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More-Searchable Flash

Information from millions of Web pages that use the animation software is now available to search engines.

The Web would be useless without search engines. But as good as Google and Yahoo are at finding online information, much on it remains hidden, or difficult to rank in search results. On Tuesday, however, Adobe took a major step toward opening up tens of millions of pages to Google and Yahoo. The company has provided the search engines with a specialized version of its Flash animation player that reveals information about text and links in Flash files. It’s a move that could be a boon to advertisers, in particular, who have traditionally had to choose between building a site that’s aesthetically pleasing and one that can be ranked in a Web search.

The new software is required only to index Flash files, not to play them, says Justin Everett-Church, senior product manager for Adobe Flash Player. Web surfers don’t need to download a new Flash player, and content providers don’t have to change the way they write applications. “For end users, they’re going to see a lot more results and a lot better results,” says Everett-Church. “The perfect result may have been out there but trapped in a SWF [Shockwave Flash file]. But now they can find it.”

Currently, Google indexes nearly 71 million Flash files on the Internet (this number can be acquired by searching “filetype:swf”). These files have, to a limited degree, always been searchable. Before Adobe’s announcement, search engines were able to look at a Flash file and extract static text and links from it. But they couldn’t tell where on the Flash site the text fell–on the main page, for instance, or deep within the site–which made it difficult to evaluate its importance. Search engines would also miss moving text inside animations.

Adobe gave Google and Yahoo new Flash player technology that works in conjunction with the “spiders” that search engines use to index Web pages. (Microsoft, which has developed its own competitor to Flash, called Silverlight, is not publicly involved in Adobe’s initiative.) Spiders are autonomous programs that browse through the Web in a systematic fashion. Adobe’s new player allows these spiders to load Flash files, read the text and links, and click any buttons or tabs. This allows the spider to make inferences about the context in which a word or link occurs–something it couldn’t do before.

“Previously, content providers have had to make a trade-off between using a SWF [pronounced ‘swiff’] and searchability,” says Everett-Church. But now, he says, Adobe hopes that more people will feel comfortable developing visually appealing sites without forgoing search rank.

Analysts agree that it’s important to make more of the Web searchable, and Adobe’s move is crucial. However, it’s an intermediate step, says Peter Elst, a Flash platform consultant. While the move opens up more text and links to search engines, site designers should have “control over what exactly gets indexed and how it should be interpreted by a search engine,” Elst says. With conventional Web pages, designers exert that control by adding metadata and tags that describe their sites. But, Elst says, that’s not yet possible with the new Flash tools.

At this stage, says Elst, many Flash programmers are concerned about how Google and Yahoo will use their newly acquired information to rank sites. “As far as we know,” he says, “the data that gets indexed is just a raw dump, and no context is applied, making it difficult to figure out how you can actually use this to do search-engine optimization and get higher page ranks.”

Google has dropped some hints about how it will handle Flash searches. For instance, its spiders currently will not load Flash applications that use the language JavaScript, so those applications may not get indexed. But in the end, people and businesses that want to promote their websites may need to use trial and error to figure out how to build Flash sites that search engines will rank highly, adjusting their tactics as Google’s and Yahoo’s algorithms change. But then that’s what they had to do with traditional HTML sites anyway.

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