Historically, search engines have been unable to extract content, such as text and links, from Flash (SWF) files. Subsequently, much of the Flash-based content on the web has been unavailable in search results. This situation has been frustrating for web developers, who have tried to come up with workarounds to help get search engines to index and rank their Flash pages. Recent developments by Google
have changed the Flash content indexing paradigm in a way that not only breaks the old indexing rules, but sets the stage For new Search Engine Optimization (SEO) practices to be deployed which leverage Flash assets in a positive manner that builds organic ranking levels above and beyond those of sites without Flash based content. In the ongoing development of a "new world order" where video content trumps equivalent text content from a user popularity and page rank perspective, the proper use of flash content may provide SEO advantages above and beyond text optimization alone!
This situation hasn't been ideal for searchers either, as this limitation has kept them from seeing potentially great matches for their queries because they've been locked away in Flash files.
According to Adobe and Google, all of that is changing. Google is launching what they tell me is a "deep algorithmic change", augmented by Flash reader technology supplied by Adobe, that enables them to "read" Flash files and extract text and links from it for better indexing and ranking. This could be great news for both site owners and searchers.
Below, more details about how it all works, as well as some caveats for those who see this development as a Flash panacea and think they no longer have to ensure their Flash applications are search engine friendly
Google can now crawl and index Flash files
. However, their methods weren't perfect, and they tell me that this new technology from Adobe makes Google's algorithms "less error prone" and enables them to access content created in any version of Flash in a variety of languages.
Adobe is providing a Flash player to (some) search engines
Adobe says they have developed an optimized Flash player for search engines and are collaborating with both Google and Yahoo!. Yahoo! has not yet implemented the technology, although they stated that “Yahoo! is committed to supporting webmaster needs with plans to support searchable SWF and is working with Adobe to determine the best possible implementation.” Adobe hasn't made the technology available to Microsoft's Live Search, although they say they are "exploring ways to make the technology more broadly available" to "help make all SWF content more easily searchable". Adobe didn't comment on whether the fact that Microsoft develops competing Silverlight was a factor in their decision not to collaborate with Microsoft Live Search for this initial announcement.
Search related coverage of this announcement can be found at:
The original press releases can be found here:
A big step forward
Previously, Google's help documentation has warned against the use of Flash-only sites, no longer true are statements and admonishments such as these:
"In general, search engines are text based. This means that in order to be crawled and indexed, your content needs to be in text format. This doesn't mean that you can't include images, Flash files, videos, and other rich media content on your site; it just means that any content you embed in these files should also be available in text format or it won't be accessible to search engines."
In the past, Google has suggested using Flash sparingly or using a method such as Scalable Inman Flash Replacement (sIFR) to provide and HTML source that can be rendered as either Flash or non-Flash.
That has now dramatically changed. The help documentation hasn't been updated yet, but the post on the Google Webmaster blog says that Googlebot can now extract textual content and links so Google can better crawl, index, and rank the web site.
Both Google and Adobe stressed to me that this is a big win for both site owners and searchers and that it should improve relevancy in search results. They noted that Flash developers don't have to do anything in their applications to make this new technology work for their sites.
This is certainly great news for the web, as it's a sign that search engines, which are the primary method of navigating the web, are evolving beyond text to take into account newer web technologies.
Just how much will this change impact search relevance? It's hard to say until we see the changes, which Google says may take time to percolate through the pipeline. In particular, they note that snippets, the descriptions that display under search results, will be improved. Before, Google often couldn't extract any content from a Flash file, so the description for a Flash page was often either be empty or would consist of the only text available from the file, such as the Flash version or the word "loading".
But although Adobe's press release talks about "dramatic" improvements in search results and more relevant listings for "millions of RIAs" (rich internet applications), neither Adobe nor Google could give me numbers about how many more pages Google was now about to crawl and index and how much this has impacted search results.
A quick look at how SWF files are currently indexed shows that there's a lot of room for improvement, so this may indeed be big news for search.
Flash Developers Should Still Spend Time on Search Engine Optimization
However, this isn't the perfect solution that it may seem. Adobe assures developers that "RIA developers and rich Web content producers won’t need to amend existing and future content to make it searchable — they can be confident it can now be found by users around the globe." But that's not entirely true, particularly for Flash pages that have little textual content.
Only text and links are effected
As Danny Sullivan noted last year when word of Google's work in this area first came up, most Flash content isn't made up of primarily words. It's made up of images, video, and animation, and none of that will be surfaced in search results with this advancement. Google's new Flash algorithms extract text and links only. Everything else is still a black box.
Associate a unique URL with each unique piece of content
In addition, the searcher experience is better served by Flash implementations that provide a unique URL for each set of content. Some Flash implementations dynamically load text as the user interacts with the application, but the URL remains the same. In this scenario, Googlebot can now follow those interactions (in a limited way) and if the URL doesn't change, then all content that is dynamically loaded as the interactions progress is associated with a single URL.
Adobe says the Flash player it is providing to seach engines "allows their search spiders to introspect and navigate through a live SWF application as if they were virtual users. The Flash Player technology, optimized for search spiders, enables the ability to traverse and parse all of the different paths in a SWF-based RIA, similar to traversing multiple pages in a standard web application."
This means that if the content that is dynamically loaded into the Flash application from the fifth interaction matches a searcher query, that Flash application may be served in the search results. But when the searcher clicks over to that result, the content won't be found on the page. The searcher will have to interact with the application until that content is loaded. Searchers may instead feel frustrated and abandon the page. For the best user experience and higher conversion rates from search, Flash developers should be careful to avoid this situation by creating distinct URLs for each piece of content. This implementation helps the Flash site be more viral as well, as users can email, Digg, and otherwise share the content more easily.
Google acknowledges this scenario may not be an ideal searcher experience, but points out that other non-HTML file formats such as PDFs have the same limitations. When a searcher clicks through the Google search results to a PDF file, the content that matched the query may not be on the first page of that PDF and the searcher has to scroll through the file to find the desired content. Google notes that just as they flag PDF files to alert searchers that the result is non-HTML, they do the same with Flash file, as shown below.
What this means for SEOs
Flash has often been a source of frustration for SEOs who argue that text should be in HTML, with Flash used for non-textual content, such as video illustrations. Can SEOs now remove the "review Flash implementation" line from their checklists? Probably not. However, it should be easier for SEOs to work with Flash-based sites going forward.
What this means for accessibility and usability
Flash developers should continue to think about not only how well their applications can be found in search, but how usable and accessible they are.
Eric Wittman, director of platform distribution and business development at Adobe told me that Flash web sites can be built for usability and accessibility. He noted that 98% of desktop computers have Flash support, although he acknowledged that he didn't know how many have Flash blockers installed, and he didn't provide numbers on the percentage of mobile devices that don't support Flash.
He noted that screen reader support has been available since Flash Player 6 and that the newer Flex framework includes support for accessibility.
At the recent Developer Day at SMX Advanced, we talked a lot about making Flash applications accessible and search-engine friendly using graceful degradation and both sFIR and SWFObject came up several times as good methods for ensuring this. I find that still to be good advice even in light of this announcement.
Overall, this announcement is great news for both content owners and searchers. Web developers are becoming more focused on architecting their sites to ensure they can be found in search engines, as search has become one of the primary acquisition channels online. As web technologies evolve, it's important for search engines to evolve as well to ensure they provide the most relevant results for searchers. I'm eager to see how substantial a change this proves to be, although web developers should continue keeping search-friendly practices in mind when developing sites.
Some immediate questions can also be answered...
Do dealer website design teams need to create Flash media differently?
No. The technology relies on standards of the Adobe Flash platform. There is no benefit or need to change how you create Flash content.
Is Google the only engine using this technology?
No, both Google and Yahoo are using this technology. Other engines (such as Microsoft's LiveSearch) have shown interest, but have not yet committed to these new developments.
When will Flash appear in the search results?
Every major search engine provides links to Flash content today. However, Google is using the optimized Adobe Flash Player technology now, so users will immediately see improved search results.
Google learns to crawl Flash
6/30/2008 09:26:00 PM
Posted by Ron Adler and Janis Stipins, Software Engineers
Google has been developing a new algorithm for indexing textual content in Flash files of all kinds, from Flash menus, buttons and banners, to self-contained Flash websites. Recently, we've improved the performance of this Flash indexing algorithm by integrating Adobe's Flash Player technology.
In the past, web designers faced challenges if they chose to develop a site in Flash because the content they included was not indexable by search engines. They needed to make extra effort to ensure that their content was also presented in another way that search engines could find.
Now that we've launched our Flash indexing algorithm, web designers can expect improved visibility of their published Flash content, and you can expect to see better search results and snippets. There's more info on the Webmaster Central blog about the Searchable SWF integration.
SWF searchability FAQ
Adobe is teaming up with search industry leaders to dramatically improve search results of dynamic web content and rich Internet applications (RIAs). Adobe is providing optimized Adobe Flash Player technology to Google and Yahoo! to enhance search engine indexing of the Flash file format (SWF) and uncover information that is currently undiscoverable by search engines. This will provide more relevant automatic search rankings of the millions of RIAs and other dynamic content that run in Adobe Flash Player. Moving forward, RIA developers and rich web content producers won't need to amend existing and future content to make it searchable—they can now be confident that it can be found by users around the globe.
Why is this news important?
Adobe is working with Google and Yahoo! to enable one of the largest fundamental improvements in web search results by making the Flash file format (SWF) a first-class citizen in searchable web content. This will increase the accuracy of web search results by enabling top search engines to understand what's inside of RIAs and other rich web content created with Adobe Flash technology and add that relevance back to the HTML page.
Improved search of SWF content will provide immediate benefits to companies leveraging Adobe Flash software. Without additional changes to content, developers can continue to provide experiences that are possible only with Adobe Flash technology without the trade-off of a loss in search indexing. It will also positively affect the Search Engine Optimization community, which will develop best practices for building content and RIAs utilizing Adobe Flash technologies, and enhance the ability to find and monetize SWF content.
Why is Adobe doing this?
The openly published SWF specification describes the file format used to deliver rich applications and interactive content via Adobe Flash Player, which is installed on more than 98 percent of Internet-connected computers. Although search engines already index static text and links within SWF files, RIAs and dynamic web content have been generally difficult to fully expose to search engines because of their changing states—a problem also inherent in other RIA technologies.
Until now it has been extremely challenging to search the millions of RIAs and dynamic content on the web, so we are leading the charge in improving search of content that runs in Adobe Flash Player. We are initially working with Google and Yahoo! to significantly improve search of this rich content on the web, and we intend to broaden the availability of this capability to benefit all content publishers, developers, and end users.
Which versions of the SWF file format will benefit from this improved indexing and searching?
This solution works with all existing SWF content, across all versions of the SWF file format.
What do content owners and developers need to do to their SWF content to benefit from improved search results?
Content owners and developers do not have to do anything to the millions of deployed SWF files to make them more searchable. Existing SWF content is now searchable using Google search, and in the future Yahoo! Search, dramatically improving the relevance of RIAs and rich media experiences that run in Adobe Flash Player. As with HTML content, best practices will emerge over time for creating SWF content that is more optimized for search engine rankings.
What technology has Adobe contributed to this effort?
Adobe has provided Flash Player technology to Google and Yahoo! that allows their search spiders to navigate through a live SWF application as if they were virtual users. The Flash Player technology, optimized for search spiders, runs a SWF file similarly to how the file would run in Adobe Flash Player in the browser, yet it returns all of the text and links that occur at any state of the application back to the search spider, which then appears in search results to the end user.
How are Google and Yahoo! using the Adobe Flash technology?
Google is using the Adobe Flash Player technology now and Yahoo! also expects to deliver improved web search capabilities for SWF applications in a future update to Yahoo! Search. Google uses the Adobe Flash Player technology to run SWF content for their search engines to crawl and provide the logic that chooses how to walk through a SWF. All of the extracted information is indexed for relevance according to Google and Yahoo!'s algorithms. The end result is SWF content adding to the searchable information of the web page that hosts the SWF content, thus giving users more information from the web to search through.
When will the improved SWF searching solutions go live?
Google has already begun to roll out Adobe Flash Player technology incorporated into its search engine. With Adobe's help, Google can now better read the SWF content on sites, which will help users find more relevant information when conducting searches. As a result, millions of pre-existing RIAs and dynamic web experiences that utilize Adobe Flash technology, including content that loads at runtime, are immediately searchable without the need for companies and developers to alter it. Yahoo! is committed to supporting webmaster needs with plans to support searchable SWF and is working with Adobe to determine the best possible implementation.
How will this announcement benefit the average user/consumers?
Consumers will use industry leading search engines, Google now and Yahoo! Search in the future, exactly as they do today. Indexed SWF files will add more data to what the search engine knows about the page in which it's embedded, which will open up more relevant content to users, and could cause pages to appear at a higher ranking level in applicable search results. As a result, millions of pre-existing rich media experiences created with Adobe Flash technology will be immediately searchable without the need for companies and developers to alter content.
When will the new results register on Google?
Google is using the optimized Adobe Flash Player technology now, so users will immediately see improved search results. As Google spiders index more SWF content, search results will continue to get better.
How will this announcement benefit SWF content producers?
Organizations can now dramatically improve the rich web experiences they deliver to customers and partners by increasing the use of Adobe Flash technology, which is no longer impeding the ability for users to find those experiences in highly relevant search results. RIA creators and other web content producers can now be confident that their rich media and RIA experiences leveraging Adobe Flash technology are fully searchable by users around the globe who use the dominant search engines. Furthermore, the ability to index information extracted throughout the various states of dynamic SWF applications reduces the need to produce an HTML or XHTML backup for the RIA site as a workaround for prior search limitations.
Does this affect the searchability of video that runs in Adobe Flash Player?
This initial rollout is to improve the search of dynamic text and links in rich content created with Adobe Flash technology. A SWF that has both video and text may be more easily found by improved SWF search.
Will Adobe Flex applications now be more easily found by Google search, including those that access remote data?
Yes, any type of SWF content including Adobe Flex applications and SWF created by Adobe Flash authoring will benefit from improved indexing and search results. The improved SWF search also includes the capability to load and access remote data like XML calls and loaded SWFs.
Does Adobe recommend a specific process for deep-linking into a SWF RIA?
Deep-linking, in the case of SWF content and RIAs, is when there is a direct link to a specific state of the application or rich content. A variety of solutions exist today that can be used for deep-linking SWF content and RIAs. It's important that sites make use of deep links so that links coming into a site will drive relevance to the specific parts of an application.
To generate URLs at runtime that reflect the specific state of SWF content or RIA, developers can use Adobe Flex components that will update the location bar of a browser window with the information that is needed to reconstruct the state of the application.
For complex sites that have a finite number of entry points, you can highlight the specific URLs to a search spider using techniques such as site map XML files. Even for sites that use a single SWF, you can create multiple HTML files that provide different variables to the SWF and start your application at the correct subsection. By creating multiple entry points, you can get the benefits of a site that is indexed as a suite of pages but still only need to manage one copy of your application. For more information on deep-linking best practices, visit www.sitemaps.org/faq.php.
Is Adobe planning on providing this capability to other search vendors too?
Adobe wants to help make all SWF content more easily searchable. As we roll out the solution with Google and Yahoo!, we are also exploring ways to make the technology more broadly available.
Adobe improves on Flash video search
by Anick Jesdanun at: http://www.ioltechnology.co.za/article_page.php?from=rss_IOLTechHome&iSectionId=2883&iArticleId=4487336#comment_top_box
Adobe Systems, the format's developer, has released a customised version of its Flash Player software that allows Google's search engine and others to see the elements of web pages embedded with Flash content the same way a human would.
Search crawlers, the programs that find and index content for search engines, currently have a difficult time "seeing" non-text formats.
Although they can often index static text and links within basic Flash files, many web pages associated with Flash video are dynamically generated on the fly as visitors are ready to view them. And some web pages are now designed almost entirely in Flash, with menus and other features embedded within the Flash video.
Adobe's new tools help search crawlers navigate dynamic Flash pages more easily. Google's crawlers, for instance, will be able to click buttons along the way and remember the information for the index.
"Improving how we crawl dynamic content will ultimately enhance the search experience for our users," Bill Coughran, Google's senior vice president of engineering, said in a statement.
Google already is using the new tools and Yahoo plans to soon. Adobe plans to extend support to other search engines.
REVISED 7/5/2008 BASED ON PAUL AND STEVE'S COMMENTS:
Web designers need to change the way they design and implement Flash based content to accommodate these newly upgraded search engine capabilities... Previously, there was little need to build in text based descriptions that would not have been indexed, now that additional Flash file incorporated text content can be indexed, dealer website designers will need to capitalize on it. What does this mean? Dealer website designers using Flash content will now need to consult with SEO professionals on how to best leverage the right text based content added into previously opaque Flash file structures. This will be a lot easier if done before the Flash files are compiled than afterwards... And, in that respect, conventional text based dealer website content will remain easier to optimize and work with on a month to month "continuous SEO improvement" basis.
There are limits, however. Google is indexing only actual text within Flash files - not text presented as images such as the words on a street sign. So Google's YouTube video clips still aren't covered because they don't contain embedded text. This means that the video description keyword "tags" and the text based descriptions added when videos are uploaded will still be the key items driving organic search engine listings for video.
Adobe Advances Rich Media Search on the WebFor immediate release
Adobe Flash Technology Enhances Search Results for Dynamic Content and Rich Internet Applications
SAN JOSE, Calif. — July 1, 2008 — Adobe Systems Incorporated (Nasdaq:ADBE) today announced the company is teaming up with search industry leaders to dramatically improve search results of dynamic Web content and rich Internet applications (RIAs). Adobe is providing optimized Adobe® Flash® Player technology to Google and Yahoo! to enhance search engine indexing of the Flash file format (SWF) and uncover information that is currently undiscoverable by search engines. This will provide more relevant automatic search rankings of the millions of RIAs and other dynamic content that run in Adobe Flash Player. Moving forward, RIA developers and rich Web content producers won’t need to amend existing and future content to make it searchable — they can now be confident it can be found by users around the globe.
The openly published SWF specification describes the file format used to deliver rich applications and interactive content via Adobe Flash Player, which is installed on more than 98 percent of Internet-connected computers. Although search engines already index static text and links within SWF files, RIAs and dynamic Web content have been generally difficult to fully expose to search engines because of their changing states — a problem also inherent in other RIA technologies.
“Until now it has been extremely challenging to search the millions of RIAs and dynamic content on the Web, so we are leading the charge in improving search of content that runs in Adobe Flash Player,” said David Wadhwani, general manager and vice president of the Platform Business Unit at Adobe. “We are initially working with Google and Yahoo! to significantly improve search of this rich content on the Web, and we intend to broaden the availability of this capability to benefit all content publishers, developers and end users.”
Google has already begun to roll out Adobe Flash Player technology incorporated into its search engine. With Adobe’s help, Google can now better read the content on sites that use Adobe Flash technology, helping users find more relevant information when conducting searches. As a result, millions of pre-existing RIAs and dynamic Web experiences that utilize Adobe Flash technology, including content that loads at runtime, are immediately searchable without the need for companies and developers to alter them.
“Google has been working hard to improve how we can read and discover SWF files,” said Bill Coughran, senior vice president of engineering at Google. “Through our recent collaboration with Adobe, we now help Web site owners that choose to design sites with Adobe Flash software by indexing this content better. Improving how we crawl dynamic content will ultimately enhance the search experience for our users.”
Yahoo! also expects to deliver improved Web search capabilities for SWF applications in a future update to Yahoo! Search. “Yahoo! is committed to supporting webmaster needs with plans to support searchable SWF and is working with Adobe to determine the best possible implementation,” said Sean Suchter, vice president Yahoo! Search Technology Engineering.
“Designers and Web developers have long been frustrated that search engines couldn’t better access the information within their content created with Flash technology. It’s great to see Adobe and the search engines working directly together to improve the situation,” said Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief, SearchEngineLand.com. “The changes should help unlock information that’s previously been ‘invisible’ and will likely result in a better experience for searchers.”
Adobe Flash Player is the world’s most pervasive client runtime that delivers unparalleled creative options, highly engaging user experiences, stunning audio/video playback, and nearly universal reach. To download and learn more about Adobe Flash Player, please visit www.adobe.com/products/flashplayer/ .
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