How often have you been asked “so if we don’t use Flash, this will be searchable/accessible, right”? As though there is some new compound word describing a site whose content is easily available to all non-human user agents.
Ah, we should be so lucky! While some coding practices aid in both SEO and web accessibility, there are some fundamental differences between the practices.
One of the most basic differences is the intent. When looking at a web project, it is completely acceptable to prioritize as to which content you want to be indexed for a search engine—for example, a company may not care if their short-lived events data gets indexed. SEO is about attracting traffic to your site. In contrast, web accessibility is about ensuring an individual can use your site once he’s on it.
Up until, oh, two weeks ago, Flash was commonly considered to be unsearchable. A way to ensure the content of the site could still be indexed (and therefore show up in google) was to write the content to the HTML page, and then if the visitor had Flash available, overlay the static text with a richer experience. This worked fine to allow a search engine spider to index the content, however, it didn’t always provide a user of assistive technology a good experience.
There is a common belief that users of assistive technologies don’t or can’t access Flash, so they would get the stripped down, text-only version. This isn’t always the case, they may get the Flash-enabled version, like other human visitors. Well, except their actual experience is significantly different..
For anyone who has never seen a screen reader in action, I highly recommend you check out this Introduction to Screen Readers movie.
Flash has had accessibility properties available to developers since Flash MX, and Adobe Flex provides built-in “accessible components.” However, unlike the recent announcement about .swf indexing not requiring any additional effort on the behalf of developers, creating an accessible .swf experience does require some work. As well, accessibility for .swfs depends on MSAA (Microsoft Active Accessibility), so it is platform dependent. Even a diligent developer will find his hard work is all for naught if his visitor is on a MAC.
As you can see, “searchable” and “accessible” cannot be used interchangeably. While the tactics for each don’t necessarily conflict, there are different goals and different considerations to take into account.