Accessibility and Optimization: Focusing on Content

Accessibility is becoming a hot topic these days with the recent adoption of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and increasingly improved technologies that convert text to voice. Soon everyone — not just visually impaired users — will be able to hear Web content. Although these new rules currently apply to U.S. government Web sites only, a recent Wired news article, “Fed Opens Web to Disabled,” speculates that these guidelines “will soon be extended to include all private commercial sites.”

Interesting, you say, but what does this have to do with optimization? Well… a lot. Revising a site so that it will meet the new accessibility guidelines actually goes a long way to naturally optimizing it. Search engine optimization (SEO) and accessibility are mutually supportive activities when utilizing a traditional, on-the-page, content-driven approach.

That said, let’s look at these activities a bit more closely.

More Than Just ALT Tags

Ensuring that visually meaningful content has an alternative way of being understood is the backbone of accessibility guidelines. But the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) go much further — and actually ensure that all users will benefit from accessibility improvements made on sites. Bobby, a well-known accessibility evaluation tool, uses these guidelines to determine compliance. And Bobby demands that a site (among other things) “organize content logically and clearly, such as with headings, list elements, meaningful links, and navigation bars.”

Imagine that. Meaningful content.

De-emphasizing the “Bells and Whistles”

When analyzing a site’s code, structure, and page layout at the beginning of an optimization, I look for the elements that might trip up a robot. Submitting a site for approval to Bobby provides a quick-and-dirty way to get at the same issues. Where Bobby’s purpose is to point out the need to provide alternative content for features (e.g., applets or plug-ins), the optimizer questions the need for any of these features at all.

How mission-critical is optimization, and is it worth having to maintain content in two separate formats? Right now, advising a client to replace his or her cool Flash navigation system with something, well, less flashy, often simply fails. But the accessibility argument could prove to be an effective tool for optimization.

Are Search Engines Getting on Board?

Google’s recent announcement about its “venturing into the invisible Web” and its ability to index PDF files is a positive step toward increasing access to content that previously was invisible to robots. But much more work needs to done by all the major search engines to make available content worthy of being found — the biggest challenge currently being content that is dynamically generated.

If engines could incorporate the WAI’s guidelines into their algorithms, it might be more appropriate to penalize sites with accessibility issues and, similarly, reward sites that meet or exceed requirements. Perhaps this could be another tool to determine the quality of content.

Reframing SEO

Jakob Nielsen’s “Disabled Accessibility: The Pragmatic Approach” shows his interest in accessibility. He implicitly links this concept to usability. As optimizers, we need to start linking accessibility to our area of expertise or,- for lack of a better word, to “findability.” This continuum — findability to accessibility to usability — defines the user’s Web experience. Driving targeted traffic to a site by using an arsenal of SEO tactics is one thing, but if a user has a negative experience after arriving at a site, our clients are still not going to achieve ROI.

Is It the Death of Doorways?

Sorry, but it’s impossible not to comment on doorway pages in an article that focuses on site content — not false content. If corporations are going to have to revisit site content to meet accessibility requirements, and they understand that the simple action of doing so helps optimize their site, why wouldn’t they explore a more content-oriented approach? The allure of the doorway will fade. Already, in my own SEO business, I am approached more and more by jaded doorway-page users, tired of the overblown guarantees that never materialized.

High rankings are only one part of the mix. This is a good time to try to place SEO in a new context and learn how to better sell what we do by discovering our true value to the client. In our analyses of the optimization challenges within Web sites, we can also give valuable feedback on a site’s accessibility and even usability. We have a contribution to make to the bigger picture.

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