By Michael Estrin
News of Adobe’s decision to work with Google and Yahoo to make Flash searchable spread like wildfire. But so far, agencies aren’t sure what this change really means.
When John Romano, a senior web developer for marketing firm Capstrat, sits down to build a website for a client, he worries about a lot of things. But one concern foremost in his mind is whether anyone will see the cutting-edge work his team is tasked with creating. While Romano’s work is the kind clients pay handily for and users love, it’s not the sort of content that is search engine friendly. But that will soon change, as the two leading search engines and Adobe, which makes the tools Romano uses, have joined forces to help make his work more accessible by indexing the web for rich media files.
For Romano, and many like him, the problem can be summed up in a word: Flash. Adobe’s powerful multimedia tool has become the instrument of choice for interactive agencies eager to deliver fully immersive online experiences that do more than simply hurl text at today’s fickle users.
But while 98 percent of internet-connected desktops have Flash Player installed, few users are likely to find a website rich in Flash.
“Getting Google [and other search engines] to connect users with specific Flash content has been a real problem,” Romano confesses, “and it’s been something the industry has been struggling with for years.”
Since the beginning, search engines have been fixated on text, rather than images or other forms of reach media. The result has been that pages heavy in images and rich media don’t rise to the top of the natural search results, even when they are more relevant than their text-based counterparts. To counteract this problem, digital agencies have employed an array of cumbersome solutions to help users find the more dazzling sites employed by major brand clients.
But the solutions — a patchwork of proprietary fixes designed to boost SEO efforts for Flash-heavy sites — have been far from ideal. Often developers find themselves duplicating efforts in both Flash and HTML, which can be both expensive and time consuming. The announcement earlier this month from Adobe, Google and Yahoo could change all that. At least, that’s the plan. But as is often the case, a barrage of questions followed from the agencies charged with leveraging the latest technology development on behalf of their clients.
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So how much does Flash weigh?
Mention the words “SEO” and “change” and you’re bound to get the attention of a lot people working in interactive. Little wonder. Being found is the name of the game for anyone working on the web. But the decision to begin indexing Flash has raised the web’s constant question: what does this mean for my business?
According to Google and Adobe, developers using Flash won’t need to make any retroactive changes, and they won’t need to do any special work to make their files accessible to the search engine spiders. But finding the Flash content is only the beginning, according to Ivan Todorov, CEO of BLITZ, an interactive agency that has worked with clients ranging from FX Networks to Lincoln.
“In the long-term, we think this will have a huge impact for the future of interactive,” Todorov says. “But right now, the primary concern is how Flash will be weighed by the search engines.”
Unfortunately for Todorov, that question isn’t one Google or Yahoo is likely to answer because it would mean sharing proprietary information related to their algorithms. While Todorov and others say they would like to be part of that conversation — presumably to argue for giving Flash maximum value — agencies are likely to be kept in the dark where SEO is concerned.
But according to Tom Barclay, senior manager, Flash Player at Adobe, all parties fully expect the Flash developer community as well as SEO experts to develop best practices for optimizing rich media content under the umbrella of an Adobe/Google/Yahoo collaboration.
“Existing Shockwave Flash (SWF) content is now searchable using Google search and, in the future, Yahoo search, dramatically improving the relevance of rich internet applications and rich media experiences that run in Adobe Flash Player,” Barclay explains. “As with HTML content, best practices will emerge over time for creating SWF content that is more optimized for search engine rankings.”
But in the meantime, Andrew Lovasz, director of search marketing at Moxie Interactive, says the change is likely to reorder natural search results where smaller operations were benefiting because their competitors were relying almost exclusively on Flash.
“This is definitely going to raise the barrier to entry,” Lovasz says, pointing out that big brands that are more likely to have Flash-heavy sites can expect to see a rise in their natural search results.
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The devil in the details
While searchable Flash raises the immediate and obvious question of “weighting” rich media as a content category, the truth of the matter is that the search engine ranking debate will always rage, whether the topic relates to text, Flash, video, audio or any other format. But behind the question of how all this newly ranked content will be integrated into natural search results, agencies will still have to grapple with the mechanics of developing for Flash.
“The headline was really nice to hear,” says Cheryl Haas, VP Fleishman-Hillard. “Hearing that Google, Yahoo and Adobe are all working together is a great start, but I think we’re still a long way off.”
What looks like the proverbial flip of the switch — Adobe’s decision to partner with the two leading search engines — in reality raises a slew of technical questions.
According to Lovasz, and many others, Yahoo, Google and Adobe have been long on excitement, but short on actionable details.
But Haas’ concerns may highlight a larger problem for Adobe and its search engine partners. While agencies have uniformly praised the news, many have expressed concern that the Flash developer community remains largely in the dark regarding the establishment of best practices for building the Flash sites of tomorrow.
For its part, Google admits that there is no established best practices guide that is endorsed by all three companies. However, Google has its own online resource for developers, as does Adobe.
But a lack of communication — perceived or real — could slow the development of a Flash-friendly web, Romano says, and points out that it will be up to the armies of disconnected developers to figure out the mechanics of this latest tool.
“Our technical people have punched a lot of holes in this, and that’s not surprising given the fact that matching Google’s technology with Adobe isn’t easy,” Romano explains. “This is only the beginning of the solution, and it is likely going to take years to solve because it will require developers to ultimately build Flash sites differently.”
But that doesn’t mean that Adobe is operating independently of all developers. Stephen Jackson, CEO of Smashing Ideas, the largest independent developer of Flash in the U.S., says Adobe works hard to communicate changes with a core group of companies that use its products.
“I think a lot of the disconnect here is that there are millions of Flash users out there,” Jackson says. “So working with all of them makes it rather hard to conduct business.”
What will this mean for interactive?
Across the board, agencies do seem to agree that the decision by Yahoo, Google and Adobe to work together will be a good thing for the interactive advertising business. But just how good is hard to say.
What seems unlikely to some is the idea that improved search optimization for Flash will lead to more Flash development. As Haas put it: “You won’t see people building in Flash just for the sake of having Flash; there has to be a reason.”
But improvements in Flash should have an indirectly positive effect on the overall industry, according to Jackson, who says that getting cutting edge content in front of more users — especially from a Google or Yahoo query — should help drive impressions and clickthroughs.
“It all depends on impressions and clickthroughs,” Jackson says. “If this makes that happen, then you’ll see more advertisers increasing their online budgets.”