Google Accessible Search in a pickle

Like many others I was very interested to see Google's foray into the accessibility arena this week in the shape of Google Accessible Search (external link), "Accessible Web Search for the Visually Impaired". A nice idea, and great to see accessibility on their agenda, but from a few quick tests my confidence levels in its utility is a tad shaky.

Search regular old Google for Pickled Eggs (external link) and at number 5 you'll find a recipe for this delicacy on The Accidental Smallholder (external link), my other personal site.

Take Google Accessible Search, enter the same query, Pickled Eggs (external link), and we're there again, only at number 44.

Now, I know that The Accidental Smallholder has its accessibility problems, but that recipe page is valid XHTML, has total separation of content from style, contains one image with appropriate alt text, and uses semantic markup. The top five accessible results are a mixture of table-based layout, tag soup, doctype-less frontpage monstrosities and pages from, and I fail to see in what way they are more accessible than my pickled eggs recipe. Harrumph.

The Accessible Search FAQ (external link) makes all the right noises, with statements like:

In its current version, Google Accessible Search looks at a number of signals by examining the HTML markup found on a web page. It tends to favor pages that degrade gracefully --- pages with few visual distractions and pages that are likely to render well with images turned off.

...but it clearly needs some fine-tuning, otherwise how are the visually impaired ever going to enjoy my superior pickled eggs?


If you search for anything specifically the Google Accessible search will return results regardless of whether the sites are accessible or not, for example 'Department of Trade and Industry'...

Posted by: Steve at July 26, 2006 10:59 AM

Hehe, it would be nice for searches for 'Department of Trade and Industry' to return nil results,and maybe a message saying "no accessible sites for the DTI could be found", but I can understand why they do include inaccessible sites like that.

What baffles me is why an accessible site ranks higher on vanilla Google than Accessible Google, especially when the sites that appear higher on Accessible Search have no clear accessibility features or benefits for users.

The big hope with this was that it might herald the dawn of a new push towards standards-based sites, but from my (albeit extremely limited) testing there's still no obvious benefit in terms of Google SEO from doing things 'properly', in fact the opposite seems to be true.

Posted by: Dan at July 26, 2006 11:28 AM

Yes, my initial test search was "Lost Creek" -- one of my clients is the Lost Creek Municipal Utility District (MUD.) Google shows the MUD in position 32. The MUD moves up to 11 in the accessible search but what bothers me are the sites sitting at 1 and 2 in the accessible search. The first (Lost Creek Machine) is a Front Page(tm) FRAMED site that TAW, well, just gives up on. The second (for mushroom logs) is nearly as bad, its multiple nested tables really should be penalized more. I don't mind sitting in eleveth if the first ten showed some (any) form of accessibility accomodation. I'll be checking results as the algorithm is tweaked. It's a little problematic now.

Posted by: Carl Camera at July 26, 2006 4:47 PM

Interesting idea! I didn't know about this until I read your post. It's a shame they couldn't have used valid markup for the search results page; my HTML-Tidy firefox plugin gives 5 errors and over 200 warnings.

Posted by: Dave at July 26, 2006 6:26 PM

This is the reason for my initial confusion as I mentioned on the forum. I initially thought that it was the interface / results pages that were accessible rather than the results it returned as they seemed to have no actual correlation to sites that were accessible.
Infact I found the same result as you that what I would call an accessible site ranked higher in Google "vanilla" than in the accessible search.

Posted by: Andy Saxton at August 1, 2006 10:56 PM

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