Search engine optimization is one of the most popular subjects when nerds sit around and talk about Flash. “Does Google index your swf files?” seems to be the most popular question, usually garnering plenty of ‘yes‘ and ‘no’ and ‘maybe’ answers. The real answer to this question, once and for all, is this:
It doesn’t matter.
To understand this answer, you need to understand what Flash is. And to do that, you need to understand modern web development philosophy. First off, you need to embrace web standards. Semantic markup and separating content from style and behavior is the only way you should be building your sites. Many web standardistas have been recommending this method of web development for years, and rightly so. However, this post isn’t the place to go into the whys of this type of development, so I’ll skip that part and just say this about how it’s done: There are three areas of front-end web development: Content, Style, and Behavior. You should always keep these three things separated as much as possible.
That brings up the question: “Where does Flash fit into this three pillar method of web development?” Is it content? Is it behavior? Is it style? While it could be considered all three, most professional Flash developers will remove the content from their Flash movies and load it in using Flash remoting or XML files. That leaves us with style and behavior.
Style is added using CSS. Generally when you add images to your HTML that are purely presentational (no text or required content in them) you should add them in using CSS. In most cases you don’t want Google to index them because people don’t search the web for ‘top left rounded corner gif.” They search for content. Even if Google upgrades their crawler someday to read CSS files and index the images, they probably wouldn’t use the information for more than statistical analysis because of this.
Now that you know all of this, it’s time to look at how to treat your Flash content. Since we’ve determined we don’t want Google to index our swf files, but we do want it to index the content displayed inside them, what is the best way to go about this?
As stated before, if you are building Flash sites professionally, you probably move all your content out of your Flash movie and into an XML file or keep it in a database. This makes it much easier to allow Google to index this content by using progressive enhancement.
Here’s a small example of what that might look like:
This is replaced by the Flash content if the user has the correct version of the Flash plugin installed.
Place your HTML content in here and Google will index it just as it would normal HTML content (because it is HTML content!)
Use HTML, embed images, anything you would normally place on an HTML page is fine.
var fo = new FlashObject("flashmovie.swf", "flashmovie", "300", "300", "8", "#FF6600");
This causes Google to skip the Flash swf files and only index the HTML (the content!) you place on the page. You can place links to other pages, images, whatever you want Google to index, and when a viewer with a browser that supports Flash visits your site, they will then see the Flash content. This gives you full control and much greater predictability over what content Google will index. And if your content is pulled from a database that is editor controlled, your pages will update and be re-indexed as the content changes without the need to re-publish all your swf files.
Note: In this article I use the ‘Google’ name often, but it can be interchanged with any search engine, as they all work roughly the same way.