Adam Silver is writing a book on forms—you may be familiar with his previous book on maintainable CSS. In a recent article (that for some reason isn’t on his blog), he looks at markup patterns for search forms and advocates that we should always use a label. I agree. But for some reason, we keep getting handed designs that show unlabelled search forms. And no, a placeholder is not a label.
I had a discussion with Mark about this the other day. The form he was marking up didn’t have a label, but it did have a button with some text that would work as a label:
<input type="search" placeholder="…">
He was wondering if there was a way of using the button’s text as the label. I think there is. Using
aria-labelledby like this, the button’s text should be read out before the input field:
<input aria-labelledby="searchtext" type="search" placeholder="…">
<button type="submit" id="searchtext">
Notice that I say “think” and “should.” It’s one thing to figure out a theoretical solution, but only testing will show whether it actually works.
The W3C’s WAI tutorial on labelling content gives an example that uses
<input type="text" name="search" aria-label="Search">
It seems a bit of a shame to me that the label text is duplicated in the
button and in the
aria-label attribute (and being squirrelled away in an attribute, it runs the risk of metacrap rot). But they know what they’re talking about so there may well be very good reasons to prefer duplicating the value with
aria-label rather than pointing to the value with
I thought it would be interesting to see how other sites are approaching this pattern—unlabelled search forms are all too common. All the markup examples here have been simplified a bit, removing
class attributes and the like…
The BBC’s search form does actually have a label:
Search the BBC
<input id="orb-search-q" placeholder="Search" type="text">
<button>Search the BBC</button>
But that label is then hidden using CSS:
clip: rect(1px, 1px, 1px, 1px);
That CSS—as pioneered by Snook—ensures that the label is visually hidden but remains accessible to assistive technology. Using something like
display: none would hide the label for everyone.
Medium wraps the
input (and icon) in a
label and then gives the
title attribute. Like
title attribute should be read out by screen readers, but it has the added advantage of also being visible as a tooltip on hover:
<label title="Search Medium">
This is also what Google does on what must be the most visited search form on the web. But the W3C’s WAI tutorial warns against using the
title attribute like this:
This approach is generally less reliable and not recommended because some screen readers and assistive technologies do not interpret the
title attribute as a replacement for the label element, possibly because the
title attribute is often used to provide non-essential information.
Twitter follows the BBC’s pattern of having a label but visually hiding it. They also have some descriptive text for the icon, and that text gets visually hidden too:
<label class="visuallyhidden" for="search-query">Search query</label>
<input id="search-query" placeholder="Search Twitter" type="text">
<button type="submit" class="Icon" tabindex="-1">
<span class="visuallyhidden">Search Twitter</span>
Here’s their CSS for hiding those bits of text—it’s very similar to the BBC’s:
clip: rect(0 0 0 0);
That’s exactly the CSS recommended in the W3C’s WAI tutorial.
Flickr have gone with the
aria-label pattern as recommended in that W3C WAI tutorial:
<input placeholder="Photos, people, or groups" aria-label="Search" type="text">
<input type="submit" value="Search">
Interestingly, neither Twitter or Flickr are using
type="search" on the
input elements. I’m guessing this is probably because of frustrations with trying to undo the default styles that some browsers apply to
input type="search" fields. Seems a shame though.
Instagram also doesn’t use
type="search" and makes no attempt to expose any kind of accessible label:
<input type="text" placeholder="Search">
Same with Tumblr:
<input tabindex="1" type="text" name="q" id="search_query" placeholder="Search Tumblr" autocomplete="off" required="required">
…although the search form itself does have
role="search" applied to it. Perhaps that helps to mitigate the lack of a clear label?
After that whistle-stop tour of a few of the web’s unlabelled search forms, it looks like the options are:
- a visually-hidden
title attribute, or
- associate some text using
But that last one needs some testing.
Update: Emil did some testing. Looks like all screen-reader/browser combinations will read the associated text.