Google Accessibility Search

August 1, 2006

Topics: Accessibility, Web standards.

Well, I’m back from my travels (more on that later), and I’d say that what seems the most interesting to me in the mountains of documents metaphorically sitting in my inbox is the introduction of Google’s Accessible Web Search.

The idea is absolutely valuable, in my mind. Like other indexes of accessible web sites, it gives the impaired user the ability to search knowing that what they find will also be something that they can actually use. However, having a brilliant idea doesn’t necessarily make the product all that great.

I’m certainly not the first to comment on this, but the several others who have had comments to make have generally agreed that the realization is flawed. First of all, there’s Google’s standard non-standards-based web design. Sure, it’s a very simple page, and there’s not much there to confuse the visitor. I can accept that. This isn’t necessarily a page where they precision of the code makes that much difference. However, it’s also worthwhile to look at the effort which would be required to make the page accessible. A reasonably competent standards based designer should be able to convert this page into strict HTML with CSS design with no more than a commitment of a few hours. Can Google not spare a few hours to take care of this? Perhaps Google is over-committed to their new development to spare the time to actually perfect anything older…

If Google would just take the time to make it’s search interface accessible and standards-based it would allow this accessible search to make a much greater impact. If, in addition to that, Google would spend the time to make ALL of it’s interfaces accessible, I would consider that one of the best things since sliced bread. It’s a tiny little piece of development in comparison to the complexity of many of Google’s projects – just make those search interfaces and results pages accessible. So simple, and so needed.

A second problem is in the project tagline: "Accessible Web Search for the Visually Impaired ". There’s a big problem right there – is Google ignoring all other modes of accessibility? I understand that it’s rather a difficult prospect to identify whether a site is accessible to individuals with motor control problems or with dyslexia – but I would appreciate an acknowledgement that accessibility on the web is far more than just sites for people visual impairments.

I’m left wondering exactly how Google identifies accessible sites. In the FAQ is the statement:

Google Accessible Search looks at a number of signals by examining the HTML markup found on a web page. It tends to favor pages that degrade gracefully —– pages with few visual distractions and pages that are likely to render well with images turned off. […] Currently we take into account several factors, including a given page’s simplicity, how much visual imagery it carries and whether or not its primary purpose is immediately viable with keyboard navigation.

OK. Well, I’m not one-hundred percent sure what this means – can Google determine the difference between images which are accompanied by good Alt text and bad? Can they determine when images are necessary to the meaning of a page or not? This sounds much like complex pages with numerous images are candidates to immediate exclusion – but what is complexity? The visual layout can be very complex and yet contain an incredibly simple underlying structure in accessible design. It all depends on how the site has been designed to degrade or be user controlled.

I’m not expecting Google to come up with an algorithm which can definitively decide whether a page is accessible. The top experts in the field don’t always agree when it comes to a personal review of a site – it’s unreasonable to expect a search algorithm to do better. I would merely like greater transparency about the issues that Google is looking at to decide accessibility.

I applaud Google for the concept and the principles behind the Accessible Web Search, and wish them the best in making it a real, practical, and valuable resource for impaired populations. I also implore them to take their ideals to the next step and embrace web standards and accessibility in their own development and interfaces.