Making a website accessible for those with visual impairments is key, not just to ensure everyone can enjoy going online, but it also helps enhance search engine optimisation to boost visibility on the web. Darren Jamieson, senior creative developer at Just Search, examines the best ways to ensure a website is accessible and how to achieve better search placement.
In the UK alone, it is estimated that there are two million people with a visual impairment and over three million people who have a disability, which prevents them from using a standard keyboard, screen and mouse set-up. Designing a usable and accessible website is therefore vital to reach a wide audience and keep visitors returning.
Accessibility guidelines are very similar to Google's Webmaster Guidelines. If a website follows accessibility advice, then it is likely that it will be following Google's guidelines too, which is crucial for getting a well-ranked website. There are several simple steps which can be taken to improve both website accessibility and give search listings a boost to ensure that customers and prospects can find you on the web.
Enforce good web accessibility practices
Another significant aspect of a website that can help both the search engines and the users is a sitemap. A sitemap will provide a straightforward list of links to help impaired users find what they need on the site and easily navigate around. It also provides an easy way for search engines to instantly index the whole site. Google even has a facility contained within its free Webmaster Tools to submit your sitemap, further rewarding your efforts to make your website accessible.
Check the alternatives
When designing an accessible website, it is important to look at alternative technologies which may be both more accessible and search engine friendly. For example, Flash can cause some problems for impaired users and it also cannot be read by the search engine spiders that 'crawl' sites. With alternative methods and technologies, such as CSS and AJAX, it is possible to ensure usability and increase visibility on the web without compromising the visual impact of your website.
The W3C guidelines provide advice on how to make a website accessible to those with impairments and constraints when viewing sites. They also work as a great checkpoint for SEO, as if a website is accessible to everyone, it will be accessible for the search engines as well. By ensuring that visual and audible content is correctly tagged for those with impairments, it will be automatically readable by the search engines, resulting in your rich media content ranking within Google's Universal Search.
More recently, W3C announced a new standard to help designers and website creators provide websites that better meet the needs of impaired or elderly users. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 provide a series of tips to ensure that a website reaches the widest possible audience and is usable for all. Many of these will help make a site more search engine friendly, such as readable and usable text content, including alternatives for time-based media and audio descriptions.
Usability is key
When creating a website, it is always essential to have the user in mind. There is little point having a highly optimised website that everyone can find if users cannot navigate it, get frustrated and do not return. The same is true of a great website with a fantastic design that is easy to use. If people cannot find it, the site will not attract the visitors it deserves.
Usability must be at the forefront when creating any website. If this is the case and accessibility guidelines are also taken into account, then a successful search rank will follow.
By Darren Jamieson
Senior creative developer