If your website doesn’t rank on Google, chances are, you’re not getting much traffic.
Improving your website’s accessibility can help — but how much? Is accessibility a major ranking factor for search engine optimization (SEO)? Do search engines actively penalize websites that provide a poor experience to users with disabilities?
To answer these questions, we’ll need to do a (somewhat) deep dive into Google’s ranking algorithms. Here’s what we know.
Google’s Ranking Factors: A Brief Overview
Every search engine’s goal is to match people with helpful content. It’s important to view Google’s ranking factors from that perspective: If a website isn’t useful, Google does not want to present that website to users. Otherwise, people will start using a different tool for search.
Of course, the exact definition of “useful" content can vary depending on the situation. That’s why Google (and other major search engines) use complex algorithms for search. Simple rulesets wouldn’t address the needs of different types of search queries.
And while we know many of Google’s ranking factors, it’s important to remember that the value of those factors can change from one search to the next. The length of content, for example, might not matter if the user is looking for a simple “yes" or “no" answer to a question.
But we also know that search algorithms consistently prioritize the factors that affect the user experience.
Regardless of what you’re trying to find, you want to end up on a website that actually works — and that it will provide an equivalent experience regardless of your web browser, your operating system, or whether you’re using assistive technologies (AT).
Related: If SEO Matters to Your Business, Accessibility Matters
Accessibility isn’t a direct ranking factor, but good accessibility is good SEO
This is where accessibility becomes vitally important for SEO. According to Google search advocate John Mueller, accessibility is not a direct ranking factor because it’s difficult to quantify — but accessible websites have stronger user experience signals, and those signals are much easier to measure.
In fact, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) contains a number of criteria that are virtually identical to Google’s Search Essentials (formerly Webmaster Guidelines):
- WCAG requires web pages to have titles that describe their topic or purpose. Search Essentials also recommends writing descriptive title tags that avoid default or vague descriptions (such as “New Page" or “Untitled").
- WCAG requires that headings and labels describe their topic or purpose. Search Essentials recommends writing accurate heading tags and using them in sequential order.
- WCAG requires consistent navigation mechanisms. Search Essentials also highlights the importance of “simple navigation" for users and search engines.
- WCAG requires text alternatives for images and other non-text content. Search Essentials requires alt text and discourages embedding text within images.
Search Essentials explicitly highlights accessible features as positive signals, and for good reason: When your website works for everyone, it’s easier for search engines to crawl. It’s also more likely to deliver a helpful experience to users — which means that Google has done its job.
Related: Why Your SEO Strategy Should Include Web Accessibility
The principles of accessibility are becoming more important for SEO
Currently, Google doesn’t directly check whether content conforms with WCAG. However, that doesn’t mean that the search engine downplays accessibility.
And as Google’s algorithms continue to develop, the company has put more emphasis on key user experience signals, providing additional business benefits for accessible websites.
In recent years, we’ve seen many of the best practices of accessibility become crucial SEO ranking factors. Content with clear interactive controls perform better than content with small, hard-to-press buttons or unlabeled forms. Websites with appropriate semantic HTML will have an advantage in search rankings, while content with poor semantics will struggle to attract readers.
For those of us in the accessibility space, this isn’t a surprising trend: Accessibility is aligned with the best practices of web design, and well-designed websites tend to attract more traffic and build trust with their audiences.