Web Accessibility & SEO — Getting Started

Text in Focus Through Glasses

In the push to be seen as thought leaders and advertise our latest, greatest services on the world wide web, accessibility tends to be forgotten. We become obsessed with designing fancy layouts and orchestrating slick interactions, hoping to impress our visitors and “look the [professional] part.”

But if we ignore accessibility, users with screen readers or other assistive devices won’t be able to find what they need, and they’ll leave. If they leave soon after they arrive, your bounce rate will go up. If your bounce rate goes up, your SEO rankings may drop. This is just one of the many ways in which web accessibility and SEO are intertwined.

Smaller businesses often find the idea of accessibility especially worrisome. With fewer staff members and more generalized roles, dedicating the time and expertise required to “get up to speed” in this area may feel low priority.

With that being said, it’s important to note that any accessibility measures a small business takes will likely provide SEO benefits. Since optimizing your content for accessibility improves usability, findability and shareability, all of which the search engines love.

If all that wasn’t enough to motivate you to dial in your accessibility, it’s worth noting that neglecting your site’s accessibility can be a violation of the American’s with Disabilities act. Whether you are Beyonce or a mom-and-pop shop, if your site isn’t accessible, it’s vulnerable to litigation.

Now that you know the importance of accessibility and that it can impact SEO, here’s how you can take some basic steps to improve your site’s overall accessibility.

It’s All About Content

Like SEO, accessibility is really about content. SEO makes content available to users via search engines, while accessibility makes content available via text-to-speech browsers (and other devices). In both cases, the ultimate goal is to deliver your content to the users who need it. Search engines may be your content’s biggest fans, but they’re also partially blind. They can only see text, which means your images and other media won’t matter to them much unless you make them accessible.

Because users can access your content on a variety of different platforms (laptops, tablets, phones, e-readers, voice-controlled devices), it’s in your best interest to make your content available and understandable in as many of these environments as possible. Voice commands and non-visual browsers are becoming more mainstream, so you’ll be prepared for the inevitable — and rewarded for it.

Provide Good Clues

Accessibility and search engine optimization aren’t magic; they both boil down to common sense and providing users with value. If you properly mark everything up and prioritize communication and meaning, your content will be understandable to you, your visitors, and the search engines indexing that content. On the flip side, if people can’t understand your content because you don’t make it accessible or prioritize clear communication, it can’t provide anyone value.

Search engines are programmed to rely on text-based clues like alt tags, closed captions, and transcripts to decide where your content belongs in the search results and who should see it.

These same text-based clues (alt tags, closed captions, and transcripts) also increase accessibility and content comprehension for visitors who can’t see and/or hear (or choose not to, because they make voice queries — and listen to the search results — instead).

Including the proper clues helps give everyone the value they are looking to get out of your site and the content it contains, which will ultimately benefit your SEO.

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SEO and Accessibility Basics to Implement

There is no shortage of things you can do to improve your accessibility and SEO efforts, but the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Here are the best areas to address when getting started with web accessibility.

1. List Out Your Navigation

Navigation may be the most important part of your site. If visitors can't figure out how to navigate your website to get the information they need, your entire site becomes useless. For both SEO and accessibility reasons, all navigation should take the form of lists since navigation is really just a list of links to other pages.

  • Accessibility benefit of navigation lists: If your navigation takes the form of a list of links, it will be detected and read as a bulleted or numbered list by non-visual browsers. This means your visitors will be able to get where they want to go quickly (and they’ll stay on your site instead of leaving in frustration).
  • SEO benefit of navigation lists: Search engines will see your navigation as a related group of priority links, and give them the weight they deserve.

2. Meaningful Meta Tags

Meta tags provide extra information in the header of every webpage. While hidden in the code of a page, these tags are used by both browsers and search engines to make sense of your page’s content. Optimizing your title and description tags gives you control over what the search engines and social networks see — and how your potential visitors will make decisions about whether or not to visit your page.

For SEO and accessibility purposes, you’ll want to focus on accurate and illustrative page title and description tags. The page title tag (up to 55 characters) provides a short explanation of what the content on a page is all about. The description tag (up to 155 characters) provides additional context and tells users why a page is worth visiting. Both should clearly communicate what a page will provide users.

  • Accessibility benefit of meaningful page titles and descriptions: Meta tags appear in the page code before any other content, so they’re the first thing a text-to-speech browser will read. This means that users will immediately know if they’re in the right place (or not). The description tag becomes especially important when a visitor is using a text-to-speech or phone browser that reads out the description.
  • SEO benefit of meaningful page titles and descriptions: The title tag allows you to target valuable keywords and phrases that people are searching for, and defines the page title that appears in search engine results. The content of your description will also appear in the search results and give you the opportunity to sell potential visitors on why they should visit your page. It should also show up any time your page gets shared on social media thanks to Open Graph.

3. Separate Section Headings

In a normal web browser, the layout and design of the site makes different sections of content obvious. But when you visit the same site with text-to-speech or text-only browsers, all visual cues are gone. You can no longer see where content sections begin and end.

A lot of websites haven’t taken the time to use heading tags properly; instead, they use only H1 headings and paragraphs, which makes things really confusing for visitors — especially those who can’t read the page. If you have a main section with subsections underneath, use the heading tags H1 through H6 to indicate the proper hierarchies in your content.

  • Accessibility benefit of separate section headings: Section headings define and explain separate sections on a webpage, providing visitors with additional information about the page’s content. Using headings with proper hierarchies makes it easier for everyone to understand your page’s content, and many text-to-speech browsers only read out the headings of a page.
  • SEO benefit of separate section headings: By carefully assigning levels of heading tags, search engines can tell more about the content on your page, and quickly determine its relevance.

4. List Your Content

Use lists within your page content to organize related concepts and create easily digestible summaries of your more in-depth information. Not only do lists make it easier for people to access your content via screen readers, they also tell the search engines and your browser what information belongs together.

  • Accessibility benefit of listing your content: When you organize related items into a bulleted or numbered list, they will read out as a list, making your content easier to navigate.
  • SEO benefit of listing your content: Search engines love lists. Once you put content items into a list, search engines will understand that there’s a relationship between those items, and treat them as related. They might even show your list as a rich snippet in search results.

5. Describe Your Images

The internet makes sharing images easy (and viewing them addictive), but vision can’t be taken for granted. People with sight issues, search engines, and people using voice search or with images turned off won’t be able to admire your gorgeous graphics. Ideally, any images or graphics you’re using aren’t just for decoration. Instead, it’s best to use relevant illustrations or photos that support your overall message. In that case, it’s important to add text to the alt attribute of your image tags to explain to visitors (and search engines) how they support your content.

  • Accessibility benefit of describing your images: When you add an alt tag to an image, you’re providing a text description of the image, so that a browser with images turned off will still display the description, and users with a text- to-speak browsers, will hear that description read aloud. No one misses out.
  • SEO benefit of describing your images: The search engines can’t see images, so they rely entirely on alt tag descriptions to understand what the image is and index it properly. If you write a clear and illustrative description of your image, search engines will be able to index it properly and understand how it relates to your content.

6. Title Your Links

While the internet relies on links, the majority of hyperlinks online aren’t marked up properly. Links will still work even without markup, but they’re not very functional. The whole point of adding links to a page is to get people to click on them. But, they won’t click unless you give them enough information to know where they’ll end up.

Adding link title attributes provides specific information about your links so that visitors know where they're going. It’s also important to make sure your linked text describes the destination, instead of relying on generic, useless text such as “Click here.”

  • Accessibility benefit of titling your links: If your linked text and link title tags both describe the destination, then people will be able to hover over your links and know in advance where that link is going. Text-to-speech browsers allow users to focus on links (using the Tab key) and hear in more detail where that link will go.
  • SEO benefit of titling your links: The SEO benefit is the same as the accessibility benefit, since the search engines are largely blind, and can only read the information you provide. When a search engine recognizes a link, it immediately looks for the title tag to determine where the link will direct the user.

7. Transcribe Audio and Video Content

People (and search engines) who can’t see aren’t able to watch your videos, and those who can’t hear aren’t able to listen to your podcasts or audio. Text, though, can be universally understood and indexed — which means that adding transcriptions of audio and video files to your content will help everyone (including you!).

  • Accessibility benefit of transcribing audio and videos: Audio and video transcripts will allow your content to be accessible to a broader user base. Even those who can’t see (or hear) will be able to benefit from the information you provide.
  • SEO benefit of transcribing audio and videos: Since search engine crawlers can’t see or hear, they rely on transcripts to determine your media’s relevance and how much ranking weight to give the content on your page.

Wrapping Up

To rank better in Google, your content and links must be excellent, and your site’s impression on visitors must be, too. Regardless of your visitors’ abilities or lack thereof.

Accessibility and SEO exist in a mutually beneficial relationship. They work together to make your website more useful, discoverable, and relevant. All of which will ultimately improve its ability to rank in search engines.

Employing these simple accessibility tactics not only makes your site and content available to more people, but also makes everything easier to find via search engines and social media. Making accessibility a priority benefits everyone, especially you and your site.

Now all you have to do is get started implementing these accessibility basics!

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Erik Wardell

Erik Wardell

Erik loves breaking down complex SEO topics into understandable instructions anyone can follow. In his role as an SEO coach, he guides Pathfinder SEO customers through the SEO process on a daily basis, giving them helpful tips, instruction, and advice along the way.