Secondary Services and Your Responsibilities Online

Feb 17 2022

Your homepage is your digital front door. Much like an apartment or a house, there is so much to see beyond the front door. Like a homeowner is responsible for their property, website owners are responsible for maintaining all parts of their website. Such parts include the areas of the site not often noticed by most users.

To demonstrate the responsibility held by a website owner, let’s create a metaphor between the scope of liability for having a child’s birthday party and maintaining a webpage. To facilitate guests, a host must ensure that they have the proper infrastructure available at the location they choose: here it will be a house. Your child has just turned eight, and the party is in your backyard. You need entertainment. Your house has a pool. You rent a bouncy castle. You provide all the food and beverages. Step back. Think about the liability you have. Your house has a pool but hiring a lifeguard to supervise the party would have broken the bank and you decide you’ll be able to police the children in it. Something draws your attention away for a minute and now and now somebody slipped in the pool and hits their head. Who is liable? You are! While you’re dealing with the pool, someone breaks a leg on the bouncy castle. Who is liable? You are! The point to be made is that any content you put on your website, you are liable for. Things on a website might draw your attention away, but they are all important and need to be supervised. Any third-party software, links to secondary websites, or encoded digital material is content that you are liable for. This article will explore these ideas with the lens a realtor may have in selling/renting out properties on a digital/virtual platform.

For realtors trying to sell/lease properties on an online platform, web accessibility persists as a major failure in the provision of your services. To ensure that there is equity in access to content for all users navigating a given webpage, the content of the page must be presented in a manner that enables users to interpret the information. One’s responsibilities for owning and maintaining a website does end at the proverbial door of your website, but you’re responsible for the content of any third-party webpages or platforms that you make use of (via link or integration). For those listing properties (apartments, houses, etc.) on online real estate platforms, this means that any another website that may feature a virtual tour of your apartment, may direct them to an application for the rental, etc., becomes a problem for you if they are not accessible to the disabled user. Sites that link, redirect, or attach to your webpage pose significant risks to your providing of an entirely accessible site. The unfortunate reality of today’s digital marketplace is that most websites fail to be digitally inclusive (roughly 94% of websites fail).

How Using Third Party Platforms May Overshadow Inclusivity

While using online real estate platforms such as Zillow, Rent.com, and Apartments.com, provides realtors and property buyers with a centralized location where they can engage in online real estate commerce, they tend to also bring about several challenges for disabled users. The design of these sites makes it such that the most salient information is posted for viewers and is accompanied by images and other media files to “show” the property. As mentioned in an earlier article, “The Importance of Alt Text In Online Real Estate” (opens in a new window), these media files are often displayed in a manner such that visually impaired users are precluded from accessing essential information on the properties they are interested in. Furthermore, many realtors chose to provide additional services that help to sell their properties. Amongst the more common practices is providing links to secondary (usually their own or another vendor’s) websites that offer additional media (such as floor plans, pictures, virtual tours, etc.), applications to lease said property, and documentation vital to the real estate transaction. Many of these secondary platform/locations prove to be difficult for disabled users to access and/or access the information on. Why is that?

Getting to Secondary Websites

For visually impaired users, and for users who may utilize assistive technology such as screen reader software/technology for reasons other than a visual impairment, information presented in a non-textual base format (i.e., images/visual representations, charts, maps, etc.) must be properly outfitted with descriptive alternative text (also referred to as ‘alt text’) that would be detectable to a screen reader. Screen reader technology serves to interpret the information on a page and read it aloud to users who are unable to read it (for whatever reason) and are not auditorily impaired. For a user using assistive technology to access a secondary page, the link from one page to another must be labeled properly. Link text is the text that is displayed on a webpage to describe the link which goes to another webpage, document, video, etc. This is the text users see or have read-aloud to them to navigate a website. Link text functions as a description of the transition the user makes when navigating from one page to another, allowing them access to information prior to deciding to change pages. Improperly coded link text, and/or the absence of link text, has the potential to create a barrier to accessing website information. Proper link text is important to include on a page so that everyone, regardless of disability status, has access to information.

Accessing Information on Secondary Websites

Once a user has accessed a site, the problem remains about how to access the information available on it. Already mentioned is the importance of alternative text for being able to perceive images; but what about for other types of media? Virtual tours, especially for those interested in renting apartments, seems to have gained favor. Whether it be through virtual staging - “where home stagers take digital photos of empty (or badly furnished) rooms, then use photo-editing software to add pretty couches, tables, and other furnishings” - or a compilation of images, virtual tours need to be accessible to disabled users. Visual depictions on virtual tours are slightly different from that of an image attached to the property’s profile. The 3D aspect and the nature of the tour that results from the user’s control over the tour makes the textual descriptions of a given room rather fluid when contrasted to the concrete descriptions of a still, 2D, image. The same idea applies to the visual representations of a floor plan provided on a secondary website.

The Responsibility You Hold

As a website owner, you are responsible for the content you share. While the aforementioned media are some examples of the content you are liable for, others exist. Even though a site might not explicitly be yours, a lack of accessibility only hurts your image and your ability to sell your property; and if the content is not properly coded to allow users with assistive technology to interpret the information you provide, you will lose customers. Larger online real estate platforms such as Zillow have become defendants in class actions suits (opens in a new window) because of their failure to provide accessible content. Other smaller real estate firms have found themselves party to individual suits. Protect yourselves by ensuring accessibility to your content.

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