Web Newspaper Services Not Friendly to Text-only Viewers

By: Steve Outing

When I "surf" the Web looking at newspaper industry sites, I typically have the "load graphics" option turned on; I want to see the sites in all their glory. Because I use a 14400 baud modem, that means I waste a lot of time waiting for graphics to load. I've learned to be patient.

You can bet, however, that many other computer users with 14.4 or slower modems will never see your site's fancy graphics. They have configured their Web browsers to load only text, so that the pages load faster. Or they may be using a text-only Web browser like Lynx. (Lynx is likely to be used at some education or library sites where the capability to cruise the Web using graphical programs like Netscape or Mosaic has not reached yet.)

It's difficult to find hard numbers of Web surfers who see a site's graphics vs. those who see only text. Anecdotal evidence from some Web sites, however, would indicate that half or more of a site's visitors may not see graphics.

It's an obvious fact of Web publishing life, then, that you need to design your Web site to accommodate text-only visitors. Unfortunately, a number of newspaper Web site designers have not figured that out yet.

A modest experiment

I checked out several newspaper Web sites using Netscape 1.1N with the "load graphics" option turned off, just to see how things looked to the graphics-impaired. It's not always a pretty picture. About half of my random sample did pass the test; however, many newspaper sites need to look at their sites from the text-only viewpoint. Generally, the solution is simply to use "ALT" tags on all hyperlinked images on your site, which gives text-only visitors a clue as to what the hyperlink leads to. I'll explain how to create ALT tages at the end of this column. Image maps that serve as navigation devices with multiple links embedded should have a text-only equivalent placed below so that text-only visitors can find their way around.

Onward to the results of my test. Ratings for friendliness to text-only visitors are on a 1 to 5 scale, with 5 being the best.

USA Today: Rating - 1
Graphics and design are an integral part of USA Today, so you might not expect the newspaper to be friendly to text-only visitors. It's not. The site does not use ALT tags, which means that an image file shows up as a generic blank icon in text-only mode using Netscape. (Lynx users just see "[IMAGE]".) You can't see the main navigational image map, nor the headlines for the top stories of the day (which are part of the image). The navigation bar at the bottom of most pages is also unavailable. The Weather page is of marginal value, since you can't see the clickable map which directs you to forecasts from your region.

Wall Street Journal: Rating: 1.5
America's largest circulation newspaper only does marginally better than USA Today with its Money & Investing Update Web site. Its main masthead uses an ALT tag, so text-only visitors see "Money & Investing Update" instead of a blank box. But the main navigation bar shows up blank. There's no text-only alternative to the navigation guides at the top or bottom of most pages. I give the Journal low marks for a major oversight: On pages where there are several advertising spots running down the right side of the page, the ads show up as blank in text-only mode. At the least, the Journal needs to add ALT tags to the ads, so that a text-only viewer at least sees "Wells Fargo" instead of a blank box.

Sydney Morning Herald (Australia): Rating - 4
This site uses ALT tags on its icons, and is mostly readable in text-only mode. It uses a series of icons as a navigation tool, but each image has an ALT tag so it's possible to find your way around with graphics off. My complaints are minor: There's a promotional ad for Sun Netra Servers that does not have an ALT tag, so it shows up as a blank box when viewed with graphics loading disabled. And the main masthead appears only as "The" in text-only.

Arizona Republic (Phoenix): Rating - 4
This new Web site almost has it right. It uses ALT tags on images. The problem comes when you visit the site's "Golf-O-Matic" Arizona golf course guide. With graphics turned off, you won't see the clickable map to find courses in your selected region of Phoenix. There is a search form, but you must choose "Area 1," "Area 2," etc. -- but there is no indication, short of viewing the map, of the geographic boundaries of the Areas.

Financial Times (London): Rating - 4.5
The FT does a good job accommodating text-only visitors. This is not a graphically rich site, and those graphics that do exist all have ALT tags so that in text-only mode you know what the links are about. An advertisement on FT's site shows up as "Vauxhall ad" to the text-only visitor. The graphic version of the ad is more compelling: It's a picture of several penguins with the words "See a different world!" I suspect that more text-only visitors would be enticed to view "See a different world!" than "Vauxhall ad." (It's a car ad, by the way.) Navigation devices on the FT site are simple text links.

NRC Handelsblad (Rotterdam, The Netherlands): Rating - 5
This Dutch newspaper also operates a Web site that does not rely heavily on graphics. All its images use ALT tags, so text-only visitors will not get lost.

San Francisco Chronicle (California): Rating - 5
My former employer (1986-1993) seems to be on the right track. The Gate Web site also uses ALT tags on images and is simple for text-only visitors to navigate.

Some simple solutions

The problems cited above are simple to fix. Images -- especially ads -- should not show up as blank boxes to text-only viewers. Simply add an ALT tag to the image placement code. Here's an example:

[IMG ALT="IBM Network Services" SRC="ibmad.gif"]

Now the text-only visitor to the site will see a box with the label "IBM Network Services." (Note: The "[" and "]" in the example above should be the "less than" and "greater than" symbols; I did not type them as those characters because your Web browser would interpret them as commands.)

The second simple solution is in use at countless Web sites. If you use a complex image map that embeds links to many pages, run below it duplicate text hyperlinks. This ensures that everyone will be able to get to your inside pages, not just those visiting with graphics loading turned on.

And finally, consider creating a "Lite" version of your site for text-only visitors. An example of this concept is found on the Editor & Publisher Interactive Web site, which hosts this column. Check out the Cyberlite version.

Steve Got a tip? Let me know about it

If you have a newsworthy item about the newspaper new media business, please send me a note at steve@planetarynews.com.

This column is written by Steve Outing and underwritten by Editor & Publisher magazine. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com


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