5Web accessibility, also known as digital accessibility, should go hand-in-hand with search engine optimization (SEO). If you’re not sure why, it might help to take a crash course in the basics of web accessibility. After all, SEO is a fairly common term understood by plenty of people outside the industry. But not everyone knows what “web accessibility” refers to. We’re here to clear it up and make the case for considering web accessibility in your SEO efforts.
To define web accessibility, we’ll look to the widely accepted global authority on accessible web content: the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C. W3C created the Web Accessibility Initiative, or WAI, to design guidelines for making the web more accessible to all.
According to WAI, web accessibility exists when “websites, tools, and technologies are designed and developed so that people with disabilities can use them.” Web content is considered accessible when all people – regardless of disability – can perceive, understand, navigate, interact with and contribute to the web.
What does this mean in practice? Let’s look at the example of one of the most common disabilities: visual impairments. People with visual impairments often rely on screen readers to communicate essential visual elements of a page. For a website to be accessible to this person, the page would need to include alternative descriptive text that would be “readable” to the screen reader. This is just one of a vast number of disabilities that can impact a user’s experience of web content.
To ensure this level of accessibility, WAI publishes the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG. These guidelines outline specific criteria that web content owners should follow to achieve accessibility for all, and are widely accepted as the global standard for web accessibility. WCAG has undergone several revisions, each new version expanding on the last, and is now in iteration 2.1 with a version 2.2 on the way.
As you most likely know, SEO stands for “search engine optimization.” Simply put, this means optimizing web content in order to increase visibility in search engine results.
SEO can be paid, meaning content owners pay for ads to appear on search engine results pages (SERPs), or organic, meaning content owners learn what users are searching for and write high-quality, highly relevant content to answer those search needs with the hopes of ranking on the first page. Both approaches have the same goal: get content in front of as many people who need it as possible.
The goals of SEO and web accessibility are highly compatible. If SEO is all about increasing the visibility of content in search, it should go without saying that this content should be accessible. Optimizing inaccessible content for SEO defeats the purpose, because if it contains accessibility barriers, fewer people can actually utilize and get value from it.
If that’s not enough to convince SEOs to care about web accessibility, remember that web accessibility is a legal requirement. The most comprehensive accessibility law in the U.S., the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), has consistently been interpreted to include websites and digital content. This has led to several high-profile lawsuits of brands that had accessibility barriers on their websites. Read about a few examples below.
• Beyonce: In 2019, Beyonce’s website was sued in a class action lawsuit spurred by a blind woman who claimed she could not use the website without the help of a sighted person. The specific accessibility barriers cited included a lack of alternative text for important images, a lack of accessible drop-down menus and navigation links, and an inability to use a keyboard instead of a mouse to navigate the site, which creates barriers for those with certain physical impairments.
• Domino’s Pizza: In a similar case also in 2019, Domino’s Pizza was sued over some of the same accessibility barriers, namely the inability to use the website with a screen reader. It’s important to note that this case also included the Domino’s Pizza app. Accessibility laws apply not only to websites but also to mobile apps and mobile versions of websites.
• Rite Aid: More recently, Rite Aid was sued over the inaccessibility of its COVID-19 vaccine registration portal. Again, incompatibility with screen readers and an inability to navigate the site with a keyboard instead of a mouse were cited.
These are just a few examples from a long list of lawsuits that also includes Netflix, Nike, Blue Apron, Five Guys, Winn-Dixie, and more.
Note that the responsibility of ensuring web accessibility mostly falls to web designers and developers. But there are several accessibility issues that fall easily into the realm of SEO. Read about some common examples below.
• Alt tags for images: As mentioned, one of the most common accessibility barriers cited in ADA lawsuits is a lack of descriptive text for images that are necessary to understand the web content. This is the text that screen readers “read” aloud to users with visual impairments. For SEOs, alt tags should be a familiar concept, as they are a best practice for making web content readable to search engines. Thus, SEOs are likely already experts on this accessibility requirement.
• Transcripts for video and audio content: In a similar vein, video and audio content should be accompanied by alternative text so that people with visual or hearing impairments can consume them. If your organization publishes video content such as informational videos or webinars, include transcripts. Again, this doubles as an accessibility best practice and an SEO best practice, since transcripts are readable to both screen readers and search engines. The same goes for audio content such as podcast episodes.
• Color contrast: Color contrast typically falls within the domain of web designers. However, it’s not a bad idea for SEOs, especially those who specialize in content marketing, to brush up on minimum contrast requirements. Many people with visual impairments have low contrast sensitivity, meaning they struggle to perceive text or images if they don’t have sufficient contrast with the background color. If you’re in the position of supporting your own organization or a client with a site redesign, make sure the text and background colors that will be used meet accessibility requirements for minimum contrast. Not only does this help people with visual impairments, but it also makes content more readable when there are so-called “situational disabilities,” such as using a computer in bright natural lighting.
By now, SEOs know that Google prioritizes the user experience above all. This is why many believe that search engines may actually favor more accessible content. Whether this is true or not, it’s common sense that accessible content provides a better user experience for all. That makes it better in SEO terms – and that means accessibility matters in SEO!