Web Accessibility is not the same as Search Engine Optimization, or is it?

- July 9, 2007

The SEO world likes to pat itself on the back and look superior whenever anyone brings up the topic of web accessibility for the disabled. After all, web design that is optimal for a search engine has to be optimal for a screen reader, right? Well, the situation is not as clear cut as you might think.

One little point of conflict is how to treat skip links. Skip links are page internal links that skip directly to the main content of a site. Many sites have skip links including www.irs.gov and news.bbc.co.uk. They are part of the web accessibility initiative for implementing US Government section 508 requirements on making websites accessible to the disabled. In fact, all U.S. government sites are required to be accessible to the disabled and with our aging population, it just makes sense for the rest of us to get on board.

Skip links make it easier for people using screen readers to get directly to the content of the site without having to listen to all the repetitive link text in main navigation. There are a number of suggested ways to format these links and many of them fall afoul of search engine optimization guidelines because they tend to be hidden from the view of the average web surfer (just like spam) either because of design issues or a belief that they impede the user experience of sighted surfers.

We all know that hidden text is looked on with suspicion by search engines so, as a rule, it’s a good idea to avoid it. Of course, search engines are unlikely to penalize anyone for having hidden skip links on their site. They aren’t heartless. But as it turns out, hidden skip links are not necessarily great for web accessibility either. For one thing, not all screen readers can read text that is formatted as hidden. Hidden text formatted with cascading StyleSheets may not be visible to a screen reader either. For another thing, it isn’t just the blind that have web accessibility issues. Disabled web surfers using mouth sticks also enjoy access to skip links because they can be implemented using the keyboard alone, but if they can’t see them, they can’t use them.

Furthermore, a 2003 study of screen reader users found that even when provided with them, almost half of the disabled web surfers studied did not use the skip links to navigate websites. Why not? The answer is surprising and points to the importance for everyone to be aware of the needs of their users.

The main reason that the link text went unused was because it contained terms that the users could not understand either because they were too technical or they were mispronounced by the screen reader.

There are several excellent tools for checking your site for web accessibility. Probably the most cited is Watchfire. Other resources and tips for designing web accessible sites can be found at Accessibility 101, and for those designing technology with the disabled in mind, the US Patent and Trademark Office features a comprehensive guide to technology issues. Ultimately, it turns out that good search engine optimization and good web accessibility should both have the same goal — cleanly formatted plain text content that is accessible and understandable to all.

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