If you're trawling the Web to buy a pair of Nikes, shop for a Volkswagen, or get a glimpse of Walt Disney's Wall-E, chances are you'll end up viewing graphics built with Adobe Systems' Flash software. Good luck finding them with a search engine, though. Turns out Google and other Web-search tools can't easily recognize pages laden with Flash-created images.
At least not yet. Adobe (ADBE) announced steps to solve those problems on July 1, providing Google (GOOG) and Yahoo! (YHOO) with software that will make pages inside Flash-powered sites show up higher in search results and infuse those results with more relevant details. Adobe's moves could persuade more consumers to visit its customers' sites and make Flash software more attractive to Web site developers. Adobe's agreements with the two biggest search engines on the Web is also a competitive slap at Microsoft (MSFT), which makes Web software that competes with Adobe's.
Overcoming a Technical Hurdle
Flash technology, which Adobe acquired when it bought software company Macromedia in 2005 (BusinessWeek.com, 12/27/05), lets Web sites act more like interactive programs, and it underlies content on a whole host of sites grouped under the Web 2.0 heading. Pages designed with Flash can display photos, animation, and ornate text when users click on or hover over a given portion of a site. But the special effects used on sites ranging from Nike (NKE), and Volkswagen (VOWG.DE) to Disney (DIS), The Discovery Channel, and the "Got Milk?" ad campaign can obscure those sites' information from Google's and Yahoo's indexing software, which until now hasn't been able to track Web pages that change based on users' actions. "It just looks like an opaque box" to search engines, says Jeffrey Hammond, a senior analyst at Forrester Research (FORR). "Google and Yahoo are missing out on all that great content."
Flash sites often sell products, contain advertisements, or promote movies and other events. So for the creators, it's important that those sites show up where consumers are clicking. U.S. Internet users lobbed nearly 62% of search queries toward Google in May, and more than 20% at Yahoo, according to market researcher comScore (SCOR). Adobe's moves could also help Web users find widget software on the social network Facebook.
Adobe is providing Google and Yahoo with software code and a special version of its Flash player that can expose once-hidden Flash content. "It's a big technical hurdle that we've been working on for a while," says Adobe Vice-President Michele Turner. Google has used the code to create its own methodology for unearthing Flash files, and Yahoo plans to roll out the Flash search technology in an update to its search engine.
The result will be Flash sites that show up higher in search results, with more extensive descriptions of those sites on Google results pages. "That's how consumers decide what to click on," says Turner. For example, a search for Nike on Google today turns up only the description "apparel, shoes, and accessories" under the link to the company's home page, which makes extensive use of Flash. But a search result further down the list that links to the online retailer Zappos.com, contains a much fuller description. The new technology could also save Web developers time by minimizing the tricks they use to get around the discovery problem on search engines. But it won't affect searches for Flash videos, which use a different technology than graphical Flash content.
One company that won't benefit from Adobe's Flash tune-up is Microsoft, which last year released software called Silverlight that competes with Flash (BusinessWeek.com, 4/16/07) in the market for building interactive Web pages. In one high-profile example, NBC (GE) is using Silverlight to build the Web site that will deliver online coverage of the Beijing Olympics in August.
Making Flash search-friendly gives Adobe a new selling point against Microsoft's .Net software as well as Sun Microsystems' (JAVA) Java language for building interactive Web pages. "It's going to remove one more barrier to more pervasive adoption of Flash," Forrester's Hammond says.