Along with the growing considerations required to build a site that's optimized for search engines, more search marketers are beginning to explore the related disciplines of usability and accessibility in their development plans.
A class-action lawsuit filed in California against retail giant Target could accelerate the need for those plans, and could potentially have wide implications for online marketers.
In the National Federation of the Blind v. Target case, a blind advocacy group alleges that because the Target.com Web site was not fully accessible to blind users, it violated California state and federal laws protecting people with disabilities.
The case, which has just been certified as a class-action suit, could eventually force some Web site owners to comply with state and federal accessibility laws.
"The state claim is powerful, and disconcerting to online retailers," said Eric Goldman, assistant professor and director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University. "The most important question they're asking is, 'do I have to change my Web site?' Right now, it's muddled."
The case has been wending its way through the courts for more than a year, and as Goldman notes, "it hasn't even gotten to the good stuff yet." A ruling is still a long way off, and that's only if the sides don't settle beforehand. That doesn't mean site owners should ignore the accessibility laws, Goldman warns, since they can still be sued in the future for past behavior.
Earlier this month, the judge certified two separate classes in the case. At the national level, regarding the federal Americans with Disabilities Act claims, the class consists of "all legally blind individuals in the United States who have attempted to access Target.com and as a result have been denied access to the enjoyment of goods and services offered in Target stores."
The distinction is important, because it limits the size of the class, and also limits those businesses that could potentially be affected by a future ruling to those with a physical bricks & mortar retail store as well as a retail Web site.
At the state level, the class is broader, with no physical store requirement, only "all legally blind individuals in California who have attempted to access Target.com." That opens up more online retailers to possible future ramifications. It could potentially affect any commercial Web site, but may only include those online retailers with a physical presence in California, according to Goldman.
What's it mean to be accessible?
The challenge for site owners, even those trying to comply, is figuring out what constitutes an accessible Web site, Goldman said. "They don't know what they need to do to satisfy the law. It's not spelled out anywhere," he said.
Though there are no clear rules for e-commerce sites, there are definitely guidelines to follow, according to Kim Krause Berg, a usability consultant and owner of Usability Effect and Cre8pc.
In the U.S., there is a legal requirement for government sites to be accessible. In our country, the minimum is Section 508," Krause Berg said. "As a courtesy and suggested practice, but not legally binding, online retail should also comply, specifically if they also have a physical store."
In addition, each state has its own version of accessibility laws, which so far only apply to government sites.
Benefits of Being Accessible
But just because these state and federal laws so far apply only to government sites, there are good reasons – and potential profits – for those e-commerce sites that take steps toward making their sites more accessible, she said.
"Accessibility is not just for sight impaired or deaf people. It covers a huge chunk of our world population, including those with memory retention problems, colorblindness, impaired motor skills from injuries or disease that make using a mouse impossible, dyslexia, ADD, or ADHD. It also includes senior citizens whose eye, hand, and brain connections are slowing down...it's huge," Krause Berg said. "It can boggle the mind when you think how crazy it is that a company like Target would ignore so many potential customers!"
Target is not alone in its ignorance of accessibility practices, she said. Even with sites that have progressed to consider search engine optimization (SEO) and usability, few have included accessibility in their plans. This is happening because it's not a skill many mainstream Web developers have, and it's not something that most project managers even think of when they are setting business requirements for a site, she said.
Exceptions include sites with a known demographic requiring accessibility improvements, such as schools for the blind, health sites, government sites, or sites targeting senior citizens. Those sites have a clearer picture of the lost opportunities they would suffer if they did not make their site accessible to a significant portion of their audience.
Another factor holding site owners back is the high cost involved. There are not many people trained in accessibility, making those that are scarce and expensive. For those consultants, there are many laws to consider and standards to test each page against, making the process time-consuming and expensive, Krause Berg said.
"The actual practices to achieve standards aren't that technically difficult overall, though some can be. What may seem frightening is the number of guidelines, especially if you apply both Section 508 and [state laws]. Someone has to write these standards up into the site's guidelines, and then they must be tested to make sure every requirement was met," she said. "This can be subcontracted out, but the pickings for who to do this are slim, or companies are just simply not aware of the advantages of meeting these goals and don't train their people."
For search marketers, there is another benefit, according to Krause Berg. "Nearly every accessibility standard is a bonus for SEO, because the standards are designed for assistive technology," she said. "Search engines are dependent on easy-to-access content, the same as special needs site visitors are. I use text based site maps as an example of something that helps with both."
Accessibility is also needed as the foundation of a site, in the Hierarchy of Potential Buyer Needs outlined by conversion expert Bryan Eisenberg, co-founder of Future Now, in a recent ClickZ column.
Eisenberg places "accessible" just after "functional" in the list of buyers' needs. Next comes "usable," then "intuitive," and finally "persuasive." While many marketers are starting to look toward addressing some of the needs higher in the pyramid, it's important that they do not skip over accessibility and usability, he said.
"The pyramid indicates that only once the base needs on the bottom are met can potential buyers move up to address the next need. As they arrive at the top of the pyramid, they're effectively persuaded to take action," he said.