What Would Louis Do?
Last Thursday Google revealed a new search product called Google Accessible Search. This is an encouraging development, but it needs work. I have praised Google in the past for contributing to the web standards movement and promoting accessibility, mainly through the positive effects of its search algorithms on the rankings of standards-compliant pages, but it seems that the organisation is more ambivalent on these questions than I had realised (clever marketing graphics notwithstanding).
Ben Buchanan’s recent post, Google Accessible Search Isn’t, presents some reasonable criticisms. Why should the world’s premiere web search brand, develop a secondary search page to promote to users with disabilities when they are in such a strong position to champion the universal appeal of top-to-bottom accessibility? Why use tables for layout? Why use the
<font> tag? (There’s something a bit John Bender-ish about coming to Accessibility class and then littering your source with
<font> tags when nobody is looking.)
So what does Google’s new tool do? It filters query results to privilege accessible web sites. This provides visually-impaired users with hits that are easier to navigate than those provided by the regular Google search. I think that this is a great idea, but I agree with Ben that this technology should be targeted for inclusion in Google’s front page, rather than being one of it’s many side-projects. Accessibility is an issue of universality, not particularisms.
I suppose that extreme minimalism could account for the fact that Google’s own pages do not provide a DOCTYPE declaration, but this behaviour flies in the face of the W3C’s accessibility recommendations, of which Google themselves are official proponents, at least when they are advising others on how to improve their search rankings. But the Accessible Search results page that I just checked uses no less than 20 tables to display non-tabular information. This practice may slip past unnoticed by anyone using a common browser on a personal computer, but is clearly sub-optimal for non-standard user agents, which category includes not only screen-readers or braille displays but also devices such as mobile phones and PDAs. In an earlier post Buchanan summarised the situation perfectly:
Users with devices other than desktop PCs have the same requirements as disabled users. That means some of the most technology-savvy, youngest and brightest users are actually the ones at risk of hitting problems. The user base also includes key decision-makers like managers, CEOs and so on who like to have the latest and greatest toys.
That’s a substantial and growing base of users that don’t all fall into the category of “Visually Impaired” who could benefit hugely from the functions of the new accessible search, as long as their devices can wade through the tag soup surrounding the search results themselves. It’s still early days for this product and the fact that Google is soliciting feedback is encouraging. But the choice to recognise accessibility as a question of universal access, rather than political correctness, is a obviously a tough sell, even for Google. It’s a message that bears repeating: making accessibility a central goal of core services, and following the technical standards as closely as possible, will advance everyone’s interests in the present and future of the web.