Flash and search engine optimisation

I tend to get quite a few questions related to search engine optimisation from people who have used Flash on their site. My advice has always been to think carefully about what you use Flash for, and to make sure there is alternative content for people or user agents that can’t or won’t access Flash files.

Geoff Stearns’ article A modern approach to Flash SEO reinforces that advice. He recommends anybody who wants search engines to index the contents of their Flash files to fully separate content from presentation and behaviour, and use JavaScript to progressively load the Flash content.

Essential advice if you, after carefully considering all available options, still find that you absolutely must use Flash to present important information.

In case you didn’t know, Geoff is the guy who came up with FlashObject, the method I prefer to use when embedding Flash on websites.

Posted on March 14, 2006 in Quicklinks, Search Engine Optimisation


  1. We’re a no flash web dev shop. We actively encourage our clients not to use it for “standards-based” reasons and SEO. If they insist on using it, we always outsource it.

    Our rule of thumb is similar to the one in your post — in that you should only use it if you absolutely have to. And as far as I’m concerned, images, animation, and video are about the only way it should ever be used.

    Many interactive things can be done with the use of some clever JavaScript. Last year, my company entered a 24 hour web design content, Cre824, and we were the only professional team that didn’t create a 100% flash website. In fact, we didn’t use any flash. But look at the cool interactive stuff we were able to create without flash:

    Drag & Drops, Fades, Text & Image Replacements, Slides

  2. I agree that Flash poses challenges, but if you want any motion beyond the insanely primitive, Flash is the only option. I think using a Flash alternative when Flash is the best option can be limiting to the design of a site. With a near 100% browser penetration, is it too far-fetched to consider Flash in the same relm as an image (sprinkled with some interactivity)? If used wisely and with a well thought-out plan for degradation, Flash is a great option.

    That being said, if you can easily do the same thing in AJAX without 70Kb of Javascript, then perhaps you need to rethink your decision to use Flash in the first place.

  3. We used something like this on the Pontiac site , we took Mike Davidson’s sIFR script and removed some of the unnecessary logic and BAMM! Instant SEO.

    It’s similar to flashObject.. SEO and Accessibility in Flash is a must especially on sites with really high flash content.

    You can read more about that here, Content Injection in Flash with XHTML and sIFR

  4. UFO (Unobtrusive Flash Objects) is another method for progressively loading Flash movies with javascript.

  5. I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about this.. My girlfriend wants to make a web site, and wants to make it look and act like all her other favourite web sites: flash sites.

    As a standards advocate, I felt I needed to explain to her why this is a bad idea. But I couldn’t! Any argument I could think of has solutions. No SEO? No Accessibility? All we need to do is make sure the content, the text and links, are available without flash. It doesn’t even have to look good. I think there is definitely room for flash, and nothing wrong with it, as long as you provide a non-flash version.

  6. March 15, 2006 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Jesse: Accessibility is still a problem with Flash. What if you can’t use a mouse? What if you use a screen reader (I’m not counting support for MSAA since it is only available on Windows)? A mobile phone? What about printing? Selecting text? There are plenty of usability, accessibility, and interoperability reasons to stay away from using Flash to present information. For games or visual effects you can knock yourself out, but I would not use it for actual content, and never for navigation.

  7. I don’t think flash is something people should avoid like the plague. Flash’s penetration is very high and it can EASILY do things which are difficult to reproduce in other mediums (AJAX/JS) which are also somewhat inaccessible in their own nature.

    There is no other 3rd party application which makes non-standard internet behaviors easier to swallow. Sure you can burn hours developing a complex DHTML like solution to do what flash does, but what do you gain?

  8. March 15, 2006 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    web: No need to avoid Flash completely. Just make sure you don’t use it for things that are better accomplished without it, like displaying static content (text, images) and allowing the user to navigate on the site. I’ve seen so many completely pointless uses of Flash where simple HTML would have been much better.

  9. RE: web I guess the real point being addressed here is: WHY? Why would you use flash for something that doesn’t need it. This has been clarified several times by Roger (IE, for use of games or visual effects, etc). But for actual content? Why would you even attempt it with flash. Flash sites make me chuckle for the most part. Its a usability nightmare. In MOST cases flash sites eliminate the medium, the browser. I can no longer use my browser or keystrokes to do things I like to do on a website. Often times people build flash to try and replace/take over the browser. I hate that. It is still MY computer, and MY browser. If you are willing to lose traffic and potential customers, then by all means use it!

    Often times I like to copy/paste addresses into google to get a map - all of the flash sites I have seen dont allow me to do this. Sometimes I want to copy/paste the text. Can’t do that either. What about saving a nice image to your desktop? Can’t do that either. What about bookmarking a nice page for view later (most sites do NOT handle this well at all). What about if I wanted to print the page? What if I can’t see flash? What if I don’t have a fast connection? What if I am behind a company firewall that doesn’t allow me to download 3rd party software? What if I want to use my status bar to see where the link is taking me? What if I wanted to go back/forward to the previous/next pages? What if, as a developer, I wanted to see my statistics down to the click? What if I dont want to listen to your lame music in the background? What if I don’t want to watch an animation everytime I click on something - I just want the information?

    These are just a few annoyances I have with flash. It is not that flash is BAD - its the developers who have DESTROYED it. Flash is a tool, and, just like the overuse/hype of web 2.0/AJAX - it has been thoroughly ABUSED.

    Really step back and think things through before you use it on a website. REALLY step back. Are you using it to impress? Are you using it because there is NO OTHER option? Is that extra animation REALLY needed? Can users turn this off if it becomes annoying? Are you using it because a client thinks its cool? Are you using it because you want to showcase the new things you learned in flash? Remember - every website has a purpose, and I have found in 99% of the sites/clients I have dealt wtih that it only hinders the USEFULNESS and USABILITY of their website.

    Think it through. Excellent post Roger.

  10. Hey Roger, your concerns are very valid, but there are solutions to almost all the problems you brought up:

    You can make Flash very usable without a mouse. There are a plethora or supported mobile devices and I’m certain all phones that can access the internet will soon be Flash enabled. Printing isn’t a problem anymore. Selecting text has been a feature in Flash for quite some time.

    Here’s a nice writeup on Flash accessibility that covers most of the subjects.

    Once again, the fault lies in the abuse of the tool, not the tool itself. The standards/accessibility movement hasn’t hit Flash yet - however Macromedia has put the features in to address such problems. The public just needs to put more pressure on us Flash developers. :)

  11. March 15, 2006 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    P.J. Onori: It’s great that Flash accessibility is getting better. That does not change the fact that Flash (or any other plugin technology) should not be used gratuitously.

    I’m well aware of many of the solutions you mention, but they are still kludges that are not as mature and easy to use as their HTML equivalents. Thus they get in the way of the user.

    That list of supported phones unfortunately does not contain my phone (Nokia 6680). Seems like Flash on phones is only available in Japan.

    What you as a Flash developer can do is make sure that your use of Flash on the web actually adds enough value to justify the problems it causes. You also need to make sure that the sites you use Flash on degrade well for those who cannot or will not use Flash.

    Ok, that’s some pressure from me ;-).

  12. I couldn’t agree with you more. :)

  13. Roger: Good points, I usually assume that people whom can’t fully use Flash would have it turned off, or have JavaScript turned off.. But this isn’t true, of course.

    I guess a nice solution is to have an obvious link on every Flash-only page to the HTML equivalent of that page. It’s not the greatest from a usability point of view (in case they don’t notice it), but at least there’s a way out.

  14. Especially, avoid Flash intros. They are very dangerous. Entry page of a site is very important for search engines. Also, please realize that nobody watch intros.

  15. Hi i make one wepsite with flash . then i send it to the client but they couldn’t see the flash file , what could be wrong with it ?

  16. October 7, 2006 by Ruben Rojas

    The SWFObject is the best method to embed flash websites, accesible and support content for non browsers whit flash users.

    It´s the best method…

  17. As far as Flash is concerned, search engines cannot crawl Flash swf files.

    As far as Google is concerned, it can easily decompile a .swf file, and can extract contents of flash file to check whether flash file is pointing to some “spam” links.

    Meanwhile you cannot hide anything from Google, but at the same time you wont get any benefit from your flash site.

    If you are seriously marketing online on search engines, then you should definitely abstain from Flash homepage.

    You can also give a link to users to visit a Flash Intro along with static HTML home page.

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