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Experimental Proof. Google Can Index Links in Flash!

Thursday, 03 July 2008

Ok folks it's officially time to party. Naysayer’s’ that have been claiming this was just some PR around the Macromedia Flash Search Engine SDK and the Googlebot wasn’t indexing Flash can be silenced because we now have undeniable proof that Googlebot is really crawling links within Flash movies as quickly as regular text links in html pages.

When we heard Googlebot was indexing Flash but most of the people in the SEO community said it wasn’t, my SEO Director asked me to run some tests to find out for sure.

From our tests we now have proof that Googlebot is more than capable of following URL's contained in a Flash movie, without any modification to the movies themselves. This is food for thought for those in the community that were skeptical of whether this was the case despite the recent press releases from Adobe and Google which stated it was. In addition it seems that many SEO's weren't clear from the press releases whether the Flash authoring environment itself would be changed or the Flash player technology would play the crucial role in ensuring links would be followed.

Looking at the statement below and our test results, we can see that Googlebot itself has been effectively ‘upgraded’ to include parsing using Adobe's flash player technology. No clunky SDK required guys :-).

"Recently, we've improved the performance of this Flash indexing algorithm by integrating Adobe's Flash Player technology."
Ron Adler and Janis Stipins, Google Software Engineers

To fully clear this up however we needed to establish the following;

  1. Was Google actually following links in Flash movies?
  2. Would Google follow any links contained in a flash movie even if they were on a hidden layer?
  3. Would we be able to use a relatively old version of Flash (Flash MX) to produce the desired results?
  4. What would be the best way to embed the Flash movies so that were Google friendly?

We ran a control test which involved adding a normal text link on a PR5 domain that linked to our PHP test page. Our PHP test page fully supports the recommended guidelines set out by Google on how to verify Googlebot in order to avoid false positives, it is also set up so that we can pass variables to it in order to quickly create new tests. The script emails us immediately when Googlebot crawls it. The control link served the purpose of establishing when Googlebot had crawled the test page and that it was working.

Next we embedded some Flash movies in the footer of the website that linked to the same script using URLs with new querystring variables identifying which link had been followed from which Flash movie.

The two very simple Flash movies were created using Flash MX. Both contained a standard button and a GetURL action in layer within the movie. The button had the following action script added:

on (release) {
getURL("http://www.example.com/flash-test/scs.php?pageid=5");
}

We then added the following to keyframe 10:

getURL("http://www.example.com/flash-test/scs.php?pageid=6");

We decided to stick to absolute URLs that begin with http://www.domain.com/ initially in order to keep the test relatively simple and just prove Google could access and crawl the links. We’ll deal with relative and fully qualified links tomorrow.

The first Flash movie was embedded using standard object and embed tags:

<object classid="clsid:D27CDB6E-AE6D-11cf-96B8-444553540000" codebase="http://download.macromedia.com/pub/shockwave/cabs/flash/swflash.cab#version=6,0,29,0" width="200" height="100">
<param name="movie" value="swf/test.swf">
<param name="quality" value="high">
<embed src="swf/test.swf" quality="high" pluginspage="http://www.macromedia.com/go/getflashplayer" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" width="200" height="100"></embed></object>

A second movie was also uploaded to the test site using the standards compliant SWFObject method which uses only the object tag with JavaScript to embed flash movies. Using both of these methods would help us establish how much of an issue the depreciated embed tag would be for Googlebot, and also that both current standards compliance and search engine friendliness could be achieved.

Once this part was out of the way it was just a case of waiting for Googlebot to crawl the website. As this was a PR 5 domain we knew that it would occur on the same day. In fact Googlebot followed the standard text link at 16.18pm the same day and proceeded to follow all the URLs contained within both Flash movies between 17.29 and 18.28. This was conclusive proof that Googlebot could follow URLs in Flash movies and more interestingly URLS contained within action script code that was hidden.

Test results

  1. Text link crawled: (Googlebot IP: 66.249.73.27, Time: 16.18)
  2. Standard embed flash link crawled: (Googlebot IP: 66.249.73.27, Time: 17.29)
  3. Standard embed hidden flash link crawled: (Googlebot IP: 66.249.73.27, Time: 17.29)
  4. SWFObject flash link crawled: (Googlebot IP: 66.249.73.27, Time: 18.28)
  5. SWFObject hidden flash link crawled: (Googlebot IP: 66.249.73.27, Time: 18.28)

Congratulations go out to Ron and Janis from Google for achieving this crawling milestone and also the creators of SWFObject for an excellent script which is now both a standards compliant and search engine friendly way of embedding Flash movies.

Flash Bombing? - We might as well point out the obvious as what this now opens up is a whole bag of spam possibilities and I wonder whether Google has fully considered this? Matt I know you wanted some suggestions about what to deal with next from a spam perspective, we’d suggest you gen up on Flash immediately. Before someone else does it we’d like to coin the term ‘flash bombing’. Theoretically someone could now effectively hide hundreds of links in flash movies that would be completely invisible to users and a nightmare for Googles eval and anti-spam team to verify. It’s like BM all over again ;-). Could Google fully check this? How might they approach it? Would every website using flash links need manual review? It will be interesting to see how webmasters and SEO's will respond to this.

In part two of our experiment tomorrow we will investigate how Google handles relative and fully qualified links within Flash movies and whether Google treats SWF objects as a separate entity for PageRank distribution or associates the movie with the page it is embedded within, something we are sure the engineers will have deliberated over.

Stay tuned for more details tomorrow.

Comments

George K

Would you guys be able to check what happens with XML loaded content? For example, a textfield that loads in HTML formatted text from an XML file which contains links.

Also, could you try SWFObject's other embed method?

andymurd

Excellent work in being the first to publish concrete evidence that Googlebot really is crawling flash.

I don't blame a lot of SEOs for their disbelief when the ability to crawl flash was first touted and it will be interesting to see how flash-only links affect the SERPs.

William Vicary

@George K - Google has already said that any loaded content into flash movies are treated as completely seperate entities, makes sense I guess.

Jowan

OMG. Awesome discovery. I am imagining a world of new spam techniques.

mathew

@william vicary - still unclear - so is the content in an xml payload feeding a swf ignored by gbot when gbot is going through the swf?

Teddie

@Mathew supposedly yes.

According to what G have said so far external XML (or other) files would be treated as seperate, we presume linked to by the flash movie, not part of the flash movie itself.

It's the same sort of relationship a flash movie, or image or other file type has with a HTML page. Although they may appear within a page and that is the context we experience them in, they are infact distinct and seperate files from the actual HTML itself and that is the context in which Google and other search engines treat them.

Again this is something we'll try and verify ourselves though.

Sonali Sengupta

Before this post, I also thought that googlebots don't index flash links as fast as other links.

AntiSpam

AS3 does not use the getURL command, AS3 can't be placed on a movie clip, and often AS files are stored in an external .as file. I would be interested in what results you will see using current OO AS3 programming. Nice work!

Teddie

We'll check, but supposedly external files are treated as seperate files. As regards links I don't see why if Googlebot can recognise getURL it would have problems with URLRequest & navigateToURL, although there may well be limits to the complexity of the ActionScript thay can cope with.

beussery

Can you post the test pages used? Might be helpful for others...

Brian Carter

Ya, one of our developers had a similar comment to @AntiSpam's above:

"it's cool that someone is testing this out, but they're using an old version of Flash (MX) with Actionscript 2 programming. Actionscript 3 does not use the getURL command, nor can you place the Actionscript right on a movieclip.

Also, a lot of Flash projects use external AS files that are "linked" to from the actual flash movie."

John Assalian

thanks for the R&D guys!

Much appreciated in the dev community.

EGB

Thanks for sharing this information

Teddie

@Brian We took antispams points on board and as you may have read from the prior comments an AS3 test is in the pipeline :-)

As regards the external files, that's a seperate issue. The guidelines clearly say they are not included as part of the flash movie itself; although they may well be crawled seperately.

seo pixy

That's a wonderful news, thanks for sharing it:) It was time for Google to start indexing Flash links fast.

Simplo

I don't think this will become a flash-bomb and if it does Google will just not assign PR to the links until a flash nofollow is recognized.

Now us SEOs can market Flash SEO services, which were very limiting in the past.

Tim Phillips

Is there a way to test a Flash Flex application like an online digital catalog (http://rutland.dirxion.com) to see what links are picked-up and what of the textual content can be indexed?

Ronfaxme

Ref the comment 'flash bombing' if Google algorithym does not detect hidden links within flash site, bet your bottom dollar it won't be long before they catch on, possibly downgrading a site as a reult of spamming?

zhong

Free Flash Games,welcome to wandsky

carp fishing

I am trying to get more visitors to the flash area of my carp fishing site. As yest google seem to ignore the tips and tactics area as it in flash, even after applying some of the tips this and other web sites.

cheap web hosting

Yes i do agree with you that google index the flash links. I have couple of links in flash and all are index. What i have observed, that flash links attracts more traffics because of attractive look. Any ways thank you so much for providing such useful information.

jeline

I don't think this will become a flash-bomb and if it does Google will sikiş just not assign PR to the links until a flash nofollow is recognized.

Now us SEOs can market Flash SEO services, which were very limiting in the past

cheapcarsauctions

Hello to all ! Great site. I am new here greetings to all from Poland.

Michael Thomas

This is fantastic I am very interested in flash SEO, does anybody know if links in flash are just as good as real text links? Since this blog was written google have changed there embedding code, would that make a difference on the way they are indexing the links?

Web Hosting Girl

Great discovery.Thanks for sharing such useful info.I appreciate your work.

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