Uncloaking 'invisible' Flash Web content

Adobe is providing technology to Google and Yahoo to help them better index dynamic content and rich Internet applications. Here's the lowdown on what it means.

Adobe announced late Monday night that it was providing optimized Adobe Flash Player technology to Google and Yahoo to help them better index dynamic Web content and rich Internet applications that include the Shockwave Flash file (SWF) format.

It sounds exciting, but what exactly does it mean for Web searchers, Webmasters, and Flash creators? CNET News.com asked Adobe, Google, and Yahoo and got some answers.

Q: What is Adobe doing?

A: Adobe is providing Google and Yahoo with optimized Adobe Flash Player technology so that their search engine spiders will be able to find and index SWF content, including Flash "gadgets" such as buttons or menus and self-contained Flash Web sites.

Q: How does this work?

A: When a search engine spider hits a normal HTML page and encounters Flash content it will load it in an optimized Flash player on the search engine server. Google has developed an algorithm that explores Flash files in the same way a person would, such as by clicking on buttons and entering input. The algorithm then indexes all the text it encounters through the navigation.

Q: How will the search experience change as a result?

A: The text that people see when they interact with Flash files, such as captions and introductions, will now be used when Google generates a snippet that appears below the URL on the search results page. The words that appear in the Flash files can now be used to match query terms in Google searches. In addition, the URLs that appear in Flash files will be fed into Google's crawling system and be indexed.

Overall, more content will be indexed and search engine result rankings will change to reflect the additional content and its relevance. The snippets will give better information about the page on the search results. You can also expect search engine optimizers to figure out ways to improve rankings of Flash-based Web sites just like they do with HTML-based sites.

Q: Why is this necessary?

A: More than 98 percent of the Internet-connected desktops have Flash Player installed and Flash is hugely popular. Until now, the search engines were able to index some static text and links within SWF files, but much of the content was not getting indexed because of the dynamic aspect of the rich media files. Currently, all that content that was essentially invisible to the search engines will appear in the search results and the small amount of content that gets indexed appears on the search results page in jumbled words and code that are of no use to the Web searcher.

"Now, you are losing all the context of what content was near each other and running at the same time," says Justin Everett-Church, a senior product manager for Adobe Flash Player. He likened the impact to the difference between reading the index of a book and reading the contents of the book.

This screen shot shows what results look like on Google for Flash content that is indexed without optimization with the new Adobe Flash Player Technology. Google

Q: Do Flash developers or Web masters have to do anything differently?

A: No. However, blog site Search Engine Land suggested that Flash developers should still spend time on search engine optimization and create distinct URLs for each piece of content.

Q: Will searchers be able to see more Flash-based content composed only of images and video as a result of this optimization?

A: Not at this time. Only text and hyperlinks will be indexed. However, Everett-Church said "there is no reason why images and video can't be supported in the future. It's up to our search partners if and when they choose to do that, but it is a possibility." A Google representative declined to comment on any future plans.

Q: Any other limitations?

A: Yes. Google doesn't crawl all types of JavaScript, which is used to execute most of the Flash content on the Internet. Google won't specify which types of JavaScript are executed, but said the company was working on executing all types. Adobe's Everett-Church says: "This is our initial implementation... I think there will be some areas to expand on there, as well."

In addition, text in all languages is supported with the Flash optimization, except for bi-directional languages such as Hebrew and Arabic.

Q: When will Web searchers see the impact of these changes?

A: Google has already started rolling out the changes. Yahoo expects to offer improved Web search capabilities for SWF content in a future Yahoo Search update, but could not specify when that might come.

Q: Will this optimization mean Web surfers will see more Flash pages?

A: "This will change the way sites are designed," Everett-Church says. "It will allow more creative ways of interacting with the browser...and sites won't have to sacrifice searchability."

Q: Can Google users disable the optimization if they don't want to see more Flash results?

A: Sort of. Google users can go into Advanced Search Features and put a minus sign for "filetype:swf." But this will only eliminate pages that are SWF extensions and not necessarily all pages with Flash embedded in them.

Q: Will Adobe be providing the technology to Microsoft for use on Live Search?

A: An Adobe spokesman said the company couldn't comment on its work with other vendors, but said it is exploring ways to make the technology more broadly available. Microsoft has a competing technology to Flash, called Silverlight. A Microsoft spokesman was attempting to get comment about the company's plans on Tuesday.

More information about the effort is available on Adobe's Web site and through Google's Webmaster Central Blog.

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