Underground Accessibility Tips

» What You Don’t Know Can Hurt — A Lot!

Accessibility is a simple concept, but one that becomes difficult to implement within the realities of e-commerce. If you’re wondering why your visitor-to-buyer conversion rate is sub-par, and why visitors don’t stick around longer, accessibility may be the problem. It may also be the solution.

Accessibility is simply making your site user friendly from the top down, beginning to end, and it entails everything from HTML descriptors to the labels on navigation buttons.

Let’s Start With HTML Description Tags
Your site’s HTML description appears below the site’s link on search engine results pages (SERPs). It’s your opportunity to provide a prospective consumer of your goods or services with a description of what you offer. Problem is, a lot of description tags are inadequate, or worse, misleading.

A description tag that’s simply loaded with key words doesn’t help your visitors, though it may improve your PR (that’s debatable, too). Here’s an example:

XYZ Bow and Arrow (link text listed on a SERP) bows, arrows, bow hunting, bow hunting supplies, hunting, hunting supplies, bow and arrow supplies, bow and arrow targets, long bows, competition bows, crossbows, crossbow darts….. (the text from the site’s description tag — guess what they sell).

The reader will get the idea, but the text isn’t exactly compelling. Would you want to visit this site? Or, would this be the first site you’d select:

ABC Bow and Arrow
Owned and run by bow hunters, offering a complete line of products and services, on-line lessons, informative articles, product reviews, weekly specials and toll-free, personalized service…

Most of us would opt for the ABC shop over the XYZ operation for one reason — engaging, accurate, detailed, readable, accessible text. The description is just that — a short description of products, services and site content — and it sells the site.

The key to writing description text that works is to write for human eyeballs, not for the digital feelers of a passing SE crawler. New site owners (and some oldies, too) still operate under the out-dated axiom that search engines will make or break your site, so everything must appeal to whatever search engine algorithm is being used to rank sites.

This is Stone Age thinking (relatively speaking, of course) given the highly sophisticated site weighting systems in use today by the likes of Google, Yahoo and Inktomi. Key word dense site text, and key word dense HTML descriptors, aren’t going to improve your PR as they did in days past. Today’s SEs rely more on quality of text and quality of descriptions to assign sites their PRs. Garbage gets you nowhere anymore.

Split Up Your Text
Big blocks of text are difficult to get through on the computer screen, especially for visitors with less than 20/20 vision (that’s most of us). Plus, visitors are an impatient lot. They don’t want to plow through pages of text to find the kernel of information they’re looking for.

Break up your text into smaller, bite-sized pieces and use many sub-heads to direct people to specific information or site features. Good accessibility = lots of <h2> — that’s sub-heads in HTMLspeak.

Provide a Site Map
A site map enables visitors to find what they’re looking for fast — a real convenience if you carry lots of products or provide lots of services. Users simply access the site map, click on the appropriate link and the right page appears before the right reader. Cool.

Cooler still? SE spiders love site maps. They gobble them up and google them out. SE spiders crawl sites anywhere from once every 48 hours (Yahoo) to once every two weeks (Google). Creating a site map enables you to add or delete site features that will then be picked up quickly by crawlers. So, not only does a site map increase accessibility, it also gets site changes picked up a whole lot faster.

Navigation is the tools used to move about your site — links, buttons, scroll bars, dropdown menus, etc. All navigation devices should be well labeled, and just as importantly, labeled with consistency. If you label a red navigation button ‘Click Here’ on the home page, all similar links should show the same text, in the same font and in the same color…and if possible, in the same location on the computer screen. Your visitors may not pick up on this little courtesy, but they sure will appreciate it.

Keep It Simple
Unless you’re writing about the uses of nanotechnology in mapping the human genome, keep it simple. People don’t want to be hit with a bunch of $10 words. Design your text to be read by an eighth grader. The eighth graders will love you, and those reading at higher levels will appreciate the simplicity.

One final thought — and an important one, at that. Accessibility isn’t a one-time thing. It’s not something you do when you design and launch your site — it’s a process, not an end-result.

SE algos are tweaked often and changed frequently, so what may be accessible today may not be so accessible tomorrow. Also, as you start to hear back from visitors, you’ll discover the weaknesses in your site’s design — maybe even a dead end that requires the user to back out of your site. Now, that’s not going to be a very happy buyer.

Review your site regularly for accessibility issues. Listen to your customers (and anyone else, for that matter). Ask your digitally challenged Uncle Jim to navigate your site. If you get questions like, “What do I do now?” or “What does this thing-a-ma-bob do?” you’ve identified accessibility issues that should be addressed. Thanks Uncle Jim, care for some coffee?

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