Does Google Index Flash?

by Jennifer Grappone on July 1, 2008

The short answer is: Yes.

On July 1, 2008, Adobe announced a breakthrough improvement in Google’s ability to index Flash content.

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But – did you know? Google has actually been able to index text content and follow links inside Flash for years. Trouble is, even with the recent improvements, Google and the other search engines still need a significant amount of hand-holding to even do a half-decent job of indexing websites that are built in Flash. That’s why we recommend Flash best practices for SEO.

Flash Best Practices for SEO

To help search engines see and properly list your website contents in their search results, we recommended the following best practices for Flash SEO:

  • Use Flash only when necessary, and consider wrapping decorative flash elements in HTML navigation if possible. Pages should degrade gracefully for users who do not have javascript or Flash.
  • Build separate HTML landing pages (with distinct URLs) for your separate Flash landing “pages.” Each separate HTML page should deep link to the appropriate part of your Flash movie.
  • Embed your Flash using SWFobject so that you can display alternate HTML content. Make sure that the text content in the alternate HTML is as identical as possible to the Flash content. Graphic elements can be described, just as you would describe a photo with a caption or an image ALT tag.
  • If you generate your Flash content from an external XML file, use the same XML file to generate the alternate HTML content.

Essentially, for an all-Flash site, you should create “shadow” HTML pages, which display deep-linked Flash for humans, and mimic the Flash experience and content for search engines. These pages can serve as entry points from search engines.

Interestingly, the 7/08 Adobe announcement has not changed our recommendations much. Here are the reasons why:

  • Google can see text and links inside the Flash file, and it will even click around within your Flash file to see more content; but it will not split up a Flash file into multiple pages and index them separately. That means that your Flash file will be the equivalent of one, massive HTML page, unless you break it up into multiple HTML landing pages as recommended above.
  • If you have content dynamically loading into your Flash movies from an external XML file, this content may not be indexed. UPDATE: We have observed this content indexed as a separate XML file, but not within the HTML page, where you want it seen.
  • There is no way to review what the search engines are seeing in your Flash files.
  • Using alternate HTML content allows a great deal more control over what search engines see – and allows you to represent the user’s experience of the page more accurately than the search engine’s approximation.

Search engine indexing of Flash is in flux, and we are keeping a close eye on these changes, with the following questions at the top of our mind:

  • Will Google start clamping down on alternate HTML content being displayed rather than the Flash movie? This has been a common practice in recent years, but was never officially sanctioned in Google Webmaster Guidelines. With the 2008 announcement, Google may decide that the SEO workarounds are spam – and penalize accordingly.
  • What is the best way for us to see what Google sees in our Flash file? The Macromedia Search Engine SDK, which previously provided a rough approximation, is no longer supported by Adobe. Is there a replacement?
  • Can content within the Flash file be optimized, with meta tags?

We’ve created a several experiments to better understand the new indexing. Read our Google-Flash-Indexing experiment findings here. If you’ve created something similar and you would like to share your findings, please feel free to contact us.

Future-Proof Your Flash for Google

As we mention above, we do not recommend any immediate change in Flash SEO strategy. However, Google has never officially advocated the common practice (and our current recommended practice) of showing alternate HTML text – and could decide this is “spam” at any time. If this happens, you’ll need to rapidly switch over to a strictly .swf indexing approach. Here’s how to build your Flash so that you can be nimble on your feet if this has to happen:

  • Follow the best practices above, but additionally, do the following:
  • Optimize your Flash content by matching the name & description in the Accessibility panel to the HTML Title and Meta Description in your HTML page.
  • Use actual text in your Flash movie, not bitmaps or vector graphics.
  • Make all of your photo images and videos into “movie clips” or “buttons” and then apply the Accessibilty panel to them. Give a unique, descriptive Name and Description to every one of them.
  • Read, read, and re-read the Flash accessibility page.
  • We confess – we don’t own a screen reader. But if you’re a Flash developer, you should. It’s the closest you’ll get to understanding what a search engine sees in your movies.

With the above optimization in place, you’ll be able to switch off your HTML alternate text at a moment’s notice, and Google will still see an optimized page. Subscribe to our feed and we’ll be sure to keep you up to date on our findings, and future developments.

Read more: Google Flash Test Experiment Findings

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

George February 1, 2010 at 1:31 pm

Fortunately the Mac OS X has a built in Screenreader for anyone wishing to text out their Flash and web pages.

gradiva February 1, 2010 at 4:51 pm

Interesting point! I believe that what you’re talking about is VoiceOver, described here: http://www.apple.com/accessibility/voiceover/

Dena Tasarım March 10, 2010 at 3:10 pm

Good news! I can use flash more frequently now 🙂

Paul April 7, 2010 at 2:07 am

Great article, as Flash has taken a few knocks from IE 64 bit and iPhone / iPad, IE64bit as I believe at this moment in time will not play Flash in any form, shameful…
Thanks to “George February 1, 2010 at 4:51 pm” I can test with a screen reader via VoiceOver in Mac OS X Snow Leopard.

Neustop Designs November 22, 2010 at 12:56 pm

As far as web development is concerned, Flash has been a festering pile of garbage since it’s inception. Almost every single time Flash is used on a website, it is unnecessary, distracting, gaudy, and just flat-out stupid. I’ll admit, I have seen Flash used well on occasion, but very rarely. I really wish people would stop using flash for web development and hand it back to well-trained animators, who can use it as it was intended.

curtis October 7, 2011 at 7:32 am

I have a flash based website but would like google and other’s like yahoo to be able to read all my content. Maybe I shoould add a blog page and that might help my site’s visability?

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