Tips for making information universally accessible

Saturday, March 15, 2008

T.V. Raman

Many people talk about the effect the Internet has on democratizing access to information, but as someone who has been visually impaired since my teenage years, I can certainly speak to the profound impact it has had on my life.

In everyday life, things like a sheet of paper—and anything written on it—are completely inaccessible to a blind or visually impaired user. But with the Internet a new world has opened up for me and so many others. Thanks to modern technology like screen readers, web pages, books, and web applications are now at our fingertips.

In order to help the visually impaired find the most relevant, useful information on the web, and as quickly as possible, we developed Accessible Search. Google Accessible Search identifies and prioritizes search results that are more easily used by blind and visually impaired users—that means pages that are clean and simple (think of the Google home page!) and that can load without images.

Why should you take the time to make your site more accessible? In addition to the service you'll be doing for the visually-impaired community, accessible sites are more easily crawled, which is a first step in your site's ability to appear in search results.

So what can you do to make your sites more accessible? Well first of all, think simple. In its current version, Google Accessible Search looks at a number of signals by examining the HTML markup found on a web page. It tends to favor pages that degrade gracefully: pages with few visual distractions and that are likely to render well with images turned off. Flashing banners and dancing animals are probably the worst thing you could put on your site if you want its content to be read by an adaptive technology like a screen reader.

Here are some basic tips:

  1. Keep web pages easy to read, avoiding visual clutter and ensuring that the primary purpose of the web page is immediately accessible with full keyboard navigation.
  2. There are many organizations and online resources that offer website owners and authors guidance on how to make websites and pages more accessible for the blind and visually impaired. The W3C publishes numerous guidelines including Web Content Access Guidelines that are helpful for website owners and authors.
  3. As with regular search, the best thing you can do with respect to making your site rank highly is to create unique, compelling content. In fact, you can think of the Google crawler as the world's most influential blind user. The content that matters most to the Googlebot is the content that matters most to the blind user: good, quality text.
  4. It's also worth reviewing your content to see how accessible it is for other end users. For example, try browsing your site on a monochrome display or try using your site without a mouse. You may also consider your site's usability through a mobile device like a Blackberry or iPhone.

Fellow webmasters, thanks for taking the time to better understand principles of accessibility. In my next post I'll talk about how to make sure that critical site features, like site navigation, are accessible. Until then!