Search engine optimization and web accessibility share many of the same best practices. Those who provide consulting or services for either should understand this unique overlap to help improve each process. By working together with a shared understanding, we can build better web products for our clients, customers, and users.
This guide will help you better understand the overlap between digital accessibility and SEO best practices.
What is SEO?
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of increasing the quality and quantity of website traffic by boosting the visibility of a website or a web page by ranking highly on a web search engine (like Google or Bing). This process may involve improving the presentation of existing content or creating new content on specific topics.
SEO and web accessibility can influence many of the same areas of product development
It may come as a surprise to you that SEO and web accessibility have so much overlap. Yet, considering all the elements/components that comprise complicated digital content like a website, it shouldn’t be all that surprising at all. Here are a few examples:
- Design – Web designers who don’t understand SEO or digital accessibility are at a significant disadvantage; knowledge of both practices should influence their work. For example, designers should strive to avoid using images of text rather than just employing CSS to render it the way they want it to appear. Just like a screen reader, Google web crawlers cannot interpret an image; they can only “understand” the content of a page by reading the code. This means any text on an image will be invisible to both screen reader users and Google crawlers. Though you could add alternative text to the image, that is not the use for which it was created, and alt text isn’t considered appropriate for this situation.
- User Experience (UX) – UX professionals need to create digital environments that minimize frustration and facilitate task completion. One factor Google considers when ranking websites is the on-page experience—if a website is hard to navigate or confusing to visitors, they’ll leave immediately, sending a negative signal to Google that it was a poor user experience. When building a user experience with accessibility in mind, these professionals create a better experience for everyone, not just those with disabilities.
- Technical infrastructure – The “skeleton” of a website, its code, significantly influences SEO and accessibility. Google crawlers and people with visual impairments using screen readers appreciate how a page is structured (e.g., proper headers and sub-headers) because it helps them understand the content of the page without reading all of it.
- Information Architecture – Similarly to the infrastructure, having a logical information architecture allows crawlers and humans to easily access pages in an order that makes sense benefits both SEO and the usability of a website.
Myths about SEO and accessibility
There is a lot of misinformation out there about both these topics. This guide will help you discover the truth behind some common misconceptions and why it’s important to understand them.
MYTH #1: Digital accessibility is only focused on improving access for the visually impaired
While a visual disability is frequently cited when discussing digital accessibility, it is by no means the only impairment that needs to be considered. Here are a few others:
- Motor or mobility impairments – Many people live with disabilities that prevent them from smoothly moving a mouse or a trackpad on a laptop, forcing them to rely solely on a keyboard. In severe cases, individuals may not have use of their hands at all. This is a significant issue that needs to be considered when creating content for mobile devices.
- Auditory or hearing impairments – Everyone’s hearing declines as they age; others have never had perfect hearing to begin with. Relying on sound alone to communicate content is a sure way to exclude and frustrate such individuals.
- Cognitive or intellectual disabilities – With rates of autism and learning disabilities growing exponentially, providing clear, concise content can provide a much better experience for them (and everyone else) consuming content online.
Many of these disabilities may temporarily affect people. Consider the home chef trying to follow a recipe on her tablet while up to her ears in sticky batter, or the train commuter who would love to catch a video recap of the most recent sports game on his phone but who has forgotten his headphones. Such “temporary” disabilities reinforce the notion that focusing on usability for those with greater physical and mental challenges will benefit the population at large.
MYTH #2: SEO is only about optimizing content with keywords
As previously mentioned, Google’s ranking algorithm considers many factors, some of which are technical best practices. For example:
- Clear Navigation – A logical navigation is helpful to both site visitors and Google crawlers to understand how different elements of the site fit together and where to find what they’re looking for.
- Breadcrumbs – Ensuring that a user is always aware of where they are on your site and how they got there is critical for best-in-class usability. It’s also helpful for Google crawlers to have a sense of where each page fits in the grand scheme of things.
- Sitemap – It can be a shortcut to finding content for crawlers and people with disabilities alike.
- Appropriate Headers – H1, H2, H3, etc., tags exist for a reason! They help everyone better understand the content on the page without reading all of it. In today’s tweet-obsessed world, where people are more likely to lap up sound bites than consume long-form content (especially on a mobile device), such headers are a must. And, as you’ve probably guessed, they are advantageous to screen reader users (who find it much harder to skim than those with normal vision), people with cognitive disabilities, and Google crawlers, which will look for keywords that will factor into ranking.
- Alt Text – Images without alt text are a black hole to both Google crawlers and people with visual challenges. If they help communicate a message (and are not solely decorative), always add alt text. Decorative image alt text can be left up to the website owner’s discretion.
MYTH #3: Excellent SEO means full accessibility
Insert buzzer sound here. Nope! Sorry. As much as we’d like to tell you otherwise, it’s not true. For one thing, Google’s RankBrain (their name for the AI-powered algorithm) uses hundreds, if not thousands of factors to rank web pages, only a portion of which help with accessibility. Furthermore, accessible digital content can be technically accessible (meaning it conforms to WCAG criteria) but offer a less-than-robust user experience. That’s where user testing comes in handy, especially testing that includes people with disabilities as part of the testing group.
By the same token, it’s pretty easy to have an incredibly inaccessible website that ranks very highly in search results, or a reasonably accessible website that tanks when it comes to SEO.
The upshot of all this? While there are overlapping factors that contribute to excellent SEO and accessibility, just because you have one does not mean you automatically achieve the other.
Potential conflicts between SEO and accessibility
We know (or hope this guide has proved beyond a reasonable doubt, anyway) SEO and accessibility are a match made in heaven, but are there potential areas of conflict between the two? Eh, debatable. Let’s dive in.
Because so many SEO technical recommendations align with accessibility best practices, conflict is rare. But sometimes eager search engine optimization marketers get a little overenthusiastic in trying to abide by other Google ranking factors. For example, while keyword stuffing is so 2001, people still do it, especially when it comes to anchor text. The only problem is if you’re busy linking your keyword in content like there’s no tomorrow, it may not be the most descriptive anchor text.
For example, say you have a website that sells pet food. You’re dying to link the keywords “cat/dog/fish/bird food” to pages throughout your site to send a signal to Google that, yes, you sell pet food! But a screen reader user often jumps from anchor text to anchor text when attempting to skim a page, and if you have multiple links that just say, “parrot food,” well, that’s not exactly helpful to them.
However, if you make your links more descriptive, e.g., “Buy parrot food” or “Learn more about the best food for your parrot,” not only will you improve the user experience for everyone, you’ll also be nominally helping your site rank for these long-tail keywords.
Another situation that’s similar to non-descriptive anchor text is non-descriptive alt text. Marketers may be dying to cram keywords into alt text, but that’s not what alt text is for. It’s to help screen reader users to get a more comprehensive understanding of the website’s content. Instead of using simple or non-linear keywords (like dog food cat food parrot food) for alt text in an effort to trick Google, incorporate long-tail keywords for a more descriptive output. For example, “dog eating dog food.” Simple, yet effective
In general, if you don’t try and game the system, optimizing for SEO and aiming for digital conformance are mutually beneficial best practices. If you’re looking to boost your search rankings by improving your accessibility, contact us today.
This article was written using content created by Joe Hall, SEO expert at Hall Analysis.