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Using Text Replacement with Flash – Dangerous?

Posted in: Browsers,JavaScript,Search Engine Optimisation by Richard Hearne on August 8, 2007
Internet Marketing Ireland

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 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.


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 {

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.

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  1. Thanks for the info Richard. I’m about to use some flash replacement text on a new website so it’s good to know what to use and what to avoid. It’ll be light use of the SIFR technique so we shuld be fine with Google and Co.

    Comment by Peter Knight — August 8, 2007 @ 3:02 pm

  2. Hi Peter

    I think I have to start writing shorter posts. Only really looked at it now and it’s bloody long. SIFR should be cool. The other technique looks like it’s heading for the SEO dustbin…

    I heard back from mutual friend on that B issue – will drop in on my return. Cant wait TBH.

    Best rgds

    Comment by Richard Hearne — August 8, 2007 @ 3:11 pm

  3. When ‘hiding’ text on a flash site I filled the noembed tag with the exact same content as was held within flash, with some using of heading tags. I then used PHP to generate mod_rewrite urls for all the pages in of the site and it did ok. A waste of money if you ask me though. I don’t know why anyone would want to use flash.

    Comment by Mutiny Design — August 8, 2007 @ 11:14 pm

  4. SWFObject is (most?) often used to insert a Flash movie into the page, not replace the entire HTML page by Flash. And actually, Geoff Stearns, the SWFObject developer, is now working for YouTube/Google, who are using it themselves to embed the videos on the page.

    Comment by Mark Wubben — August 9, 2007 @ 7:10 am

  5. Hi Mark

    In the case I discuss SWFObject is being used to replace textnodes rather than simply to insert a Flash movie. That, I believe, is where the use of SWFObject may cross into very unsteady ground.

    I imagine that Google’s use of the tool doesn’t involve emptying large testnodes within the DOM?

    Best rgds, and thanks for commenting

    Comment by Richard Hearne — August 9, 2007 @ 7:17 am

  6. [...] I posted Using Text Replacement with Flash – Dangerous? at around [...]

    Pingback by Google Index and Cache Diverging? | Search Engine Optimisation & Online Marketing Ireland .:. Red Cardinal — August 9, 2007 @ 8:26 am

  7. SWFObject dangerous? Pffft! Do Google want to be part of the problem or the solution? They’re AWARE of SWFObject so you’d think they’d build provision to detect it and when it’s being abused instead of just making some outside assertion. Google really need to win Flash developers over to the benefits of SEO and responsible use of Flash rather than turning them away from it.

    Comment by Ken — August 11, 2007 @ 7:40 am

  8. Hey Ken

    I think the problem is that as of yet they haven’t been able to read Flash files with any amount of accuracy.

    The point I’m trying to make is that any serious SEO firm (and especially those that are at the high end of the market) should be aware of the official lines on the techniques they use. I think they have a duty of care to their clients to ensure that they do not engage in techniques which could harm rather than help their clients’ sites.

    In this case the SEO firm in question either don’t have a clue or simply don’t care as long as they collect their fee.


    Comment by Richard Hearne — August 12, 2007 @ 8:39 am

  9. The official line is that it could be ‘dangerous’ but I don’t see any real-world examples of sites that have been penalised. If SEO firms start telling developers to remove Flash from their clients sites, even unobtrusive Flash, for fear that something *might* happen – well it will cause some serious conflicts of interest between SEO’s and developers. My point being that if Google know that the SWFObject exists, then the onus is on them to ensure that their bots can detect it, recognise it and know when it’s being abused. I’m not going to allow Google to stop me from using a ubiquitous technology! Even if there is an irrational hatred of it in all corners.

    Comment by Ken — August 12, 2007 @ 9:49 am

  10. Ken

    All I can assume is that they [Google] wouldn’t take issue with it unless it was being misused. As an SEO I see my role as requiring to be up-to-date with any official pronouncements. I don’t think anyone is advising the removal of Flash (or unobtrusive Flash) from their sites. The advice is simply to take care that certain text replacement implementations are open to abuse and might be penalised (BTW the penalty I imagine they would apply would be to ignore the content of the replaced node).

    I agree whole-heartedly that Google should have a better means to detect misuse. Unfortunately it’s very clear that they cannot handle Flash. I don’t make the rules… but I do try to follow them.

    The other thing that I would mention is that the case discussed above also rendered the HTML text invisible by using visibility:hidden;. That to me is the bigger mistake.

    Best rgds (from Thaiand!)

    Comment by Richard Hearne — August 12, 2007 @ 10:55 am

  11. Well it would seem than that the most important thing to do is not to abuse or misuse SWFObject as opposed to avoiding it altogether then? That makes sense to me!

    Hope you’re enjoying Thailand.

    Comment by Ken — August 12, 2007 @ 11:04 am

  12. So, if I have noembed tags with the keywords in them. Would that penalize my flash website? I didn’t have them before and the site wasn’t ranking. It started ranking when I introduced this script

    Comment by Photographer — September 10, 2007 @ 8:03 am

  13. Photographer – I think your playing pretty close to the edge with that. IMO it’s keyword stuffing, and while you might get away with it for eternity, you might also get caught one day and find your site banned.

    Comment by Richard Hearne — September 10, 2007 @ 1:53 pm

  14. Ken and Richard:

    The debate you’re having is exactly what I’ve been going through with my clients, and the creative agencies supplying them. When SWFObject first came to my attention, I was skeptical because of the hidden content angle. But arguments such as Ken’s ultimately won me over – I simply had no concrete leg to stand on, no feedback from Google on the issue.

    Then I attended that SEMNE session, and posed the question to Dan/Google, and he was pretty clear about it. He even addressed one of Ken’s points: he said that Google always tries to analyze the intent of the content itself, and not the technical tricks that may be involved. However, in this case, he said that he could not guarantee that this would be the case with SWFObject. It might end-up being one of those tricks that is penalized across the board.

    So yes, I opened Pandora’s Box with that question, because now I’ve had to go back to clients/agencies I’d signed-off on, and tell them that they can’t use SWFobject.

    Yes, they have been shooting the messenger :/

    Comment by Sherwood — September 13, 2007 @ 6:58 pm

  15. Hi Sherwood

    Thanks for popping by – this certainly caused a lot of contention all over the internet. Lots of people could technically find themselves in hot water if Google goes on a crusade with this.

    Thanks for dropping by, rgds

    Comment by Richard Hearne — September 13, 2007 @ 7:12 pm

  16. [...] mess. This seriously affects not only the design of the site but also the credibility, and also has SEO implications (although having a domain name like as web.com can’t be too much of a bad thing) Stumble [...]

    Pingback by When NOT to use sIFR font emedding — November 20, 2007 @ 9:25 pm

  17. I have used SIFR in small proportions (headers etc) on a few sites and I can say if done correctly and in moderation it is all daisy with the search engines. I think your post will of help a lot of people consider using text replacement, as it can be a bit of a no go area with some developers.

    Comment by SJL Web Design — November 21, 2008 @ 12:10 pm

  18. I’m considering switching to a blog main site. I don’t think google will ever fully be able to read flash websites or give them a bump in terms of ranking.

    Comment by Jed Eltom — April 6, 2011 @ 12:21 am

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