Google "Universal" has placed increased emphasis on image results. Prior to Google Universal, users viewed search results one vertical at a time. Now days, users have options and access to search results from across key Google verticals all within their main search engine results pages. The Google internal video below illustrates in real-time how one eye-tracking study participant migrates between verticals within universal SERPs.

This migration between vertical search results may explain Google's introduction of Image Ads. In addition to ads, Google Images offers more options than ever before. Users can search for images by size or in a variety of content types including news, faces, clip art, line drawings and photo content categories. While a lot has changed when it comes to image optimization, users still enter text queries for Google to translate into image results. For that reason, linguistics is still critical when it comes to image optimization. Images are indexed in ways similar to text but have their own flavor of PageRank.

Before diving into the finer points of advanced image optimization, let's see if the basics are still valid. In terms of basic image optimization best practices, the rule of thumb is to provide as much descriptive information about images as is possible, but without "keyword stuffing" which could cause your site to be perceived as spam. Focus on including images with relevant textual context. Be sure to provide hypertextual clues about the subject matter of pages where images appear. With images like everything else the key concept is relevancy when it comes to search. Again, image results are based on textual queries.

Basic Image Optimization Best Practices:

- Informative filenames provide important signals about images and/or their subject matter. For that reason it's best to incorporate descriptive wording into image file names. (IE beach-dog.jpg instead of 1.jpg) (Hint - In some cases, image filenames may be used as the snippet in SERPs.)

- ALT attributes provide users and engines alike, with textual information about image subject matter. Engines rely heavily on the structure present in hypertext, especially where images are concerned. It's best to always incorporate short but descriptive ALT attributes when using images. ALT attributes assist engines in determining the most relevant result for image specific keyword queies.

Basic Image Optimization Case Study Experiment:

To determine whether or not images ranking for the query used in Google's eye tracking study above, follow basic image optimization best practices.

To examine the hypertext structure related to images appearing in Google Universal search results for the query [how to tie a tie] and record observations related to basic image optimization.

Image A -
ALT = "How to tie a necktie video"

Image B -
ALT =""

Image C -
ALT = "Tying the Tie"

Two of three images in this case study have descriptive file names in conjunction with descriptive ALT attributes. In addition to file names and ALT attributes, there seem to be other key factors to consider when optimizing images. As Google states, "other factors" do seem to come into play based on the results of this case study.

Advanced Image Optimization:

It's important to note that Google uses crawl caching proxy techniques to make images available in other services and that Google doesn't index images directly. As a result, there is no need to include images in your XML Sitemap. Either way, quality images start with quality pages. Quality pages contain few errors and load quickly. In order to decrease load time for pages, focus on template images that appear in every page (navigational images, logos and/or other). When possible, consider converting static GIFs into PNGs. When using GIFs, be certain palette sizes are correct based on the number of colors in the image. For JPEGs use a lossless tool to like Photoshop to remove unnecessary information from your file unless it's important for users and/or search (see Exif below). Always define image sizes via (X)HTML by size and not scale and be sure to include a favicon for branding, bookmarking and to avoid 404s. These steps will help decrease load time and increase page quality.

Once quality has been addressed from a technical perspective, it's important to be sure URL paths aren't blocked by JavaScript, Flash, Robots.txt and/or other obstacles. Images, like text can be scraped and republished multiple times. To assist engines in identifying your images as "source images", provide as much information as possible via hypertext, metadata and link structure in your pages. When using Flash, always provide alternative images with static URLs in GIF, JPEG and/or PNG format otherwise Google won't display images from Flash in SERPs. As a webmaster, you may have little control over external anchor text but you can control internal anchor text within your site. Be certain internal anchor text for images is descriptive and relevant. For some images (ie product image in category page, video, other) you may want to use thumbnails with unique ALT attributes and create detail level (product, video, other) pages. Provide quality images in a variety of sizes and formats including JPEG when possible and allow others to use your images.

Place high quality images high up and above the fold if possible. When necessary create unique static detail pages linked via thumbnail. Don't prevent other sites from using your images even if it means loosing bandwidth. Posting and tagging sample images at other sites can help get more eyes on your images, but be sure to include links to your site as the objective isn't to donate content to social media sites.

"Google analyzes the text on the page adjacent to the image, the image caption and dozens of other factors to determine the image content. Google also uses sophisticated algorithms to remove duplicates and ensure that the highest quality images are presented first in your results."


Always provide textual content in close proximity to images. Obviously, at this point it's worth pointing out again that image accessibility is of paramount importance. In addition, TITLE elements, captions and image titles in your pages can provide important clues for search engines. When it comes to search, more data is better data so consider taking the extra time to include as much as possible while avoiding techniques that could be detected as an attempt to spam search engines. Be sure to place your images near or above relevant text in pages and always include descriptive captions. Don't embed textual content within vector graphic formats other than .pdf as engines can't extract text from other image formats. Fresh images accessible in various sizes are a good idea but be sure to define image length and width information via hypertext as well as for users. Enable Google Image Labeler via "Enhanced Image Search" in Google webmaster tools. While PNG is more optimal than GIF in terms of load speed, certain circumstance may require image metadata contained in JPEG. Consider a file structure for images that denotes individual directories for thumbnails, art, drawings, photos and/or other. Be sure not to mix Adult images with images for general audiences.

The Future of Image Optimization:

In terms of the future of image optimization, all signs seem to point to Exif. The Exif file format for image metadata is one specification used by digital cameras and was developed nearly 10 years ago. Exif metadata includes information such as the date and time an image were captured. When set properly, modern digital cameras record the date and time images were captured and this information is recorded in image Exif metadata associated with image files. In addition to date and time, digital cameras record image metadata pertaining to the camera's manufacturer, model, orientation, aperture setting, shutter speed, focal length of image, meter mode, ISO speed information, a preview thumbnail and copyright information.

So, what does any of the information in Exif have to do with SEO for images you ask? Well, Exif can also be used to record information about where images were taken and whether or not they've been "photoshopped" for example. For images or universal queries related to news or specific geographic areas, Exif could easily be used as a quality signal. I asked Matt Cutts about Google's use of Exif last year and his reply was "I'm not sure, personally. I could imagine that any stuff embedded in an image file might be used, though." Currently both Panoramio and Picasa use Exif and I'd expect to see this trend rise as new GPS enabled devices enter the market.

For more great information, check out Peter Linsley's latest post on the Google Webmaster Central Blog...

There have been a number of recent posts focused on link building and finding quality inbound links. In addition to those better known sites offering non-nofollowed link love, here are some other examples you may not have noticed.

  • Blogger - The new "Blogs I Follow" feature doesn't seem to nofollow outbound links.
  • Google Notebook - Google's notebook is still nofollow free from direct inbound links...
  • Google Panoramio (photos in Google Maps/Earth) - is a good place for links but you'll need a little content.
  • Google Profiles - one place to find all your social network and blog links.
  • Google Knol - In case you missed it, once you've achieved "trusted" author status, the juice follows!
  • Facebook - That's right, it seems as though some search savvy marketers have been using Facebook's "closed" social network for open link love. The example above changes frequently but you'll see what I mean in short order...
  • Twitter - Have you noticed Twitter's mobile pages in SERPs recently? They seem to be passing PageRank...
  • Pownce - Despite extinction, Pownce appears to be the gift that keeps giving in 2009!
  • MyBlogLog - A personal favorite that gives a little link love to users.

HAPPY NEW YEAR to you all and remember to link safely in 2009!

2009 SEMMY Nominee

In case you missed their recent announcement about Flash, Google and Adobe have teamed up on a new algorithm to index text content in Flash. As a result of the new algorithm for Flash, Googlebot now indexes "textual content in SWF files of all kinds" and extracts URLs embeded in Flash." On July 1, 2008, Google rolled out another update designed to assist Googlebot in its ability to traverse simple JavaScript, like SWFObject. While the full impact is not yet known, these technologies will redefine how Flash sites are created, constructed, designed and, as a result, optimized.

Before discussing the results of my case studies and how to optimize an actual scenario Flash site, it's important to understand some crucial background information.

Prior to the introduction of Google's Flash algorithm, Googlebot crawled only (X)HTML architectures without executing JavaScript to access text content and/or URLs in Flash. These new capabilities raise a number of questions about how Google handles, crawls and indexes content in Flash. Does Google index all text content in Flash? Does Google associate text content in Flash with the correct parent URL? Does Googlebot crawl links containing "pound signs" in URLs? Can Flash files have PageRank? How does Google treat underlying interlinked (X)HTML structures of corresponding text content pages? What about "Progressive Enhancement" techniques? To answer these and other questions, I've been testing the effectiveness of "Google's Flash algorithm" since its inception to find out what it means for current design practices.

Googlebot Flash Update Case Studies

Before looking at how to optimize an actual scenario site, it's important to establish the new "laws of the land," so to speak. For that reason, I've conducted a number of experiments with various sites but have included only a few case studies below. These case studies lay a foundation in terms of understanding how Googlebot now interacts with Flash since Google's new algorithm for Flash was introduced. For demonstration purposes, I've used Google's example from Google Webmaster Central Blog.

Google Flash Update Case Study #1:

Google Flash Content Association with Parent URLs

Experiment: To determine if Google associates text content embedded in Flash inside an (X)HTML page with the correct "parent" URL as a single entity.

Hypothesis: Google currently still does not associate text content in Flash with the correct parent URL or as a single entity.

Background: According to Google's Official Webmaster Blog, "If the Flash file is embedded in HTML (as many of the Flash files we find are), its content is associated with the parent URL and indexed as single entity." To support their claim, Google posted the following image: Google Flash SERP

Procedure: To test their claim, I used Google's example query [nasa deep impact animation].

Google Flash Result

Since the introduction of support for SWFObject in July, Google hasn't associated text content in Flash with the correct parent URL or as a single entity. More often than not, either the Flash URL or both the Flash and parent URL are indexed.

*For test validity, I've monitored Google SERPs (search engine results pages) for the above query daily over a period of 60 days. I've also monitored Google's SERPs for the following queries over the same period of time: [deep impact amy walsh] and [deep impact impact with comet Tempel 1].

Google Flash Update Case Study #2:

Google Flash File PageRank

Experiment: To determine if Flash files can accrue PageRank.

Hypothesis: Flash files can accrue PageRank.

Background: In a recent interview with Eric Enge, Maile Ohye mentioned that links in Flash function as a regular links and, therefore, can pass PageRank. If links in Flash can pass PageRank, it seems they could also accrue PageRank.

Procedure: Again using Google's example, I visited both the parent and child URLs and recorded their "Toolbar" PageRank.

Google Flash SERP PageRank

The (X)HTML parent URL page has a "Toolbar PageRank" of 7 while the Flash file URL (.swf) page has a "Toolbar PageRank" of 6.

Flash files can accrue PageRank independent of their own parent URLs.

*Note: The illustration in this case study shows both the parent and child URLs indexed as unique individual entities in Google's SERPs (search engine results pages). This further supports the findings in Case Study #1.

Google Flash Update Case Study #3:

Googlebot #anchor (fragment identifier) URL Extraction

Experiment: To determine how Googlebot handles URLs containing #anchors (fragment identifiers).

Hypothesis: Googlebot ignores #anchors (fragment identifiers) in URLs and, as a result, extracts only URLs preceding #anchors (fragment identifiers) in Flash embedded links.

Background: According to Google's own JohnMu, "When we find URLs with an anchor attached like that ( we generally ignore the anchor part, since it is not relevant when fetching the contents of a URL." While this is a convention commonly used for playhead control in Flash sites, it refers to the same page as defined by W3C.

Procedure: To test the experiment, I used Google's "inurl:" operator to search for instances where Google had indexed a URL containing a pound sign. The queries I used are [inurl:#] and [inurl:& # 35;].

Result: No results found.

Google doesn't index URLs containing #anchors (fragment identifiers) in Flash per W3C Guidelines.

Google Flash Update Case Study #4:

Google Flash Text Translation

Experiment: To determine if Google can translate text content in Flash.

Hypothesis: Google can not translate text content in Flash.

Background: "Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." To some, "universal accessibility" would imply translation.

Procedure: To test the experiment, I used Google's translation tool to translate the case study example into French, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic and Russian.

Result: No results found.

Currently, Google doesn't seem to support translations of text content in Flash.

Googlebot Flash Interaction Scenario

Avenues for optimizing Flash differ, but the final destination remains the same in terms of organic search engine optimization. The scenario below reveals the basics of how Flash sites are typically optimized. In addition to the description, I included images to help further illustrate the dynamics involved.


"SEO for Flash" is simple in theory; embed an entire "site" within a Flash file and layer that Flash file over an interlinked (X)HTML structure of corresponding content pages via JavaScript. Thanks to the JavaScript (SWFObject), users with Flash enabled see Flash, while users without Flash enabled (previously Googlebot) receive the underlying interlinked (X)HTML version of content pages. In order to control the Flash presentation for users with Flash, URLs with #anchors are embedded to create the illusion of "seamless transitions" between "virtual pages" within the Flash file.

(A second iteration of this same technique draws text content seen both in the Flash presentation as well as the underlying (X)HTML from the server. However, Google does not attach external content resources loaded in Flash files. "If your Flash file loads an HTML file, an XML file, another SWF file, etc., Google will separately index that resource, but it will not yet be considered a part of the content in your Flash file.")

While the scenario above seems fairly simple, understanding how each element is "digested" by Googlebot is a bit more complex. Here are a few issues to be aware of when optimizing Flash sites in light of the new Flash algorithm.

"Progressive Enhancement"

As illustrated by Case Study #1, Googlebot traverses simple JavaScript, like SWFObject and, as a result, it completely circumnavigates text content provided via "Progressive Enhancement" in most cases.

Flash in SERPs

As Case Study #1 and #2 illustrate, Google may not associate text content in Flash with the appropriate parent URL and/or as a single entity. This makes it possible for users without Flash-enabled browsers and/or devices (iPhone) to access Flash files directly from Google's SERPs. This issue can result in a bad user experience.


As illustrated by Case Study #3, Googlebot ignores pound signs (#anchors / fragment identifiers) in URLs. As a result, Googlebot interprets URLs containing pound signs as different URLs with different content than intended. (After pointing this issue out to the creators of SWFAddress, Asual added the "Copy link to clipboard" option to footer of pages in their SEO example.) This issue is further complicated by the introduction of Google's new algorithm for Flash, the support for simple JavaScript and the possibility of Flash files being indexed in Google search engine results pages.

If a user posts a link to, Googlebot will only see and index the content at

PageRank / Keyword Thinning

As illustrated by Case Study #2, Flash files can now accrue PageRank independent of their own parent URLs. As a result of this issue, PageRank thinning is likely to occur, because PageRank is divided between the parent URLs and actual URL. The percentage of thinning is likely to increase in proportion to the quantity of underlying (X)HTML pages containing "the flash file."

Similar to PageRank, keyword relevancy may not be allocated to the intended URL. When keyword relevancy that is intended for one URL is instead allocated to another URL, thinning occurs.


As Case Study #4 illustrates, Google doesn't seem to translate text content in Flash files, especially when text is supplied by a server or some other third party source.

Google SEO for Flash

Before talking about SEO for Flash, it's important to define what that really means. Ask a Flash guy what SEO for Flash means and he might say something like "indexed content" or "indexation." Ask an SEO guy what SEO for Flash means and he might say something like "ranking top 10 or text content in Flash." As you can see, there are two different definitions and, therefore, two totally different expectations at work here. To an SEO, indexed content is the starting point where SEO for Flash begins. Simply "being indexed" is better defined as "Search Engine Friendly" (SEF). The introduction of Google's Flash algorithm means most Flash sites are, by default, search engine friendly assuming text content resides within the Flash files and isn't in a vector format.

Organic search engine optimization (SEO), unlike search engine friendliness (SEF), depends heavily on "meta data," not just "meta tags." Lots of information can be gleaned from (X)HTML by search engines via, TITLE elements, ALT attributes, images, headers (H1, H2, H3, H4...), internal link structure, fonts, link popularity, relationships, site categories, subdivisions and sections. Engines rely on these elements for meta data as well as other informational "signals" used for rankings. "More data is good data" but only when that data is available in a digital format that's digestible by search engines and can be translated to determine relevancy for textual queries. As Vanessa Fox recently pointed out, the lack of structural meta data in Flash is a real disadvantage.

With Google's introduction of "Universal search" in May 2007, Flash sites were dealt a new obstacle. Universal blends results from verticals like news, images and YouTube, in Google's search results. The advent of "Universal search" is somewhat problematic for Flash sites, because Googlebot can't extract images and/or video embedded in Flash for inclusion in Google's "Universal" search results. To illustrate, currently doesn't rank top ten in Google Images for [Adobe] or [Adobe logo].

Google Flash SEO Tips for 2009

Since "optimizing Flash" is difficult, it's better to understand the fundamental limitations of the medium in terms of search, and to then concentrate on optimizing site design and architecture.

  • When it comes to text, “Don’t use it for something when there’s already a standard whose output can be easily parsed, easily processed, and whose openness makes its processing easier for browsers and searchbots.” - "Bergy," Google Webmaster Central
  • Avoid text content and links in Flash
  • Don't use text content in Flash supplied via third party file
  • If you must use text content in Flash, use sIFR
  • If you must use text content in Flash and sIFR isn't an option, create individual Flash files laid over each corresponding (X)HTML page via SWFObject
  • "Instead of including everything in one flash file it may make sense to break the content into different flash files so you can create different HTML pages around the different ideas contained in it." - Aaron Wall,
  • When using SWFObject, consider using absolute URLs in underlying (X)HTML and Flash files
  • When using SWFObject, be sure to include "alternative" images for users without Flash
  • Avoid using text content in Flash for pages employing "seamless transitions" where URLs don't change, or, instead, include "pound signs"
  • Provide links to important pages within Flash files using absolute URLs for users who arrive at the Flash file via Google search engine results pages
  • Consider how translation issues may impact content in Flash and investigate ways of working around these issues


The latest Google Webmaster Central Blog post includes lots of great information for webmasters as well as a new video which address some issues related to Flash but, not my findings. So, I've asked for details via Google Groups.

I'll be talking more about these and other issues related to SEO for Flash at SES Chicago.