SEO & Accessibility

Achieving high position in search engine results is the desire of any business with a website, but should it cost customer loyalty and disintegrating customer acquisition? Your most loyal customers could be visually impaired. To them, a page that has been improperly optimized for search engine performance can be a menace to their ability to use your website.

People who are blind or visually impaired tend to not shop at the local shopping mall, grocery or designer shop. This fact of commerce is easy to understand - it's simply not convenient for the visually impaired to get to a store and search for what they want. To the visually impaired, the Internet and online commerce has been a blessing. And as we know, behind many blessings await unexpected challenges that can make us better.

To some, dealing with another person's disabilities is an unwanted or undesirable situation and they attempt to avoid or ignore a person with disabilities. Should this happen? No, but it does. Website design, unfortunately, is one of the areas where individuals with disabilities are most ignored, from either ignorance or simple disrespect. To help improve the situation for those with disabilities, the World Wide Web Consortium developed the Web Accessibility Initiative.

The Web Accessibility Initiative consists of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, Authoring Tools Accessibility Guidelines and User Agent Accessibility Guidelines. Development of accessible websites requires knowing these guidelines. However, some people do not take the time to learn their trade properly and assume to build a house, the only knowledge you need is how to swing a hammer and drive a nail. Regrettably, this isn't true.

The HTML standards include many features that enhance the ability for the visually impaired to properly use a Web page. When browsing the Web, software will read the pages to the user who is not able to read them himself. However, these same features can be so burdened by search-engine spam that it becomes impossible for the visually impaired to navigate a Web page, much less an entire website. Hearing keyword after keyword stuffed into the accessibility features is deafening.

HTML tables can be used for two different purposes. First, tables are used to format tabular data such as time schedules. Second, tables are used to build design layouts for HTML pages. Initially, the summary attribute was added to the table tag to provide a short description of the relationship between the data in the tabular presentation. Therefore, when a table is used to build design layouts, the summary attribute should be empty. It should never be used to stuff keywords into a Web page for search engine performance.

From nearly every corner of the globe we hear that the alternate description should be used to enter keywords into a Web page for search engine performance. To some degree this is true, but to be flamboyant in delivering keywords into every alt attribute available within a Web page is extremely over zealous.

If the Web page is about cars and you have spacer images, those images serve no more purpose than to deliver a presentational aid to the layout of the Web page. Adding keywords to them for search engine placement simply useless information for each spacer image. Images of cars should include descriptive phrases that can include keywords, but using "cars, car, fast car" just for the sake of stuffing keywords into the alternate description is wrong as well. A picture of a 1956 Chevy should simply describe the car, such as "1956 Chevy" or "blue 1956 Chevy." Sure, the keywords aren't there, but the visitor gets the message and so does the search engines.

Title attributes are different from the page title. The title attribute can be used on nearly all HTML tags except the image tag. Proper use of the title attribute is to explain the function or target of the tag. For example, with the abbreviation tag the title should explain the abbreviation, such as SEC could be U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, or the Southeastern Conference of college sports. It should not be used to stuff extraneous keywords into the Web page.

A link to another Web page can have a title attribute. The proper use of such a title attribute would be similar to "link: title of the linked page." It should never be used to stuff keywords into the Web page since the link title is relevant only to the linked page.

Simply because a group of people tend to think something is correct does not make it so. This is especially true when the group of people do not control the factors controlled by the search engines. Only search engines can define what they will accept and how they will deal with the various HTML tags and attributes. What they accept today may not be what they accept tomorrow. Therefore, it is more prudent to follow the norms established by the HTML standards and governments.

The United States enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 to ensure, in part, that individuals with disabilities had equal access to business services. Several court cases have been filed against companies with inaccessible websites. The majority of those cases were settled out of court with the defendants agreeing to make their services accessible. The cases that have made it to court were dismissed in favor of the defendants because the judges say the ADA does not cover the Internet. Simply put, the judges refuse to make case law in the fight to remove the digital divide; rather, they want the legislature to improve the ADA so that it covers the Internet.

Other countries such as Australia, England and Italy have enacted laws requiring businesses to do everything possible to remove the digital divide. In 1999, Bruce Maguire, a blind man from Australia, successfully sued the Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games under the Disability Discrimination Act. Since 1999, UK law requires all websites be accessible and that reasonable adjustments must be made to ensure websites accommodate all users - regardless of ability or disability.

In 2002, the highest court in Australia gave an Australian business owner permission to sue the Wall Street Journal for an article published online. The lawsuit was based on the fact that websites are accessible across international borders. Therefore, it can be argued that all businesses online are responsible for knowing and complying with the laws in other countries.

While case law and international laws have not been established to cover accessibility of websites, it would be wise to avoid a lawsuit. Financially, it is too cumbersome compared to the cost of optimizing your Web pages correctly, making certain your Web pages and site are accessible to those with disabilities. Of course, not all things can be made accessible and therefore alternate versions of the website must be provided.

Conceivably, when a website is made accessible it can achieve high rankings more easily. Financially it is rewarding to get high placements in the search engines. However, it is more financially rewarding to gain the loyalty of a group of individuals whose entrance into commerce is so hindered by their disabilities and the digital divide.

Individuals with disabilities have far reaching support networks and influence beyond those without disabilities. Compared to those without disabilities, those with disabilities diligently spread the word about which companies offer them the services they need; bringing along others with disabilities and families and friends. The financial influence of this group of concerned citizens is massive. Being on their approved list only improves the financial status of those best meeting their needs.

Use the HTML standards properly while optimizing a Web page or website for strong search engine placement. Failing to consider the full ramifications of spamming the search engines simply to attain a high position is not wise. Whether you are just doing the right thing or seeking the financial rewards, being a responsible site owner towards all citizens is rewarding. ■

About the Author
Lee Roberts, CEO of Rose Rock Design, is a former member of the Electronic Information and Accessibility Task Force of the State of Oklahoma.