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Optimizing Flash Files For The Search Engines

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What is a Flash Movie?

A flash movie, or shock wave file (SWF), is the file format published when a Flash movie is exported. An SWF file can also be shipped by several other Macromedia or Adobe Products. The SWF is usually an animation, dynamic menu, or highly interactive web-based application embedded into an HTML page. Flash files, when exported correctly for the best web-based optimization, are compressed, thus making their file size lightweight. The SWF format is ideal for presenting vector-based, interactive, animated graphics with sound and video for the web. Vector images are perfect because they will not be "pixelized" if stretched or compressed. Flash files can also contain text which can be animated, static or dynamically populated from external sources, such as an XML file or a database. For many years, text embedded in a Flash file could not be read by search engines. However, recent updates by Macromedia are making this a possibility.

Problems with Flash and Search Engines

Historically, it has not been accessible to index Flash content and rank by search engines. In the past, search engines, such as Yahoo and Google, did not spider Flash content as they could not read the compressed file, and much of the text inside the SWF appeared as graphics to the search engines.

The main page of a website, if Flash-based, rarely ranked well unless off-page factors such as link popularity or link reputation were sufficient enough to carry the page. Flash files that Google indexed, Lycos, and other search engines did not have any text or keywords in the search engine results pages (SERP).

Techniques Used in the Past to Make Flash Visible to Search Engines

Traditional Search Engine Optimization (SEO) techniques would help your site get indexed but not rank for search terms. Every website needs at least one HTML page to load into a browser. For a website developed entirely in Flash, developers would embed their flash files into an HTML document and then create the meta tags in the head section of the HTML file. They would also add descriptive HTML text for the search engines in the body section of the HTML page, then use CSS positioning and percentages to load the Flash move in a pixel-perfect location over the top of the text. This particular technique should not be used any longer, as search engines will view this technique as an attempt to add hidden text, which will incur a penalty from the machines.

Another technique that could help your Flash ranking is not compressing your SWF files. One of the reasons search engines could not read flash files in the past is that the files are compressed. If the SWF is uncompressed, search engines can read the static text. This technique can be accomplished quickly. Upon exporting a Flash file, you can set the compression to "not" if you want your text inside the Flash movie to be readable by the search spiders. However, this is not a good practice, as not compressing your SWF will increase the file size, negating a significant benefit to Flash file - a lightweight file.

What Macromedia has Done to Make Flash More Visible to Search Engines

In the past, Google did index Flash files. Anyone can test this fact out by searching in Google using the "filetype" operator to restrict your search. For example, try the following search: "Casino Games filetype: SWF.- The SERP will include over 200 Flash files, indicated by the "Flash" text to the left of the listing.

Some search engines now use the Macromedia Flash Search Engine SDK (Software Development Kit). For example, Google, AllTheWeb, Lycos, and other sites can readily display links to Flash content. Flash Search SDK is an open-source tool that allows search engines to modify it to suit their needs. With this level of customization, the major search engines will likely change SDK, making it difficult for website owners to know precisely what information will be pulled out of the SWF file or how it will impact actual rankings.

The Macromedia Flash Search Engine SDK can be found at

http://www.macromedia.com/software/flash/download/search_engine. According to the Macromedia/Adobe website, The SDK includes an application named 'swf2HTML'. Swf2HTML extracts text and links from a Macromedia Flash SWF file and returns the data to an HTML document. Swf2HTML is provided as a compiled application and as a static library for linked library implementation. SDK can interoperate any links that are in the action script so long as they adhere to the following criteria:

* The link is contained within single quotes (' ') or double quotes (" "), and
* The link prefix is HTTP, and
* The link suffix is HTM, HTML, CFM, SWF, JPG, JPEG, MP3, or WAV

By default, SDK extracts the following text from your flash file:

* Text on stage in the current movie (dynamic text, static text, or input text that has an initial value assigned)

* Text on stage in a movie that is called with movieClip.attachMovie()

Google can see specific text in Flash files now, but how and where the clear text gets extracted depends on what you do with that text in the Flash presentation. For example, static text used in a motion tween can be read as a single instance with SDK. However, some animation involves converting text into a symbol and then using multiple copies of that symbol to achieve the desired effect. This will create duplicate instances of your text to the SDK output, which may be viewed as the same content and not given much importance by Google.

Using the SDK tool, any developer can get the text output from the SWF and see how search engines view the extractable text of any SWF. You can go to the DOS prompt on a Windows operating system and execute the swf2HTML application very easily. The following is an example from the DOS prompt: C:\sdk\swf2HTML -o test.HTML C:\sdk\crt_webfiles\test.SWF

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Techniques Used Historically for Flash
Each Flash file did not need to be uploaded independently and called an SWF file; instead, a Flash file can be embedded in a standard HTML document. One of the best techniques is to create a modular website, where several Flash files make up the web page combined with common HTML elements. A hybrid site such as this works exceptionally well if your navigation uses traditional HTML links. You can use cascading style sheets to give the appearance of flash text links. This hybrid site will consistently rank better than all Flash sites - all other factors equal. Correcting your HTML page title is essential, regardless of anything else. Several search engines look at meta titles first. In addition to the page title, you can add meta tags to the head of the file. Outside of the actual HTML page, off-page factors are essential. There has been much written in recent articles that reciprocal links are no longer as important. Still, one-way links pointing to your site from highly relevant and high-ranking pages will undoubtedly increase your page rank. In addition, links from prominent directories, such as Yahoo and Business.com, placed in the most pertinent categories will help. One-way inbound links from relevant sites are still the best way to increase your ranking with or without Flash.

There are programming techniques that work while in the Flash authoring environment. While you are in the Flash authoring environment, with your FLA open...click F12. It will generate the HTML page for you. Look at the code of the page; it creates a place for you to put the text and URLs used in the Flash.

New SEO Techniques for Flash
Today many techniques can overcome the limitations of the past where Flash files are concerned. With the new Macromedia Flash 8, some methods can be implemented to increase the ability of search engines to index Flash files and even rank for keywords.

In the past, SWF files could not have titles. This is one crucial reason why Flash files didn't rank well. This title limitation has now changed. Flash 8 does allow you to input metadata. Flash 8 defines two fields with metadata for all Flash files. These two fields are Title and Description. You can access the metadata fields under Document Properties. To add metadata, fill in the text fields, and the search engines will know what info to display about your Flash file.

SDK is pretty intelligent in terms of recognizing text and links that are embedded in the file. It can be read if the text is static or dynamically driven by an XML or text file. If your content is dynamically driven, it must be done using the latest ActionScript 2.0. The SDK does parse ActionScript 2 byte code looking for links. It could conceivably find the link to the XML file and hand it back to a search engine.

As referenced earlier, specific text can be modified into a symbol rather than straight text. For example, a button might output the text two or three times. Alternatively, the tweened text has motion associated with the action. Tweens result in a single occurrence in the output from the extraction process. You should also notice that the link text in the Google results page is identical to the first couple of lines at the top of the text extracted by swf2HTML. Armed with the knowledge of how SDK parses your content, you can manipulate text in your Flash Movies more carefully and make your content keyword dense, easily indexable, search engine friendly, and, with a little more skill, even optimized.

What is the gist of all this? Flash is still not the best solution for a pure SEO-based project, but there have been giant leaps forward by both the search engines and Macromedia in allowing your flash files to be indexed and even rank for the keyword phrases you covet.