When UK-based search marketers, site owners and webmasters attended Bruce Clay's SEO Training class in London, one of the aspects most stressed by Bruce was the importance of removing all the indexing barriers that may exist on your site. In order to achieve your search engine optimisation goals, your site must be accessible so that the engines are able to spider your site in its entirety. Just as important, however, is making sure it's accessible to users.

The Web has become a whole lot prettier than it used to be. Brits who were heading online in the early nineties were met with sites composed primarily of dark text on a light background, unless the site owner was particularly savvy. If the site owner was savvy there would also be a small, barely distinguishable picture to go along with it. The Web sites of the early nineties weren't pretty, but the HTML-structured format was fairly accessible for those surfing with the aid of screen readers or other specialized browsers.

Today we live in a Web 2.0 world. The Internet has been overtaken by pastels, Web sites are designed using advanced Ajax techniques, navigation is never consistent, and drop down menus are making it harder to navigate a Web site without the use of a mouse. The Internet may be a lot more appealing visually, but it is harder to navigate, especially for Internet users classified as disabled.

It's difficult to come by an accurate estimation of just how many disabled Internet users are living in the United Kingdom, but we do know that disabled Web users include the millions of people around the world who are legally blind, deaf, colourblind, epileptic, dyslexic or who suffer from any other kind of disability that makes browsing Web pages more difficult than it is for the average surfer.

As a site owner, it's your responsibility to make sure you are creating sites that are accessible to all Web users, regardless of their special needs. And in today's society, it's not just a question of ethics, it's the law.

The UK first started seeing Web accessibility laws emerge when the Disability Discrimination Act was passed 1995. The purpose of the law was to ensure that webmasters were designing Web sites that didn't discriminate against users with disabilities.

The law states:

"Where a provider of services has a practice, policy or procedure which makes it impossible or unreasonably difficult for disabled persons to make use of a service which he provides, or is prepared to provide, to other members of the public, it is his duty to take such steps as it is reasonable, in all the circumstances of the case, for him to have to take in order to change that practice, policy or procedure so that it no longer has that effect."

Though good intentioned, the law was not universally successful because it failed to specifically mention the terms "Internet" or "Web site" when referring to accessibility. Instead, it used the more ambiguous phrase "access to and use of information services".

This ambiguity was removed in 2002 when the Code of Practice was released and specifically listed "accessible Web sites" when describing the type of services businesses were required to make available to people with hearing or visual disabilities. The point has been driven home even further thanks to 2006's Convention on the rights of Persons with Disabilities that said "businesses shall take appropriate measures to promote access for persons with disabilities to new information and communications technologies and systems, including the Internet." The law also calls for mass media to also make their services available to users with disabilities.

Or, in layman's terms: Everyone must have access to the same Internet.

The good news is that complying with the UK's disability laws isn't difficult, though it will take some special attention on your part.

For example, when designing a site for the vision impaired you must keep in mind that software programs like Jaws or Window-Eyes actually read your page to the visitor. This means that when a page is loaded, the program will convert what it "sees" on the page and read it out loud to the user. The user can then navigate through the page using keyboard commands. Of course, in order for this to work, you must provide content for the program to read. If you have images on your pages, you need to have content accurately describing what the images are showing. This content is called the ALT attribute and it is placed within the HTML tag that calls the image.

The best way to comply with the UK's Web disability laws is to follow the W3C accessibility guidelines. These guidelines outline best practices to help site owners design sites that address accessibility concerns. They're broken down into a three-tiered, prioritized checklist designed to illustrate which changes will have the most impact on site accessibility. The three-tiered system is broken down as follows:

  • Priority 1: This checkpoint must be satisfied, as it is a basic requirement for some groups to be able to use Web documents. This includes changes like making sure text is readable without style sheets, identifying changes in natural language, ensuring text is easily readable on screen, that captions are synchronized with Flash elements, etc.
  • Priority 2: This priority should be satisfied because without it one or more groups may find it difficult to assess the information on your site. This checkpoint includes making sure there is significant contrast between text and background color, correctly marking up lists and quotations, providing Alt text, etc.
  • Priority 3: Web designers may address this checkpoint to improve access to Web documents for one or more visitor groups. This includes things like supplementing text with graphic or auditory presentations, providing keyboard shortcuts to important links.

If you're not sure if your established Web site is compliant with UK disability laws, we recommend going through your site with a text browser like Lynx or another specialized browser such as a voice browser to make sure the information is still readable using these devices. Ask yourself: Can you easily navigate through it without the advanced features? If yes, then your site is probably screen reader friendly. If not, then you have some work to do.

The W3C has created a comprehensive checklist that you can use to evaluate the user-friendliness of your site.

  1. Turn off images, and check whether appropriate alternative text for the images is available.
  2. Turn off the sound, and check whether audio content is still available through text equivalents.
  3. Use browser controls to vary font-size: verify that the font size changes on the screen accordingly; and that the page is still usable at larger font sizes. (You can check this on Internet Explorer by navigating to ‘View > Text size > Largest'.)
  4. Test with different screen resolution, and/or by resizing the application window to less than maximum, to verify that horizontal scrolling is not required (caution: test with different browsers, or examine code for absolute sizing, to ensure that it is a content problem not a browser problem).
  5. Change the display color to gray scale (or print out page in gray scale or black and white) and observe whether the color contrast is adequate.
  6. Without using the mouse, use the keyboard to navigate through the links and form controls on a page (for example, using the "Tab" key), making sure that you can access all links and form controls, and that the links clearly indicate what they lead to. Rest assured that an accessible site doesn't have to equal a boring site; you just have to be vigilant about providing an alternative way for users to access your information.

The Bruce Clay Europe site is a perfect example of this. The top navigation is in Flash, but all the menu items in that navigation are repeated at the bottom of the page with text links. Flash is also used on Bruce Clay Europe's site map, but again, there are text links on the same page to ensure that those without the visual acuity to see Flash can still maneuver the site. This also ensures that that the search engine spiders can easily spider the page as well.

Putting it into perspective, fixing a Web site so that it is accessible to disabled searchers is considerably easier and less expensive than adding physical improvements to a physical building, so why wouldn't you want to do it. By making your site more accessible you avoid alienating millions of potential customers and you are double rewarded by creating a site that is more user-friendly for non-disabled users as well.

As the Web becomes more advanced and more complex, accessibility becomes much more than just providing access to disabled searchers. It's about providing access to users who will be viewing your Web site through all sorts of different technology.

The combined effect of the Web 2.0 craze and the broadband revolution has site owners creating more advanced, more complicated Web sites than ever before. As webmasters get savvier, the risk of creating sites with obstacles too difficult for some users to navigate increases exponentially. There is nothing wrong with designing flashy Web 2.0 sites, but UK laws state that as a site owner it is your obligation to reasonable steps to make sure that your site is accessible to disabled users.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

August 17, 2007

Lisa Barone is an SEO copywriter at Bruce Clay, Inc.

Search Engine Guide > Lisa Barone > Search Engine Optimisation-friendly Design in a Web 2.0 World