It’s no secret that the best practices of search engine optimization (SEO) are consistent with the best practices of web accessibility.
Adding alternative text to your images, for example, accommodates people who use screen readers; alternative text also allows search engines to crawl through images and display them accurately in search. Providing subheadings and title tags for your webpages aids in readability while also enabling search engines to understand the purpose of your content.
But do Google and other search engines consider accessibility as a direct ranking factor? Here’s what Google’s experts say about the current search algorithm — and why web accessibility will continue to play an important role in SEO.
Google doesn’t monitor WCAG conformance, but might in the future
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the consensus technical standards for digital accessibility. Published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG defines three levels of conformance. Websites that meet the Level AA standards of the latest version of WCAG (currently, WCAG 2.1) are considered reasonably accessible.
While WCAG conformance can help websites demonstrate compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the European Accessibility Act (EAA), and other non-discrimination laws, Google doesn’t actively consider the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines when determining search engine rankings.
That’s partially because WCAG conformance is difficult to test with automated tools. While artificial intelligence has come a long way, the most accurate automated accessibility tests are prone to false positives and false negatives. However, accessibility features certainly affect search rankings indirectly, according to Google search advocate John Mueller.
“I think accessibility is something that is important for a website because if you drive your users away with a website that they can’t use, then they’re not going to recommend it to other people,” Mueller said in a March 2022 question & answer session. “But it’s not something that we would pick up and use as a direct ranking factor when it comes to search. Maybe that will change over time.”
User experience has become a major factor in Google search rankings
As Mueller noted, Google has implemented measurements for user experience. The company’s Core Web Vitals is a set of standardized metrics that Google considers important for most users, including page load times and the presence of pop-ups. Since Google is already collecting data about page performance via Core Web Vitals, the company may eventually analyze certain accessibility metrics as part of its search algorithm.
“It could be at one point we could quantify accessibility a little bit more, and maybe at that point we can use that when it comes to ranking, but that’s something where at least at the moment we don’t have any specific plans in that direction,” Mueller noted.
Of course, plans can change. Over the past two decades, Google has embraced digital accessibility. In 2006, the company launched Google Accessible Search, a modified version of their search engine designed to accommodate users with disabilities. The Chrome browser also has a built-in accessibility test via the Lighthouse suite of developer tools (although as we’ve pointed out on this blog, Lighthouse isn’t a substitute for a full accessibility audit).
Given that history, it’s certainly possible that Google would eventually add accessibility to its search algorithms. If that occurs, webmasters would probably receive advance warning — during the Core Web Vitals update, for instance, developers had more than a year to make improvements.
Many of the best practices of accessibility have a strong impact on search performance
For now, WCAG conformance isn’t a direct ranking factor. However, accessible websites frequently outperform their competitors in search engine rankings for a simple reason: When websites work as expected, people tend to use them.
Accessibility can improve website backlink profiles (the number of credible links pointing towards the site) by building trust with users. When accessibility is a priority, customer retention rates improve, and when sites work well with assistive technologies, they’re typically crawlable for search engines.
Every business has a legal and ethical responsibility to provide digital content that works for everyone, and that obligation is probably the best argument for earning WCAG conformance. However, the business case for accessibility is equally strong — and if your goal is to attract more organic traffic, an accessible approach will certainly pay off in the long run.