Savvy site owners know to prioritize accessibility in order to best serve all of their customers and comply with the ADA. But they may be less aware of the ways that web accessibility can help improve their search engine optimization (SEO) efforts and increase their site’s visibility in search engine results. Of course, the main factor in Google’s (and its competitors Bing and DuckDuckGo) search algorithm is the quality of your page’s content relative to a specific search term. That said, there is a complementary discipline of “technical SEO” that concerns the way that a page is built and organized and which can have a significant influence on your site’s ranking.
Technical SEO and Google’s Page Experience
Google is fairly transparent about the technical factors that can influence a page’s ranking in the search results. Ultimately, it is about providing results that are useful to the searcher; this applies both to the relevance of the content as well as the browsing experience.
For years, the majority of web traffic has come from mobile devices and Google’s search ranking algorithms have increasingly reflected that reality. Mobile traffic is more reliant on slower wireless networks and accounts that have hit bandwidth limits may be throttled. Years ago, Google developed the Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) standard to encourage fast-loading mobile versions of pages; until mid-2021, Google incentivized the adoption of AMP by providing preferential ranking of AMP pages. Even as AMP has lost its privileged position in search results, Google has still openly prioritized pages that load quickly on mobile as part of its mobile-first indexing initiative (even for desktop searches).
The most recent announcement from Google doubles down on non-content based factors for search rankings. The Google page experience update, which completed its rollout in August 2021, prioritizes additional signals that reflect what Google considers to be a good user experience. Google now also deprioritizes sites that contain intrusive ad interstitials that take over the whole screen as well as those that lack SSL certificates or contain other known security issues.
It is easy to see how accessibility can fit into that framework. Sites that are accessible tend to pay close attention to all users’ experiences in everything from design to the way in which the site is coded. On the margin, this means that the site is usable for a larger number of users. And more generally, sites that prioritize accessibility tend to be more usable even for users without disabilities.
Accessibility Boosts to Technical SEO
More specifically, there are specific requirements associated with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) that have the added benefit of making your site more legible to search engines.
Informative page titles and headings
While we mostly intend to focus on technical accessibility features, the page title is a great example of how content accessibility can be synonymous with SEO quality. Having a page title that is properly encoded and descriptive of the page contents helps users quickly determine whether the page has what they are looking for. This may even be an area where thinking about the relevant keywords for SEO can help make the site more accessible.
Similarly, selecting appropriate and descriptive headings allows users to quickly find the information on a page that is most important to them as well as provide structure for longer content. Organizing headings in a hierarchical manner can ensure that your goals for the page are clear, which is also helpful for search engines in determining the relative importance of different sections of the page to the search terms.
Semantic HTML encodes page structure
HTML5 code written to standard is fully accessible out of the box. That means that using the different coding elements as intended should improve the accessibility of your site. For example, instead of manually increasing the text size to convey a heading, you would use the h2 or h3 tag (or any of the other heading levels down to h6). Screen reader rotor menus make use of these elements to generate lists of headings, links and page sections (among other things), but they are also helpful to search engine bots in understanding the page contents and context.
For websites that are multilingual, encoding the language of the page can help ensure that you can rank in languages other than English (and that your site is well positioned to rank well in localized searches made internationally). This can be especially important if your site has pages that have both English and multilingual sections; in that case, it is even more critical that the different languages within the page are each encoded correctly.
Page Landmarks and Regions
Aside from headings, there are also ways you can encode your page structure. HTML standards provide for landmark regions that can be used to signal different parts of the page. Adding these to your site's templates can make it easier for screen readers and search engine crawlers to quickly digest where they are on the page and jump to the parts that are most relevant for them.
Some of the particular elements that you can use include:
Alt text and captioning
The very first rule of the WCAG is that images which convey information require alternative text. The goal is to provide ways for screen reader users to have access to the same information, but this also gives additional cues and context for search engines. While advances in machine learning have allowed Google to “see” and interpret images in Google Image Search, it is still the case that alt text (in addition to the surrounding text) is more influential in associating the image with your desired keyword. (And as we know, AI powered image recognition is still extremely flawed when it comes to contextual recognition within a webpage.) Since it is easier for Google to interpret text when it comes to search results, the WCAG recommendation (and AAA guideline) to avoid using images of text (and to provide the full alt text when absolutely necessary) serves the same purpose.
The same logic applies to closed captioning of videos and written transcripts for audio. If you’ve ever turned on auto-captioning in YouTube or tried to read the automatic transcriptions of your voicemail, you’ve seen that while the technology is remarkable and useful, it also still has quite a ways to go. Providing the content as text means that the search engine can get the correct text and interpret it easily.
Using the Disabled Access Credit
Many small businesses are eligible for the federal Disabled Access Credit where you can earn back 50% of your spending on digital (or physical) accessibility efforts (with a maximum tax credit of $5,000). You may be able to claim this credit against some of your SEO budget if you target improvements that overlap with accessibility. (We are not tax experts and we encourage you to consult with your accountants or other tax professionals.) You can learn more about eligibility and how to claim this credit in our more detailed post here.
The future of accessibility and SEO
We have seen a number of ways that accessible sites are also more easily digested and understood by search engines. In some ways, this is unremarkable. After all, accessibility guidelines are intended to make a site easier to understand and use!
The more interesting question is whether search engines will eventually explicitly incorporate accessibility compliance into their search algorithms as a signal of quality. While this is probably happening implicitly already in the sense that more accessible sites tend to correlate with a better user experience for searchers, it is quite possible that Google will scan sites for accessibility compliance in the future.
Google already has incorporated accessibility testing into its Lighthouse audit tool alongside other metrics like page speed performance and technical SEO checkpoints. While page load speeds have been a factor in Google’s search algorithm for more than a decade, web veterans can remember the ways in which Google has continually refined its measurements and ratcheted up its requirements (especially when it began using speed as a ranking factor in mobile search in 2018). While making your site accessible can pay off immediately, wise site owners will also consider how complying with the WCAG requirements can continue to pay dividends on your search ranking well into the future.