Web Development

Power of Semantic HTML and ARIA for User-friendly Websites

Published: 28th August, 2023

Vibha Gupta

Technical Content Writer at almaBetter

Semantic HTML and ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications) are powerful tools to help achieve accessible websites. Read more about it in this great blog!

In the web development world, creating interfaces accessible to all users is of utmost importance. Semantic HTML and ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications) are powerful tools to help achieve this goal. By adding meaning and structure to your content, these technologies ensure that web browsers, search engines, screen readers, and users can understand and interact with your website as efficiently and effectively as possible.

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What is ARIA and HTML?

Despite the clear benefits of using semantic ARIA HTML, many developers still fail to leverage their power. The primary reason for this is a lack of awareness and understanding. A Twitter poll was conducted to shed light on this issue, revealing that many developers are not familiar with these technologies. In this article, we will explore the benefits of using semantic HTML and ARIA and explain why they should be the foundation of your Web Development projects.

Starting with Raw Text: The Limitations

When content is added to the <body> element of an HTML document without any additional markup, the browser cannot differentiate between different types of content, such as headings and paragraphs. This lack of structure poses several challenges. Firstly, without proper markup, applying different styles to headings and paragraphs using CSS becomes impossible. Secondly, search engines struggle to index the content, resulting in poor rankings and decreased discoverability. Lastly, screen readers and other assistive technologies cannot correctly communicate the content to users, hindering their browsing experience.

Adding Structure with HTML Divs

Developers often wrap their content in <div> elements to address the lack of structure. While this approach provides some visual separation between different pieces of content, it still lacks meaningful structure. The problem is that <div> elements are meaningless and do not convey specific semantic information to browsers, CSS, search engines, or assistive technologies.

Styling Content: The Limitations of CSS Classes and IDs

Developers often rely on CSS classes or IDs to add visual styling to different elements. Developers can target specific elements and apply custom styles by assigning unique attributes to each <div>. However, while this approach may work for sighted users, it still falls short regarding accessibility and semantic meaning. Search engines, RSS readers, and screen readers cannot interpret these custom attributes, reducing discoverability and a less inclusive browsing experience.

Giving Content Meaning with Semantic HTML

To overcome the limitations of using <div> elements and custom attributes, it is crucial to leverage the power of semantic HTML. Semantic HTML provides predefined elements designed explicitly for conveying meaning and structure. Using elements such as <h1> for headings and <p> for paragraphs, developers can ensure that their content is understood correctly by browsers, search engines, screen readers, and users.

With semantic HTML, developers can apply their own custom styling using CSS, and search engines can also index the content effectively, leading to improved rankings and discoverability. Additionally, RSS readers can appropriately style the elements, and screen readers can accurately communicate the content to users. Moreover, semantic HTML results in more concise and maintainable code, which is essential for larger websites.

Additional Benefits of Semantic HTML

In addition to the core benefits mentioned above, semantic HTML offers several additional advantages that enhance the user experience. Some browsers provide helpful enhancements to semantic HTML elements. For instance, using the HTML telephone input (<input type="tel">) will automatically present users with a telephone-specific keypad on specific mobile browsers. Other browsers, like Safari, offer a simplified view of web pages called Reader Mode, which users can enable. Leveraging semantic HTML ensures compatibility with these browser features, resulting in an improved browsing experience for users.

The Role of ARIA in Accessibility

While semantic HTML is the foundation for creating accessible interfaces, there are situations where additional assistance is required. This is where ARIA in HTML comes into play. ARIA, a W3 standard, helps developers make interfaces more accessible to screen readers and assistive technology users. One example is using the ARIA attribute in HTML to associate error messages with form inputs. By properly linking an error message to an input using ARIA attributes, screen readers can accurately announce the error to users.

ARIA and JavaScript: Enabling Dynamic Interactions

ARIA becomes particularly useful when dynamic interactions are implemented using JavaScript. JavaScript is used to create complex features such as toggle menus, accordions, and sortable tables. However, these enhancements can often break the experience for screen reader users. ARIA can help bridge this gap by providing additional information to screen readers. For example, the aria-expanded attribute can indicate whether the content is currently shown or hidden, enabling screen reader users to have a comparable experience to sighted users.

Avoiding ARIA to Fix Unsemantic HTML

Although ARIA can make unsemantic HTML more accessible, it should be used sparingly and as a last resort. A typical scenario involves developers attempting to style a native checkbox using a <div> and JavaScript across multiple browsers. While ARIA attributes like role and aria-checked can be used to emulate a checkbox, this approach introduces many challenges. <div> elements are not inherently focusable by keyboards like <input type="checkbox">, and additional JavaScript is required to handle the form submission and keyboard interactions. In contrast, using semantics in HTML with an actual checkbox input eliminates these complexities and ensures a more accessible and reliable solution.

Conclusion: Designing for All Users

In conclusion, creating interfaces accessible to all users is essential to Web Development. Semantic HTML ARIA offers powerful tools to achieve this goal. Semantic HTML provides meaning and structure to content, enabling browsers, search engines, screen readers, and users to understand and interact with websites effectively. ARIA complements HTML semantics by enhancing the accessibility of dynamic interactions. However, using ARIA sparingly and prioritizing semantic HTML elements whenever possible is crucial. By following these best practices, developers can ensure that their interfaces are inclusive, user-friendly, and accessible. Let's strive to design experiences that work for everyone.

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