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Text Replacement With Flash - Dangerous?


By Richard Hearne
Expert Author
Article Date: 2007-08-16

If you use Flash replacement techniques could Google misinterpret your pages and apply a penalty?

Flash replacement techniques are quite a hot topic of late after reported comments attributed to Google about the implications of certain Flash replacement techniques.

What is Flash Replacement?

Flash is undoubtedly a far more aesthetically pleasing medium than plain text rendered in the browser. Although recent browsers from both Apple and Microsoft have introduced anti-aliased text fonts, most Internet users are still using non-aliased viewers. And this is where Flash can appreciably improve the suer experience.

Flash replacement involves substituting plain text output with Flash-based textual content which uses anti-aliased fonts. (Anti-aliasing, for anyone unfamiliar with the phrase, basically means removing jagged edges from text.)

There is a number of techniques available for Flash replacement, sIFR (Scalable Inman Flash Replacement) and SWFobject being perhaps the best known.

sIFR

sIFR involves the use of JavaScript to detect and read the text content of any particular DOM element (any piece of text on a web page for example) and sending that text to a small Flash module which returns the content in Flash format.

The process is seamless and the user gets to view your headings and selected text in a nice anti-aliased Flash font.

SWFObject

On the other hand, SWFObject simply replaces any text node with a pre-compiled Flash movie. The text contained within the text node is superfluous and has no direct relationship with the Flash rendered. It is this technique that I came across recently when checking a site for an enquirer.

The connection with SEO Ethics

Yesterday I wrote about SEO Ethics and how I feel that companies who promote competing websites are far more likely to cross into what in my opinion is unethical territory.

I came across the specific situation discussed in that post from a enquiry made on this site. I was asked to perform a quick analysis of a site (which will remain nameless). The site in question made heavy use of Flash. The site also used FlashObject (a prior incarnation of SWFObject). Here's what I found on the site:
1. The website was built in both plain HTML and Flash, and used FlashObject to replace large chunks (virtually all) of the text content with Flash movies;

2. With Javascript disables the homepage rendered correctly in plain HTML and all content appeared to be both accessible and usable;

3. However, on inner pages it quickly became apparent that large text nodes were rendered with visibility:hidden and these pages were both unusable and displaying quote different content to users with and without Flash
Here's the exact CSS class applied to the main content:

.content {
left:0px;
padding-left:2px;
padding-right:2px;
position:absolute;
top:0px;
visibility:hidden;
z-index:1;
}


So what's wrong with that?

When I first came across this implementation I immediately emailed back the enquirer and asked that they contact the developer (who is a large well-known Irish web co). After a few days I contacted the enquirer again to find out how the developer responded. I'm not going to quote this, but you'll have to trust me that the following accurately reflects the response given:
Following up on your concerns that the your website has hidden text, please be assured that your website is fully accessible to the Search Engines.

If you turn off JavaScript in your browser, the secondary pages of your website are returned.

The search engines Spiders view the html code of your website.

All areas of your site that use Flash do so with "Flash Replacement Text", which is 100% search engine friendly.

I would also like to show you how you can see all of the pages that Google has indexed. Type site:www.yoursite.com into the Google search bar you will see that every page of your website is indexed.

I hope that this helps to reassure you that your website is search engine friendly.
I want to deal with some of the items mentioned above to clarify exactly what the Search Engines are seeing, and what the official views are on certain implementations being used.

‘your website is fully accessible to the Search Engines'

This is indeed true. There is no bar on Search Engines accessing and crawling the pages in question. It is also true that the search engines (and in this particular case I'm referring to Google, which represents c.90% of Irish search traffic) have been known to check your CSS files to look for anything untoward.

visibility:hidden is a very strong signal of spam. That property is used to hide content within the browser view. Here are the Google guidelines on hidden text:
Hiding text or links in your content can cause your site to be perceived as untrustworthy since it presents information to search engines differently than to visitors. Text (such as excessive keywords) can be hidden in several ways, including:
    * Using white text on a white background

    * Including text behind an image

    * Using CSS to hide text

    * Setting the font size to 0
[… ]

If your site is perceived to contain hidden text and links that are deceptive in intent, your site may be removed from the Google index, and will not appear in search results pages. When evaluating your site to see if it includes hidden text or links, look for anything that's not easily viewable by visitors of your site. Are any text or links there solely for search engines rather than visitors?
In my opinion having text hidden in the version served to Google constitutes hidden text as defined in the guidelines and opens the offending site to the possibility of penalty or ban.
‘"Flash Replacement Text" put in place, which is 100% search engine friendly'

This is where the distinctions blur, and opinions diverge. There is a lot of current discussion on this topic over on Google Groups at the moment (see here and here).

Berghausen (a Google employee) has stated:
The goal of our guidelines against hidden text and cloaking are to ensure that a user gets the same information as the Googlebot. However, our definition of webspam is dependent on the webmaster's intent. For example, common sense tells us that not all hidden text means webspam-e.g. hidden DIV tags for drop-down menus are probably not webspam, whereas hidden DIVs stuffed full of unrelated keywords are more likely to indicate webspam.

I bring this up because, although your method is hiding text behind a very pretty Flash animation, you are still presenting the same content to both the user and the search engine, and offering it through different media.
On the face of it it would appear that Flash replacement shouldn't be an issue. On the face of it…

Google's Dan Crow (head of Crawl) recently attended a SEMNE group event on the subject of ‘Getting Into Google'. Apparently he was very frank on a number of issues, one of which was Flash replacement. SherwoodSEO attended the event and reported the following:
* sIFR (scalable Inman Flash Replacement) - sIFR is a JavaScript that allows web designer to customize the headlines displayed on their pages. Headline text rendered in HTML can look blocky and unrefined - sIFR paints-over that HTML with a Flash-based equivalent. This gives the headline a smooth, refined look, while still preserving the indexable text that Google needs to process the page. Dan said that sIFR was OK, as long as it was used in moderation. He said that extensive use of sIFR could contribute negative points to your website's overall score. Yes, that's a bit vague, but "vague" is not as bad as…

* SWFObject - SWFObject is a more elaborate JavaScript designed to swap-out an entire section of Flash with its HTML equivalent. Think of the Flash section of a webpage as being painted on a window shade. SWFObject decides if you have Flash installed (i.e. you are a web surfer) or not (i.e. you are a search engine.) If you don't have Flash, the window shade rolls-up, and an HTML text equivalent is displayed on-screen. Dan pulled no punches on SWFObject: he characterized it as "dangerous." He said that Google takes great pains to avoid penalizing sites that use technical tricks for legitimate reasons, but this was one trick that he could not guarantee as being immune from being penalized.
Now when the head of Google Crawl says that a particular technique is "dangerous" and cannot "guarantee as being immune form being penalized" I sit up and take note. Dan Crow is in charge of Google's entire fleet of Googlebots. In my opinion his comments carry considerable weight.

If using SWFObject has been classified as "dangerous", what might happen when you use this implementation AND use visibility:hidden for the text replaced by the Flash? Well in my opinion this implementation wont improve your standing with Google.

‘Google has indexed every page of your website'

Google bans sites every day. I regularly contribute over on Google's Webmaster Help Group and see cases of banned sites every other day. Often threads are started by webmasters whose sites have performed well for months and years. Then suddenly, without any change to their site, dropped form the index.

My point is that indexation does not guarantee that your page hasn't broken the guidelines. A penalty can be applied at any time. And when it does it hurts.

My overall thoughts on this?

I spent quite some time both analysing and researching the issues at hand (time that could and should have been applied elsewhere). Given that the developer of the site also happens to be the supplier of SEM services referred to in my SEO Ethics post, I cant say with any certainty that their responses to this situation were genuine. If so, then it displays ignorance/incompetence at best. If not, then I think their ethics must be called into question.

Comments

About the Author:
Richard Hearne is the founder of Red Cardinal, a dedicated search marketing consultancy. A frequent contributor to Google's Webmaster Group, Richard regularly advises clients on Internet marketing strategy and Search Engine optimisation campaigns. Richard's thoughts and research can be found on his search marketing blog.

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