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May 2004

Search engine optimisation and accessibility

By Carmen Mardiros
Big Mouth Media Resources UK


Web accessibility is just beginning to gain popularity among Internet marketing professionals. We're witnessing an industry that is gradually paying attention to the needs of wider and more diverse audiences.

This article shows how search engines, through their algorithms, and search engine optimisation, have led to a growing interest in making web content more accessible. There is also growing awareness among the search engine optimisation (SEO) community of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines published by the W3C.

Web accessibility and where many developers fail

In real life, architects and businesses now take care to ensure there is easy disability access to offices, leisure centres, banks, shops and transport. But, on the web things are very different. Most of the web is not commercial in nature and many web sites are not created by professional designers. The vast majority of web pages are created by regular people who have little knowledge about how to properly design web sites or present information on the web. Most are also not aware of the assistive technologies which have been developed to ensure users with a disability are able to browse the Internet, yet many Internet users have disabilities. It's an irony that the world's largest source of information can also be, at times, the world's least accessible source of information.

Web accessibility, as a concept, means that content on the Internet can be reached and read by all audiences. The ultimate goal is to ensure that web content is universally accessible to all users. We are not just talking about the people with a physical disability or vision impairment - we have to think about anyone with poor eyesight (such as people who wear glasses or are colour blind), people with reading disabilities (such as dyslexia) and even 'silver surfers'.

A large percentage of the web's audience is affected by some sort of eyesight impairment. Children, youngsters, adults and older surfers can all be affected. Anyone who wears glasses could be part of an online audience who may require special attention. As the use of computers continues to increase, so does the number of users wearing glasses or contact lenses.

Web accessibility issues go beyond any physical challenge faced by any web audience. The online population has particular traits that have to be considered:

Web developers have no control over the environment in which their web content is shown. Therefore, they must try to ensure that their pages ('the presentation') are device-independent. They must make sure that web sites are accessible and functional on all browsers and platforms and that they are properly displayed on various screens and resolutions.

Many developers fail to create accessible web sites because they don't believe they have the time. It can take time to master the design of an accessible web site but as with most web development skills practice and the re-use of successful techniques will ensure that subsequent builds are faster and smoother.

Numerous countries have policy relating to web accessibility legislation or pending legislation that insists web sites are fully accessible.

Web accessibility can go beyond common, published and acknowledged design techniques. We will take the issue further and say that web accessibility is connected to usability, user psychology and how content is presented in relation to these factors. All aspects are tightly connected under the same basic principle - good design for users.

Search engine optimisation also provides a strong incentive to design fully accessible web pages.

Search engines - The power of the web unleashed

Search engines have changed the web forever. They have made information on the web much more accessible. They have made users realise that they have a choice and can be highly selective of the web sites they visit. Search engines may have even encouraged users to have expectations, even subconscious ones, of web sites they're visiting. Web sites must now compete for attention. That changes everything. Only the best sites will be successful.

Search engines are the middlemen between online audiences, advertisers and publishers. Consequently, search engines have a growing and powerful influence over all three, and this influence is affecting web site accessibility in a positive way.

Algorithm for relevance - How search engines work

Search engines allow users to search a database of indexed web documents. Keywords are entered by the user, the search engine compares those to its index and returns results based on any matches made, with the aim of returning results relevant to their query.

In the early days, when the number of indexed web documents and the interest of marketers was lower than today, deciding the order of relevancy of pages was not a very difficult task. However, the number of web pages has now grown beyond anyone's expectations. In response, search engines have responded by developing ever more sophisticated algorithms, which are more accurate and more difficult to manipulate, deliberately targeting the eliminating of 'spam' tactics used in the past.

Search engine algorithms aim to return the most relevant results to users. By 'relevant', we mean pages containing information that matches, or is very similar to, the kind the user was hoping to find.

Nowadays, though, search engines aim to return good results, not just relevant results. 'Good' results mean more than just relevant information, but results that have an overall standard of quality. One of the main reasons behind the development of more complex algorithms is the large number of competing web pages for any given keyword or phrase. Search engines must differentiate these pages through an advanced refinement process.

Modern search engines include hundreds of factors that measure how 'good' a page is. These factors range from assessing content relevance to specific on-page design factors that make the page 'good' for users.

Search engine optimisation involves altering web sites and the relationships between them so that they score well on various factors measured by search engine algorithms. However, search engine optimisation goes beyond altering web sites just to appeal to search engine algorithms. It also includes making use of user psychology to convert traffic into customers, once they have found and then visited the site.

Internet marketers, then, ensure the following:

This last point is important - content that pretends to address queries to which it has no actual relevancy and misleads the user (even unintentionally) is a primary characteristic of spam. Although at first glance this seems an appealing idea - persuasion of a disinterested or passive audience is, after all, one of the skills of the traditional marketer - it should be resisted by the Internet marketer. Such tactics will damage the image and reputation of a brand online.

This is the crux of the difference between traditional and search engine marketing; offline marketing attempts to persuade a disinterested, passive audience, whereas online marketing attempts to find and engage with an already interested and active audience. Therefore, the most important characteristic a page should posses to be successful is not persuasiveness - but clarity - anything else merely serves to frustrate the user. And a major component of clarity is accessibility.

Next, we will look more closely at on-page optimisation and show that ethical and effective on-page search engine optimisation (SEO) parallels good design and the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

Search engines, optimisers and web accessibility

In recent years search engine optimisation has become hugely important. Google, the web's most popular search engine, has raised the hopes of small publishers, owners of small businesses and large online retailers alike by offering access to a global audience.

As a result, large numbers of people are turning to search engine optimisation. Search engine optimisation professionals analyse search engine algorithms as they develop. Many look at Google in particular (but also Yahoo! and others), and tweak their websites so that they gain higher rankings

To take a (fictitious!) example; if Google were to favour web pages that are exactly 100 kb in size, thousands of site owners would change their web pages in order to "score" well for that factor, hoping that it will help their rankings. Now let's assume the factor we are talking about is something that improves the accessibility of web sites (for example, the ALT attribute, used to help vision impaired users interpret images).

The outcome of an algorithm shift in favour of the ALT attribute would be a general increase in the usage of the ALT attribute in pages throughout the web. Therefore, accessibility benefits from the commercial incentive to change web site design.

Search engine optimisation professionals may well use techniques that improve the accessibility of web pages but many only do so because it will help them improve their rankings and their revenue.  Forward thinking search engine optimisation experts will always take heed of accessibility issues when designing a web site as it will lessen the risks of the optimisation being undone if the web site is later legally forced to be accessible. Almost every search engine promotion consultant will naturally improve the accessibility of a web site by just working on it, even if just incidentally, and webmasters and business owners benefit from this.

As search engine optimisation (SEO) becomes more of a commercial necessity, the World Wide Web as a whole becomes more accessible and people using assistive technology will have greater access to it.

Do search engines have a moral responsibility to the web?

There is an old expression: "with great power comes great responsibility".

It's difficult to tell whether search engines realise the sort of power and influence they have over the way the web evolves. It can be especially hard to determine whether search engines understand how they affect web page design from an accessibility standpoint. It only takes them to favour one particular accessibility guideline and they will create a surge of interest among site owners for implementing that guideline.

Web accessibility organisations and individuals have tried hard over the years to promote the positive effects of accessible web design in the hope that it will become general practice. However, there's no more effective and easier way than through search engines.

The lure of search engine optimisation, promotion and marketing has become unstoppable. The addition of search engine algorithm factors and weights which match the accessibility guidelines will persuade site owners to make their websites more accessible - even if it is for mercenary reasons. Popular search engines have the power to make the web a better place. In fact, it might be argued that the search engine companies have a moral responsibility towards all their customers and users. Accessible web sites are more likely to be good relevant results, not just relevant results, as an accessible site is open to all.

The W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines

Following are a few specific instances of how search engine optimisation and web accessibility interrelate. Each example can be used by Internet marketers in both promoting their sites and improving customer response whist widening their access and, ultimately, their customer base.

W3C Checkpoint 3.2
Create documents that validate to published formal grammars.
W3C Checkpoint 3.3
Use style sheets to control layout and presentation.
W3C Checkpoint 3.5
Use header elements to convey document structure and use them according to specification.
W3C Checkpoint 11.1
Use W3C technologies when they are available and appropriate for a task and use the latest versions when supported.

Many of the W3C Web Content Accessibility guidelines, if applied correctly, can have major benefits in search engine optimisation and internet marketing. And, as such, they should also be considered as part of an optimisation strategy in an attempt to ready websites for future algorithm changes.

It seems unlikely that all accessibility guidelines can or will be included in search engine algorithms. There is, however, a clear tendency that accessibility as a whole will be factored in more strongly in the near future, and some guidelines will almost certainly be considered for inclusion. Since, it is impossible to second guess which they will be, the sensible, no-risk strategy is to improve accessibility across the board.

Improving website accessibility will, almost by definition, help optimise sites for search engines. Similarly, search engine optimisation can enhance the accessibility of a site as the SEO professionals strive for high rankings and improved customer experience.

In the process, the web will become a better place. And who can argue with that?

About the Author

Carmen Mardiros has worked in online marketing since 2000 and has become an active member of the web accessibility community. She believes that improving access to web content is one of the most important elements in a web marketing campaign and also one of the key factors in achieving long term success.

About Big Mouth media resources

Bigmouthmedia is an established UK search engine marketing company, specialising in search engine optimisation, brand positioning, submission and placement.

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