SAN FRANCISCO – Google Inc. (GOOG) 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 it displays.
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 of the shortcuts Web page builders take to make it easier to view information online end up rendering Web pages nearly impossible to use by the visually impaired, even 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, Nielsen argues.
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 said that by developing better ways of measuring accessibility, Google eventually could offer consumers with specific disabilities ways to perform more customized searches.
"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.