Restructuring page source order has become a recent phenomenon due to CSS layouts that allow developers to create visual presentation using stylesheets that break out of rigid inline, structurally ordered html. Separating presentation from content leads to this question: is placing content first more accessible?
Roger Hudson and Russ Weakley set out to answer three questions in their presentation, “Page Source Order and Accessibility”:
- Is source order important for screen reader users?
- Are skip links a waste of time?
- What are structural labels and do they help?
The study offers up user expectations and observed behavior of screen reader users and text browser users. The conclusions (or recommendations) that result are interesting and not necessarily what the average web developer might expect.
- The majority of screen reader users EXPECT navigation to be presented before the content.
- Research showed no clear overall PREFERENCE of source order.
- Inexperienced users may find presentation of content before navigation disorientating.
- Experienced users did not use skip links while moderately experienced users used them extensively.
- Overwhelming support for structural labels.
- Place navigation before content to benefit some screen reader users
- Include skip links
- Use meaningful headings
- Use descriptive links
- Use structural labels to identify navigational components of web pages.
- Use semantically correct and valid page code.
- Adhere to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.
The outcome of this study shows that more user testing would be wise. And, even though the expectations of screen reader users is dependent on the overall adoption of accessibility-minded practices (or not), the ability to successfully use a site also depends on that site’s own adherence to coding best practices within the context of it’s own unique layout.
One interesting aside that I would interject is a comparison of these recommendations with search engine optimization best practices. I read a later blog by Russ Weakley quoting advice from an SEO seminar where, “hiding text was described as a bad practice – regardless of the purpose or CSS method used.” Unfortunately this unsubstantiated rule pairs structural labeling using off-left text and the sIFR method against SEO recommendations. With regard to source order, my current assumption is that placing content first is best as long as the content contains links with descriptive link text. I suppose the very best source order would be title, short global nav, content with descriptive links, local nav, other cotnet, then footer.
In my opinion, accessible code leads to better search engine visibility. After listening to this podcast and reading the study, I have concluded that balancing SEO and accessibility will continue to be a challenge depending on both current coding practices (good or bad) and ever evolving search engine optimization guidelines.