Web Accessibility

Making user-friendly pages pays off in more than one way

© Diane M. Aull

By some estimates, nearly 20 percent of all Web users have some form of disability. That alone should be reason enough to make sure your web pages are accessible.

But did you know that search engine spiders are possible among the most "disabled" visitors your site may get? It’s true! Search engine spiders have no eyes, no ears, and no hands. They can’t see your pretty pictures, hear that cool audio or click on your submit buttons.

In addition, human visitors using mobile and handheld devices such as cellphones and PDAs to access your site may often view your pages without all the pretty graphics and layout. You may be surprised (and dismayed!) at how your site appears on these small screens.

It’s not hard to make your site accessible — and it’s good business practice (as well as common courtesy).

Often times when people talk about making their site accessible, they focus on visual disabilities. But accessibility is not just about making your site friendly to the blind. Accessibility issues can range from color blindness to physical impairments to a whole range of disabilities — not to mention those pesky search engine spiders and small screen devices.

Here are a few simple steps you can make to enhance your site’s accessibility.

Use alt attributes

Whenever you include an image on one of your pages, you should also include an alt attribute. The alt attribute is a text alternative to the image that’s useful for both humans using non-graphical browers and for search engine spiders.

If you use images for your site menu, for instance, alt attributes can take the place of link anchor text (the text that would normally be blue and underlined in a standard link). Link anchor text is important to tell your human visitors about the pages on your site, and it’s also important for search engine optimization.

Correctly using alt attributes for your images makes your pages more accessible to human visitors and allows you to include more useful text for the search engines.

So what if you have an image that doesn’t really impart any information (such as a clear "spacer GIF" or a purely decorative graphic)? For those, use an empty alt attribute, like this: alt="". This will prevent reader-browsers from trying to read the filename of the graphic.

Be aware of the effect of tables and divs

No matter whether you use tables or CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) or a combination thereof for your page layout, you should be aware of how your pages will be presented to visitors not using standard browsers.

Tables are "linearized" — that is, they are read from right to left, top to bottom. If you’ve divided up content among various table cells and rows in order to get your visual layout the way you want, you should consider whether the text makes sense when it’s been linearized.

Basically, whether you use CSS or tables, your text will be read in the order it appears in the underlying code. You should ensure your content makes sense when displayed without tables or divs.

Provide alternative content for audio and video

To insure that visitors who can’t hear audio or can’t see video can still access the content you make available through media files, you need to provide alternative content. Keep in mind, search engine spiders can neither see nor hear, so this alternative content is also good for search engine optimization.

There are a variety of methods you can use to ensure your multimedia content is accessible, depending on the type of content and how it’s embedded in or linked to your web page. My friend Jonathan Hochman has written a helpful article about how to ensure Flash is search-friendly and accessible.

Test your pages’ accessibility

You can use a free online service such as Watchfire’s WebXACT (formerly known as "Bobby") or Cynthia Says to test your page’s accessibility.

You can also view your site using Lynx. Lynx is a text-based browser that will let you view your site the way someone who browses without graphics will. Many people believe what Lynx "sees" is very close to the way a search engine spider might view your page.

If you don’t want to download and install Lynx, you can use the free Delorie online Lynx viewer to view your pages as they would appear in Lynx. If you use the FireFox browser (highly recommended!) you can install the Yellowpipe Lynx Viewer extension. This allows you to view any page as it would appear in Lynx with a right-click of your mouse.

Accessible sites make sense

The tactics mentioned here are just a few of the many techniques you can use to enhance the accessibility of your web site. You can find out more by visiting the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) site.

Major companies such as Target have faced lawsuits because their web sites were not accessible. While it’s unlikely to happen to you, why take a chance, when with just a little thought and a bit of care, you can make your site more accessible? It’s good for handicapped visitors, it’s good for people using mobile and handheld devices, it’s good for the search engines and it’s good for you.


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Copyright © Diane M. Aull, an online consultant for small and mid-sized businesses. For more information about her services, visit NineYards.com or BootstrapSEO. For resources and tools for home based workers, visit Torka's Home for Wayward Girls.

For any other intended use, you must contact me in advance. If you do use this article on your website, I'd love to know about it; please send me the URL!

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