Google Inc. has begun testing a new version of its search system that
makes finding information on the Web easier for the blind or visually
impaired, its creator said on Wednesday.
Accessible Search, available on Google's experimental software site at
http://labs.google.com/accessible, uses Google's standard page-ranking
system and goes further by evaluating the usability of each Web page
T.V. Raman, a research scientist at Mountain View, California-based
Google, said his project sorts search results based on the simplicity
of page layout, the quality of design and the organization and
labeling of information on each page.
"I knew it was a hard problem," Raman, who is blind, said in a phone
interview. "What did I discover by doing this project? It's an even
harder problem than I anticipated."
Complex, graphical designs that pack a lot of information onto large
Web pages fare poorly when a low vision user relies on screen
magnifiers that must expand small sections of a computer screen and
make them huge, the researcher said.
A blind or dyslexic user of a screen reader that converts text into
spoken words using a synthesized voice would waste a lot of time
skipping over extraneous page content, he noted.
"You get a lot of conflicting signals," said Raman, who formerly
worked for IBM Research before joining Google.
Accessible Search rates how, on balance, each Web page handles such
issues and gives priority to pages that do the best job of balancing
relevant data and solid design.
An estimated eight million people in the United States have visual
impairments. Nearly three million are color blind, according to a 2001
study of Web site accessibility.
The dirty little secret of Internet design is that many shortcuts Web
page builders take to make it easier to view information online,
render Web pages nearly impossible to use by the visually impaired
with machine-reading technology.
Web design guru Jakob Nielsen, the co-author of a 150-page 2001 study
called "Beyond ALT Text: Making the Web Easy to Use of Users with
Disabilities" came up with 75 principles for accessible Web design
after a study of 100 computer users.
Making Web pages more accessible offers potential benefit to all users,
His ground rules apply to anyone looking to scan the Web quickly for
information, in low light or on complex sites: Avoid small buttons.
Minimize scrolling. Design and label pages consistently. Create good
contrast between text and pages.
Google Accessible Search is built using Google Co-op technology, which
the company recently introduced to enable organizations with
specialized search systems that target information on specific topics
such as health or food.
Raman, who worked at IBM Research before joining Google, said that by
developing better ways of measuring accessibility, Google eventually
could offer consumers with specific disabilities ways to perform more
"Perhaps senior citizens who want a less busy interface or for people
who are color blind," he said.
In an ideal world, every Web page would be coded cleanly. It would
take advantage of style sheets that separate the formatting of Web
pages from the content contained on any page. Columns of data would be
labeled. Photos would have captions.
But Raman says that the World Wide Web is too messy to draw simple
lines and fence off accessible pages from inaccessible ones. "How
accessible or how inaccessible a Web page, from a user's perspective,
is a really relative question," he said.
Copyright 2006 Reuters Limited.
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