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Web Usability and Accessibility Are As Important As Search Engine Prominence

So you’ve optimised your website, done the keyword research, got the backlinks and everything is ethical. You’re sitting proudly on the first page of the search results. Or you’ve set up a pay per click campaign, bid on your keywords, created some ads and performance tracking is in place. Again, you’re at the top of the pile. Either way, you’re visible and people are visiting your website. But visitors aren’t converting into leads, prospects or customers. What’s going wrong? Well your website may be visible, but is it connecting?

Having attracted visitors to your website through prominent search engine placements, it is vital not to lose them by failing to connect. Different visitors will have different priorities and levels of satisfaction. In order to reach and retain as many as possible and to maximise the chances of conversion, you should consider your site’s usability and accessibility.

Web usability

Usability is all about providing your visitors with an effective, efficient and satisfying experience. It’s common knowledge that visitors tend to glance at, and scan, pages rather than study them in any great detail. If the message and options are not clear, they may leave. If they don’t leave, the chances are that they will click on the first link that seems to be most relevant – it may not be the right one. Repeat the process a few times and soon a visitor can be lost, confused and frustrated. Either way the result is the same – missed opportunity and little likelihood of a return visit.

The more self-evident your pages are, the greater the chance of converting the visitor into a prospect or customer.

12 simple tips for a more usable website

1. On the home page make it clear what the site is all about.
2. Make the purpose of each page obvious.
3. User hierarchical headings to give clear structure to the copy.
4. Make the navigation and links obvious.
5. Use clear unambiguous wording.
6. Make the options and next steps obvious.
7. Remove any wording or imagery that is unnecessary, confusing or distracting.
8. Use consistent conventions throughout.
9. Include site search and a site map.
10. Make information such as contact details, pricing and delivery charges clearly accessible.
11. Make the pages printable by including a cascading style sheet for printing.
12. Don’t allow careless errors to make your site look unprofessional.

Browsers create their own set of problems

One more tip – just because your website works fine in your browser of choice, do not assume that it will work equally well in all browsers. In fact it is not even safe to assume that it will work equally well in different versions of the same browser. Web designers who have had to cope with the incompatibilities of IE5, IE6 and now IE7 will no doubt testify to this point. It is vital to be sure that your website works on all the popular browsers. As well as IE and Firefox, don’t forget Netscape and Opera on Windows and Safari on the Mac. And just to muddy the waters a bit further, Apple have recently announced Safari for Windows.

So now your website is usable, but is it usable by everybody? For some, usability is just a small obstacle when compared to the barrier of accessibility.

Web accessibility

All businesses in virtually all countries have a legal obligation to make their websites accessible to people with disabilities, otherwise they are discriminating. Given that something like 15% of the population have some sort of disability, that’s a sizeable market proportion. If you’re not reaching them, your competitors probably are.

One of the many myths surrounding web accessibility is that blind people are the only ones who need to be catered for. Whilst blind people and their use of assistive technologies to read web pages are an obvious and important example, consider also people with other visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive and neurological impairments.

How does a colour-blind person cope with page colours?

How does someone with a mobility impairment manage without being able to use a mouse?

How does a deaf person gain access to auditory content?

How does someone with attention deficit disorder make sense of the pages?

Web pages should be accessible to all of them. And it’s not just disabled people who will benefit. Older people, people with low literacy levels, people who are not fluent in the website language, people with low bandwidth connections, people using older technologies and people with short-term injuries and illnesses will also benefit.

9 tips for a more accessible website

1. Provide all images with an alternative text description. If the image does not convey any information, provide null (blank) text rather than no alternative text at all.

2. Provide transcripts of audio content.

3. Ensure that the contrast between text foreground and background colours is sufficiently strong.

4. Do not use colour alone to convey information. There should also be some other form of visual indicator such as additional characters, images or font changes.

5. Place column headings in the first row of a table and place row headings in the first column. If headings are ambiguous, use the HTML scope attribute to clarify.

6. Never use the HTML blink and marquee elements. For animated GIFs or other moving objects, the flicker frequency must be less than 2 Hz or greater than 55 Hz. But better to have no moving content at all.

7. Link text should clearly state the purpose and destination of the link. Phrases like Click Here may mean nothing to someone listening to a screen reader.

8. Provide an option to skip navigation on all pages. This will save screen reader users from having to repetitiously listen to the same navigation, and keyboard users from having to repetitiously tab through every item. Use hierarchical headers to provide the same benefit and to enable navigation through copy.

9. On forms, always associate prompts with controls so that each control is adequately described. Use the HTML fieldset and legend tags to give structure to complex forms.

The importance of web standards

Usable, accessible web pages can only be achieved through strict compliance with the standards set by the World Wide Web Consortium. They provide a platform for consistency, compatibility, stability, flexibility and extensibility. Implementing standards throughout a website’s design will address many usability and accessibility issues by default.

Last and certainly not least

Usability and accessibility alone will not suddenly convert all your visitors into customers. Content is vital to a website’s delivery capability. But at least those visitors may now stick around long enough to look at the content.

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About the Author: Eugene Mulligan is a search engine marketing consultant based in Somerset, UK. Operating through his company, Egn Webcraft (http://www.egnwebcraft.co.uk), he provides search engine optimisation, pay per click management and web development services to organisations seeking to improve their website’s visibility and capability.

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