Tuesday at the Pub with NetSquared Houston

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I have only recently become aware of NetSquared Houston through their Meetup page. Last Tuesday I attended my second meeting with the NetSquared group. Ed Schipul asked me to share my thoughts here, based on a post I made on my blog. You can read the longer, original post there.

The NetSquared Houston events are organized/hosted by Ed Schipul of Schipul Web Marketing. I'm still learning about what NetSquared really is all about. So far, it's made a much better impression upon me than Wikipedia. I've come to feel that NetSquared is about putting the influencing powers of Web mongers like me to work for the greater good -- online, offline, wherever.

Last month I wrote When The Soldiers Come Home after attending my first Houston NetSequared dinner. As a result of the presentation by J.J. Lassberg, August's guest speaker, I was moved to use the Xenite.Org network to help increase awareness of and promote the Wounded Warriors Web site, a non-profit organization that helps to improve the lives of soldiers who have lost limbs or otherwise become disabled because of their service to our country.

That's an example of how a NetSquared meeting can produce some positive results. You can move people to take action. It moved me. Now, admittedly, anyone who reads my blog knows my father retired from the military. I have other connections. And my father worked with wounded soldiers in physical therapy. So J.J.'s presentation struck home with me. But if Ed Schipul is looking for a Grande Slam in moving Michael Martinez to action, he's well on his way.

This month's guest speaker was Sharron Rush, the Executive Director of Knowbility, a Houston-based Accessibility Consulting and Training firm. Sharron's mission is to help make the Web more accessible to the approximately 250 million people around the world who must rely upon screen readers and other accessibility tools to browse the Internet. Are all 250 million of those people online? I don't know. I doubt it. But Sharron made the point that even from a business point of view, that's a huge segment to be ignoring.

Ed played Devil's Advocate at the meeting to help underscore some of the issues that the accessibility movement struggles with. For example, the least expensive (but moderately reliable) program people have available costs about $1300. Sightless people pay at least $1300 for a decent Web browser, if their local resources don't provide free access. Ed's point is that there is a severe economic barrier to making the Web accessible.

But let's say that good browsing software is made available to everyone who needs it for free. Does that mean that people who rely on specialized browsers have equal access to the Web as those of us who can see? Absolutely not. And that is where I feel guilty.

Most Web sites do not comply with accessibility standards. In designing many of my own Web sites, I have never given any thought to accessibility. I've had no training in accessibility design. The good news for me is that most Web pages that are optimized for search engine positioning tend to be accessible. On-page optimization -- when done properly -- means that if you were to strip out all of your HTML code and leave all your indexable text in place, you'd have a fairly readable block of text.

Many Web pages rely upon non-indexable text to convey their messages: they embed text in images, in Flash, in Javascript, in Java, and fail to include descriptive text in alt= attributes for images. Pages that use tables for positioning (Web page layout) often break up text and scatter it across multiple elements. When you linearize these tables, strip out the HTML code, they look pretty bad.

My tables linearize very well. I use as little table code as possible for my layout. I don't use DIVS and CSS because it takes too long to produce a layout that looks nice. I code by hand so that my HTML code is as lean as I feel it should be.

The less HTML code you use on a page (and that includes all CSS code), the less time it takes to render the page. Page rendering is usually responsible for most of the delay you experience when you bring up a Web page. Heavy use of tables, images, and CSS really slows down rendering time. New browser software and faster computers compensate for rendering slowdown, but a lot of people still leave Web pages that don't show something within the first 5-10 seconds.

So my pages in general probably rate somewhere in the middle of the scale of accessibility. If you score pages from 1 to 100, with 100 being the best, I'd probably average between 40 and 60 for many pages. Some of my pages are completely accessible even though they use table layouts. But some of my pages would just annoyingly scream at you. They are experimental pages and let's just say that I have occasionally used more H1 tags than are really necessary. When you reverse engineer search engine algorithms, you have to make some bizarre pages just to see what happens.

But I also make liberal use of the bold HTML tag in my pages. I do that to make the text more readable. I hate having to squint at a screen when I read online text, and most Web sites use truly awful faint fonts (mostly light greys in this Web 2.0 world) that just make me want to strangle the 20-something Web designers who rely on them. Maybe my choice of font could be improved, but I don't have control over what fonts your computer supports.

So my pages probably force people to turn down the volume on their screen readers. I'm sorry about that. I wish I had the means to tell your reader to tone it down for you, but I don't know of any way to do that. Accessibility is not just an issue for people who cannot see. It's also an issue for people like me who need to be able to see the letters with normal vision.

Web 2.0 is not very accessible, but it can be. Many Web 2.0 designers take no thought for accessibility issues at all. What's ironic is that there are indeed Web designers who cannot see. There are artists who cannot see. There are writers who cannot see. If there is a job that you can do from a desk, odds are pretty good there are blind people doing that job.

Well after this past week's NetSquared Houston meeting, I'll be thinking about accessibility more often. I'll also devote some time to studying the issues. As I continue to experiment with new page concepts, I'll strive to keep accessibility in mind. I do actually prefer simpler page layouts because they are generally easier to read and deinitely are easier to get ranked in search engines.

Ed mentioned a tool that I'll be trying out. It's called Fangs, and is a FireFox add-on. If you design Web pages and want to test how accessible they are (without spending any money), try Fangs for FireFox and see what your work looks like to a screen reader.

And that is why, if you have a NetSquared group in your city, you should join it and share in the experience of helping to use the Web for social change. We really can all work together to make some improvements in a lot of small places.

I'm looking forward to October's NetSquared Meeting. Can't wait to see how Ed's guest speaker makes me look at the online world in a new way. I haven't felt this awed by a concept in years. Thank you Ed, thank you J.J. and Sharron. Thank you NetSquared.