Visibility is Key for your business. Search engine visibility brings more visitors and more revenue.

Marriage of SEO & Accessibility Prevents Lawsuits, Increases Visibility

The WorldWide Web Consortium (W3C), in May 0f 1999, issued Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which outlined methods of making web content easily accessible to the visually and physically impaired. In those guidelines the W3C stated plainly,

“Provide content that, when presented to the user, conveys essentially the same function or purpose as auditory or visual content.”

Well, one purpose is to communicate your site content to blind search engine spiders, which can’t hear auditory content either. If only we would pay attention to the W3C, the web would be fully accessible to all and completely search engine friendly. Hindsight and attention to historical web developments might serve to make us aware that SEO and accessibility are interwoven. Yes, SEO, as we’ll discuss a bit more below. But first, let’s look a bit closer at the W3C guidelines on accessibility.

Those guidelines recommend that web developers

“Use features that enable activation of page elements via a variety of input devices.”

The idea is to allow those using assistive devices, or those with javascript disabled to navigate a web page easily and without the need of a mouse, using alternate methods to move through and activate links on the page. When using text only readers, web-enabled cell phones and other small screen devices it’s not always possible to easily access and activate web page content.

There have been a few high-profile cases which should have served as wake-up calls for accessibility to online business.

“In 1999, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) sued America Online, claiming it discriminated against the blind because its system is not accessible to them. The federation later dropped the lawsuit when AOL agreed to make its software compatible with devices designed for visually impaired users.”

The above quote appeared in a 2002 CNet News story by Declan McCullough about another lawsuit against Southwest Airlines was filed and U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies only to physical spaces, such as restaurants and movie theaters, and not to the Internet.”

That CNet story was written after a law suit was filed against Southwest Airlines because the web site was not accessible to visually challenged web surfers using “screen reader” technology to browse the web. The story was titled “Disabilities Act Doesn’t Cover Web”

OK, now lets jump forward another year to 2003, when attention was focused on Search Engine Optimization when Brandon Olejniczak wrote an article for Alistapart (ALA) titled “Using XHTML/CSS for an Effective SEO Campaign” and discussed the value of coding to current web standards to lighten page code and remove excessive javascript from web pages, thus improving search engine friendliness of web sites.

There was still little attention paid to the connection between the two seemingly unrelated issues of accessiblity and SEO until Andy Hagans followed up with an article for ALA titled “High Accessibility Is Effective Search Engine Optimization” in 2005 which pointed out that paying attention to accessibility increases search engine rankings. He said,

“I have been a search engine optimizer for several years, but only recently have become infatuated with web accessibility. After reading for weeks and painstakingly editing my personal website to comply with most W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, I have come to a startling revelation: high accessibility overlaps heavily with effective white hat SEO.”

Wait, an SEO “infatuated with accessibility” – they like each other and are now flirting! What a great couple they’d make! SEO’s could approach their clients with the dual promise of improved search rankings AND keeping them out of court on accessibility issues. If a company loves that sexy search and cares little about accessibility, won’t the idea of having search as a good friend make them at least accept the dull boyfriend, accessibility?

So in July of 2006, Google jumps into the web accessibility fray with “Google Accessible Search” which purports to rank web sites based on how accessible they are to visually impaired visitors. This is a very interesting development as it suggests that sites which are NOT “accessible” rank differently in this special Google Labs version of the search engine than they do in the normal search. If this were true, then Andy Hagans may be off-base in his assumption that accessibility and SEO go hand in hand. (Apparently Google participated in some accessibility studies with two university intern researchers right around this time.)

One noticable difference in “Google Accessible Search” results is that multiple pages from the same site show up in those search results, where in regular Google searches, only two pages from the same site are allowed to appear in results. Still there is little discussion among SEO’s how accessibility and search might be, if not lovers, then at least VERY close and getting serious.

Now we’ll jump back into the halls of justice with two new lawsuits in late 2006. One in which the National Federation for the Blind (NFB) sues Target on behalf of a blind shopper over web site accessibility, and another where blind Texas state workers sue because the Texas Workforce Commission bought human resources software that is not accessible to blind workers.

Now – in December of last year – hop over to MediaPost, where Rob Garner is ruminating in “Search Insider” about “SEO 2.0 And The Pageless Web: The RIA Search Conundrum” (RIA meaning “Rich Internet Applications”) and referencing asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) and difficulties gaining search visibility using (javascript links) techniques which don’t require re-loading of a page to add new content.

Hmmmm. Remember my reference in the first sentence? WorldWide Web Consortium (W3C), in May 0f 1999, issued Web Content Accessibility Guidelines in which they recommend –

“Use features that enable activation of page elements via a variety of input devices.”

AJAX, once again, requires use of a mouse, active javascript and visual cues not available to visually challenged visitors. Why do developers keep going there? I know, I know, because those sexy new tools are irresistible – but remember, SEO and accessibility are VERY good friends and miss SEO dislikes web tricks that insult or ignore the boyfriend, accessibility.

Now let’s hop forward to March of this year, where Rob Garner comments on the Texas lawsuit and that accessibility and search are often seen together. Now Garner is on the case (or maybe two separate cases), when he says,

“If nothing is being done for accessibility or searc
h, mobilize your developers, designers, search specialists, and accessibility specialists to assess and determine the best solution.This will likely involve the creation of an entire second site for search engines and screen-readers. If rich applications are a part of your future, get used to the idea of maintaining two sites.”

Here we go again! Let’s NOT have two separate sites – CSS and XHTML can accomplish the same things as AJAX and Flash (well at least similar things), remember SEO and accessibility REALLY like each other – don’t separate them, bring them together.

Hold the presses, I have a great idea! Now that SEO and Accessibility have met, flirted and they clearly like each other, I propose that we get them married so that these issues stay forever together. I know it’s not the norm for third parties to make marriage proposals (except in shotgun weddings), if the two are wed, won’t that be enough to convince the web engineering teams AND corporate counsel that helping visually impaired web visitors (and avoiding lawsuits from NFB) WHILE ranking well in the search engines are very good business?

Pre-nuptials could be complex and it may be tough to get everyone to wrap their head around the concept of SEO married to accessibility, but it ultimately means increased web site visitors due to higher search rankings and less money lost fighting lawsuits over accessibility issues. More money, more visitors, less time in court – sounds like a marriage made in heaven.

Remember, search engine spiders are blind and can’t hear. Design your pages for them and it resolves accessibility issues. SEO and accessibility are true soul-mates and should never be separated. The W3C neglected to introduce SEO to accessibility in 1999, but they did see the accessibility issues. Now that we realize search engine spiders demand accessibility and are responsible for increased search engine visibility (pun intended, sorry) let’s not separate the two again. Profitability is related to accessibility, which is now married to SEO.

Mike Valentine is an SEO Specialist offering occassional commentary on Search Engine Developments through his Reality SEO Blog and developed WebSite101 Small Business Ecommerce Tutorial in 1999 to help educate the little guy to the intricacies of online business.

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