Millions of people with disabilities experience barriers when accessing online information and services. A recent WebAIM study found that people with physical, cognitive, visual, and auditory disabilities can expect accessibility errors on one in every 21 homepage elements they engage with.
The good news is improving accessibility isn’t an exhausting task when implemented alongside SEO best practices. Search engine optimization (SEO) and website accessibility share common goals, meaning you can expand access and enhance search visibility by creating optimal experiences for all users.
The Importance of Having an Accessible Website
Many activities happen in online spaces — learning, shopping, banking, and making appointments. It’s vital that digital environments are as accessible as physical ones. When your site is optimized for assistive technologies and alternate ways of interaction, you’re expanding your market reach and opening your business to all, and demonstrating inclusivity and equity.
Businesses must provide “full and equal enjoyment” of their goods, services, privileges, and advantages, according to Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The U.S. Department of Justice interprets this to include services offered on the internet.
There’s a growing risk of legal action against businesses with sites that aren’t ADA-compliant. There were 3,255 ADA Title III website accessibility lawsuits in U.S. federal court in 2022, an increase from 814 cases in 2017.
Does Accessibility Affect SEO?
When you implement accessibility features that enable people with disabilities to interact with your website, you’re helping search engines to better understand your site and index it more accurately.
Industry standards for website accessibility are set out in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). SEO marketers can use this guide to address technical elements such as color contrast, image alt text, and navigation, creating an equitable online experience for all, regardless of ability.
Is Accessibility a Ranking Factor?
Website accessibility isn’t a direct search engine ranking factor. However, sites optimized for all users are more likely to align with Google’s ranking factors and land higher in search results.
Many accessibility features are tied to SEO, such as XML and HTML sitemaps, readability, video captioning, and Core Web Vitals. The more elements that you can satisfy, the better your site’s ranking.
For example, a site with healthy Core Web Vitals loads and stabilizes quickly and responds rapidly to user interactions for an optimal experience. The bottom line? Google encourages developers to build accessible products, so it’s important to follow the search giant’s lead.
Ways To Integrate Accessibility and SEO
In this next section, I’ll highlight some SEO accessibility strategies that can make your site more helpful for people with disabilities and search engines.
Website Design and UX
Google increasingly considers user experience in its rankings, so a site with accessible SEO has a better chance of ranking well. You’ll decrease bounce rate and encourage visitor engagement if users with disabilities can interact with your site seamlessly.
Improve site design by:
- Keeping site elements simple.
- Avoiding slow-loading images, interstitials, and flashing content.
- Providing high color contrast and an easy-to-read font type and size.
- Aligning text to the left.
- Creating a logical site architecture and intuitive navigation.
- Using descriptive and clear headlines.
- Avoiding color as a way to highlight information.
- Providing alternative ways to navigate a site and consume content.
XML & HTML Sitemaps
A sitemap provides a link to every page on a website and gives search engines a big-picture overview of how content is organized for crawling and indexing. Sitemaps also offer an important alternative navigation method for users with disabilities, enabling them to quickly scan and locate relevant web pages from one place.
Organize your sitemap by section and subsection to show the site’s hierarchy, and revise it every time a page is added, moved, or deleted to ensure there are no dead links or missing pages.
An easy-to-navigate site is essential for accessibility, as users can get frustrated if they can’t find or access content with assistive devices. Navigation also impacts SEO because search engines follow links to discover and index new pages.
To optimize your site’s architecture:
- Place navigation in familiar locations where users expect them.
- Use meaningful labels that make it clear where links take you.
- Provide options for keyboard navigation for those who can’t use a mouse.
- Add section links on pages with a lot of content for faster navigation.
- Ensure links are large enough for users to easily click them.
- Test navigation to identify problems before launching the site.
- Ensure tab order is appropriately set.
Breadcrumb navigation is page-specific navigation that appears horizontally at the top of a page. It shows where a page is in relation to parent pages and is useful for orienting users to complex sites, especially those who land on a category page through search instead of the homepage. Users can also quickly navigate to pages higher in the hierarchy directly from the page.
For SEO purposes, breadcrumb navigation shows search engines how pages are related. Parent pages can also share link equity with a child page through the internal link, helping to improve authority for ranking.
For effective breadcrumb navigation:
- Use visual separators in your breadcrumbs, such as a forward slash or greater than sign. Add the breadcrumb using CSS so screen readers don’t announce the visual separator.
- Implement structured data so breadcrumb navigation appears in search results. This tells searchers where on a site they’ll land if they click on a snippet.
Page titles summarize the purpose or content of a web page. They often appear as:
- Clickable links in search engine results.
- Names of open tabs in a browser bar.
- Default titles of bookmarked pages.
- Titles of the clickable image block in social media links.
Search engines use HTML title tags to understand what a page is about for indexing. Screen readers will announce page titles to help users find a relevant page or to know what page they’re using.
To optimize a title tag for accessibility SEO, create a helpful page title that:
- Accurately describes the page.
- Naturally incorporates your target keyword.
- Is 50 to 60 characters long.
- Compels users to click through.
Header tags are a standard element of on-page SEO used to organize text into sections to improve readability. Each header signals the start of a new topic or subtopic.
Assistive technologies use headings to take users directly to the section they want, which is easier than reading an entire web page to glean specific information. Search engines use headings to understand the content that follows each header to better match queries.
To optimize headings for SEO accessibility:
- Use proper HTML tags so assistive technologies can read them.
- Make sure each header accurately describes the section content.
- Nest header levels in order within sections, so don’t jump from an H3 to H5.
Alt text is a written description of an online image that substitutes for the image. They help people with vision impairments or low vision to understand an image, as well as provide information to all users if images load slowly or are missing. As search engines can’t crawl images, alt tags are important for SEO purposes to relay the subject of an image for indexing.
Here are a few things to consider when writing alt text:
- It’s not necessary to include “This is an image of” in your description as screen readers automatically announce this.
- Write a complete sentence and bring the picture to life. Instead of using “ice cream” for alt text, try: “Hand holding a waffle cone with two scoops of strawberry ice cream.”
- Make alt text relevant to the page content and consider what a person wants to know in the context of the subject.
- If images have a function, describe the action rather than the image. For example, if a Nike logo links to a Nike product you sell, the alt text should convey this information rather than stating “Nike logo.”
- Incorporate keywords naturally. Keyword stuffing comes across as spammy.
- For complex images such as charts, link to detailed descriptions.
- For decorative images or to avoid repeating detailed on-screen captions, use empty alt attributes so screen readers skip them.
Metadata, such as a meta description, doesn’t appear on a published web page but helps search engines and users understand the purpose and content of a page.
Meta descriptions appear in the SERPs underneath the page title and are important for accessibility. Screen readers read them aloud to help users decide whether the page meets their needs before they click through. They also enhance SEO by giving search engines insight into page relevance so they can match content to appropriate queries, reducing bounce rate.
Effective meta descriptions:
- Accurately describe the contents of a page.
- Are clear and easily understood if read aloud.
- Include a primary keyword.
- Contain fewer than 160 characters.
- Contain a call to action and compel users to click through.
More than half of global web traffic originates from mobile devices. Google crawls the mobile version of all new websites first, meaning that your site should be accessible and optimized for smartphones, tablets, and other devices.
To ensure your site is mobile friendly:
- Use a responsive design that renders for different screen sizes.
- Format content so readers can skim or read it easily.
- Keep your site simple and clean without intrusive interstitials.
- Optimize site speed so it loads quickly for users on the go.
- Target specific keywords for voice search.
Video Captions and Transcripts
Video content is growing in popularity, but live streams, webinars, interviews, and visual product demos can be challenging for both users who are deaf or hard of hearing and search engines unless you provide captioning and transcripts.
On-screen captions are a text alternative to audio for users who are deaf or hard of hearing. Some people also prefer captions when they’re in a noisy environment or don’t want to disturb others. While YouTube provides automatic video captioning, you should edit captions for accuracy for the best user experience.
Full transcripts provide a text alternative to the spoken parts of videos (and are great for video SEO). You should publish them on the same page as a video or on a separate page with a link. Screen readers can read transcripts more quickly than video captions. Some users may also prefer to skim a transcript than watch a video or search a transcript for a particular term.
Since search engines can’t crawl video content, transcripts provide valuable information for indexing. Edit transcripts to remove conversational elements such as “um” and “ah” so they’re easier to read.
Anchor text is clickable text that tells users and search engines where a link takes them. Search engines use anchor text to understand the content around the link and on the destination page. Accurate anchor text is also important for users with disabilities so they don’t unnecessarily click to other pages that don’t meet their needs.
Write concise and accurate anchor text so users know what to expect when they follow the link. This means avoiding generic phrasing such as “click here” or using a URL as anchor text.
As some users with screen readers will scan a page for links, a good test of whether your anchor text is accessible is to see if it’s understood if read aloud on its own.
Readability refers to how easy a piece of content is to consume. A page with high readability engages users and keeps them on your site for longer. It’s also more easily understood by search engines that are trying to match the content to user queries.
You can improve readability for SEO and accessibility by:
- Grouping content into chunks with clear headers so information is easy to find.
- Removing wordiness and choosing simple and compelling language.
- Using active voice for a more direct style of writing.
- Using numbered or bulleted lists for scanning.
- Writing for readers and avoiding keyword stuffing.
Accessibility Testing Tools
There are numerous free and paid tools available that can give you an idea of how accessible your site is. I’ve listed a few below to get you started.
accessScan provides a detailed analysis of how your site measures up in terms of clickable elements, titles, menus, orientation, graphics, forms, and readability. This free tool scans a domain and tells you whether your site meets various accessibility standards, with details on the elements you’ve failed to meet. You can download the information as a PDF report.
Accessibility Checker audits websites for compliance based on accessibility legislation in select countries. It provides an overall compliance score, a list of urgent and secondary issues, and solutions. The free tool can be used on individual web pages, but you’ll have to upgrade to scan multiple pages at once.
Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool (WAVE)
Developed by WebAIM, this tool tests web pages for accessibility issues according to WCAG 2.1 guidelines. You can go directly to the WAVE website and enter a URL to see a visualization of the errors. The tool superimposes icons on your web page to show you where issues are located. WAVE is also available as a browser extension so you can test directly within Chrome, Firefox, and Edge.
Get Help Unifying SEO and Accessibility Today
Instead of approaching accessibility as an afterthought, combine it with SEO to streamline your website optimization efforts. Our team at Victorious can help you build powerful strategies that combine both accessibility and SEO, creating a helpful, barrier-free website that reaches the widest possible audience. Contact us today for a free consultation.