A few days ago, Jeff Burns wrote “Source Order: why I think Zen gets this wrong”.
His basic premise is that content-first HTML source ordering is an SEO-driven idea, is not backed by any accessibility studies, and goes against user expectations. While I respect his opinions, um… he’s wrong. :-)
So let’s look at Jeff’s first point…
SEO has hijacked accessibility and used it as the catchcry for better search results.
It’s not the SEO junkies who are using “accessibility” as a club to get their way. They don’t give a damn about accessibility and they’ve got the money to ignore the tiny minority of people who need those features.
It’s the Accessibility experts who have noticed the parallels between providing more context for users and more context for search engines. And it’s the Accessibility experts who have convinced clients to implement accessibility features in the name of SEO. Jeff’s analysis is almost completely backwards.
Why have clients been willing to shell out bucks for accessibility features re-branded as SEO? Because they work.
Jeff goes on…
Pundits claim that content first source order is some sort of best practice. Nominally baseless due to lack of real data, more oft based on a misguided notion of what we ought to be doing. […] Of course my words are only my opinion, however I do think there lacks a body of evidence to emphatically draw a conclusion.
The primary study Jeff quotes (webusability’s OZeWAI 2005 Presentation) was primarily about user expectations, which is a flawed study IMO. It’s like taking a survey in 1908 and asking what color do you expect your automobile to be? The answer would be “black”, of course (Model Ts were only black). That doesn’t mean they should have continued to only make black cars.
So why do users expect navigation links first? Because it’s really, really hard to get content-first HTML source ordering. And the vast majority of sites don’t do it. Why? Because they don’t know how to do it, can’t justify the cost to implement it, or can’t re-work their graphic design to make an option a possibility. (I've found some graphic designs make content-first an impossible task due to content-flow issues.)
So since users have gotten used to site navigation first… does that mean we shouldn’t attempt content-first HTML source ordering? Of course not!
Unfortunately, Jeff is not alone is misunderstanding this study. When it came out three years ago, I saw lots of people say “See! Content-first doesn’t help with accessibility.” But because the study organizers were so focused on screen-reader users’ expectations, they left dangling several key points. For example, “Interestingly, […] four screen reader users volunteered the opinion that although navigation is usually presented before the page content, they felt that they would probably find that pages which present the content first easier to use.” Expectations, in that case, can be a hinderance to learning about better ways to navigate websites.
So, really, there’s a lack of evidence for either side to draw a conclusion. So why did Jeff assume that site navigation should come first? His assumption is based on convention, not on data.
Every time I implement an accessibility “feature” on a website, I carefully consider why I’m using a particular technique. And I try to determine (to the best of my ability) if it really is improving the accessibility.
And I see absolutely no harm in having content-first HTML source ordering.
Now, two quick rebuttals before I get to the heart of the matter. Yes, I really do have a point. :-)
Jeff says that Zen’s “skip to navigation” link, which appears at the beginning of the HTML, is confusing. And, thus, should be replaced with a “Skip to main content” link.
many who hear the words "skip to navigation" infer this as "skip navigation"
That’s a good point. But noticing that the wording could be improved doesn’t mean Zen’s implementation is “conceptually flawed”. [insert raised Spock eyebrow here.]
Screen reader users expect the search form to be the first form element on the page
I had originally put the search box in Zen next to the site navigation because I thought of Search is a way to navigate the site. In the Drupal 7 page.tpl.php that I worked on this past January, we decided that primary navigation, secondary navigation and search don’t need to be grouped together; the search box is in the header and the secondary navigation is in the footer. Again, this is a minor debate point. And not indicative of a deeper flaw.
The big accessibility picture
The bigger picture that is missing here is that the user needs page navigation links to be first. Right now most themes only have “skip to *whatever*”. (This includes Zen.) When the first thing on the page should be list of page navigation links like: “Jump to: content, site navigation, section navigation, search, etc.”
This quick list of page navigation should have dramatic accessibility improvements. Since it will provide a mini-outline of what is on the page and where.
I opened an issue about this over 7 months ago in Zen issue queue (http://drupal.org/node/308376) but only Yoroy had asked for more details. Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to implement it yet. But it will be done as part of the larger page.tpl.php re-work I have planned for Zen 6.x-2.0.
I encourage anyone who reads this to join in with ideas (or code) at the Zen issue queue.