It Pays to Play by the Rules - Compliance, Accessibility and SEO

Companies big and small often attribute their success to having their sites well-ranked in organic search results. Unfortunately, many of these companies don't pay enough attention to other crucial factors, such as W3C compliance and accessibility – both important factors in improving your e-business.

What does it mean to have a compliant or accessible Web site? When I reference compliant Web sites, I am referring to whether or not a Web site abides by the rules of the W3C (World Wide Web consortium). The W3C rules function not just as a guide for what the end result should look like, but also as a starting point for Web developers to seek out the most efficient way in making a site compliant. Compliance is crucial for cross-browser Web site compatibility and lighter code, both of which enhance the user experience. Following the W3C rules, however, is only the first step.

There's another side to this that many people tend to ignore. Compliance alone isn't everything. The manner in which sites are coded and put together in addition to being compliant makes the real difference. The idea is that you want to build your site using what is called "semantic markup," using a human-readable layout.

Your Web site's HTML code should read like any document. The table of contents (navigation) belongs at the top. Your headings are placed in order of importance (H1, H2, H3, etc.). Beneath each heading you should include relevant body copy. Below this, you might have additional information such as secondary navigation, call-outs and footer information. This is the basic idea behind "human-readable content."

Search engines are programmed to try to do what we humans do naturally. The only problem is that they are machines and they need everything spelled out for them. The way you achieve this is by coding your Web site using CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), and not with tables. Tables should be used for "tabular data" only and not for layouts. When using semantic markup and table-less design, the appearance of your site is controlled using CSS.

By using semantic markup and following W3C Compliance, you're also building Web sites that use significantly less code, are smaller in file size, and are therefore both easy to crawl and friendly to a search engine's cache. Additionally, smaller file sizes mean less server load, which is especially important to high-traffic shopping Web sites or seasonal Web sites.

To be fair, the people that I've spoken with at Google and Yahoo have told me that they don't care how large a Web site's file size may be. At a minimum, though, I know that smaller pages will result in a better user experience, and if it happens to help with the search engine, that's an added benefit.

Semantic Markup and Accessibility Go Hand in Hand

People with decent vision can follow the visual layout of a Web site. This is why most Web design firms focus on how "most" people would view the Web site. However, it's not all about appearances. When you look under the hood of a site, the structure of code and information should be just as organized as the visual display. Visually impaired people use screen readers to access the content of Web sites. A screen reader basically works in the same manner as a text browser. Most search engine optimization firms will look at their clients' Web sites in a text browser to review how a Web site may look to a search engine. Text browsers work a lot like search engines in that they cannot view images. They can, however, read the alt text associated with an image.

Accessibility basically refers to the principle that says Web sites should be available to all people who want to view the Web site. First and foremost, this includes the visually impaired, and also those who may have any number of disabilities. Building a Web site to make it usable by everyone is not only the right thing to do, it also happens to help you with search engine optimization. If you want further inspiration for making your Web site accessible, take a moment and complete the simulation available at WebAIM.

As you may have read, there was a ruling in September against Target.com by the Association for Blind People, that accessible Web sites are just as important as wheelchair access to retail establishments. There's a terrific article on this in DMNews. As this article states, making your Web site accessible does not have to be a hugely expensive task. Simple things such as proper use of alt text to describe images, using descriptive anchor text to describe internal links rather than "click here," making sure that someone can use the Enter key on their keyboard to submit information rather than having to use their mouse...these simple steps will go a long way in helping you to make your Web site more accessible.

Recently, there was a press release speaking to an association between Amazon and the National Federation of the Blind to cooperate on ensuring that Amazon's Web site is accessible to the blind. Interestingly enough, Amazon also was given credit for its accessibility efforts in this 2001 EcommerceTimes article.

At the end of the day, you are interested in search engine optimization because it's a tool to help you grow your business via the Web. If you represent an e-commerce site, then you have yet another reason to be concerned with accessibility. According to the census bureau, there are 1.5 million visually impaired people using the Internet. This is relatively old data, as I've seen articles dating back to 2001 that refer to that same number. This is a somewhat captive audience since the visually impaired person has limited transportation options for shopping at brick-and-mortar retail locations.

If you can deliver an accessible Web site, you may have just created a tremendous market growth opportunity for yourself. At the same time that you've improved the site's accessibility, you've made your site more search engine friendly, which should lead to higher rankings, which should lead to more targeted traffic to your site, which should lead to more sales.

Building a compliant and accessible Web site is going to help you create a search engine friendly Web site. It's also the right thing to do. To learn more about Section 508, visit the official Section 508 Web site.

About the author

Mark Jackson, President and CEO of Vizion Interactive, a search engine optimization company. Mark joined the interactive marketing fray in early 2000. His journey began with Lycos/Wired Digital and then AOL/Time Warner. After having witnessed the bubble burst and its lingering effects on stability on the job front (learning that working for a "large company" does not guarantee you a position, no matter your job performance), Mark established an interactive marketing agency and has cultivated it into one of the most respected search engine optimization firms in the United States.

Vizion Interactive was founded on the premise that honesty, integrity, and transparency forge the pillars that strong partnerships should be based upon. Vizion Interactive is a full service interactive marketing agency, specializing in search engine optimization, search engine marketing/PPC management, SEO friendly Web design/development, social media marketing, and other leading edge interactive marketing services, including being one of the first 50 beta testers of Google TV.

Mark is a board member of the Dallas/Fort Worth Search Engine Marketing Association (DFWSEM) and a member of the Dallas/Fort Worth Interactive Marketing Association (DFWIMA) and is a regular speaker at the SES and Pubcon conferences.

Mark received a BA in Journalism/Advertising from The University of Texas at Arlington in 1993 and spent several years in traditional marketing (radio, television, and print) prior to venturing into all things "Web."

Read more of Mark Jackson's columns at ClickZ.