Google Tests Accessible Search Page

Google is testing a version of its popular search engine that would allow those with vision problems to more easily use the site. Called Accessible Search, the page is different from normal Google Web search in that it also evaluates site usability in ranking results.

Complex site designs can make web surfing very difficult for those with disabilities. For example, individuals that use devices to convert text to speech may find it hard to find what they're looking for, says Google Research Scientist T.V. Raman.

"If the information I'm after is on a visually busy page, I have to sort through that page to find the text I want--an extra step that can sometimes be very time-consuming," Raman said. The Google employee, who is blind, leads the project at the Mountain View, Calif. company.

The tweaked Google search engine can be found on Google Labs, the company's testbed for new products. Along with the traditional ranking algorithm, Raman has added an additional layer that inspects the site for usability issues.

To do this, the feature looks at the HTML code behind the page for specific attributes that make it easier for devices like page readers. "It tends to favor pages that degrade gracefully--that is, pages with few visual distractions, and pages that are likely to render well with images turned off," Raman explained.

The customized search engine is built on top of Google Co-op technology, which the company released to allow developers to build search engines that optimize results based on interests or other uses.

Millions could benefit from such work; a 2001 survey found that eight million people have visual impairments and would need some type of assistance in using the Web.

Lighthouse International, a national leader in print and online accessibility, applauded Google's recent efforts. "This is a very important step by Google and other Internet companies. It demonstrates an enlightened understanding of the need to apply sophisticated technology to meet the growing needs of the consumer," commented Lighthouse CEO Tara A. Cortes, PhD, RN.

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