It’s no secret that the best practices of digital accessibility help with search engine optimization (SEO). Just as Google’s John Mueller, who wrote in a tweet that accessibility — while not a direct ranking factor — has a significant impact on key user experience metrics.
"When sites are hard to use, people steer away from them anyway, so over time things like recommendations & other signals tend to drop away, resulting in the site being less visible in search,” Mueller wrote in April 2020.
Put simply, inclusive design is good web design. While major search engines may never consider website accessibility metrics as a direct ranking factor, many accessibility improvements can help to future-proof websites from changes in search algorithms.
Below, we’ll look at several search trends and explain how accessibility can help webmasters take a proactive approach to SEO.
Content quality will only grow in importance for SEO
Google has stated repeatedly that high-quality, relevant content should be a top priority. In 2017, the company announced that it was actively using machine learning to fight spam, and since at least 2019, Google’s RankBrain artificial intelligence tool has utilized natural language processing (NLP) to understand the context of content.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), widely considered the international standards for digital accessibility, also emphasize natural content. Meeting WCAG’s Level AA success criteria can help webmasters send strong signals to Google and other search engines:
- WCAG requires title tags that describe each page’s topic or purpose. This accommodates screen readers and other assistive technologies, but also provides an opportunity to incorporate relevant SEO keywords.
- WCAG requires accurate subheadings, which break up content and enable users to find the information they need. Subheadings are a major ranking signal when used correctly.
- WCAG requires accurate alternative text (also called alt text) for images. This accommodates people with vision disabilities, and it also allows search engines to understand the content and purpose of images.
Ultimately, WCAG criteria are closely aligned with Google’s recommended practices, which focus on creating “crawler-friendly" websites that prioritize real-life users.
This isn’t new information — we’ve been writing about the link between SEO and accessibility for years. However, as search engines fine-tune their rankings to focus on high-quality content, accessible websites will benefit.
Search engines will continue to prioritize user experience metrics
In May 2020, Google announced its Core Web Vitals, a set of “website health" metrics that emphasize a smooth, consistent user experience. Over the past two years, the company has gradually rolled out algorithm updates that focus on Core Web Vitals, rewarding high-performing websites with better rankings.
Currently, the Core Web Vitals are a minor ranking factor. That may change over time: As machine learning tools become more adept at measuring user experience (UX) metrics, UX may have more of an impact on the algorithms.
Of course, digital accessibility focuses strongly on the experiences of real-life users. Websites that follow WCAG are built to be robust: They’re compatible with a variety of user agents, including future user agents.
In other words, whether a user prefers to access content on a small touchscreen, a desktop computer, or with assistive technology, they enjoy the same essential experience. If UX metrics become a more important ranking factor, accessible websites will be prepared.
Voice search will become more important for local SEO
Speech recognition tools have had an enormous impact on SEO, particularly at the local level. If a user wants to find a restaurant near them, they may ask their smartphone for recommendations — and often, they’ll use voice search to do so.
While speech recognition began as an accessibility feature, it’s commonly used by people of all abilities. According to Google, 27% of the global online population used voice search on mobile devices in 2018, and that number is expected to grow over the next decade.
Optimizing content for voice search requires the clear use of conversational keywords, and accessible websites are well-positioned for success. Creating accurate title tags, writing with natural language, and using appropriate semantic HTML can have a positive impact on voice search SEO.
As more users prioritize accessibility, so will search engines
The purpose of every Google algorithm update is to ensure that search results accurately reflect the user’s intent.
People want to visit websites that provide fast access to important information, and they prioritize great UX. When a site provides a pleasant experience, people tend to spread the word through social media posts, direct links, or other search-friendly signals.
Demographic trends indicate that accessibility will become even more of a priority for real-life users over time. The global population is aging, and older individuals are more likely to experience disabilities. Just as crucially, younger internet users are more likely to identify diversity, equity, and inclusivity as important factors, particularly when evaluating careers.
Brands that prioritize digital accessibility will be able to take advantage of these changes. That will mean more successful SEO campaigns, but the benefits certainly don’t end there: By providing user-focused products, organizations can expect more conversions, better brand sentiment, and enhanced engagement.
For businesses, the first step is to follow the latest WCAG guidelines and to establish a long-term plan for compliance. To make that process easier, the Bureau of Internet Accessibility offers free online resources, including an automated website analysis that tests content against WCAG 2.1 Level AA success criteria.