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'Eyes-free, ubiquitous information access'

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A blind developer at Google has built a search engine to prioritise results that are accessible to visually impaired web users. The Google Labs project, launched last week, has been welcomed by RNIB and its US counterpart, AFB.

Put a query into Google Accessible Search and a standard Google search begins. But before the results are presented, they are re-ordered to prioritise those pages identified as the most likely to be accessible to visually impaired users.

The identification and prioritising process was the work of recent recruit TV Raman, a computer scientist with a wealth of experience in accessible technologies whose stated objective is "to develop technologies that drive the future of the web toward eyes-free, ubiquitous information access."

Raman told OUT-LAW that he began work on the system in February and had a working version by May. Basing the project on Google Co-op's technology, which improves search results based on a user's specialist interests, Raman has only been working on it full time for the past two months..

The best-known guidelines for building an accessible site are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) from W3C. But these are not the basis of Google's new service.

Raman said: "We don't test against WCAG. We think in the spirit of those guidelines, but we don't test against them verbatim." Instead he endeavoured to identify "what works for the end-user," describing a process of "experimentation, training and machine learning."

People following the various guidelines will automatically end up with good access rankings, he explained. "However, passing our accessibility test is not a certification of a given set of guidelines."

"We look for a set of signals, do some numbers, see what comes out. It's not perfect. Life would be a lot easier if everyone met every guideline but the web is a big place," he said.

Julie Howell, RNIB's Digital Policy Development Manager, said: "What's fantastic is that a company like Google thinks accessibility is important." She added that Google has always had a good user interface for visually impaired users. "Blind and partially sighted people reported to RNIB from the start that Google was their favourite search engine." It is the simplicity that appealed.

The AFB's Jay Leventhal, Editor in Chief of AccessWorld, agreed. "We like it," he told OUT-LAW. "We certainly think it's encouraging. It's good to have Google paying attention to accessibility."

Google itself is one of the internet's busiest users, reading billions of pages of content. It does so blind, and likes to find valid HTML, image descriptions, headers and link text – so pages that are optimised for accessibility tend to enjoy decent rankings. Raman's work gives these pages an extra boost.

A search on "Harry Potter" at Google.co.uk at the time of writing returned 159 million results, with Warner Bros' Flash-based site at the top. Accessible Search returned 15 million results, leading with the boy wizard's Wikipedia's entry. The Warner Bros site was in there too, but much further down.

It is not the first incarnation of an accessible search engine. Net-guide, from UK-based consultancy net-progress, already offers a search engine that returns results with an accessibility rating. It does not spider the whole web – so the Harry Potter test returned just three results; but JK Rowling's text-only site was on top.

Director Paul Crichton told OUT-LAW: "The feeling here at net-guide is that this is great news. Obviously, Google has many more resources than we do and as a consequence they can make a massive difference in making the internet accessible – and if that can be done, it has to be welcomed."

"We still think that there are some things we provide to differentiate ourselves from Google – such as the accessibility rating – and the more choice users have, the better."

Web accessibility is not only for those with visual impairments. Users with hearing, mobility or cognitive disabilities have accessibility requirements too. But for now, Accessible Search is focusing on blind users, largely because Raman is one of them. "Given (a) what I needed and (b) what I knew best, I did it from my perspective," he said.

"But the idea isn't to limit it to blind users." In the longer term, he hopes other user communities will rally around the service based on different needs. "One size doesn't fit all and we've build one size. If there is enough interest, my hope is there will be other instances." Perhaps in future, Google will offer a version that can be tailored to users with dyslexia, for example.

Raman acknowledges the limitations of the automated tests and is not suggesting they are a substitute for user testing. He also knows that some developers may try to hoodwink clients that their sites are accessible solely by virtue of a good ranking in Google Accessible Search. With such practices, "there's a positive and a negative," said Raman. "A lot of people spend money on search engine optimisation. If someone starts optimising for our accessibility measure, it's a positive."

Howell suggested that Google could highlight the added benefits of user testing in its accompanying FAQ, where it already talks about how sites can make their content more accessible to the blind. We put this to Raman. He liked the idea and said he'll put that in.

Another possibility is for users to contribute to the ranking of sites. "We want to do that," said Raman when asked if this had been considered. "But building the interface is a challenge."

Raman explained that there are two problems: building an accessible interface to take feedback – which necessitates a form of registration and sign-in, he says; and fighting spam – i.e. people seeking to abuse the system. He believes the latter battle is easier to win: "We can fight that algorithmically," he said.  But a sign-in process "adds one more step for the user," he said. "I haven't come up with a solution that's pleasant enough and smooth enough yet."

The AFB's Leventhal is also blind and a regular Google user. He suggested that Google Accessible Search would best suit the novice screen-reader user. He has no problems using its main search service and is used to results that direct him to inaccessible sites. Leventhal is hopeful that Google will put a link on its homepage to the new service. "I hope they go on and make other tools accessible," he added, noting that complaints have been made about its book search service. A technical barrier that stopped blind users opening Gmail email accounts was lifted in April, he said.

Raman said he does hope to influence other changes in Google and Leventhal noted that the company has recently recruited for more accessibility engineers.

Howell pointed out that when Google introduced ads in 2001 – effecting the business model that made it rich – some problems were reported to her. It wasn't the presence of advertising that was the problem; it was the way they were displayed that caused some difficulty for blind users (although she says it remains "overwhelmingly the search engine of choice" for this community). "I thought of [the ads] as a positive," said Raman of their introduction. That might sound like he's toeing the party line; but he explains: "One thing that happens when you're visually impaired, you don’t have much exposure to ads. You don't see ads in magazines."

Most banner ads on websites are not accessible; but simple text-based ads are accessible. There are changes he wants to make, however.

The lack of navigational support for blind users of Google, to help them jump over ads, is an issue, he says. "You can do that if you know how your access technology works," he said. "You just jump over the ads by jumping over the first table."

"We should be offering a skip link," he said. He hopes this will come. He would also like Google to offer more guidance for blind users. He hopes to help with that – but points out that he has been rather busy of late.

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