, it was a great step for search engines, with the increasing number of Flash content on the web and the real need to index this content for the benefit of internet users.
Early in 2008, Google developed an algorithm to index Flash SWF content over the web. This new algorithm could index any textual content inside the SWF files including text, links, and even buttons with text captions.
Later, in mid 2009, Google developed this algorithm a few steps further with the ability to index external text linked to Flash, such as text loaded as HTML and XML, and text located in other SWF files linked to a main SWF file (as mentioned in Google's announcement, Flash indexing with external resource loading.) We can summarize the content that Google can index when crawlers meet SWF content as:
- Any text content located in the SWF file, whether it be static text, dynamic text, text over buttons or text links.
- External text content loaded to the SWF such as HTML and XML.
- Text loaded through Action Script including all versions of Flash ActionScript.
Most site owners are concerned with the major search engines, but if you'd like to extend your Flash site indexing, you can refer to the above tips to ensure that your Flash site content will be indexed in most of the search engines.
Gossip around Flash is rife. Other new technologies and how they may compete with Flash such as Sliverlight, Ajax, JQuery and (most recently) HTML5 video embedding capabilities are always being discussed.
Actually, these are narrow thoughts about Flash. Other technologies may present features and technologies that are similar to Flash, but Flash has much more than a couple of features to compete with. In addition to the Flash features themselves, Flash provides one real exclusive benefit putting it in a unique position among competitors that can provide animation, interactivity or multimedia content: its wide integration. You can use your Flash application on the web, desktop, mobile and even TV broadcasting which reduces multi-platform project costs.
Plus, Flash integrates with both Adobe and Microsoft tools to provide the most enhanced workflow between applications. You can find more about the Flash integration in my article, Quick tips for integrating Adobe Creative Suite 3 products.
Overall, it is a big advantage to implement Flash in your website and interactive content. The above tips should help you to merge between the benefits of both Flash's attractive content and creating search engine friendly websites.
I hope you enjoyed this article and found it useful, thanks for reading.
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