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Flash alternatives blessed by Google

In the Official Google Webmaster Central blog, the Flash-based image replacement technique sIFR is given the thumbs up.

Flash has long been a stumbling block in getting found in the search engines. Googlebot just doesn't cope well with content and links embedded within Flash. And if the following e-mail that I received from a Google engineer last year is any indication, Google isn't likely to make significant improvements on how it crawls, indexes and ranks Flash files anytime soon:

"re: Flash, I can tell you, based upon philosophies here, that we aren't likely to do any kind of mapping of Flash to non-Flash URLs. While our spidering practices may change in the future, we find that Flash is not a very user-friendly experience in a lot of ways. It is wholly inaccessible to the sight-impaired, not renderable on many devices (such as phones, PDAs), and so on. In particular, we hugely frown upon navigation done exclusively in Flash."

Given this stance, I'd suggest that the responsibility rests solely in the Web site owner's hands to address the Flash/SEO issue. Luckily you have some options, such as:

1. Replace the Flash elements with a more accessible alternative like CSS/DHTML.
2. Employ a Web design approach known as "progressive enhancement," whereby designs are layered in a concatenated manner to provide an alternative experience for non-Flash users. This way, all users, including search engine spiders, will be able to access your content and functionality. For an example of progressive enhancement, check out Amazon's "Create Your Own Ring" tool. Simply turn off the JavaScript capabilities in your browser and build your ring--with or without the Flash interaction.

If you're into Flash or typography, you're probably familiar with "sIFR," which stands for Scalable Inman Flash Replacement. It's an image replacement technique that relies on CSS, JavaScript and Flash to display a heading using any font on the planet, regardless of whether it is on the user's computer. As long as the user can display Flash, the user can see the stylized text as the designer intended it.

Now this tactic is "officially" Google approved.

This gives merit to SWFObject techniques, which are extremely similar. Here is the key line from Google on the above-referenced Web page:

"The only hard and fast rule is to show Googlebot the exact same thing as your users. If you don't, your site risks appearing suspicious to our search algorithms. This simple rule covers a lot of cases including cloaking, JavaScript redirects, hidden text, and doorway pages."

In other words, whether it's SWFOject or sIFR, the key is to consistently mirror the exact content of a given .swf file in the corresponding text-based replacement.

I was fairly certain that this was the case, but now Google has stated it clearly and precisely.