The best practices of search engine optimization (SEO) can make your website more friendly to search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing — and many of those practices can also improve the on-page experience for people with disabilities.
As we’ve noted in other articles, SEO and website accessibility have plenty of overlap. Here are some easy-to-implement tips for improving your website’s search engine presence by following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the widely accepted international standards for digital accessibility.
1. Add alternative text (alt text) to images
While artificial intelligence has improved tremendously over the past decade, automated systems still have trouble interpreting many images. Image alternative text (also called alt text) provides search engine robots with important context.
Tagging images improves their chances of ranking in image search. The tags will naturally include relevant keywords, which can also help individual pages rank.
Ideally, every image should have an alt tag unless it is purely decorative (for instance, dividers and other design elements). Use clear, concise descriptions and avoid making common image alt tags mistakes when writing.
How It Improves Accessibility
WCAG Success Criterion (SC) 1.1.1, “Non-text Content,” requires text alternatives for all non-text content such as images, charts, and pre-recorded audio. Text alternatives should serve an “equivalent purpose.”
Image alt tags are important for screen reader accessibility. Screen reader software converts text to audio or braille output, but if an image doesn’t include an alt tag, screen reader users will be unable to perceive it.
Additionally, alt tags can be useful for people who browse the internet with images disabled and for people who can’t load images for other reasons (for instance, a slow internet connection).
Related: Alternative Text: What and Why
2. Write descriptive page title tags
WCAG 2.1 SC 2.4.2, “Page Titled,” requires all web pages to have titles that describe their topic or purpose.
Title tags are one of the most important SEO signals. The title tag doesn’t actually appear on the page — it’s shown at the top of the browser bar and in search engine results.
Your title tags should provide an accurate description of each page, incorporating relevant keywords naturally. Most SEO experts recommend a maximum title length of 70 characters to ensure that the entire title tag appears in search listings.
How It Improves Accessibility
Accurate title tags benefit all web users. People with short-term memory disabilities and other cognitive conditions may use the title tag to remind them of why they’re on the page or to navigate between websites when using multiple tabs.
Title tags are also helpful for screen reader users and people who use other assistive technologies. These users may rely on audio output to browse the internet, and if several pages have the same title tag, they may have trouble finding the information they need. By providing clear titles for each page, you can remove a common source of frustration.
3. Add transcripts for video content
Multimedia content can keep your audience engaged — but search engines have trouble crawling videos. By providing a link to a transcript (or posting transcripts underneath videos and other multimedia), you can ensure that search engines understand the context of your content.
Transcripts provide a way to build out multimedia-only pages, increasing the use of relevant keywords on your website. Word count is an important ranking factor for some search queries: According to one 2020 study from SEO firm Backlinko, the average Google first-page result has about 1,447 words. Video transcripts provide a simple way to increase word counts while adding a valuable text alternative for your non-text content.
How Transcripts Improve Accessibility
Put simply, all multimedia requires some type of text alternative. Captions and transcripts serve different purposes, but both provide text for non-text content. Transcripts are required by WCAG 2.1 SC 1.1, “Non-text Content," while captions are required by WCAG 2.1 SC 1.2.2, “Captions (Prerecorded).”
Providing text allows information to be rendered in a variety of different ways. Text can be converted to audio or braille — but converting audio back to text is much more difficult. Offering transcripts helps to accommodate people with vision-related disabilities, people with hearing-related disabilities, and people with temporary or situational disabilities.
Make sure your transcripts and captions follow best practices, and review your text for accuracy. We recommend prioritizing accessibility throughout your video production process, which limits the amount of time you’ll need to spend when preparing your content for publication.
Accessibility works hand-in-hand with search engine optimization
Major SEO resources like Yoast, Moz, and SEMRush have written extensively about the link between search engine optimization and accessible design (and the Bureau of Internet Accessibility has weighed in, too).
Ultimately, search engines prioritize websites that work well for everyone. Since search engine robots have many of the same limitations as screen readers and other assistive technologies, prioritizing accessibility is an excellent way to ensure that your website reaches the widest possible audience.
Of course, accessibility focuses on users first — the SEO benefits of great site design are a secondary benefit. Organizations with accessible websites also enjoy improved customer retention rates, enhanced brand sentiment, and reduced web maintenance costs.