Why plain-text, HTML and Lynx still matter

The tiny handful of you who are regular visitors to this site have probably noticed that the links and menus have suddenly jumped around. What gives?

And what's this business in the headline about mid-size wildcats?

I am, in fact, talking about accessibility tweaks made to the site, and the continuing relevance of the Lynx web browser- a crude-looking, text-only terminal that looks like something out of an '80s hacker movie. It turns out that this ancient, powerful little tool can offer a surprising amount of insight into how your Web site works.

Most visitors to this site use sophisticated, modern graphical browsers (although there are a few holdouts still running IE6). But there are some folks out there who need magnifying tools, or screen readers, or other non-standard code to be able to use the Web. What Lynx sees is what screen readers see. And even if you don't have many disabled visitors, you probably care about search engine results- and Google's spiders are as good as blind where fancy Flash layouts are involved. Lynx will show you what Google, Bing, Ixquick and other search engines see.

For this site, it turned out that the left column (full of links) rendered ahead of the main content area in Lynx, and therefore in screen readers and spiders. Moving all that stuff to the right makes little difference to someone on Firefox or Chrome, but it's far more convenient if the text is being read to you by Thunder or FireVox. The downside? On very old, narrow monitors, some photos in older posts will be overlapped by the links column. New posts will use slightly smaller inline images (still clickable to larger ones, per Web tradition) to fit well on smaller screens.

It's also worth noting that when rigidly defined layouts are used, client-side zoom (ctrl-scrollwheel, or ctrl + / ctrl-) completely butchers the layout. Plain text, fluid layout HTML content doesn't have this problem, ensuring that folks with bigger monitors or poor eyesight can resize your text as needed and not waste screen space. And the new layout is also printable without cropping actual content- it may be 2011, but a surprising number of people still print out web pages in dead-tree form.

Making a site reasonably easy to access across multiple platforms, including disability assist software, isn't hard. But you do have to give up some old habits from the print world: fixed layouts are a no-go. Write the content in well-formed HTML, specify the preferred layout in well-formed CSS, and let the user agent present it however that user wants.

For more details, check out the W3C Web accessibility checklist, or the complete, detailed accessibility guidelines.



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