Are You Accessible? – Accessible Web Design

As appeared in the Presence Pointers column of the October 2008 issue of “Business Watch” magazine.

What has always fascinated me about the Web isn’t all the graphics, images, sounds, and videos; it’s the ability to access all kinds of information. Just about anything you could ever want to know is often just a few clicks away. That’s pretty incredible. All that other stuff is just icing on the cake.Yet for some people, the access that many of us now take for granted, still seems like a distant dream. Believe it or not, I’m not talking about people in far away countries who don’t have the technology to access the Web or who may be prohibited from or limited in their access. I’m talking about people right here who may even be your neighbors.

What Is Accessibility?

In regard to the Web, accessibility refers to uninhibited access to information and in interacting with and navigating a Web site. Confused? Under a narrow definition, this typically refers to users who have some form of disability. This might be blindness or vision impairment, but also deafness or hearing impairment, or motor skills impairments.

But a broader definition that some of us in the community like to adhere to include everyone and anyone. While this might still be based on a person’s physical abilities or limitations, it might also include someone without any of these challenges, but who may be challenged in other ways – perhaps by a small laptop screen or Web-enabled mobile phone.

In either case, accessibility is something that every Web site owner needs to become aware of. Target just settled a class action lawsuit regarding the accessibility of Target.com in relation to visually impaired users – to the tune of $6 million. It’s time accessibility became a priority.

Why Is Accessibility Important?

Let’s set aside the notion of, “because it’s the right thing to do.” The real question is, “why would you turn away any customer?” When you think about it, the Web could serve as a great asset to those who experience any of these challenges. I know how challenging it is just trying to pick out cold medicine even when I can see all the boxes and read all the labels.

Now imagine if you were blind. How challenging must it be to go shopping even for everyday items? Imagine being able to go online to shop and have your purchases delivered to you. Just having that as a viable option must be rather empowering.

There are assistive technologies, such as screen readers that vocalize the content of a Web page, that help those with various impairments to use computers and the Web. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Web sites present far too many barriers even for these tools. So while the technology is there, many sites are way behind.

Understand that many of these challenges are also prohibitive to mobile browsers, which is a large and quickly growing market. Or realize there is a very large, aging population that will be facing increasing vision and dexterity issues simply due to age. And last time I introduced you to search engine optimization, or SEO. You might like to know that search engine spiders often face the same accessibility challenges, so the more accessible your site, the more SEO friendly your site.

If I was Target, I’d go out of my way to develop the best, most accessible Web site around. I’d become the go-to site when it comes to ease of use, tapping into this under-served market while every other site tries to catch up.

Everything that is done to improve accessibility is beneficial to all users. It’s a no-brainer.

Tips Toward Developing Accessible Web Sites

  • Use alt attributes on significant, non-purely-decorative images.
  • Use HTML elements properly (headings, lists, etc.).
  • Use CSS and table-less design to structure Web pages.
  • Use textual links instead of images and be sure the anchor text is descriptive, rather than “click here.”
  • Provide no-script alternatives to script-based functioning, Flash and AJAX.
  • Provide alternative navigation to jump to key content areas on Web pages.

Is Your Website Headstrong?

Originally published at “InsideSEM.com” in June, 2007.

Headstrong often carries a negative meaning, such as someone who is disobedient, determined to get their way. Well, if you want to obtain top rankings and want to drive quality visitor traffic to your site, headstrong might be a good thing.

By headstrong though, I’m not advocating being disobedient, turning to unsavory methods and tactics. To be fair, what I’m really talking about might be better described as head strong.

The head section of a web page may best be described as a behind-the-scenes worker; sort of the administrator of your page. Yet for being behind-the-scenes, it carries a lot of weight and does make some cameo, celebrity appearances.

The head section generally makes up a rather small percentage of the entire page, but the various elements of the head section can easily command whole discussions on their own. Rather than trying to detail each of these, I’d rather touch on some absolute key areas that are, alarmingly, often still missed today.

What’s In a Title

Well, just like books have succeeded or failed almost on their titles alone, so too have web pages. There are a lot of opinions in the SEO world as to the importance and impact various elements play into the success of web pages from a search marketing point of view … but rarely when it comes to the title tag.

If there was one universally accepted fact, it would probably have to be the importance of the title tag. This quiet little tag may well be the most important element when it comes to the ranking of your website.

The text within the title tag appears in the top chrome area of the browser window, which is often an area that many users may not even notice. It also is the default text used when a visitor creates a bookmark or adds to their favorites. So why is the tag so critically important?

The title text is a key element used by search engines to determine the topic of the page, and therefore carries a tremendous, if not the most weight, in determining the ranking of a page in search results. The title is also the main bolded text used as the title of each search result listing, so it not only carries ranking weight, but also has strong user value.

Based on this, here are some basic key points to keep in mind regarding your page titles:

  • Keep them unique (don’t duplicate) and topically relevant to your page.
  • Avoid extraneous text as much as possible. Use your most important keywords toward the beginning.
  • Because there is a general limit of around 65 characters for display in the SERPs, if you exceed this limit, at least aim at getting your most important terms within this limit and if possible, make it a complete message on its own.

Beyond Description

The meta description tag carries a lot of importance, just not necessarily for the reasons that many might think. Unlike the title tag, the information contained within this tag does not show up any place on the page or in the browser. Because of this and the impact it used to have for ranking, this tag was open for abuse through keyword stuffing.

The value of this tag for ranking is debatable, but most would agree that whatever value it does have, is dramatically less than it may have once been. We also must remember that search engines have advanced considerably in their abilities to spider and index page content. They’re much more capable of determining what a page is about all on their own, based on what the page is about, not what we try to tell them it is about.

But the description is still very important and its value goes beyond just being a description. Where the description is often seen is in the search results, as the description or what is often referred to as the snippet. Because of this, the description acts like a little ad of sales copy to reach out, grab and intrigue the searcher to get them to click through to your site.

If the search words don’t appear in the description, the search engines may opt to pull text out of the body of the page near where the search words appear. Also, if your site is listed in the DMOZ directory, then the search engines may use that description, and if you are listed in the Yahoo! directory, Yahoo! specifically may use that description.

Here are a few key points about descriptions:

  • Gently incorporate your keywords sparingly, not for dramatic ranking influence but because these words will get bolded for searches and may draw the searcher’s attention.
  • As hinted at above, don’t keyword stuff, cram, load, or otherwise.
  • Length here is similar to the title in that about 165 or so characters will generally be displayed but you can extend past this to 256 or so. Make sure your most important, ideal text is covered within the first 165 characters though. Whatever value in ranking the description does have, this extra text may carry through for that, or if the search engine pulls text from the description midway through.

As mentioned, in specific cases based on listings in DMOZ or Yahoo! directories, those descriptions may be used instead of the description you have chosen, which also means that the same description may be used on every page. This of course is probably not ideal, so there are meta tags that you can include to instruct that these descriptions not be used.

To do this, just add this meta tag:

<meta name=”robots” content=”noodp, noydir”>

Final Words

The meta keywords tag serves very little value today. Because the content of this tag doesn’t show up in the page, the browser or even in search results, it was highly abused, even more than the description tag. Yahoo! and Ask are the only major search engines that even appear to give any attention at all to this tag, and there is very little evidence that this tag plays any role at all in ranking. Based on the ease of abuse, this of course makes sense.

So some include this tag today just in case it plays any value, and others use it as a simple means to help keep track of what keywords are being targeted on the page. There is probably no real harm in this approach, although as some competitors may use this tag to determine what words you are targeting (of course this can often be determined anyway), you may be giving away more information than the value you receive.

One word of caution is that there may be some negative impact by using keywords that do not show up within the page. More than likely though, this tag is probably completely ignored by most engines and won᾿t have much impact, positive or negative.

This was really just a brief overview, highlighting some of the most important aspects of these elements and the head section of your web pages. Far greater detail and strategies can be discussed, but seeing how often these are still implemented poorly, incorrectly, or not at all (at the time of this writing, Google shows 14.9 million pages with “Untitled Document,” the default page title used by most website creation software tools), sometimes it is good to keep it simple.

This may all seem a bit basic, but if you haven’t given much attention to these elements, you may be amazed at how much impact they may have on your search rankings and in delivering more visitors to you site. The last point to keep in mind is that all of these page elements, just like the page content itself, should be made for your visitors first and foremost.

Search Friendly Website – Talking to Spiders

As appeared in the Presence Pointers column of the April 2008 issue of “Business Watch” magazine.

On the simplest level, a Web site visitor can be classified as human or spider. Of course human visitors are obvious and highly desirable as they are the only one of the two that can buy from us. Back in November of 2007, I talked about the importance of making sure your Web site met your human visitors’ needs in the article, It’s not about you.

But what about these spiders? Is your Web site about them, and how could it be if it is about your human visitors? Thankfully, your site is still about your human visitors, even when the spiders come crawling. While your message doesn’t need to change, we may need to change how it is delivered to get the most out of the message for both humans and spiders.

The search engine spiders, or sometimes called crawlers or bots (short for robots), spend all of their time crawling the web. Their crawling is the first step that enables a Web page to be returned for a search in any of the search engines. There is much more that goes on than just crawling – the crawling is actually the easiest thing to understand about search engines; the indexing and retrieval aspects are far more complex.

For our sake, what is important to understand is that these spiders see the Web differently. Actually, they don’t see at all, which is one of the challenges. Without question, a Web site needs to speak to its human visitors, but we also want it to be meaningful to spiders too since it may be the search engines that help deliver many of our human visitors.

Spiders are all about text. Not only are they able to consider all of the words on a page through complex processing, they are also often able to understand some of the basic meaning and overall context of a page. Because of this, they can often determine the correct meaning of a word based on the other words around it and on the page.

Certain aspects of a page carry greater importance in establishing context. The title of a page, which appears in the top “chrome” of the browser window, is the most important element to a spider in understanding what the page is about. Headings on a page (e.g., h1, h2, h3, etc. tags) carry considerable importance to and their proper usage helps create content hierarchy.

Perhaps the next important element that you can control on your site is links. Links are a little different though than titles and headings as their primary signal is about the page the link leads to, rather than the page they are on.

So there we have three absolutely critical elements to focus on. Of course you want to make sure that the rest of your site is meaningful as well. Doing so will make sure that both types of visitors find what they want, what you have to offer and keep coming back for more.

Being Spider Friendly

    • Page titles (found within the title tags) should be topically relevant to the page they are on. Ideally they should use some of the most important keyword phrases related to the page. Most importantly, every page should have a unique page title.
    • Page headings should reinforce the page titles.
    • Links should be text-based, preferably, or if image-based, contain alternative attributes. The text, or alt text for images, should be topically relevant to the destination page, rather than things like “more,” “next,” or “click here.”
    • Any important text on a page should be in html rather than an image.
    • Flash®, which I covered in last August’s article Is your Web site Flash in the Pan?, is best used for accent and user interaction, but not as the primary page content or to deliver important information since spiders have a difficult time accessing and understanding text within Flash.

Leap Onto the Web

As appeared in the Presence Pointers column of the February 2008 issue of “Business Watch” magazine.

If your business doesn’t have a website yet, then this month’s column is especially for you. And even if you do have a site, it may still be worth the read. If you’ve been holding out on making the leap to the web, well it’s time to move past that. Web access is available in more businesses and homes than ever, and thanks to smart phones like the BlackBerry and iPhone, people have access to the web 24/7, just about anywhere they are.Let’s talk about this thing called “web design.” We’re going to bypass the do-it-yourself discussion. If you want to play around on your own with a hobby site or site for your family, great, but don’t jeopardize the image of your business while trying to learn web design — there’s much more to it than just understanding a little HTML code.Businesses will either have staff on hand or, more likely, will outsource the development of their site. It is very important to understand up front that graphic design and web design are extremely different things. Layout and graphics are only one part of web design — just go to a web page and right-click your mouse, and select “View Source.” As you can see, there is a lot more under the surface of a web page.

A little self-education is important to be able to talk intelligently with potential designers or your own staff. Since there isn’t enough space in this column to go into this in detail, here are seven important basics that you may want to consider and learn more about on your own. And over the next few months, we’ll tackle some of these in more detail.

Web Standards – developing websites around recommended technical best practices.

Table-less design – not relying on HTML tables to control the visual layout of a web page.

Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) – separates presentation from content and can dramatically reduce the amount of code per page, enable greater visual consistency across a site, and simplify styling and even visual layout changes to an entire site.

Accessibility – making a site accessible to as many users as possible; including the blind, visually impaired, those with motor-skill challenges, etc. — which also includes search engine spiders.

JavaScript and Flash usage – these technologies can provide great functionality, but can also hinder users and search engines, even preventing them from using your site.

Content Management System (CMS) – allows site owners to manage, edit, and update their sites on their own. However, there are many systems available, each with their own complexities, pros and cons.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) – while actually outside of the web design arena, SEO is an area of search marketing that deals with making a site optimal for search engines and helping to get site pages to rank higher in search engines. Designers that focus on web standards, accessibility, CSS, and table-less designs may indicate a better understanding of SEO, or at the very least, may help get your site part way there.

While this little run down is just scratching the surface, hopefully it helps to get the ball rolling. Today, having a website is expected and running a business without one is akin to having a business without a mailing address or a phone — although without one, you may never know how much business you lost.

5 Tips to getting the most out of your website

  • Be sure to add it to all literature: business cards, letterhead, sales materials, etc.
  • Running an ad through traditional marketing? Create a special landing page on your site and include the URL to that page in the ad instead of your homepage. Then you can track the amount of traffic and measure the effectiveness of the ad.
  • Get a lot of the same basic questions over and over? Add an FAQ or information section to your site to help field these.
  • Get links to your site from business partners or organizations you are in.
  • Your website as an investment in your business. You’ll only get out of it what you put into it, whether that is time or money.

Get Your Web Presence In Shape

As appeared in the Presence Pointers column of the January 2008 issue of “Business Watch” magazine.

So here we are and in the immortal words of John Lennon—“Another year over, and a new one just begun.” There’s something about the natural break between years that always make it a wonderful time for reflection and planning. So as you get ready for the new year to unfold… have you set any goals, made any plans, or even made any resolutions for the new year? Perhaps to get in better shape, maybe lose a little weight, improve your appearance, do more networking, get out and socialize, or improve your knowledge? Of course, I’m talking about your web presence—you’re on your own everywhere else. Seriously, why not use a little time now to make 2008 the best year online you’ve ever had? For those who still haven’t made that leap, now’s the perfect time since 2008 is a leap year.

Set Some Goals

Whether you have a website or will be planning for one, it helps to lay out some goals for the site. I know, you probably don’t like setting goals, or perhaps you don’t think you need to because they are so simple. But believe me, it won’t take long to lose sight of them or get distracted by something else if you don’t.

Do you want to drive more sales online? Do you want to drive more people to your physical store? Do you want to provide valuable information to potential or existing clients? Do you want your site to be a lead generator for your business? Do you want to improve your ranking in search engines? And the list could go on.

Evaluate Your Site

For those who do have a website, take a tour of your site, page by page, and honestly grade your site on how it is doing against your goals. Forget for a moment that you already know everything you need to know about your products or services. Forget that you know where everything is on your site. Would you still give your site the same grade?

Even better, have a friend do this exercise and see how they do. What are their challenges and complaints? Do they give the site the same grade as you? What about when you aren’t threatening them? I know it hurts, but only when you know, can your site be improved.

Plan For The Future

Now that you’ve done a little goal assessment and evaluated your existing site, if you have one, it’s time to lay some plans to get your site on the road to success. Make note of what you feel could be improved and new ideas you have. And if you don’t have one, already, start outlining what information you want to get across that meets your goals.

Okay, so this exercise should keep you plenty busy, but hopefully inside nice and warm. The good news is the whole focus here is on thinking, evaluating, and laying down ideas. You don’t have to act on anything yet…we’ll get to that next.

Get In Shape Plan

  • Write down 2-4 goals for your site.
  • Evaluate how your site is doing at meeting these goals.
  • Make note of places that are falling short, things that could be improved, ideas for new additions or things to explore this year.
  • Start thinking about what it will take to achieve your goals, fix or improve your web presence. Note which you can do and which will require assistance.
  • Prioritize your list based on what you feel is most important and achievable.