Accessibility of Web Search Engines: Towards a deeper understanding of barriers for people with disabilities

Kerkmann, F., & Lewandowski, D. (2012). Accessibility of web search engines. Library Review, 61(8/9), 608–621.

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Search engines are one of the most important and most-used services on the web. Adults as well as children use web search engines often, sometimes even more than email (exemplary for Germany, see van Eimeren & Frees, 2011; MPFS, 2011). With the overwhelming amount of information available on the web, search engines serve as gatekeepers – they crawl the web, sort and select its content, and organize access (Röhle, 2010). Therefore, in today’s information society, web search engines like Google are essential for independent information access regarding nearly every aspect of life.
It is important to consider the relevance of web search engines and their accessibility for people with disabilities because these tools are fundamental to self-determined and independent living. People who have special needs caused by physical and/or mental impairments especially can benefit from online content, because they are able to personalize parameters (e.g. font size, contrast, sound level) to their individual requirements on the web. They can use alternative opportunities for access, and they can be supported by assistive technologies (AT) (e.g. screen readers, switches, headmouses, Braille displays,scanning software). However, to make these technologies fully functional in the context of web searching, search engines need to be accessible for everyone.
This paper seeks to introduce the concept of web accessibility, to review related work and established recommendations about evaluating web accessibility, and to apply the well-tried design of accessibility surveys for websites to web search engines. The intention of the paper is to identify web search engine accessibility as an important topic of research and to develop a theoretical framework for evaluation, including an aggregation of relevant sources. This paper in its “how-to-do”-manner can be seen as a starting point for a future project evaluating web search engines accessibility in the broader perspective of disability and considering the principles of disability studies as well as the idea of inclusion.