Accessibility and You

This week, I was asked to participate in a pitch for a website redesign project by a large agency that currently has no search engine optimization personnel or partnership in place.

Like many interactive agencies, their focus on this redesign project was to push the things that they’re good at, and address items contained within the client’s request for proposal (RFP). This agency has launched some very large corporate websites and has a very good history and reputation.

I was asked to review the request for proposal that the prospect had sent over, and then to review the agency’s response to it.

Keep in mind, I was asked to look at this from a strictly SEO (define) perspective…what I came to find was that there are other elements of this RFP which weren’t being addressed in the response, probably because – here again – they lacked the internal personnel/partnerships to address the RFP’s mandates.

One such item was that of the website’s need to be accessible to those with disabilities, known to industry insiders as Section 508 compliance.

What is Section 508 compliance?

The short answer is that it’s a law that was established to ensure that websites are accessible to those with disabilities. This could be users who are blind, or it could be for folks who don’t have use of their arms and cannot navigate a website like others might. They might need a screen reader, such as JAWS.

A $10,000,000 Lesson

A few years ago, was sued by the National Federation of the Blind for the Target website’s inaccessibility to visitors who were blind. If you read the details, it basically boiled down to one thing (without all the details, I’m not able to confirm exactly what was involved). The Target website didn’t use descriptive copy within the alt text of its images. There may have been more to this, but that’s what you’ll read on the link above.

Instead of just immediately adding alt text (and doing whatever else may have been necessary to abide by Section 508 compliance), Target fought back and spent over two years in the courts debating this. In the end, Target settled for $6,000,000 and covered the over $3,700,000 in attorney’s fees and costs.

Though is now in good standing (the National Federation of the Blind awarded the Gold Level NFB-NVA Certification to, Target missed the opportunity to spend a little bit of time and money making the website as accessible as it could in the first place. Certainly, it didn’t cost close to $10,000,000 to convert the website in such a way as to ensure its compliance? If you think about it, blind people represent a huge opportunity for e-commerce websites. Even if you forget about the fact that maintaining a Section 508 website is the right thing to do (and a law, akin to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990), building a website that’s accessible to blind people is also a competitive advantage (still, today, not too many people are building websites with a Section 508 compliance mandate) and helps your SEO efforts.

Ah…so that’s why this topic is being written within the SEO section of ClickZ…search engine optimization!

Yes. One of the side benefits of building a website that abides by Section 508 is that you’re probably building a website that’s going to be search engine friendly.

In today’s search engine optimization, we understand how important universal search (and specifically image and video search) can be to achieving results. Today’s SEO isn’t merely about optimization the corporate pages contained within a website, but all digital assets available to the optimization process.

Images can be optimized to ensure that descriptive keywords are used in the file names and alt text. Video content can be optimized, and even presented with a closed captioning option, to get “real text” available to the search engines. Linking to pages using descriptive anchor text within the links is a good thing for accessibility and SEO (rather than “read more” or “click here”).

Having a compliant website is the right thing to do, on so many levels. The next time you’re considering a redesign of your website, be sure to address Section 508. Abiding by these standards may cost you a little more in the short term, but can pay dividends, or perhaps, as we saw with Target, save you some money in the long term.

For a list of guidelines to developing accessibility, check out the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines here.

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