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  1. #1
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    Is content first HTML really necessary?

    I know it is conventional wisdom that we should put content first in HTML. I've heard two reasons for this: SEO and accessibility. But putting HTML in a different order than it should be displayed complicates CSS significantly and I'm trying to decide if it's worth it.

    So, my question to you, fellow web developers, is are there any studies or good articles that justify the practice? I've been putting "skip to content" links in my HTML for years to aid those using screen readers. I've heard that SEO isn't really effected by content order, especially compared to marking up content semantically using headings, titles, etc. Are these measures enough or do I have to continue to use complicated CSS?

    Maria

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    Guru in training bronze trophy SoulScratch's Avatar
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    I have started using skip links as well for screen reader users and the like, though I don't think it's a huge SEO issue as the crawler would interpret the whole page anyway as far as I'm concerned. If you are having layout issues, a site I would recommend is by Alessandro which has dozens of content first layouts: http://blog.html.it/layoutgala/ which make use of negative margins + floats.
    Cross browser css bugs

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    Follow: @AlexDawsonUK silver trophybronze trophy AlexDawson's Avatar
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    SoulScratch is correct, The main reason for content first is for accessibility as screen readers will speak everything in the document flow so naturally people will not want to listen to all the navigation options each time they load a page. But due to document flow, unless you are going to provide absolute positioning for all your elements, you are going to run into problems. Basically I would recommend doing the above and providing some hidden “jump links” to the navigation and content as this will allow screen readers to “skip” the verbose menu’s above the content allowing you to maintain positioning.

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    Thanks for the replies so far! Keep them coming.

    Quote Originally Posted by AlexDawson View Post
    Basically I would recommend doing the above and providing some hidden “jump links” to the navigation and content as this will allow screen readers to “skip” the verbose menu’s above the content allowing you to maintain positioning.
    I'm a little confused by that statement. So you think it *is* necessary to put content before navigation, even if I provide a "jump link" to skip the navigation?

    I am very adept at CSS, so that's not so much the issue, but I believe in making things be as simple as possible to make them maintainable. If I don't need to do tricks with negative margins or absolute positioning, I don't want to.

    Maria

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    Follow: @AlexDawsonUK silver trophybronze trophy AlexDawson's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by JustMagicMaria View Post
    Thanks for the replies so far! Keep them coming.

    I'm a little confused by that statement. So you think it *is* necessary to put content before navigation, even if I provide a "jump link" to skip the navigation?

    I am very adept at CSS, so that's not so much the issue, but I believe in making things be as simple as possible to make them maintainable. If I don't need to do tricks with negative margins or absolute positioning, I don't want to.

    Maria
    Sorry, no what I was meaning is that you may be tied into putting the navigation before content (unless you want to spend time playing with absolute positioning in css to force them to switch places). If you can get away with having the content before the navigation, I would highly recommend it though. Think of it like this... a blind user visits your site with a screen reader... each page they load will have navigation, now no person wants to be told the same thing over and over, they want to get to the content.

    If your content is before the navigation, that is how the screen reader will read it to the person, therefore they get the "meat" of the page before being given the navigation (options of where else to visit). If you can put the content before the navigation it is therefore recommended for accessibility reasons, however if your CSS design requires you to have the navigation first (as some more complex designs might) you can put some "skip links" to offer the "do not read out the navigation options again" ability.

    In summary... content before navigation = best practice, navigation before content = acceptable if used with skip links (but would come in second place).

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    Someone just emailed me this link:

    www usability com au/resources/source-order.cfm

    Here's the conclusion based on observation of actual screen reader users:

    Source order

    It appears that when visiting a web page, most, if not all, screen reader users expect at least the main site navigation to be presented before the content of the page. There appears to be little evidence to support the view that screen reader users would prefer to have the content presented first, or find sites easier to use when this occurs.

    It is our view, that a continuation of the practice of placing navigation before the content of the page will benefit some screen reader users, in particular those users who are still developing their skills with the technology.

    It is probably desirable however, to present the content of the page before extraneous information, such as advertisements and related links, as well as the page footer.

  7. #7
    Follow: @AlexDawsonUK silver trophybronze trophy AlexDawson's Avatar
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    I would disagree with that article on the basis that when you browse a web page, it only seems logical to me that if you are going to have a website read out to you (which is quite time intensive), that the unique information should be given first, and then any information which is generic or repeated across pages should be given... I mean if you were having a book read out to you... would you want the contents page read out to you every single time you got to a new chapter? Not to mention the fact that it is usually after you have read a document (or at least part of it) you choose to browse away from the website, so surely it makes more sense to provide the links to other sections of the website after the content is given for the page they requested? Perhaps there isnt any evidence for this, but in my opinion its just plain common sense.

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    The only research I'm aware of on the affect of source order on usability for screen reader users is that done by Roger Hudson, Russ Weakley and Lisa Miller (same as that quoted above). Roger and Russ did a detailed presentation on this in 2005. See their slides or hear the audio at the locations below:

    http://www.usability.com.au/resources/ozewai2005/
    http://webstandardsgroup.org/audio/m...r-051209-1.mp3

    Most of their findings contradict the common recommendations regarding source order. This is great research that we need more of. I'd ignore individuals' opinions and base your decision on this reasearch unless a contradicting study surfaces.

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    Pay attention to the vague wording in that quote,
    It appears that when visiting a web page, most, if not all, screen reader users expect at least the main site navigation to be presented before the content of the page.
    I expect that the next batch of politicians to win the election will raise taxes even more. That doesn't mean I want a tax raise.

    I don't doubt that most screen reader users expect navigation before content, because that's how sites have been built for over a decade (thanks to layout tables). But I'm not at all certain that it's what they want. When an accessibility expert, who is blind, tested our office website, his very first comment was, 'Hey, I get straight to the content! Cool!' That's only one person, of course, so I don't mean to infer that's how all screen reader users feel.

    But we have to remember that it's not only screen reader users who navigate by keyboard. Many people have disabilities that make it difficult, or impossible, for them to use a mouse. Many others prefer keyboard navigation to reduce the risk for RSI (repetitive stress injury) or carpal tunnel syndrome. I'm one of those, but I use Opera with its wonderful spatial navigation, so I'm not dependent on the whims of designers.
    Birnam wood is come to Dunsinane

  10. #10
    Follow: @AlexDawsonUK silver trophybronze trophy AlexDawson's Avatar
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    What Cuckoo said is exactly what I was trying to get across. In usability studies of course people will expect navigation to appear first in the document flow as this has been the default way to layout information in a web design for many years. However this certainly does not make the use of this more accessible for the end user, if you look at the study it only looks at people’s expectations (which of course will conform to design conventions). It did not look at the really important question in this matter which was “Would providing the content before the navigation increase the ease of use for the website”, and even though they did not ask this particular question, four screen users explicitly stated that content first would improve ease of use though it was not directly influential in the study. What this means is that the study you provided essentially tested people’s expectations of the document flow, but did not actually look deeper to see whether a change in the document flow would improve the accessibility or readability of the information.

    What should also be noted is though the expert users of screen readers did not use “skip links” to dodge over the navigation, only novices relied on the screen reader physically reading the content of the page rather than using custom techniques to get this effect. What this effectively tells us is directly contradictory to what you stated. It means that those who did rely on having pages read to them almost always relied on skip links to avoid the navigation. And what can be drawn from this is that if the majority of people made a conscious effort using skip links to push past the navigation being read out through a screen reader, the conclusion can be found that for those people, rather than excessively using “skip links”, it would improve ease of access to simply have the navigation below the content, therefore removing the need to trigger “skip links” in the first place.

    As the results of that study clearly state, there did not seem to be enough of a preference between navigation or content first to require immediate change of conventions (as there seemed to be almost a misnomer that people were used to either using techniques or “skip links” to dodge navigation). But the only drawn conclusion which directly opposed content first was that it may be disorientating for new users and of course the reason for this is that people “expect” navigation to appear first... even if content first could improve the ease of use.

  11. #11
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    Yes, you certainly need to use your critical thinking skills when evaluating research and how it will affect your design decisions. One thing you'll see when you read the Hudson, Weakley, Miller research is a large degree of diversity between different screen reader users. It's very difficult to create general statements that apply to all or even many screen reader users as a whole. This is also apparent in the recent screen reader surveys conducted by WebAIM.

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    Follow: @AlexDawsonUK silver trophybronze trophy AlexDawson's Avatar
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    Agreed, but what I found from the information you provided did not conclusively state anything other than people like consistency, and currently designers put navigation above content, therefore it is a toss-up between remaining conventional or by taking that extra step to see if people find things easier (which no study has conclusively given preference towards).

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    Thank you very much for all your well-considered opinions, especially AlexDawson. After considering it and speaking directly to a friend of mine who uses the JAWS screenreader, I've concluded that content before navigation *is* important enough to code into the personal CSS framework I'm developing. The study I quoted is interesting but, after re-reading it, I feel it had too small of a sample size to be conclusive. And as Cuckoo pointed out, it placed too much emphasis on expectations, not usefulness.

    Now to develop the CSS. One of the best sources for layout I've found is the one SoulScratch pointed out: LayoutGala. However, none of those layouts has the navigation presented horizontally above the primary content and secondary columns (my preferred layout for usability reasons). The closest I have come is the layout used in the Drupal theme Zen. Its documentation (drupal . org/ node/ 201428) refers to it as the 'mostly undocumented “Border Politics” layout method'. If anyone has any better suggestions (besides A List Apart's Holy Gail and P.I.E.'s Jello Mold which I've already studied), send them my way!!

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    Follow: @AlexDawsonUK silver trophybronze trophy AlexDawson's Avatar
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    Thanks for the links, but still no dice. What I'm looking for is this:

    h t t p // justmagicdesign dot com /images /layout dot png

    (Darn thing won't let me post the image.)

    But I want the HTML source order to be this:

    #header

    #content

    #nav

    #side1

    #side2

    #footer

    (This is omitting container divs that may need to be added to make the layout work.)

    All of these sites that talk about putting content before navigation put the #nav in the leftmost column, my second-preferred place to put it. I CAN'T FIND A SINGLE REFERENCE, other than the Drupal Zen theme I mentioned earlier, that puts it above.

    But I'm off topic for the Accessibility and Usability Forum. I should move this to the CSS Forum, I guess.

    I'm starting to think that most people are all talk and no action when it comes to doing this (since the layout I'm showing is such a common design pattern).

    Maria
    Attached Images Attached Images

  16. #16
    om nom nom nom Stomme poes's Avatar
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    Here's the reason I don't put content before navigation:
    when one first visits a page, it's nice to have all the doors to all the different parts of the site immediately available. The reason older homes used to start you right out with a foray (is that what it's called? A big room/hallway you walk into) with several different doors going to different parts of the house.

    This makes sense for simple, small, main-site navigation, not something like a 100-link-long products list.

    After having gotten to the page you want, though, you'd then want to be able to skip going through a bunch of links and the header stuff-- and skip links are a nice way to do this, though using the H quickkey is easier-- often there are no headers before the navigation : )

    Now if the "main site navigation" is some 4-level-deep Suckerfishy thing, then throw out everything I said, cause that's a pain.

    For the CSS issue, if the header and navigation are always the same height, then absolute positioning can do the trick. Just not sure if it's worth it.

    A div wraps the whole page that exists excepting header and nav. It's margin'd top (or padding-top on the body) equal to the height of header+nav, who are absolutely positioned (and direct children elements to the body).

    Text enlarge would be an issue though.

    There's another screenreader survey just published from WebAIM though it's apparently preliminary results. The questions about skip links were answered kinda all over the place-- some people loved them and others ignored them or seemed to not care. I would assume the reason for your visit would make a big difference there though, as Alex said-- are you browsing a site for the first time or going back to one you're familiar with and specifically want to, say, buy something and get the heck outta there?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Stomme poes View Post
    Here's the reason I don't put content before navigation:
    when one first visits a page, it's nice to have all the doors to all the different parts of the site immediately available. The reason older homes used to start you right out with a foray (is that what it's called? A big room/hallway you walk into) with several different doors going to different parts of the house.
    I think you mean a foyer...

    And I don't quite agree with you (but that doesn't mean you're wrong). When you first visit a page, wouldn't it make more sense to have the content first? I mean, shouldn't you see (or, rather, hear) what you've got before you decide to go somewhere else?

    Quote Originally Posted by Stomme poes View Post
    This makes sense for simple, small, main-site navigation, not something like a 100-link-long products list.
    Well, perhaps if it's very small. But why not put content first and then use a skip link ('jump to page menu' etc.) for the impatient ones who want to explore before checking what they already have?
    Birnam wood is come to Dunsinane

  18. #18
    om nom nom nom Stomme poes's Avatar
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    I think you mean a foyer...
    Lawlz, yeah, one of those things.

    And I don't quite agree with you (but that doesn't mean you're wrong). When you first visit a page, wouldn't it make more sense to have the content first? I mean, shouldn't you see (or, rather, hear) what you've got before you decide to go somewhere else?
    For me, that may depend on the site. I was thinking more of the insurance sites I build-- the name says what it is, squirrel-insurance.com does what? and when people visit they don't read the "for Google" text the boss added to the main page. They a: go directly to the menu to get a quote or b: go directly to the menu to close a policy or c: go to the menu to dl a PDF or d: go to the menu to get our contact info. The page is set up as skip to content, name of site, menu (couldn't easily do content first with the goofy design here anyway), content. Basically our main page could consist of nothing but the name of the company and the menu... however plenty of sites aren't like that. Though I wouldn't want to go through all the garbage on Amazon either IF I'm going there knowing I want to order "X"... so, type of site and user's reason for going there affect it.

    A page with real content on the main page may follow more along what you mean-- there are a lot of sites you may click to that you're not sure who they are or what they do or what they have... (and some of these web 2.0 sites, you read "what they do" and you're still not really sure.. what is optimisation management and business paradigm fulfillment enhancement again?). You don't know if you want to go to Products when the company name is CompCoStar...
    Also, a site like, say, the Fire Department would make more sense content-first, being more of a browse-and-find site. Man, gimme a million euros so I can has a bunch of people with tasks going to various sites, some buying stuff, some finding information, and some to simply find out what web site A does. I'm sure that makes a huge difference in whether you want the content first, esp on the main page (which is either the Most informative page, or the least... in our case it's the least).

    I may be making the common mistake of thinking other people are menu-surfers like I am, and I know actually from Neilson's older studies that there are different groups. I navigate through menus, until I get to where I want to be (or what seems likely where I want to be) and then yes I want to skip the name and menu of the site, because I think I've found where I want to be, and then a skip link is perfect (in browsers that move the focus/cursor down to where the skip destination is... gaaar saffy-chrome doesn't work).

    Well, perhaps if it's very small. But why not put content first and then use a skip link ('jump to page menu' etc.) for the impatient ones who want to explore before checking what they already have?
    Yeah, by small I meant something like about 6 options or so. I've done pages with content-first and a skip to nav, skip to sidebar ("sidebar" being whatever that is on that page) and it was ok, but it meant it was harder to have a horizontal menu (which are best used when there are only a few options anyway, for flex-width pages to fit at 600x800) and the bulk of pages I build either design-wise have the menu near the top (so, same problem as horzintal menus), have goofy flex-width designs (the insurance pages)... I have one where the menu comes last in source, but it's position: fixed to the bottom of the screen and so needed a skip to content, skip to house menu (with a hidden header marking out WHAT a house menu was), skip to site menu.

    It seemed clunky every which-way, and is usable after someone gets familiar with the setup. It should be intuitive, but that's hard.

    I actually have another page where I would have liked to have content-first, because it's not a site where people know where they want to go, but more of a browse-and-get-info site (fire department)... then menu at the top is display: inline-block and doing text-enlarge sometimes in various browsers at random times causes a wrapping, doubling the height of the menu area-- the reason why I didn't absolutely position it up there.

    The OP was asking for a way around this, I thought. I can only think of how to do it when you KNOW what the height of the top area with menu will be, so that #content can have a set top-margin pushing it down.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Stomme poes View Post
    I was thinking more of the insurance sites I build-- the name says what it is, squirrel-insurance.com does what? and when people visit they don't read the "for Google" text the boss added to the main page.
    Then, without actually seeing your site, I'd venture that your start page isn't very good. It should tell visitors clearly what the site is about and what they can do there. Any marketese can be added after that, if necessary. Preferably with a skip link before it.

    But most (useful) sites consist of more than one page, and I'm willing to guess that most visitors arrive via SERPs rather than by typing in the domain name. If my hypothesis is correct, a majority of users could arrive straight into a content page, rather than at the front door.

    If I keep on assuming (yeah, I know) I'd then say that those visitors will fall broadly into two categories: those who are interested in the page's information and want to start reading and those who wonder where in Sam Hill they are and start looking for a link to the start page or an About page.

    So, in the end, it may not matter very much whether we put navigation first or content first. As long as we have skip links to whatever doesn't come first. And, perhaps, 'skip back' links at the bottom.
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  20. #20
    om nom nom nom Stomme poes's Avatar
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    Then, without actually seeing your site, I'd venture that your start page isn't very good.
    I fully agree, I is not happy with them (but, out of my control). It's a lot of words that don't say much (though the name of the site does). It does say what you can do there, but as that's not much, the rest is "filler" content. Blech.

    If my hypothesis is correct, a majority of users could arrive straight into a content page, rather than at the front door.
    Yesh, this is an issue.

    And, perhaps, 'skip back' links at the bottom.
    While one site I have added Naar Boven (back to top) links, I never know whether it makes sense to have one on a short page or not. Will every user agent cycle back to the url, title tag and then start of the page again? Do people prefer a link back or to cycle?

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    Quote Originally Posted by JustMagicMaria View Post
    All of these sites that talk about putting content before navigation put the #nav in the leftmost column, my second-preferred place to put it. I CAN'T FIND A SINGLE REFERENCE, other than the Drupal Zen theme I mentioned earlier, that puts it above.

    But I'm off topic for the Accessibility and Usability Forum. I should move this to the CSS Forum, I guess.

    I'm starting to think that most people are all talk and no action when it comes to doing this (since the layout I'm showing is such a common design pattern).

    Maria
    I've been working on content-first layouts lately, but I'm not sure my employer wants me to show them off. I'll post some branding-free examples when I have some free time.

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    SitePoint Addict Fre420's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Stomme poes View Post
    Here's the reason I don't put content before navigation:
    when one first visits a page, it's nice to have all the doors to all the different parts of the site immediately available. The reason older homes used to start you right out with a foray (is that what it's called? A big room/hallway you walk into) with several different doors going to different parts of the house.

    This makes sense for simple, small, main-site navigation, not something like a 100-link-long products list.
    I put content first, then breadcrumbs, then section navigation, then top nav, then footer.

    Only on the homepage I change the order a bit: top nav, content, footer.

    Don't need to change the CSS for it, body has a top padding & headnav is placed absolute (it's always a fixed height).

    I do have a lot of links (at least 3-4) in the content, that lead to deeper pages on the linked subject.
    & Every navigation gets a title, even the breadcrumbs. I do hide those titles in the design. (display none.)

    page structure looks like this on a deep page:

    Code:
    <body>
      <div id="container">
        <div id="content">
          <h1>page title</h1>
          <p>content content content</h1>
        </div
    
        <div id="breadcrumbs">
          <h2>Breadcrumbs</h2>
          <ul><li><a /></li></ul>
        </div>
    
        <div id="section_nav">
          <h2>Section navigation</h2>
          <ul><li><a /></li></ul>
        </div>
    
      </div>
    
      <div id="header">
        <h2>website tagline</h2>
    
        <h2>Head navigation</h2>
        <ul><li><a /></li></ul>  (first link is home with logo)
    
        <h2>Second navigation (mostly sitemap, contact, etc ...)</h2>
        <ul><li><a /></li></ul>
    
        <h2>Language navigation</h2>
        <ul><li><a>this page in another language</a></li></ul>
      </div>
      
      <div id="footer">
        <h2>Footer navigation</h2>
        <ul><li><a /></li></ul>
    
        <h2>copyrights</h2>
        <p>copyright</p>
      </div>
      
    </body>

  24. #24
    om nom nom nom Stomme poes's Avatar
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    & Every navigation gets a title, even the breadcrumbs. I do hide those titles in the design. (display none.)
    display: none? Basically only text-browsers will see it, but you'll miss the screen readers. JAWS won't read it out.

    But yeah I've seen that, first from Mike Cherim, and now I've started using them sometimes too (hidden headers).

    I was thinking more about this content-first, and realised no matter what you do, you end up with skip links. Either they need to skip to your content, or they need to skip to your navigation. Nobody wants to crawl through navigation before getting to the content, and nobody wants to crawl through the content just to get to the navigation. So I'm starting to wonder if it matters at all. Half-empty? Half-full? Matters at all?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Stomme poes View Post
    So I'm starting to wonder if it matters at all. Half-empty? Half-full? Matters at all?
    It doesn't matter much, as long as you have a skip link, but it might matter a little.

    For non-CSS browsers, content first is probably preferable. That lets you start reading the content right away, without having to skip past a long list of links first. If you want to go straight to the navigation, just use the skip link.

    For a screen reader user it might not matter. They'll have to listen to the skip link being read anyway, and the only difference is whether they have to follow it or not. The same applies to non-Opera users who prefer keyboard navigation. Their first tab will get them to the skip link and they'll either have to press Tab again or Enter to follow the link.
    Birnam wood is come to Dunsinane


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