How to use Flash — and still be indexed by search engines

With the rise in the use of Flash to create Web pages, it has become increasingly common to see that Flash-heavy pages do not appear on the Google, Yahoo and MSN search results pages. The reason for this is that search engines’ spiders can’t read the large majority of Flash pages. To get a better idea of what a spider can read, go to your Web page and turn off your browser’s Flash and JavaScript functionality. This will also show how your site will appear on most mobile devices and to visually impaired people using browsers that read text aloud.

Does this mean you should avoid Flash? When designing/planning a Web site, your primary goal should be to use the most effective medium by which to engage your customer base, build brand awareness, generate leads or sell products.  Sometimes, though they are difficult to index, Flash pages are the best way to achieve this. A car company’s site, for example, has a strong business case for being Flash-heavy. Flash makes their site highly interactive, letting a user better imagine what it would be like to own a particular car. It is possible, however, to have both a Flash-heavy site and still be effectively indexed by search engines, with some extra work:

Create exact HTML content that sits behind the Flash. To begin, you will mirror the copy, keep all the same links, and make headings and title tags that exactly match the content on the Flash version of the page. The browser sniffer will be able to detect which types of users come to the site, and will in turn display the appropriate version of the page. The majority of your customer base will be using browsers that support Flash and will see the interactive and visually-appealing Flash version, while spiders, people using mobile devices, and the visually impaired will be served the search engine- friendly HTML version. If you elect to create HTML versions of your Flash pages, it is extremely important to serve the exact same text content on each version of the page. Serving different text to visitors and spiders is considered cloaking and could result in penalties.

Use Flash only for content that doesn’t need to be indexed. You could use some Flash elements on a particular Web page, but reserve basic HTML for the page content that matters most to search engines, such as headings, site navigation, title tag and body text that includes relevant keywords. For pages that you want to keep entirely Flash-based, such as a 3-D product view, it is helpful to create HTML landing pages preceding the Flash content and describe to users what they are about to view.

Even with the rise of new Web site design technology, search engine spiders still like reading text. Keep in mind, however, that your natural search program doesn’t necessarily need to suffer because your site uses design platforms such as Flash.

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