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In recognizing the benefits of providing their resources to the visually impaired, as well as other handicapped individuals, Google Labs is developing a product known as Accessible Search.

Google’s main page is a very simple interface to a hugely complicated engine. However, even this simple interface can prove difficult for persons with disabilities. The Accessible Search interface remedies these problems.

Google Accessible Search does much more than simply provide an interface that is more easily used by persons with screen readers, or those with motor impairment. It actually gives a higher priority in search results to pages which are accessible.

Do visually impaired users need a specialized search engine?

Part of Google’s mission is to make information universally accessible. This is quite a lofty goal, and often not easily achieved by web sites.

When a visually impaired person uses a search engine, they are often presented with lists of web sites that do contain the information they want, but that information is contained within an inaccessible web page.

In order to relieve these users from the burden of examining perhaps dozens of sites in order to find one with easily accessible information, Accessible Search presents such sites at the top of the list of results.

What does this mean for site owners?

As this tool is still in development, the results may not have a significant impact on the majority of web sites. However, after its development stage, it may indeed present an opportunity for site owners to reach an even larger group of users.

For those who choose to disregard this development, it may mean that they will shut out a group of valuable customers. Can you afford to do that?

What makes a page accessible?

There are many factors involved in evaluating the accessibility of a web page. Google currently uses their own guidelines, which are still under development.

These guidelines include the overall simplicity of a page, the amount of visual imagery it contains, and whether or not the page is functional when using only keyboard navigation instead of a mouse.

For many organizations, a more strict set of guidelines are used, namely those of the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). Three levels of compliance are used: A, AA, and AAA.

United States government agencies are required to comply with U.S. Section 508 guidelines when creating their web sites.

Such a wide variety of guidelines and levels of conformance can be confusing, causing many web developers to ignore the issue completely.

How can I make my site more accessible?

With an existing web site, it can be a daunting task to attempt compliance with one or another set of guidelines.

There are several services available online which can perform an analysis of a given page (or an entire site) to determine its level of compliance with each particular level of accessibility

By using the results of such an analysis a web developer or webmaster can see which portions of a site need the most (or least) amount of work in order to achieve compliance.

The most cost-effective means, by far, is to construct a site with web accessibility issues in mind from the very beginning. If you, or your web development team, are not already doing this, you could be costing yourself money in the future.

What’s the bottom line?

In the end, it appears that ignoring web accessibility issues, which can already be a costly mistake, may be an even greater financial strain in the future.

Already, failing to provide accessible information and functionality on your web site could result in legal battles by users who feel they are being discriminated against.

By providing the means for the visually impaired, as well as other challenged users, you are increasing your visibility in at least one search engine, and increasing your own bottom line.

About this SEO article

This article was written by Dan Johnson, former Web Architect & Senior SEO Technician at SEO Workers and was published November 04, 2006.

Copyright reserved. Not to be reproduced.