Accessibility & SEO

By Donna Bungard
August 20, 2018

Blog Post - Accessibility & SEO

A few years ago, when I was starting to go deeper into Accessibility, a dear friend drilled into me “a search engine optimized site may not be more accessible, but an accessible site is more search engine friendly.” Truth is, that simple line stuck with me because what an easy way to optimize the work I was doing as both a strategist and an accessibility professional. This should resonate with other professionals too - from marketing stakeholders to content editors; it’s just the easiest way to reach the greatest number of users.

So what is Accessibility about anyway?

The simplest way to put it is that website accessibility is about breaking down barriers so that those who are differently-abled can experience a website in an equal way. Really - it’s about reaching more people effectively! And the good news for your marketing team (and budget) is that it makes your site more search engine friendly too.

Let’s look at why (the “cliff’s notes” version of course):

  • Those who are blind or unable to see need great alt text and well-formatted content and data. Well so does a Googlebot.
  • Users who are deaf or unable to hear benefit from video transcripts and captions. Well so does a Googlebot.
  • A user who has difficulty navigating the page and is relying on assistive technology needs good web page structure to have a successful experience. So does a Googlebot.
  • Someone who is experiencing cognitive challenges or distractions needs information to be clear, understandable and needs multiple ways to take in that information. Well that just is candy to that Googlebot.

Think of it as karma! You empower the millions of people who are disabled worldwide, you make it easier for all users, and you get rewarded with a site that’s more search engine friendly.

Great! You’re in!!! Now what?

Accessibility Guidelines

Before we go into the great things to keep in mind, let’s tell you where these come from.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an international community that develops open guidelines to ensure the quality and growth of the web. This group has developed the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to normalize how we measure accessibility internationally. Throughout the world, many countries (including the U.S.) reference these guidelines when establishing their own criteria.

The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) Section 508 dictates the accommodations/ accessibility levels required for US citizens; including content published on the web. The ADA’s goal is “to secure an equal playing field for individuals with disabilities.” Yup! There are laws and standards about all of this - so this may be even more important to your business than you think…. But that’s another blog post.

Best Practices: Where Accessibility meets SEO

Okay! So, now you know who and why, and who establishes the guidelines. NOW we can dive into best practices!

Unique Page Titles

Page titles are KEY!!! Why? The tell users of assistive technologies (or those who read their tabs in their browsers) what page they are on. They are the link to your site from a search engine result page - giving users a reason to click. They tell search engines what your page is about. Utilize them. Give information to showcase the purpose of your page to users and screen readers alike.

What to do?

  • Make each title unique and informative
  • Keep each title between 55 - 60 characters or else it may not all show on a search engine result page. Don’t risk an awkward abbreviation
  • Your title should be the H1 tag of a page, the only H1 tag, on a given page

Give the page a strong foundation!

No really, structure matters! Know all those Heading 1, Heading 2, Heading 3 etc options you have? Those are H-tags! Each page should have one Heading 1 (or H1) tag and then the rest in order. To break it down:

  • Good: H1, H2, H3, H4, H2, H3, H3 etc.
  • Bad: H2, H6, H6, H2, H4.

Why does it matter? Well, assistive technologies use these tags to help users navigate the page. And search engines? John Mueller of Google said, “We do use H tags to understand the structure of the text on a page better.” Seems pretty important!

What to do?

  • Use H-tags in sequential order, with only one H1 tag
  • Keep the words you choose focused on the theme of the page without stuffing them up
  • Only use these for headings, don’t try to style with them

Alternative Text

Way back when I remember someone told me to always give images alternative (or alt) text so that when the dial-up is slow (yeah, I’ve been at this a while), you want those little words to show up so while the user waits for the image. Most users aren’t exactly worried about their dial-up anymore, but the role of alt text has just gotten greater! This is how: Screen readers will read the alt text to describe the importance of the image to the user. Search engines will read that and determine the value of that content to their searches: from keywords and themes to potentially indexing the image itself.

What to do?

  • Be concise, approximately 120 characters max. Why? Well, screen readers only read so much without taking a natural break. If your alt text is too long it may cut off the text or just sound like someone spoofing James T Kirk!
  • Be descriptive of the image itself while avoiding phrases like “a photo of” or “image of.” Why? Because the screen reader will announce it’s an image, and a search engine crawler will determine that too. Don’t be repetitive. Don’t be repetitive.
  • ALWAYS include an alt tag! If the image is decorative put in a space to indicate it’s a null or decorative image. Otherwise, the screen reader will read the file name to the user which has no value and is just no fun at all to hear!

Video Captions & Transcripts

If you are deaf or unable to hear, captions and transcripts make the content in videos accessible. Personally, I love them because I may not want to put on sound or maybe am in a rush and want to scan the transcripts to jump to what I’m looking for. No matter why users need them - these important features are in fact needed. OH! And you’re also giving search engines more words to crawl so bonus there!

What to do?

  • Be consistent
  • Be clear
  • Make it readable
  • Use brackets to give better context and preserve meaning. They can be used for how someone is speaking [yelling] or sound effects [door slams shut]
  • Be accurate!
  • In transcripts - use proper page structure. This improves keyboard navigation and helps search engines pick up what’s important

Learn more! Click here! Read more! If you were not looking at a page, would you have any idea whatsoever WHY you should want to learn more, click there are what more you’re reading up on? Yeah, me neither.

Don’t get me wrong, not talking about the automagically generated buttons in your website’s theme. Your developers can add text that’s not visible but will be read aloud to say “Read more (about this blog post title)” and such. BUT in your content - how many of us have just highlighted the “Click here” of a longer sentence? I know I have, but that’s not a good thing. Why should a user do it? Include more of those descriptive words to give a user a reason to click (oh and to tell search engines that links relevance). Maybe something more like, “Click here to see the ultimate showdown: tribbles vs porgs!”

What to do?

  • Ensure that all in-content links have descriptive text that explains the value of the link to the user

The Accessibility Learning Curve

There’s a LOT out there that will enhance the experience for all users but don’t get stressed about the number of things to learn. Take small steps and learn a few basics like the ones mentioned above. Build them into your practices and even into your company culture. Pretty soon it’ll be just what your team does when editing content.

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