The accessible business

Internet payments giant PayPal yesterday released a survey showing how businesses with a website grow faster than those without an online presence.

There’s no surprise to anyone paying attention that a business website is essential, but what happens if a business’ site isn’t accessible to those with impaired eyesight or a disability?

We tend not to think about accessibility issues when building websites and that oversight might be hurting the effectiveness of our online marketing efforts.

Access iQ was launched two weeks ago by Media Access Australia, a not-for-profit organisation that works to improve disabled access to the media which was formed out of the sale of the Australian Caption Centre in 2005.

Federal Disability Commissioner Graeme Innes pointed out at the Access iQ launch that accessibly makes life easier for everyone – making shopping centres and footpaths easier for wheelchairs to navigate also made those places more accessible for parents with prams, the elderly and able-bodied people. Everybody, particularly the shopkeepers, won by making things easier for everybody.

What’s true in the physical world has even more effect online, as the features which accessibility programs use are the same ones the all-important search engines use when ranking websites.

Titles, headings and metadata – the descriptions of the site, pages and images built into websites – are important as they let search engines and accessibility programs understand what a site is actually about.

Getting your metadata right is a basic part of Search Engine Optimisation and it’s key to having an accessible website as well.

A good tool for checking how well metadata is being used on your website is the Australian diagnostic site BuiltWith, whose free service gives you a basic report on how a page is using SEO best practices.

While how well a site uses headings and metadata is important, it’s also important that the site works properly. Problems with a website’s design make it run slower and can affect how it works in some browsers. So minimising design errors on a page matters as well.

The best tool for checking a website’s underlying code is the W3C’s Markup Validation Service. This checks your site is complying with web standards and picks up any errors that might have crept into the design. Eliminating as many errors as possible means the site runs quicker while improving the SEO and accessibility aspects.

For checking accessibility issues, the Web Accessibility Evaluation tool (WAVE), shows you where problems might lie in your site and steps through each part of a page highlighting potential issues.

While a website’s code isn’t something business managers and owners should spend a lot of time worrying about, the accessibility and SEO does matter, so it’s good practice to use these tools to check how your site is performing.

Once you’ve run these tests, sit down with your website developer and see where you can improve. The more accessible a web site is, the more it will help your customers.

Paul Wallbank is one of Australia’s leading experts on how industries and societies are changing in this connected, globalised era. When he isn’t explaining technology issues, he helps businesses and community organisations find opportunities in the new economy.


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