You often read advice from industry experts along the lines of "using tags as they were meant to be used" and limiting your use of advanced programming techniques in order to make your site accessible. Why? Well, the standard answer is that it's important for people who access the web with images turned off, have older browsers or use text-to-speech readers.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Whatever.

Now, I do believe in making sites accessible but I never really bought into the reasons why. I don't know anyone who surfs with images off or who uses a text-to-speech reader so that must be a pretty small group, right? Wrong!

Below are a few accessibility issues I've encountered in the past few months.

Laptop Monitors and Contrast

I'm a big proponent of high-contrast color schemes: colors that stand out from each other (i.e., black text on a white background) and are easy to differentiate. The widely accepted reasons to have a high-contrast color scheme include an aging population who can't see like they used to and older, lower-resolution monitors that may still be in use.

However, an even more compelling reason to think about a high-contrast color scheme is the fact that there are more laptops being used than ever before. Most of the ultra-cool flat monitors use technology similar to laptop screens and display fewer colors in lower contrast when compared to a CRT monitor.

"The contrast on LCD screens runs from 150:1 to 450:1 while CRT screens range from 350:1 to 700:1. The color range still is not comparable on LCD screens."

My laptop screen seems pretty clear to me, so I didn't immediately buy into the contrast issue. However, I was working on a newer laptop at a conference doing a site review and happened to glance over at the big projection screen that the audience could see. I was surprised to see a whole line of light blue text on the big screen that was virtually invisible against the white background on the laptop screen. I actually had the site owner come up and take a look at the laptop screen after the session so he could see the difference.

The light blue text was a very convincing testimonial -- something that customers definitely ought to see! Although it was a very sophisticated look for the page, the site owner agreed the color scheme wasn't as important as getting the customer to buy. They would rather be sure people were reading the glowing praise of their product than appreciating the soft colors of the design.

When checking a new color scheme, be sure to look at it on a few laptop monitors. If you are working with pale colors or closely related colors, you may be amazed at the detail that can be lost on even the newest LCD displays. While you may not necessarily be targeting an older audience, most audiences today include laptop users.

Alt Attributes and Using Images as Links

Most site builders today know that alt attributes SHOULD be used to describe an image or offer a short description of the page being linked to if the image is being used as a link. And yet, people still stuff them with keyword phrases or don't use them at all.

But, come on, who really surfs with their images turned off? No one *really* sees those alt attributes, do they?

Yes, they do!

Recently, on a trip out of town, I found myself with no local access numbers for the dial-up service I use while traveling. After trying several different solutions, I bought a prepaid Internet access service that connected me to the Internet at a blazing 26.4 kps. Since every minute was being ticked off my available time, I turned off everything non-essential in the browser, including images and JavaScript.

The world of the Internet was suddenly a very different place. I found myself unable to navigate and totally confused by several sites, even ones I visit regularly. I truly appreciated the sites that used alt attributes properly for their image links, but even more than that, I loved sites that utilize text links for their main navigation. When text links were included in the footer, it allowed me to use sites with JavaScript turned off in my browser.

You may think that people surfing with images and JavaScript off is still pretty rare, but think again. Mobile devices are growing in popularity and have similar issues with the inability to show graphic-intensive pages and utilize third-party plug-ins.

Accessibility Issues Within Your Site

The reality is that many companies don't realize the impact their design decisions have on the usability and basic functionality of their site. You may not be able to convince the marketing department to change that background image that makes your site hard to read, or convince the CEO that the cool flyover menus are preventing some people from accessing your site. Solving accessibility problems can improve the overall experience for all users, so it is worth making the effort.

The first step is to identify the issues that may be causing difficulties for users. When building or checking a site, don't just check it on different browsers. Check it on a slow dial-up connection using a laptop, then turn the images off and see if you can still use the site. If you want a comprehensive analysis of issues with your site, consider having a usability report done. This can help identify many other obstacles in addition to accessibility issues.

At the very least, consider adding a text-friendly version of your site for people who have accessibility issues. (Be sure to exclude the duplicate site from search engine spiders using your robots.txt file.) The number of users (and potential customers) who are not able to navigate your site may be higher than you realize!

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.
April 5, 2005

Scottie Claiborne is the facilitator of the Successful Sites Newsletter. She is a speaker at the Search Engine Strategies conferences and the High Rankings Seminars as well as the administrator of the High Rankings Forum.

Search Engine Guide > Scottie Claiborne > Accessibility Issues Make a Difference