Why Flash Makes Me Cry

In the world of SEO, Flash websites are generally bemoaned and viewed as a lost cause. While we know that search engines such as Google have been known to index Flash sites, and options such as using Macromedia’s Search Engine SDK exist, the overall positioning potential of an all-Flash site continues to be poor. If a Flash site does appear in the top SERPs, it’s more likely to do with exceptional link popularity than anything else. This leads one to ask, “But isn’t there anything else that I can do?”

The best overall strategy continues to be embedding Flash movies within select portions of an HTML page, instead of designing an entire site within Flash.

What if you want to place your navigation within Flash, or there’s still a big block of “text” that’s invisible to the search engines? Here are two methods of optimization that deserve a closer look:

  • SWFObject
    This JavaScript file embeds a Flash movie into a page while using a DIV to present alternate code to browsers- or search engine spiders- that are unable to read Flash.
  • sIFR (Scalable Inman Flash Replacement)

    Suitable for smaller portions of text (such as header tags), this method also uses a combination of JavaScript, CSS, and Flash to display rich typography on web pages.

Great! It’s the perfect combination of aesthetics and accessibility.

Or is it? There’s a lot of swirling debate about whether the above methods are just a fancy way of cloaking (which is technically defined as presenting the search engines with a different version of the page than users see). The debate arises over how people choose to define “different”. Does cloaking only apply to transforming content into spam, or does it apply to any alternate version of a page (no matter how noble the webmaster’s intentions)?

Google’s official line with Flash websites seems to be that you should present an alternate HTML version of a page to search engines, and then use a robots.txt file to block Flash content off from engines to avoid duplicate content issues. But what about Flash files already embedded in an HTML page?

If you are essentially showing the “same” content to engines as you are to Flash viewers (as opposed to spam), there should be no reason why any site should be penalized for this. But because some SEO parasite, somewhere, IS going to show “different” content, it punishes us all by lending unnecessary controversy to a tactic that, in a perfect world, should have every right to be a viewed as legitimate SEO.

Until then, though, it may be hard for me to actually recommend either of the above methods if they have even the slightest potential- either now, or in the future- of any negative ramifications.