Accessible websites are better websites overall — when developers make improvements to accommodate people with disabilities, their approach benefits their entire audience. We’ve written extensively about the benefits of accessible digital content, but improved search engine optimization (SEO) is one of the most significant.
By one estimate from SEO firm WebFX, businesses spend about $65 billion per year on SEO, and with good reason: Organic traffic from search engines is extremely valuable, boasting a much higher return on investment than other inbound marketing efforts. Accessible design isn’t just a complement to your SEO strategy — the principles of accessibility overlap significantly with the principles of SEO and help to future-proof your content for changes in search engine algorithms.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide a framework for creating digital content that is perceivable, operable, usable, and robust, and following that framework can boost search engine rankings. To understand why, we’ll consider a few WCAG success criteria and how conformance helps to draw more organic traffic to your website.
Accessible sites are easier for search engines to crawl
Search engines use artificial intelligence and machine learning to crawl websites and catalog their content. A search engine’s robot — commonly called a spider — has limited capabilities. Search engine spiders are similar to screen readers, which are assistive technologies used by some blind and low-vision users to access the internet.
To be clear, accessibility isn’t just about making accommodations for people with vision disabilities, but many WCAG criteria are intended to improve the on-page experience for screen reader users. The secondary effect: Search engine robots can interpret accessible websites more accurately. Here’s an overview of a few accessibility factors that affect crawlability.
Alternative Text for Non-Text Content
WCAG requires text alternatives under Success Criteria (SC) 1.1. Providing alternative text accommodates users who can’t perceive visual content like images and video. Search engines can’t always perceive visual content, either, and Google strongly recommends using alt text to improve image SEO.
WCAG SC 2.4.6, “Headings and Labels,” requires webmasters to use headings and labels that describe the topic or purpose of content. Headings help people with disabilities navigate websites to find the information they need; search engines also give more priority to headings, and descriptive headings will naturally incorporate keywords that improve search presence.
However, it’s important to use headings in sequential order. When unordered, headings can create confusion for certain users — and search engine robots.
Descriptive Page Titles
Page titles don’t show up on your webpages, but they’re arguably the most important search engine ranking factor.
Additionally, they accommodate people with disabilities, particularly users with screen readers: Page titles help users navigate between tabs while understanding the contents of each page. WCAG SC 2.4.2, “Page Titled" requires all pages to have titles that describe their topic or purpose. As with headings, properly titled pages will naturally include keywords that are relevant to users.
This isn’t a comprehensive list of accessibility factors that affect crawlability — the takeaway is that when site improvements accommodate assistive technologies, they typically accommodate search engines, too. All search engines have technical limitations, but when a site is reasonably accessible for real-world users, major search engines will be able to access, interpret, and rank the content.
Clearer content improves audience engagement and retention
WCAG SC 3.1.5, “Reading Level,” recommends that sites provide alternatives for “text [that] requires reading ability more advanced than the lower secondary education level.” Simple, clear language is better for communication — and, of course, beneficial for improving search engine positioning.
By avoiding technical jargon and simplifying content wherever possible, content creators can reach a broader audience. That includes people with neurocognitive and memory-related disabilities, but clear content is more accessible for your entire audience.
When writers create concise paragraphs and break up their content with lists, headings, and other elements, visitors are more likely to take action. Well-written content uses relevant keywords in a natural way, which helps search engines determine the purpose of the page.
Digital accessibility improves search positioning by improving the user experience
Currently, major search engines don’t explicitly consider accessibility in their ranking algorithms. That’s not because accessibility is a minor concern — Google, for instance, has numerous resources for learning concepts of accessible design — but because the best practices of accessibility are virtually identical to the best practices of SEO.
Of course, search engine optimization has other important aspects including link building and targeted keyword campaigns. But these projects are only beneficial when a site is technically optimized, and accessible practices make the internet a better place for all users (including search engine robots).
If you’re starting your accessibility journey, the Bureau of Internet Accessibility can help. Our Website WCAG Accessibility Audits provide the information you need to remediate your site for conformance with WCAG standards.