Google Accessible Search: helpful or not?

Written By: Peter Abrahams
Content Copyright © 2006 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

Google have just announced Accessible Search; what is it and will it really help the visually impaired access usable information? The simplest way to answer the first question is to quote from the FAQ page that comes with it:

What is Google Accessible Search?
Accessible Search is an early Google Labs product designed to identify and prioritize search results that are more easily usable by blind and visually impaired users. Regular Google search helps you find a set of documents that is most relevant to your tasks. Accessible Search goes one step further by helping you find the most accessible pages in that result set.

How does Accessible Search work?
In its current version, Google Accessible Search looks at a number of signals by examining the HTML markup found on a web page. It tends to favour pages that degrade gracefully—pages with few visual distractions and pages that are likely to render well with images turned off. Google Accessible Search is built on Google Co-op’s technology, which improves search results based on specialized interests.

Why is Google offering this?
Accessible Search is a natural and important extension of Google’s overall mission to better organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible. Google Accessible Search is designed to help the visually challenged find the most relevant, useful and comprehensive information, as quickly as possible.

In the past, visually impaired Google users have often waded through a lot of inaccessible websites and pages to find the required information. Our goal is to provide a more useful and accessible web search experience for the blind and visually impaired.

How do you decide which sites are “accessible” and which are not?
Broadly, Google defines accessible websites and pages as content that the blind and visually challenged can use and consume using standard online technology, and we’ve worked with a number of organizations to determine which websites and pages meet those criteria. Our methods for identifying accessible pages and content are always evolving; Currently we take into account several factors, including a given page’s simplicity, how much visual imagery it carries and whether or not it’s primary purpose is immediately viable with keyboard navigation.

How can sites make their content more accessible to the blind?
Some of the basic recommendations on how to make a website more useable and accessible include keeping Web pages easy to read, avoiding visual clutter—especially extraneous content—and ensuring that the primary purpose of the Web page is immediately accessible with full keyboard navigation. There are many organizations and online resources that offer Website owners and authors guidance on how to make websites and pages more accessible for the blind and visually impaired. The W3C publishes numerous guidelines including Web Content Access Guidelines that are helpful for Website owners and authors. Broad adherence to these guidelines is one way of ensuring that sites are universally accessible.

Bloor’s comments
So is this a useful piece of technology?

  1. It is obviously an interesting idea and on a very limit set of tests it did reorder query results with more accessible pages at the top.
  2. The search page does not tell you that this is a pre-production system; you only find this out in the terms and conditions. The fact that the url begins with may give you a clue but I think people should be aware of the status when they first use it.
  3. It is not in full production at the moment so it does not include sponsored pages in the results. Some people might consider this an advantage but my feeling is if an organisation is willing to pay for the sponsorship there is a good chance that they will have something useful to say, or sell to you. I think sponsored links should be added, Google might consider prioritising the adverts according to their accessibility as well.
  4. The test is an automatic test and the industry agrees that automated testing has limitations.
  5. At present most of the testing is based on the target page, which may not be a good indication of the accessibility of the rest of the site. Some indication of the quality of the rest of the site should be included.
  6. The system would be greatly improved if the users could give feedback on the accessibility of the sites and this was taken into consideration for future searches.

On the whole I think this is an interesting move by Google and should be encouraged by the accessibility community and used as a basis to ask for further improvement to the search and also to other facilities that Google provides. Please try it and add your comments to this article.