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July 01, 2008

Google Can Now Read Flash? Don't Jump for Joy Yet

By Li Evans

Adobe_flash_logo Last night the Official Google Blog, the Google Webmaster Central Blog, Adobe and even Matt Cutts all  announced that the Google's crawlers can now crawl and read the Adobe SWF files, just like it crawls and reads regular website pages.  Matt Cutt's talked about this a while back, but apparently the improvements announced are even better for flash sites.

I still raise my eyebrow though, call me a pessimist in this department.   Inherently Flash itself still has optimization drawbacks. So Google's saying they can crawl buttons, urls, etc. in Flash, but that doesn't mean that Flash offers the best way to be optimized for the content you are trying to present.  Some of the key indicators to what your page is about are still missing in Flash, especially for sites that are completely done in Flash.

URLs in Flash - Hashmarks?
I'm going to guess that the algorithm is going to make the assumption that each page in the flash file that is navigated to by a hash mark (#), as it's own page?   OK fine, but is that different than how it treats regular html pages who use the < a name="example" > and hash mark for easier pagination?

What About Title Tags and Descriptions?

Sites that run in entirely in Flash, every page has the same title tag.  That's because the SWF file sits within the "index" (or main loading URL page), and never moves.  Take a look at Nike.com if you want a perfect example of this.  Title tag never changes, each "page" is changed with the hash marks, it all runs off the index page that Nike has set aside for running the SWF file.

Along with the Title tag not changing, neither does the description.  We all know the description meta tag does nothing in the way of weighing a page's relevance, but it does factor in, in the presentation in the results.  Now, with flash sites, Google's going to take snippets of text from the "page" it sees within the SWF file and present that as a description.  How many Flash sites have you seen with optimized content - that made sense on its pages?

Hierarchical Tagging
Forget H1 through H6 tags to  structure your content on your web pages in Flash.  That's non-existent.  So how does Google know what you are really doing with your content on that page?  What's the most important?  Is there a general theme and components to that theme going on in the page?  Sure - visually you can probably tell that in Flash, but the spider can't see that you've got fonts bigger than the text to delineate the difference.

Forget About Movies & Images

Since Flash embeds them into playing in their own structure, Google can't read it.  So you've created this kick butt  product demonstration complete words that tell the consumer everything, right?  Think Google's going to find that now and put that into its index and rank it number 1 for whatever its demonstrating?  Think again, Google can only look at text that's in the SWF file.  Same goes for the images you embed in your SWF file, and while it can crawl buttons, it can read the button if its completely an image.

While, Google (and soon Yahoo! too) are going to be reading SWF files and incorporating them into their index, it doesn't mean you are going to rank any better than your competition who has an html page.  Why?  Because basically, you are just essentially handing Google a .txt file full of words and pointers to urls for those words. 

It's kind of like, showing someone a line drawing compared to a full color photograph of something you're trying to demonstrate, with the site being entirely done in Flash being the line drawing (ironic, no?). 

I don't know about you, but I'm still going to advise my clients to go with the "color photograph", that utilizes Flash elements, rather than the line drawing.


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I wonder if some of the issues with the markup to highlight important sections will be addressed in a future flash update now that Google is making a priority out of indexing flash files. It might be a chicken or the egg scenario where Google says, "Fine, I'll be the chicken...now go do your job."

Your assumption here is key to why you may be incorrect, "Since Flash embeds them into playing in their own structure, Google can't read it."

This is not the case at all. If Adobe provides Google with a backdoor access to textual content in a Flash player, Google can index it. As well, I'm confident that Adobe will add options for tags and descriptors within Flash that will allow it.

Read up at Adobe's site on their news release of the partnership. Remember - this is a joint venture between the two. It's in both party's interest to develop a search mechanism. It will be done! Flash sites are losing a lot of Search opportunities to Ajax and are probably starting to feel the pain.

It's a start.
It's better than nothing.

And there's a reason they've added it;
they want to play with and develop the algo
so users can find Google's "own" vids soon.

Hey Y'all - thanks for taking the time to comment and add to the conversation! :)

@ Mike - totally agree with you there :)

@ Doug - If they are using the hashmarks to delineate their pages, that's the major concern, how does google handle that. It doesn't mention any of that in the documentation. I have read up on it. If the pages are individual URLS then you are fine - each page then would have it's own Title, Description and way to be optimized.

@ NextInstinct ... I agree better than nothing.

@ Ya'll :) Notice the title ... at the end there's a "YET". I'm sure all of this will come eventually, but for now, I won't advise clients to use all flash sites - it's just waaaaaaay to early in the "game" for this to move sites to entirely flash.

Great post.
Was searching for the impact on this new update on search engine algorithm. So it is still not wise idea to go for full fledged flash websites. But this helps the existing sites and piece of flash movies..

I thought I was the only one who was livid at the announcement.

Couple of things worth pointing out in addition to your post, Adobe has had a search SDK for several years (though currently MIA from adobe site) and Google has been using it for well over a year. The amazing new technology would from all the material available be a rehash of this software but with a modified flash player to help combat the time line issue.

The problem however is still unlike a page which is interconnected to other pages in a static time frame. Flash works in a completely different way and that's before you start to introduce time into the equation.

Perhaps rather then eeking out 0.0001% extra content they could instead focus on developing a framework for Flash (and more importantly flex) developers to work with that in part mimic some of the critical ranking factors of a normal page.

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