Are The Search Engines Really Indexing Flash?

It seems that once a year for the past five years or so, a search engine representative will stand up at a conference and announce that they are now indexing Flash. Website designers jump with glee, and SEOs lament that all the work they did educating their clients on why they need to curb their use of Flash will be for naught.

Think of it this way, if Flash were a food, it would be an herb or a spice. Let’s say it’s basil. While basil is great in pesto, it’s not something that you’d typically make an entire meal out of. You use it to add flavor to your tortellini. And yet designers across the world—as well as CEOs who want to appear cool—want huge chunks of their websites in Flash. Sigh.

Of course if the search engines truly are indexing Flash this time around, then what’s the problem?

Flash sites certainly can do some neat tricks. People can interact with them in ways they can’t with a typical plain-Jane HTML website. Interaction is certainly good, as it can make a site “sticky.” And people pass around fun websites to their friends so they can make the little balls spin, or play with the cool virtual cubes. This is great for some websites which are looking to entertain people.

If, on the other hand, your company wants people to actually understand what you do when they come to your website, how does playing with the spinning balls further this goal? I don’t personally find it endearing to have to guess what’s behind each ball or cube when I mouse over it and it makes a funny sound or explodes and perhaps shows a single word or cute saying. If I’m looking to kill time, I might visit your site. But if I’m wondering if you’re a good fit for my needs at the moment, I don’t want to do a puzzle to figure this out. Instead, I am likely to seek out your competitor that provides me with information, rather than games.

As you can tell, I’m not a fan of cool Flash sites for a typical business. But what about those that have a more basic Flash site that does indeed provide information? For them, I would ask, why Flash? If you don’t need to allow your visitors to interact with your website, then why not just use HTML with Flash accents? Because even if the search engines are indexing the information contained in Flash (more on this in a bit), there are other reasons not to use it. First and foremost, not every browser has Flash installed. In fact, currently on an iPhone, Flash shows up as a little blue cube. Second, many Flash-based sites use only one URL for the entire site. Besides the search engine implications of that, it is also a nightmare for bookmarking, as well as for most web analytics programs.

So, even if search engines are indeed indexing the information in Flash, my recommendation is still to not design your entire website with it.

With that out of the way, I just rolled up my sleeves and started looking at how Google is currently treating Flash and whether websites can do just as well in the search results even if important information is contained within Flash.

Guess what? Most Flash is still highly invisible in Google.

To test this, I went directly to some Flash sites, and pasted exact words contained within their Flash into Google (using quotes) and most of the sites did not show up in the search results. Upon review of the source code of two sites that did show up I found that one was using the phrase I looked for within their Meta description (see… meta descriptions actually DO count for something with Google, despite what some will tell you). The other site had lots of text within the code beneath the Flash so that search engines and browsers without Flash would have some meaningful info. While that’s a good alternative, the info they had was very different from the info contained in their Flash. That’s a bit of a dangerous game to play with the search engines if you ask me. If that info is good enough for search engines and iPhones, why isn’t it good enough for your most important users?

The other thing I noticed was that even on pages that used Flash sparingly, if they had words in the Flash files, a search for those exact words would not typically pull up the HTML page that the Flash was embedded on. However, when performing a search for the exact phrase plus only .swf filetypes (which is what most Flash files use as an extension), the Flash files themselves do show up in the results. This tells me that the Google reps were kind of telling the truth about Flash being indexed, but that it doesn’t do website owners much good in a real world setting.

Google searches for the brand names of Flash sites do bring up the sites in the search results (note that their brand is typically in the Title tag). So if that’s all you care about, then using all Flash shouldn’t be a problem for you. However, if you’re interested in showing up in the search results for people who may not have already heard of you, i.e., those seeking out exactly what you offer rather than your brand name, then you may want to rethink the cool factor and go for the smart one instead!

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: All Things SEO Column | Channel: SEO


About The Author: is a pioneer in SEO, beginning in the field in the early 1990s and founding High Rankings in 1995. If you enjoy Jill's articles at Search Engine Land, be sure to subscribe to her High Rankings Advisor Search Marketing Newsletter for SEO articles, SEM advice and discounts on industry events and products.

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  • tjm8660

    Jill seems to be out of touch with new technologies to over come everything she’s discussed in this article in terms of SEO. What about swfAdress for making bookmarking easier? What about using a database & PHP to pull in the content and embed it into the HTML? I agree with Jill that if you don’t need Flash then don’t use it. But if your goal is to create a site that engages your audience in terms of motion, etc., then use Flash.

  • rhcerff

    Flash has been, is, and most likely always will be a pet hate of mine. A friend of mine describes the overuse of flash as nothing more than a webmaster looking for self gratification.

    Even now I would suggest that you robots out your flash sections and still have an alternative Plain Jane HTML version.

    @tjm8660 a site that engages an audience such as those looking for the latest on Ozzy Osboure, yeah. But for any business anything that takes longer than 10seconds to load, I would seriously disagree.

  • Jill Whalen

    @tjm8660 I realize there are work arounds and new technologies, but the fact of the matter is that most websites are not making use of them, and therefore, are invisible to the search engines. At least that’s what my research was showing me.

  • netrafic

    Ive been a fan of yours for years but I have to agree, if you are going to use a title like that in the 2009 world of SEO your argument does not fly. A better title should have been – Why I Dont Like Flash Sites. I too like good old fashioned up front this is who i am and this is what i do text on the home page. But 80% of our clients coming through the door dont care about any of that. They say make it work. We do with swrf objects and/or div tags. Big G-dawg recognizes this and thats al that matters anymore. These tend to be shallow sites with no intentions of the long term view, we who work in the trenches try to bestow on those clients. But none the less you worx with whats you’s gets donchaknow.

  • beussery

    Good post Jill, the problem seems to be the lack “alternative” content (including images), lack of textual content within the actual Flash file and lack of understanding about how engines handle Flash files. For example, swfaddress uses #anchors in URLs but as you know they are ignored by Googlebot.

    Sad to say but like you said Flash still isn’t optimal in competitive spaces….

  • elchenuk

    I’d say the majority or our clients have flash on their sites either for cosmetic reasons or to portray information that is more eye catching and interactive. I can’t believe that in 2009 search engines still can’t read flash files. I totally agree that complete flash sites are very dangerous if you rely on the web to market your business, but flash strategically used in places to convey a richer message, definitely has its use in my very humble, opinion.

  • DianeV

    While I, too, could do without navbars tracing themselves complete with clicking noises on page after page after page, I can think of a number of scenarios in which *pieces* of Flash would do better than plain images. For example, Flash is perfect for helping to illustrate complex situations and relationships.

    Bear in mind, too, that regular people may really like Flash. I’ve often found that to be true.

  • craigsanatomy

    You’re right on with the spice analogy. If used properly, you can do a LOT with flash in a search friendly way (see: It’s not that you can’t use it, or that you have to have one flash site and one HTML site (can webmasters please stop doing that?), you just have to layer flash on top of HTML & CSS so that the searchies can still read your content in a way that makes sense!

  • sean

    This article resonates with me. Much of my work is in the Italian market. Italy has a great tradition in the graphic arts and many designers have blissfully migrated to web design using Flash as the preferred platform.

    Yet Flash violates a lot of what the web is all about – Jill touches on many of the issues above. After explaining the problems with Flash (and Silverlight for that matter) for the umpteenth time, I finally took pen to paper and came up with 7 reasons to avoid Flash like the plague.

    Yes, there are exceptions where Flash usage may be the solution, such as an Ikea kitchen configuration tool. And I should note that I am talking about sites created entirely in Flash rather than an html site which makes judicious use of a Flash insert here and there.

    1) Semantic information available to search engines via html tags such as title, h1, p… etc is missing.

    2) Website reporting on Flash navigation is problematic and cumbersome (as mentioned above)

    3) Flash breaks web usability standards. Try using the back button or increasing the font size, for example.

    4) Lack of consistent cross platform support. Flash version 8 was never released for Linux, breaking many sites. Mobile device support is weak or non-existent (as Jill mentions with the iPhone). Microsoft’s Silverlight is even worse. Linux support is stuck at the obsolete version 1 while Microsoft is reading version 3.

    5) Code embedding Flash objects doesn’t pass w3c validation

    6) Some users disable Flash to avoid flash based advertising

    7) Website updates continually require Flash skills

    To my original article which covers these points in greater depth ( ) I should also add the inability to highlight, copy and paste text, such as a business phone number and address
    . Yes, it should be possible, but often it is not. Which I think is one of Jill’s key points.

    While Search Engine reps and Adobe will point out what can be done in theory with advanced Flash techniques to mitigate the above mentioned issues, budget constraints and/or lack of developer knowledge mean it doesn’t happen in reality.


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