Does Website Accessibility Benefit SEO?

It’s becoming clear that major search engines, such as Google, are promoting the SEO benefits of web accessibility techniques. Look at what happened a few months ago, Google launched Lighthouse, an open-source, automated accessibility tool for web developers for improving the quality of web pages. This tool isn’t unique though, many are out there. However, it is noteworthy because Lighthouse comes with Google’s Tools for Web Developers, a captive audience already testing websites and apps for performance.

Looking back, we can see how website accessibility has a strong relationship with essential elements of search engine optimization (SEO). Almost without exception, Google ranks websites with accessibility techniques included in metadata, content, visual design, and development better in organic search. Why? Search engine crawlers can’t see or hear, and they only use a keyboard, similar to many people with disabilities. Also, crawlers rely on content to evaluate, determine relevance, and rank sites, not images, audio, or video (yet). And while this benefits people with vision, hearing, and motor skill limitations, it can also help site visitors with cognitive challenges like dyslexia and English as Second Language (ESL).

“Accessibility and good website design go hand-in-hand,” says Lance Hayden, a Digital Marketing Specialist at Perficient Digital. “Google knows this and helps encourage these types of design behaviors with typically increased visibility in organic search.” While accessibility is not a direct ranking factor, incorporating elements of accessibility aligns with many core search engine optimization techniques.

Design for “Experiencing” Needs Website Accessibility and SEO

The overlap between website, video or document accessibility, and SEO is gaining renewed attention. Here are a few key reasons why and how SEO and accessible site design helps.

Today we are designing more and more multi-channel experiences across devices, environments, and contexts. For example, people now research products in the store via mobile video ads, only later to order products when they are home after spending more time online researching on their laptops or tablets. To complicate things further, more and more of our services are only online and lack a comparable substitute in the “built” environment. This can put vital information out of reach for many people, especially with disabilities.

Take, for example, day-to-day activities like requesting a Lyft, tracking provider updates on a healthcare portal, or solving a legal matter using an affordable service like Legal Zoom. Consequently, brands are competing to attract consumers’ interest where it matters most to them, and smart brands are doing it with easy-to-find and relevant content, along with context-meaningful design.

How SEO and Web Accessibility Help

The overlap of SEO and accessibility helps brands reach consumers, says WebAim, because both “rely on content structure, semantics, and functionality” to either present the most targeted content based on keyword search, or to determine the relevance of content. In other words, following accessibility techniques increases the search engines’ ability to understand website content by “exposing it to their crawlers.” Lance Hayden agrees. “Highly-optimized websites with features such as relevant, optimized header tags and ADA-compliant code and design are becoming more and more synonymous with the designs Google expects and promotes in search rankings.” In other words, the more confident Google can be in both the content and the user experience of a particular page, the more likely it is to rank higher.

The Video Opportunity

Consumption of videos is on the rise. According to Cisco’s’ Visual Networking Index report, IP video traffic will be 82% of all consumer internet traffic by 2020, driving more demand for SEO-friendly, accessible content through professional (not auto-generated) closed captions and transcripts. And according to REV.com, there are more benefits. “Closed captions increase accessibility for people with limited understanding of spoken English, and people with hearing loss.” Another benefit: high-quality closed captions and transcripts increase watch time. According to a recent digiday.com study, 85% of Facebook videos are watched without sound. This trend creates opportunities to improve a brand’s rankings with relevant and contextual content supporting both WCAG2.0 compliance (i.e., ADA) and Google’s expectations.

What’s next for website accessibility and SEO?

A question for another day is “Will Google make accessibility a ranking factor for websites?” I think in time it will, and it could be within the next 12 to 24 months; at the same time, Google just released their first iteration of their voice-search guidelines, adding yet another wrinkle to the accessibility and SEO puzzle. Until then, continue to build high-quality web pages with accessibility techniques and insightful content. You will realize SEO benefits and create better online experiences for your customers and site visitors, irrespective of their capabilities.

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