The New SEO Perspective on Flash

  |  June 9, 2008   |  Comments

Flash and search engines might never be best friends, but with today's emerging technology, they can indeed play together nicely. Learn how.

Countless authorities have written on whether a Flash-based or Flash-heavy Web site can be well optimized for search marketing. Most have quite easily come to the same conclusion: heck, no!

As most of us know, the inherent nature of Flash as graphic content has historically made it a difficult thing for search engine spiders to tackle.

This declaration has more often than not created a tug of war between designers and SEO (define) specialists, with the former touting engagement and aesthetics, and the latter touting marketability and the ability to index. It's close to impossible to satisfy either side. Pure HTML made the marketers happy, but the designers felt stifled. Full-on Flash satisfied the designers' thirst for creativity and interactivity, while the marketers groaned at their sinking search rankings.

Those days are behind us, however. Emerging technologies now enable designers and marketers alike to have their proverbial cake and eat it too. Whether everyone is aware of this fact is another story.

The Flash Debate Rises Again

The other day, the issue of Flash versus HTML sites came up in the context of SEM (define) for a client.

The site was designed in Flash, in a way that served to significantly enhance the site experience. As a result, it has won many accolades and much praise from both the industry and customers. Because the client read recently that Flash is search engines' enemy number one, he's now thinking about scrapping the current site in favor of a full HTML version -- purely to enhance his search engine ranking ability.

As the resident search expert, I was called in to explain to the client that his worries were for naught. The Flash site could be sustained. Below, some of the rationale I delivered to the client to help you with similar debates in your organization.

The Rationale for Reconsidering Flash

Flash and search engines might never be best friends, but with today's technology they can indeed play together nicely. While a purely textual Web site may never be beaten from a search engine perspective, it can also be extremely limiting for marketers and very nonengaging for consumers.

I challenged my client to think about all the site elements that are important to him, then rank those items. The top five we came up with were:

  • The site accurately portrays the brand essence and core messages.

  • Search engines easily find the site.

  • The site delivers an engaging, relevant experience to visitors.

  • The site provides opportunities for the user to interact with the brand.

  • The site has a pleasing look and feel.

Of these top five must-haves for the client's site, only one related directly to ensuring the site's search engine friendly. And while I'm not discounting this item since it does rank very highly on the overall list, all the other items were influenced directly by the on-site experience and design. With Flash, you can do some pretty creative things that would be very difficult to execute with HTML. Removing the option to leverage this technology could significantly impact how well the design firm can deliver on a lot of your key objectives.

The lesson here is that sometimes we push so hard for changes to a site based solely on one objective that we lose sight of all the other things about the site that matter to us. Before making any decision about dramatically changing the way your site is built or delivered, take a step back to consider how these changes might impact your other core requirements for your online presence.

The Key Flash Technology

If you do plan to use Flash for your site and want to keep it search friendly, be sure to use the right technology to optimize both user and search engine accessibility.

You can apply some key technologies to ensure your site will serve up alternative (non-Flash) content to any humans or crawlers that fail to access the Flash content. The most commonly used and accepted one is SWFObject.

SWFObject is a small JavaScript file used for embedding Flash content, which can detect the Flash plug-in in Web browsers. When applied properly, it helps ensure that users and search engines can see alternate HTML content for the page.


As I mentioned earlier, Flash may not be the most ideal scenario for search engines, but there's often a strong rationale for not abandoning it. There are also workarounds available like SWFObject that get better with every version of Flash that comes out. Bottom line? Don't automatically scrap your Flash site without first considering the consequences and potential alternatives.

Join us for SES Toronto, June 16-18 at Metro Toronto Convention Centre (South Bldg.).

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Julie Batten

Julie is a member of the senior strategy team at Klick Health, focused on online media and digital. Julie initially established and led the media practice at Klick for several years, relinquishing leadership to expand beyond media into additional digital tactics. She brings a wealth of experience in search marketing, digital media, and all facets of digital strategy to bear, helping Klick's clients develop innovative digital solutions. As her role has evolved, so have her contributions to ClickZ, which she has been writing for since 2007.

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