Accessibility's Impact On Search

Last Friday, a federal district court judge ruled that the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) may file a class action suit against a major retailer with a strong e-commerce presence. The claim is that the company's Web site lacks the basic coding attributes that are required to enable blind customers to access the site. The NFB also claims that the company violates California's Unruh Civil Rights Act, The California Disabled Persons Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The impact of this case ruling could change the way every corporation and designer approaches Web development in the future. Ironically, the attributes required for blind customers are similar to the tactics long touted by good natural search optimizers.

The NFB's complaints against the retailer's design include "lack of alt-text on graphics," "inaccessible image maps," "lack of adequate labeling" and "lack of navigation links." The NFB also asserts that under the California Civil Code, this company is a public place, and that the company is "violating the right of blind persons to full and equal access to public places by denying full and equal access to its website." The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) promoted by the W3 Consortium is cited as the standard for Web site accessibility compliance.



While the debate about mandatory compliance heatedly continues between business owners and disability advocates, there is another question from the search strategy perspective: Why did this company omit these basic design elements? Doing so not only limits accessibility, but decreases performance on search engines.

Search design flaws on parade

While the company asserts that it has designed the site within all applicable laws, it is difficult to understand why it omitted key design attributes at the expense of search engine visibility and sales. The e-commerce industry is extremely competitive in both paid and natural search, and to most e-commerce marketers, the use of alt-text on images and image maps is Search Engine Optimization 101. By not using the basic design tactics used by many of its competitors, this ecommerce retailer is being left in the dust.

In addition to leaving out image alt-text, it has also omitted semantic markup elements in the page headers, which would allow search engines to better understand the major theme of each page. In less technical terms: it is not labeling pages properly.

Good accessibility principles lead to good search design principles

When designing for search engine performance, it is important to remember that search engines and other user agents are blind. A well-designed site allows for crawling and indexing by multiple agents, including search robots and screen readers.

Natural search optimizers have inadvertently prepared themselves to design for accessibility. This does not mean that all search engine optimization firms are instant accessibility consultants, but search optimizers who code to W3 standards will have a huge advantage in any upcoming mass movement toward accessibility-compliant design.

Bad natural search optimization can also contradict the goals of "screen reader friendly" design. A header title that reads "Credit cards, credit card applications, credit cards online, best credit cards" is unacceptable for accessibility because it offers no valuable page context to a visually impaired person using a screen reader. A header tag created with a person (visually impaired or not) in mind can still have search keyword value and also maximize usability and accessibility.

This story is still unfolding, but Webmasters, corporations and search firms should continue to monitor developments very closely; they should also evaluate how their current design and natural search approaches could be impacted by the potential for Web site accessibility-compliance.

To learn more about this case, see these related articles:

Next story loading loading..