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Browsing without the hurdles

The majority of websites have major shortcomings. Unclean programming frequently causes excessive load times. Companies are only gradually recognizing the advantages of a barrier-free Internet. Fraunhofer researchers are crafting tools that can be used to monitor compliance with web standards.

For companies in Germany, web accessibility has never been a compelling issue until now – this was also confirmed by a series of tests conducted in 2011 by the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Information Technology FIT in Sankt Augustin. The scientists at the Web Compliance Center used their analysis tools to test the “web compliance” – or adherence to international web standards – among the Internet sites of German companies listed on the DAX.

The outcome: 90 percent of the websites exhibited substantial flaws. For instance, important data could only be found after much effort, the websites took too long to load, or they were deficiently displayed on mobile devices. “‘Web compliance’ not only means optimizing websites so that they can be used by disabled and older persons,” explains Dr. Carlos Velasco of the Web Compliance Center at FIT. “Search engines such as Google also have considerable problems with faulty sites. This may make the sites impossible to find or prevent them from ranking high in search requests. That is why this issue actually deserves a high priority.”

Economic advantages through accessibility

An increasing number of companies have since realized that accessibility also comes with major economic advantages. Hewlett Packard Italia, Public-I Group and Polymedia, for example, are participating in the EU research project, “Inclusive Future-Internet Web Services (I2Web).” Coordinated by FIT, the project has a budget of EUR 2.7 million for a 2 and half years.

The partners include the University of York (United Kingdom) and the University of Ljubljana (Slovenia), as well as the National Council for the Blind of Ireland and the Foundation for Assistive Technology (FAST). Participating companies offer Internet television, Video On Demand (VOD), online banking services and content management systems. These sites will soon be barrier-free.

Monitoring social networks for illegal activities

To enable site operators to monitor their sites efficiently, the FIT computer scientists had already developed the “imergo Web Compliance Suite” back in 2004. It is comprised of a series of tools that can be integrated into content management systems. They review websites for adherence to certain rules, and these not only cover accessibility: for instance, one could monitor a social network such as Facebook for certain word groups that point to illegal activities. A company could also verify if the corporate design standards were being met on all their pages.

“Typically, several content editors take care of large websites,” says Velasco. “The suite tests whether the logo is located in the right spot on every page, for example.”

The EU project “I2Web” launched in 2010 is a kind of progression from the “imergo Web Compliance Suite.” The prototype contains, for instance, a development environment for an Expert Viewer. Not all accessibility guidelines can be checked automatically by a software program. For instance, photographs on a website should have a suitable alternative text. While a test tool can detect whether a text exists, it cannot determine if it also “suitably” describes what can be seen in the image.

So the Expert Viewer offers a list of all relevant image texts that editors can review for the correctness of content. One important part of the EU project is conformity with interfaces, such as when customers wish to use Video On Demand or Internet TV on their televisions. “I2Web” ensures that the websites work seamlessly on all devices (if possible), and can be operated with complete accessibility.

Given the rapid pace of the Internet‘s evolution, the researchers at FIT will not soon run out of things to do: they will consistently have to adapt their tools to new browsers, the latest mobile devices and additional interfaces. But their work pays off: Open Text, a leading provider of content management systems, successfully markets the “imergo tools” as an additional option on its products.

Dr. Carlos Velasco Nunez | Fraunhofer Research News
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