Web accessibility refers to ensuring all users can reasonably access each component of your site. We commonly think of accessibility as being an issue for those who are physically, visually, or cognitively impaired. But, making accessibility changes and adding features can also help people whose website navigation is hampered by environmental or situational factors, such as:
Making sure your website is accessibility-compliant gives every user the best experience possible and, for some websites, may even be a legal requirement. Making the necessary accessibility changes to your site will help all kinds of users, as well as one other key person: You.
That’s right, a robust and well-designed user experience that prioritizes accessibility can do wonders for your web traffic. So, what is accessible SEO, and why should you make changes to implement it?
While accessibility and SEO have different general goals, there is some overlap.
Having an accessible site means people stay on each page longer. Thus, lowering your bounce rate. Ultimately they are also more likely to engage with your content through shares or purchases.
You’ll also find that the methods by which Google “judges” your site for SEO are remarkably similar to how many web accessibility tools like screen readers function. As a result, optimizing for one can often indirectly result in perfecting the other. So, website accessibility changes can offer a range of benefits.
SEO work and website design are often siloed off, with different teams communicating their needs to one another on an ex post facto basis. What you should be doing, instead, is building accessibility into your site from the ground up. Use the concept of experience design (XD) to integrate them effectively.
Experience design is a holistic approach to web design that starts by asking, “What are the core needs of the user?” Then, branching out from there, the goal is to incorporate ease of use and accessibility for all users into the very foundations of the site design.
If you’re constantly rushing to back-fill accessibility changes due to issues as they come up, you will be left with a patchwork pattern of solutions stitched over a fundamentally flawed outline. In other words, don’t wait until you’ve paid the market researchers an arm and a leg to identify that you’re underperforming. Especially, when 26 percent of US adults have some type of disability. Instead, ask yourself from the beginning:
How can you incorporate the idea of experience design into your site right now to start seeing the benefits of accessible SEO?
The most common web accessibility issues websites run into are:
Alt text is important for those unable to fully see the images on a screen. Either due to disabilities or environmental context. Screen readers pick up the slack by reading aloud the alt text. Thus, the image is still included as part of the user’s experience.
Nearly one-quarter of website images have missing or unhelpful alt text that leaves screen readers in the lurch.
Computers can’t “see” images like a human can (this is why some captcha verifications use image-based questions). Therefore, alt text is the only way for a search engine like Google to properly index images on your site, which is vital for solid SEO.
Alt text also helps salvage the bounce rate from users whose browser doesn’t display the images correctly. The alt text is there to provide at least some context to your site visitor, decreasing the odds of them smashing that back button.
Unclear link text is another element that can trip up accessibility technologies like screen readers. Also called anchor text, the words to which you attach your link matter a lot. Attaching links to words and phrases like “click here” or “this” can prevent the screen reader from quickly and smoothly navigating the page as it’s unclear what the links are going to.
Just like screen readers crawl your content to present it to the end user, Google’s almighty algorithm is similarly crawling your site and picking up many of the same issues. Google (or any search engine) will examine the links and your anchor text to get a better sense of the structure of your site. A cluttered or confusing site will not rank as well because the search engine won’t understand the context. For example:
“Click here for our newest risotto recipe!” Will leave Google confused as to what the link goes to, whereas “Our newest risotto recipe was recently voted best in Manhattan!” is much easier for the search engine to understand.
If your site posts video or audio content (and it should!), the good news is that you are catering to the 90 percent of users who prefer video content. The bad news is that you may limit your audience by not including proper subtitles or transcripts.
Those with hearing impairment or who are using your site in public spaces cannot hear your wonderfully well-researched radio story. The same goes for that in-depth product video you put so much effort into. Subtitles or closed captioning allows everyone to follow along.
Remember that closed captioning (which includes sound effects) is helpful for those who cannot hear. In contrast, subtitles are often used to make content accessible to people from different language backgrounds.
Search engines will reward you for your high-quality video content. Useful and interesting videos tend to generate a lot of backlinks that will help you rank higher. However, you don’t have total control over this; this is where your transcript comes in.
Google can “read” your transcript and detect the keywords within it, giving the search engine a better idea of your content.
Screen readers use page titles to help users navigate between tabs, and headers are vital for assisting people as they find relevant information. However, headers that don’t pertain to the text below them (or which have no follow-up text at all) will confuse and frustrate users.
Google loves headers. It’s SEO best practice to find that perfect sweet spot of keyword phrases and genuinely descriptive, helpful page titles and H2’s so that Google pulls your page up to the top of the results page.
SEO and accessibility changes aren’t two warring factions competing for budget money. They weave together much more tightly than you may think. When you focus on overall accessibility and improve your site with these principles in mind, you’ll also see your SEO grow more robust, too.