October 30, 2009, 12:00 AM

Found in a Flash

Flash and Silverlight can make web sites come to life, but disappear from search results. Retailers discover workarounds.

Awe-inspiring, vivid web pages can do wonders to help e-retailers boost sales, but such pages won’t generate a dime if shoppers can’t find them. That’s a fact many e-retailers are struggling with today when it comes to using technologies like Adobe Flash and Microsoft Corp.’s Silverlight.

Flash and Silverlight, rich Internet applications that make web pages come to life, often through moving sequences such as a rotating homepage banner or videos, don’t play nicely with search engines, which were built to scan text to find web pages relevant to a search query. Images that move, or banners that rotate, aren’t static, and as a result search engine crawlers often can’t index that content.

That’s a problem for online retailers because 11% of traffic to e-commerce sites comes from natural search, according to a recent survey by e-commerce consultancy The E-tailing Group.

But e-retailers are finding workarounds. New techniques allow pages with Flash and Silverlight to be more easily indexed by search engines. And other applications can offer search engine-friendly alternatives. With a little research and planning, e-retailers are finding ways to have a rich, visually appealing web site, without endangering their natural search rankings.

Search engine translator

U.K.-based women’s apparel retailer Awear, is one such e-retailer. It’s incorporating a new technology from e-commerce platform provider Venda Inc. called Venda Flash Merchandising. The technique takes Flash, which has a .swf , or “ShockWave Flash,” file extension, and converts it into an XML file format, which is easier for search engines to read.

After it converts the file, the program allows a retailer to click on a Flash sequence and add text that search engines are able to read. Retailers can add copy that is visible to both search engines and visitors-such as text describing the product-and they can add text only for search engines, similar to the page titles and descriptions they create for standard web pages. Because the text is in an XML file, it is easier for search engines to index.

Samantha Bain, head of e-commerce for Awear, says the feature enables her to give consumers what they want-lots of rich images-while keeping the site optimized for search. “People want to see pictures,” Bain says. “They like online catalogs and lots of imagery, but those were doing nothing for us in terms of SEO,” Bain says. “Now we can have dense keywords as part of our Flash sequences.”

Awear switched to the Venda Flash merchandising program in late summer from using an outside firm to design its Flash sequences. Bain says it’s too soon to measure improvements in natural search rankings, but she says the system is saving Awear time and money. For example, Awear previously added to the bottom of pages with Flash a significant amount of text so search engines would index the pages. Now, Awear doesn’t have to add such content, she says.

Awear also now can make changes to Flash on the fly. For example, adding a new product to a Flash sequence along with appropriate keywords now takes about an hour as opposed to four to five business days before when the retailer outsourced the work. It’s also about 60% cheaper to do the work in-house, Bain says. Bain says Awear has six Flash sequences on its site now and plans to ramp up to 20 to 25. “We now make changes every few days versus every two weeks previously,” Bain says.

E-retailers can use similar XML workarounds with Microsoft’s Silverlight technology, says Brian Walker, senior analyst, e-commerce, at Forrester Research. Although he adds that fewer consumers’ computers have Silverlight plug-ins than Flash readers. Industry research suggests a 95% consumer adoption rate for the latest version of Flash in North America versus about 25% for Silverlight, Walker says.

Flash versus Silverlight

The technology providers are aware of the issue and trying to help. For instance, Adobe, the supplier of Flash, released code to Yahoo and Google in July 2008 to enable them to index content in .swf Flash files.

“Until now it has been extremely challenging to search the millions of rich Internet applications and dynamic content on the Web, so we are leading the charge in improving search of content that runs in Adobe Flash Player,” David Wadhwani, general manager and vice president of the platform business unit at Adobe said at the time.

However, Andy Houstoun, global head of marketing for Venda, says, while technically a Flash file can be made searchable, few organizations have the specific skills required. What’s more, making a Flash file that is findable requires certain coding when creating the sequence, and making a change in the information the search engines will see requires building the Flash sequence all over again.

The effort that goes into making Flash engine-friendly, and the fear of taking a hit in search results, has led some e-retailers to explore alternatives.

Corey Tisdale, chief operating officer at e-retailer ShoppersChoice.com, which operates about 70 retail sites, says he’s yet to see a Flash-heavy web site rank well for competitive retail-related keywords, and that’s one reason he cut back on Flash several years ago.

“Perhaps we are in a transition period, and we will see Flash-heavy pages ranking well soon,” Tisdale says. “I am still unwilling to use Flash on our site until we start seeing people use it and still show up on the first page.”

Cleaning up with Ajax

For the rotating banners on its home page, ShoppersChoice switched from Flash to Ajax, or asynchronous JavaScript and XML, in 2004. Ajax can perform some of the functions of Flash, such as rotating images.

In terms of search engine optimization, Tisdale says Ajax is better because he can create a text-only HTML web page that search engines can crawl, including if he wishes descriptions of what’s in the Ajax content. Google indexes the text version, while consumers see the page with the Ajax content. That’s not possible with Flash, because search engine spiders can’t crawl text in areas where Flash content resides, Tisdale says. That sometimes leads e-retailers to add unnecessary text around a Flash image for SEO purposes, he adds.

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