Don’t Expect A Magic Flash Solution For Search Engines

Call me Mr. Rain On The Parade, but after reading an interview in The Guardian with Google product manager of crawl services Dan Crow, I can’t help but feel people are going to come away with the mistaken idea that Google will magically make their Flash content suddenly more accessible to Google’s crawlers. That ain’t going to happen.

Interview: Google’s Dan Crow is the article, and in it, we’re told:

If we hit a web page with a Flash movie on it, we just extract the text out of it and index that text. But a Flash movie is much richer than that. So one of the projects I’m working on is to try and improve our Flash processing - that’s an example of an area where we could be better. But it’s not unique to us.

At the moment our advice is that webmasters need to give us a lot of help – a Flash movie is basically a set of virtual pages. If you used HTML for the links, then we’d be able to see the overall structure. The content will still be in Flash, but we can at least get some of it. Ultimately we’d like to be smart enough to look inside the Flash movie. We’re not quite there today.

Not quite there? Not quite there? Try nowhere, and that’s not really the fault of Google or any search engine.

Look, most Flash content I’ve seen is not made up of words. It’s video. It’s images. It’s non-textual content that cannot be indexed by a search engine designed to process text. There are no words to index.

I have a long-running way I try to explain this to people who build in Flash and who get frustrated that search engines can’t handle their content. I say it’s like taking a TV commercial into a radio station, then getting mad that the radio station won’t play the pictures in the commercial. It can’t. It’s radio. Radio plays only sound. If you want images, that’s TV!

Search engines don’t understand images. They understand text. Show them images, and it’s like trying to play those images on the radio.

Yes, someday in the far, far future, search engines will understand what’s in an image. They’ll see an image and be able to describe it. But that’s not now. That’s not anytime soon. And I say this because after a decade of us being told image recognition is coming, we’re still no significantly further along.

Even when they do, it still won’t be that helpful for general purpose, textually driven web search. I mean, they’ll see an image and be able to tell you "Now the company logo is flying horizontally. Now it is flying vertically. Now it’s getting all big. Now it’s getting all small." How descriptive is that?

Search engines ARE better at finding actual text that can be embedded in Flash movies. So if you have a lot of text in there, then maybe they’ll extract that text, and your page will do better. Search engines, including Google, have been doing that for several years now (and here’s Google’s help page about that). But if you have that much text in Flash — why are you putting it in Flash? Put in regular HTML, and save the Flash for pictures and images.

Overall, don’t expect that things are going to change soon. They haven’t for years, and even suggestions of secret talks with Adobe in this article ("I can’t talk about that") aren’t going to make some dramatic change. It will be terrible if those finally getting the message that Flash means problems with search engines suddenly seize on this interview as hope that a solution is coming. It’s not. You want a solution — try the workarounds you’ll find here, for a start.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | SEO: Flash


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • Michael Martinez

    If they can capture the audio track and automatically transcribe it, they’ll be able to index the transcription. Blinkx already claims to be doing this. I wouldn’t write Google off just yet, as they must surely have resources to devote to similar capability.

  • miketheinternetguy

    I just use SWFObject to embed Flash movies and move on. Seems to work fine for now. In the “noflashcontent” div I usually transcribe what is contained in Flash, or at least my close interpretation. Don’t get too spammy with it

  • Philipp Lenssen

    But as for the sites that do contain content, there’s a problem that good multi-language Flash sites outsource the actual text as XML for easy maintenance. We had this problem with’s Flash-based microsites. Google would only show the stuff in the Flash file itself, not the stuff from the XMLs. All in all, if you want to have meaningful indexing, use HTML, though Flash can attract a lot of interest if well done, which is also part of “link building”…

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