16 October 2006
You know that Macromedia Flash from Adobe is great for making websites interactive, interesting, and fun to explore. But you may have been hesitant to use Flash out of the concern that the Big Three search engines (Google, MSN, Yahoo!) will not be able to find your site—that is, direct web searches to your site. Rest assured that you can use Flash in your site, even quite heavily, and still get good search results. What follows are a few simple tips to help you achieve search engine visibility.
For visual effect, you might embed a SWF file in some web pages and offer little or no text on the page. In the common case of a splash animation on the front page of a website, there may be a few animated words in the Flash content that move on and off the Stage. While some search engines will be able to find this text, your site will be seen better by those search engines if they can also find the same or similar text within the HTML page.
One great solution if you have only a very small amount of text in your Flash animation is to place that text in the <title> tag of the HTML page. Search engines weight page titles pretty highly, and this allows you to maintain a bare-page aesthetic.
Another, if less elegant, solution is to put all the text "below the fold" so that although it is contained in the HTML page, the initial experience of visiting your page will be the effect of a bare page containing just the Flash animation.
When your site requires whole paragraphs of text, you're better off putting it in the HTML, both from a search engine perspective and a user experience perspective. You can still use Flash animations on this page, of course; many pages seamlessly integrate Flash and HTML to the point that it can be quite difficult to tell where the Flash ends and the HTML begins.
Keeping text in the HTML makes it easier for search engines to find the text and make sense of it. It also makes it easier for users to search through the text within the browser, print it, or copy and paste it.
Flash can be a great way to present complex navigation options to users using drop-down menus or other innovative controls. However, it can be difficult for web crawlers to find links when they are embedded only within the Flash animation.
There is a simple solution to this: Make sure that any Flash navigation also appears somewhere on the page as links within the HTML. You can accomplish this easily by putting links at the bottom or left side of a page. These standard practices are unobtrusive and are also helpful to the human visitors to your site, not just search engine robots.
One good practice that helps search engines navigate your site—whether or not you make heavy use of Flash—is providing a site index page your home page links to. Again, human visitors get a sense of the layout and content of your site and web spiders definitely have an easier time hitting all the pages.
Another way to make sure search engines find all the pages in your site is to submit the page URLs directly to the search engines. There are different ways to do this; some are free and some are not. Check out the search engines' support websites for more information (see the links at the end of this article).
Some websites built entirely in Flash use a single web page with a Flash animation embedded within it. When users interact with the site, new views are displayed within the Flash animation rather than by loading a new, discrete web page.
Although this can provide a great user experience visually and cause faster "page" loads, it has its drawbacks. For human visitors, it is impossible to bookmark a particular page because going back to that same link will take them to the beginning of the Flash experience. Similarly, it is impossible for search engines to understand each new state in the Flash experience as a different page and to link into that state.
In some cases, the fluid, fast user experience may outweigh the drawbacks of no bookmarking and no search engine indexing. It really depends on the specifics of your site. For example, if you are loading Level 3 of a Flash game, you likely have no reason for this level to be found independently by visitors.
The SWF file format in Flash 8 supports XMP metadata. The goal of this feature is to help address issues with search engine support for Flash.
To add metadata, select Modify > Document (or click the Size button in the Property inspector) to open the Document Properties dialog box and then enter a title and description for your SWF. While this is a new feature, this metadata can actually be output to any version of SWF, not just that generated by Flash 8.
Today's search engines do not actively consume this information. However, we have high hopes that they will in time, so we suggest you start embedding the data now. It is also a good idea to put this kind of information in your HTML, either in your page's title and description metadata or in text within the page.
For more information on this feature, search on "metadata" in the Flash 8 Help (note that this will also bring up results for the unrelated FLV metadata) or read Creating or Opening a Document and Setting Properties in the Flash LiveDocs.
There are many important things to keep in mind when trying to get good search engine results. They are not specific to Flash but must be considered for any website. They are outside the scope of this article, but there are many resources on the web (some listed below) where you can find lots more information about search engine optimization. Some important topics to think about, and search for more information on, include the following:
The following links are some useful resources for more information about getting your site to work well with search engines:
Search Engine Watch (check the "Search Engine Resources" section)
MSN Search (check the "Industry" and "For Site Owners" links)