Enhanced web accessibility means enhanced SEO
Visually impaired users use screen readers, i.e. voice software, to browse the web. There’s a lot more people surfing the web this way than you’d think. They are dependent on the text we use and the organization of web pages to help them navigate.
Search engines, too, are text-dependent. They need keywords to help them analyze page content. They need structure like headings and image file names to tell them what each section and image is. They use words in bold, links, and certain key parts of each page to help them learn their way around.
Designing for human users and search engines often forces us to juggle two conflicting priorities: human readability versus targeting keywords. In this case, we’ve got a win-win situation: designing for people will help search engines get what we’re trying to say.
A Squidoo Example
A Squidoo page which I just critiqued in SquidU’s Critique Me forum got me to thinking about all this. It’s a simple page: Funny Pie Charts. It’s a collection of funny pictures. The page’s author did a good job of making the page more accessible for search engines by choosing a short phrase and using it in the image’s file name, alt text, and title text. (Title text is optional text that pops up when you hover your cursor over a link. You put it into link tag like this: <a href=”link goes here” title=”hover text goes here”>clickable text</a>. Each image was linked back to the page it came from, so there was a place to include title text).
I suggested that the “Funny Pie Charts” author could leverage search engine traffic even more by varying the phrase in the image file name, alt text, and title text. Then I thought about people using screen readers. They won’t get the jokes, because the jokes only appear in the graph itself. For example, there’s a graph on “What Zombies Do” that includes “Dance with Michael Jackson”.
If the alt-text for each image included the funniest two or three options from the graph, then people using screen readers could enjoy the page too. And search engines would see those words. Win!
The Long Tail, Again
If you write humor or any content with web accessibility in mind, you’re chasing the long tail: that large untapped reservoir of niches, under-served target audiences, and people with special interests and intense passions who will care more about your page on wombat widgets than the huge mainstream population who read any sort of widget webpages or buy any old widgets. You may not be able to compete in the widgets market, because the widget market is saturated. There’s a million widget webpages and widget producers and big-name widget brands out there. But by golly, you can compete on wombat widgets.
So write for the screen reader crowd. Give them content to read and funny pages to laugh about which they’ll share and like and email to their friends. The next time you make a Lolcat, give it an alt-name that includes the caption found in the graphic, and let them enjoy the joke.
How to Design Pages for Screen Readers
How do we design for screen readers? There’s a lot of good guides out there, but here’s a lengthy yet incredibly information-packed Guidelines for Accessible and Usable Websites that includes all kinds of tips about how people with screen readers navigate webpages and how to shape your content to help them along.
Here’s five things which we can do:
- Use alt-text to make clear what’s in a picture, especially any text in the graphic. Exception: don’t waste time identifying a decorative graphic that provides no content, only a visual accent.
- Start each paragraph, header, and link with words that give readers a clue what’s in the rest of that section.
- Establish patterns and repeat them. For example, cookbooks present recipes in the same order on every page: ingredients on the left, graphic on the right, step-by-step instructions below.
- When possible, avoid terms that voice software is likely to mangle. Abbreviations, cute spellings, and compound words often come out funny. For example, “homepage” gets mispronounced, so use “home page,” two words. In this post, I’ve used “web page” and “file name” instead of running them together as I usually do.
- Don’t waste readers’ time. Be brief. (Oh, I have a hard time on this one.)
Speaking of which: