Search engines, disclaimers and website accessibility

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UK Companies selling financial products on the Internet have one major problem: they have a legal duty to provide detailed information) about their offerings; such as mortgages, loans and so forth, but it is very difficult for search engines to provide all of the required information in their search results (e.g. disclaimers and terms and conditions.

Therefore Linda Mellor, the website manager of Britannia Building Society – which has led the banks and building league table since January 2005 after rising from near the bottom over the last year – welcomes the opportunity to use a keyword tool, which can help financial companies like her own to solve this problem. The tool helps to optimise the keyword search capability, and therefore it helps customers or potential customers to find this essential information.

“Britannia’s aim is to be a model of compliance and our interpretation of Mortgage Conduct of Business Regulations, for example, is that the search listing is a complete advert. Therefore if it is promoting mortgages in a certain way, full legals needs to be on the listing – clearly this does sometimes make it rather challenging!” She comments.

SiteMorse’s Saf Hulou talks about how the tool can help companies like Britannia:

“Our product has a function whereby it can search an entire website for certain strings of words, for example, ‘green apples’ or ‘legal disclaimer’. This helps website developers to highlight sections of their site for further checking. For example, if they have recently changed their legal disclaimer, they can search for some of the text in order to ensure that the old has been replaced, throughout the site. This feature can also be applied to old company logos (etc.) that may still crop up on obscure parts of sites that may not have been properly checked.”

Britannia is also committed to continually improving the accessibility of its website for all users, particularly the disabled. The building society sees it as its legal, ethical and commercial imperative to ensure that anyone can buy the building society’s financial products online. So it uses SiteMorse’s reports on a daily basis to keep its website in good shape, and the automated nature of the testing makes certain that issues can be uncovered and solved very quickly. The company has had to re-work its entire website, re-coded its templates to the meet the W3C standards in order to achieve the number one spot.

Mellor welcomes the SiteMorse league tables too. She says that it helps her and her colleagues to see how they are performing against the building society’s competitors. The firm’s approach, based on its culture of Corporate Social Responsibility, and its standing in the league tables provides something very positive to shout out about. She believes that the method of testing behind the table is very fair: “As SiteMorse applies the same technical tests to all sites, there’s a level playing field and this establishes a benchmark.”

Talking about access for the disabled and other users she says, “Disabled customers are an important part of our marketplace. We work within the Employers’ Network on Disability (ENOD) to ensure that we are at the forefront of best practice and are authorised to use the ‘Two ticks’ symbol positive about disability.”

“We have invested substantial sums in the branch network over the past few years to improve access into and around our branches. Access to our services is, of course, not just a premises issue – primarily it is about provision of the right customer service for the individual. There are a wide variety of disabilities and customer will have different needs.”

So how important is website accessibility compliance?

“To us as an organisation” she says, “it is very important and now we have reached Level A compliance, we’ll continue to work to improve our site. We now have an Accessibility Policy governing new developments on our site – it’s part of our commitments to be socially responsible, put our customers first, and be easy to do business with. The online industry should recognise that, because the number of disabled people using the Internet is significant. The more accessible you make your site, the more likely you are to tap into that market.”

Mellor adds: “Manual and automated testing should go hand in hand. We’ve got the coding right, and SiteMorse reports help us to ensure we maintain the standards, but we also need to make sure that the site is useable and this is being done through manual testing. Automated testing can identify errors more quickly, while the manual testing identifies the usability issues that automated tests may not pick up and that may be major issues for people using assistive technology.”

“The SiteMorse reports give us a quick insight into where the errors are; enabling us to act very quickly to correct any problems. It’s a very reasonably priced service, which gives us reports that are easy to understand, easy to use and which identify the specific issues we need to address.”

She thinks, quite rightly, that there is a reputational risk if organisations elect to ignore and be complacent about their obligations to be website accessibility compliant. Some private companies in the financial sector, it has been suggested by other sources, are deliberately ignoring this issue. It’s not surprising though, because no legal action has been taken as yet in the UK by the Disability Rights Commission to enforce the Disability Discrimination Act. Therefore these firms are perhaps taking a calculated financial and commercial risk, but one that could both be damaging to themselves and to the image of the industry as a whole.

“The DRC”, she explains, “obviously could be using this type of monitoring to help name and shame companies into being compliant – it could be that only naming and shaming will get some organisations to move on this.” The DRC is taking a softer approach, which includes the introduction of a new standard, PAS 78, and the establishment of a website accessibility Steering Group. SiteMorse welcomes this initiative, but there is still some potential for organisations to continue to be website accessibility complacent.

Phil Lock of Leeds and Holbeck agrees that the financial sector is being complacent: ”We’ve seen that in the past when we’ve spoken to competitors about it. I appreciate there aren’t a strict set of guidelines to help anyone, which makes things difficult. One thing that’s becoming clear, however, is that even the most ignorant will have to seriously address accessibility in the next six months or so – and we just want to make sure that we aren’t one of those that gets named or shamed by the powers that be.”

Britannia feels that training is an important part of making sure that website accessibility stays or is moved to the top of the agenda, helping staff to fully understand its commercial and organisational benefits, including the fact that it helps with search engine optimisation, as well as making personnel aware of the legal obligations for maintaining compliant websites. The building society has therefore enhanced its employee knowledge through a series of 6 monthly training sessions over the past two years. Mellor says that the subsequent training notes assist staff to enhance the customer-experience.

She concludes: “We can therefore be confident” she feels, “that Britannia is well positioned in terms of the legislation and is focused on putting our customers first positions us well ahead of many of our competitors. However, best practice in this area does move forward and we are always looking for areas in which we can improve.” This positive and constructive attitude should ensure that her company’s position remains at the top of SiteMorse’s league table.

By Graham Jarvis
Editor and Media Services Consultant