Websites of UK's top companies 'actively turn visitors away'

Nearly 75% of FTSE 100 company websites fail to meet minimum accessibility requirements according to new research that, perhaps for the first time, was largely undertaken manually. There was no website that achieved a higher standard than Level A.

The findings come from digital agency Nomensa. It evaluated the homepages of 99 company websites (Royal Dutch Shell has listings for two share classes in the FTSE 100) using manual testing against the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) of the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative.

WCAG describes a site with a minimum level of accessibility as conforming to Level A. The next level is Level AA and the maximum level of accessibility recognised by WCAG is Level AAA.

The best of the lot were the sites of the Daily Mail & General Trust and Xstrata, which failed to meet Level AA by just one checkpoint because their pages cannot be expanded or contracted according to the user's preference. This can exclude some people who wear powerful glasses or use screen magnification software and also people using a PDA, internet television or mobile phone.

Among the 99 sites tested, the five most common flaws were:

Poor quality web code

Poor use of lists

Not using headings and titles properly

Missing alternative text for graphical elements

Using pop-up windows

Only five sites were found to be using standards-compliant code. And 58 sites used pop-ups without warning the user. Pop-ups aggravate most people but for those with cognitive impairments or those using screen magnification software, they can be a serious problem.

Simon Norris, Nomensa's managing director, said: "Companies just aren’t appreciating how important this is. As well as leaving themselves exposed to legal action, ignoring accessibility actively turns visitors away."

Good web accessibility is expected by the UK's Disability Discrimination Act. And according to the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), there are over 10 million people with disabilities in the UK with a total annual spending power of more than £80 billion.

Norris continued: "Rejecting usability, in favour of a flashy front of house, encourages negative feelings which can end up dismissing the brand entirely. In our experience, those companies that bridge the gap between creative design and user experience, encounter a positive effect on their bottom line.”

Léonie Watson, head of accessibility at Nomensa added: “This is the first time that this research has been largely undertaken manually. We believe that as accessibility is about people, it makes no sense to rely on machines for evaluation. It just isn’t enough.”

Of the 47 checkpoints in WCAG that describe Level A conformance, only four can be tested automatically with any degree of accuracy, according to Nomensa. The company's own inspectors carried out the remaining 43 checkpoints manually.

Accessibility event on WCAG 2.0 and PAS 78: Edinburgh, 23rd May 2006

The Scottish chapter of the Usability Professionals Association is hosting an event on the next version of WCAG and PAS 78 on 23rd May 2006. Speakers include Judy Brewer, Director of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) International Program Office and Julie Howell, Digital Policy Development Manager for the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB).