A Guide To Inclusive Link Building For The Visually Impaired

I’ve been interested in assistive technology for years, dating back to when I was (briefly) a social worker and I saw how differently abled users navigated the Internet.

As an SEO and a link builder, I’m tasked with making sure that search engines and users can find and interpret content, but as you can imagine, what works for one group doesn’t necessarily work for another.

With this in mind, I decided to take a couple of my link builders and go visit a few folks at our local Industries of the Blind (which I’ve toured before thanks to my friend and neighbor, Director of Operations Richard Oliver, featured on the homepage), in order to see how fully blind users navigate the Web using a screen reader program called JAWS. (JAWS stands for Jobs Access With Speech.)

As you might have guessed, I’m interested in how these users deal with on-page links and images, with anchors and ALT text. It didn’t hurt that the two men that we met with sounded exactly like Morgan Freeman, either.

“By Federal regulations if you are considered visually impaired, you are not blind. Visual impairment runs between 20/70 and 20/100. Legal blindess is 20/200 in best eye with corrective lens or less than 20% field of view. So if you are blind you are visually impaired, but if you are visually impaired you are not legally blind.” ~ Richard Oliver

(For an idea of how JAWS works on a web page, see this JAWS demo video)

Cliff and Chris Alexander are twins who work with my friend at Industries of the Blind. Both are totally blind and use the computer in their employment. Chris demonstrated the JAWS software for us  and nicely gave me a free little usability consultation when I asked him to see how my agency’s site worked with the system. (It’s good!)

Now, this isn’t a review of the software, but a quick bit of information about it will show you why I’m so interested in it. JAWS reads out content, lists links, and describes images.

While the amount of content the system read out seemed fairly overwhelming to me, Chris was able to process it very easily and figure out what he wanted in about 5 seconds. He’s obviously used to using the software, but it did make me think about cumbersome, irrelevant content.

It also made me realize how poor a practice it is to slap in overly-keywordized ALT tags on images just to improve rankings.

If that image really is a “tiny little orange widget” then by all means, let that be your ALT text, but if it’s a photo of a nice, friendly bumblebee and your ALT is “play poker online” then you’re not only a poor SEO, you’re a misleading one.

JAWS screen reader example


Cleaning Out The Clutter In Code & Copy

Content clutter is a nightmare in general, but think about the impact of this on users who use a screen reader.

If you’ve never witnessed a visually impaired user (whether it’s full blindness or partial) having to wade through the audio of a poorly formatted and cluttered page, waiting for relevant information, you may not understand the effect that all this extra junk has on a person.

While Chris truly blew my mind with how quickly he could figure out the information that he needed and act on it, it was still a mess at times.

What if he’d found your site and wanted your product or service, but finally left for your competitor after being subjected to a ton of audio nonsense?

I’m not suggesting that we all stop being wordy, but I am suggesting that when we write, we make sure that it sounds ok when read out loud.

While statistics on how many people use a screen reader aren’t that readily available, it was reported in 2008 that 25.2 million Americans were unable to see even with the aid of lenses of some sort. That’s a lot of potential lost conversions, and a lot of people unfairly forced to work harder to do something that many of us take for granted.

Obviously,there are users with visual impairments who do not need or use screen readers.

My friend Richard, for example, is legally blind and has zero vision in one eye, with limited vision in the other. He is able to use mobile devices and a computer without needing a screen reader, although he does use a really cool magnifier which makes him look a bit like a preppy spy.

His wife is also legally blind and just holds a screen up close and squints at it in order to read it.

If either of them are reading a webpage that has links on it that aren’t coded to look like links which are easily recognizable as gateways to another page or site, they obviously aren’t going to find them and click. Of course, neither am I — most likely, neither are you, even if your vision is 20/20.

That’s a bad practice no matter how good or bad your vision is. Still, I have run across text that I think must be a link even though it doesn’t appear to be, possibly because links are my life and I’m suspicious, but obviously a simple mouseover proves me right or wrong. Someone with a visual impairment probably isn’t going to do that.

More Tips To Make Your Internal Link Building Inclusive

What about colorblind users? We’ve been fortunate enough to see recent posts being written about this so I won’t go into it in detail here, although some of my recommendations for making links accessible to visually impaired users do deal with this. In case you’re interested, Jordan Kasteler wrote a really good post about accessible web design on the Blueglass blog.

Also consider problems with a recommendation that most of us link builders do constantly make to clients: noise anchors. “Click here” doesn’t exactly tell you what type of data you’ll encounter if you do indeed click. Noise anchors are good for fleshing out a link profile because they are a natural way that people have linked in the past, but they aren’t descriptive for a visually impaired user.

If a screen reader reads out “Click here”, will the user ignore the link? I most likely would, especially if I had to listen to a screen reader quickly running through a list of links. This is a good case for brand and URL links, though, providing your company isn’t boringly named something like A Great Company.

Image link examples

The Next Frontier For Web Accessibility

In recent news about assistive technology, the American Council of the Blind announced that they are partnering with Google in order to better assess how blind, visually impaired, and deaf-blind users make use of the Web and access information.

So to conclude, here are a few best practices for optimizing links for visually impaired users:

  • Underline your links for users who aren’t using a screen reader but may have visual impairment and not be able to recognize a link otherwise.
  • Make your links a different color than the surrounding text, and make that different color a shade that is very different from your regular text so that a colorblind user can determine that it’s a link.
  • Make visited links a different color than nonvisited links.
  • Use relevant title and ALT text in order to describe an image. Depending upon your browser, you may see one or the other when you mouseover an image. However,  ALT is the standard used in screen readers.
  • Be careful when using noise anchors and ALT  text; if a screen reader is being used, something irrelevant or not very descriptive can easily cost you a click.
  • Make sure your content (all of it, including your anchors, ALT texts, etc.) makes sense when read out loud.
  • When using image links, name the images in a relevant manner. An image named something like “image51.jpg” isn’t likely to generate enough interest for a click. The ALT  text should be read out if a screen reader is being used, but to cover all your bases, consider relevant naming for the images themselves, as if no ALT text is found, some systems will indeed try to determine what the image is based on its file name.
  • Be careful when sending links to subpages that aren’t relevant to the anchor or ALT text. This can cause annoyance and loss of time if a visually impaired user has to continue to back out and search for a new link to get to the desired content.

So let’s all try and be more inclusive when we build links. As you may have ascertained, the practices listed above are simply common sense for any user.

By making our content as clutter-free and navigable as possible and our links relevant and descriptive, we all stand the chance to do better business on the Web. If you have any other ideas for ways to help make links more usable for the visually impaired, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Image courtesy of http://www.standards-schmandards.com


Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Link Building | Link Building: General | Link Week Column


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  • schachin

    While I will never say anything but kudos to someone wanting to help move forward the cause of accessibility, especially in matters of alt tagging and link creation the article is a little light on the standards and resources that could help people better do this. It is not as random or as much guesswork as it sounds from here.

    I am (among other things) an accessibility compliance specialist. I have worked on sites for agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA and the GSA.

    Though I advocate the term Universal Design instead of accessibility because using accessibility standards helps websites render correctly in all browser and mobile platforms, widen the potential user base of a website, decrease IT costs and helps with organic search. When we call it accessibility, for better or worse, many think of it as the red headed step child of website dev or the welfare of websites. (not me, please do not throw stones or flames my way, just sadly the case) So I find telling businesses how beneficial these standards are for their sites helps tremendously.

    Now to the standards. It is more than just putting different colors, the colors have to meet color blind and luminosity tests (Juicy Toolbar is excellent for this), text and links actually have color ratios they meet depending on the standard you have chosen, and alt text should only be used to describe EXACTLY the words in the image, the object or if only a decorative image not at all (never add image, photo, pic, logo etc).

    So where do you get these standards? Well forget whatever you have ever heard about 508. 508 is an American only standard that will be done away with in the near enough future. If you are going to take the time to work on accessibility use the WCAG AA standard. (There is A, AA, and AAA) This will help you make sure to reach as many people as possible w/o restrictions that prevent you from using technologies or design elements you would like.

    Now if you want to learn about how to do this, so that you are not guessing what someone with an assistive device needs read the following sites.

    One of the pioneers of accessibility – http://www.jimthatcher.com/
    WebAim which is a great site filled with much info — http://webaim.org/

    Ok hope this helps and again thank you for adding your thoughts to a much needed topic.

    PS The Justice Dept will be very likely be requiring some commercial sites become compliant at some point in the not so distant future. Just a heads up.

  • http://donrhoades.com Don Rhoades

    Very interesting, Julie

    I have used this resource for guidelines, though I’ve never had to earn an actual approval. http://bobbyapproved.com/accessibility-statement

    Here is a bit of background on Bobby Approval: http://bobbyapproved.com/accessibility-statement

  • http://www.linkfishmedia.com Julie Joyce

    Hi @schachin…thanks for your comment, and I agree that it’s definitely light on the issue in general, as I am certainly not a specialist in this field by any stretch. I mainly just want to get people thinking about this more, on a basic level, at the very least.

    It’s a fascinating area though, and one I’d love to (and plan to) dig into further. Thanks again for the info!

    And Don…thanks for those links!

  • http://www.accessibleweb.eu/ Dick Morton

    I would agree with the comments about following WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) for good practice in accessibility, although interestingly, in version 2 of these guidelines it is no longer a requirement to avoid “click here” type links, providing that the destination of the link can be found within context (e.g. info in the same paragraph or list item). I am not defending that change, just pointing it out.

    One other thing that can help visually impaired users access links is in the case of buttons or button-like objects where it is always better to make the whole button clickable rather than just the link text itself.

  • http://www.linkfishmedia.com Julie Joyce

    Hi Dick.

    Interesting about the change to no longer avoid nondescriptive links…as long as the destination can be determined. Thanks for pointing that out.

    And your point about buttons is well taken…thanks for the comment!



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