Improving your Web Presence through Standards

Whether you have a Web site for your company now or you are debating about getting one, there are important factors you should know that can greatly enhance your Web presence. Non-standardized Web development has actually become the standard over the past several years, stemming from both lax habits by designers and competition among browser companies. This event is the catalyst for a wide array of issues from poor search engine rankings through to the entire lock-out of special needs persons from the Web – issues that most likely are or threaten to affect your Web site.

You may have heard rumblings about “Web Accessibility” or it may be a concept entirely new to you. When asked most people think this subject deals with “the creation of Web sites for the blind”. While creating Web environments that are considerate to the visually impaired and other challenged groups is a large part of the accessibility movement, there is much more to Web accessibility than just this. For the sake of this article, let’s break accessibility down into two channels, the moral channel and the logistical channel.

The most familiar face of accessibility deals with the moral obligation of levelling the playing field of the Web for equal access to persons in all walks of life. This battle is just gearing up and has already seen several successful law suits around the world in claims of breach of human rights. In the United States, Section 508 of the Disabilities Act defines public space to include Web sites and enforces the regulation strictly if government monies go toward its creation or upkeep. While Canada is still sleepy in this realm, our Human Rights Code has never defined public space as being solely physical which has many publicly funded organizations scrambling to ensure their sites are compliant to the US model.

The logistical channel of accessibility deals with a more benign legal aspect, but still has high costs associated with it if your site ignores them. For example, have you ever found yourself at a site that had a “menu” that you weren’t sure was in fact part of the site’s navigation? Unsure, you ended up clicking in a frustrated rage at the swirling red ball hoping it was a link to the information you wanted. Such a site violates both channels of accessibility.

Now think about your own site. There are likely quite a few accessibility points that you or even your designer may have overlooked that could leave your site out of search rankings making it essentially invisible to the world; or that could be preventing all devices and users from accessing it leaving you open to scrutiny or even future legal action. While a properly structured document is the concrete alternative, an interim solution can be realized by providing alternate content to your non-text based elements. This will make your site more accessible than without, both on moral and logistical grounds.

Search engines crawl the Web looking for resources and will reward accessible sites with high ranks on their keywords. Much like a screen reader that the visually impaired use, search engines read an entire site top to bottom skipping over non-text based content including images, movies, Flash and even those fancy headings that look so nice. This drives home the point that is so often ignored in Web development and that has led to it not following standard – the Web is an information medium not a visual medium.

Web content can be delivered in a multitude of ways other than fancy visuals including raw text, print, data mining, aural or tactile formats. Properly structuring your Web documents to the standards that are set forth by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) ensures that the information they contain can be accessed by any delivery method an end user may decide to use. A key to properly structuring a document is to initially create it completely free of presentation information which dictates how it should display (visual domination).

By separating presentation from structure you are providing a document that can be moulded into other forms on demand, need-by-need. Relax, this doesn’t mean your Web site will be an unappealing block of boring text – actually, it should allow your designer to flex the true muscles of the medium. Accessibility also transcends time and technology ensuring that devices like older browsers, PDA’s, assistive devices, search engines and even some cellular phones, (plus whatever new gadget will be adorning our belts in the near future), can fully access your site’s information.

It is for this great reward that accessible design is a methodology that should be employed from the ground up. While it can be retrofitted in stop-gap situations, it is not an upgrade option, up sell technique or some other extra feature to be tacked on a development contract for X dollars more. Many of the features associated with accessible design are part and parcel with streamlined, standardized structure and therefore should be more cost effective to create than many of today’s bloated visual only designs. Like an architect adheres to building codes, any professional designer should be deploying standard compliant, accessible sites as part of a best-practices approach.

When contracting for a Web site or even significant changes, be sure to ask questions about standardized code and accessibility when engaging a design firm. Do homework like you would with any other capital or large advertising investment and be a hands-on purchaser to ensure you are getting a sound, proactive Web site that will meet both your best interests and your customers’.