What Is the SEO and Accessibility Connection?
At first glance, it may seem that SEO and website accessibility are concerned with different goals. Yet, there is a significant overlap between SEO and digital accessibility best practices.
For years now, search engine optimization (SEO) has been one of the main marketing drivers for businesses. The higher your website ranks in search, the more likely you are to get more visitors, which translates into more sales, revenue, and a better ROI from your marketing campaigns.
Less understood, however, has been the link between SEO and web accessibility. At first glance, it may seem that the two are concerned with different goals. Yet, there is a significant overlap between SEO and digital accessibility best practices, and how you frame the relationship between the two can dramatically affect your overall business operations.
Increasingly, experts in both areas concur that websites that provide accessible experiences have a much better chance of ranking higher in search than the sites that are not.
Let’s look at why that’s the case and how you can use the connection between SEO and accessibility to improve your search rankings.
How Accessibility Best Practices and SEO Overlap
Accessibility and SEO overlap at a fundamental level – search engines, because of the way they are built and operate, face many of the same obstacles as users with disabilities. For example, a search engine cannot “see” or understand certain images or video files, nor interpret vision-based text like ASCII art, nor “hear” certain audio files.
Accessibility features make it easier for search engines to crawl and interpret websites. For example, sites with clear, descriptive headings – the same kinds of headings that also make navigation and comprehension easier for people for disabilities – are better optimized for search engines to do their work.
Because of this, Google rewards accessibility when ranking websites. In fact, their Webmaster Guidelines – which lay out the best practices that help Google to find, index, and rank your site – read very much like accessibility guidelines, and often correlate directly with the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
So by adding features like meta descriptions, HTML sitemaps, and breadcrumbs, you are simultaneously improving the on-page experience, making your content more accessible to users with disabilities, and facilitating the work of search engine bots who are busy crawling, indexing your site, and assessing link equity between pages – all of which affect your SEO ranking.
This means that the converse also stands, that if you fail to include the right accessibility features, say alternative text for images, you are creating obstacles not just for users with disabilities, but also hurting your image SEO.
Google’s UX Update and Accessibility
Any change to a search engine’s algorithm will affect rankings and how a business should approach its SEO strategy.
This applies even more so to Google, who are traditionally more deliberate in their updates and rarely announce them unless they bring about major changes. So when Google announced a major UX update in 2021 and slowly rolled out a new algorithm that makes on-page user experience a ranking factor, it was time to pay attention.
Summarizing the update on Twitter, Google’s Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller wrote that, “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 too."
This means that websites that prioritize accessibility will benefit from better rankings. In other words, accessible sites create better user experiences that encourage visitors to spend more time on-page, instead of bouncing, thus improving sites’ overall SEO health and visibility in Google’s search results.
While the changes do not directly cite accessibility as a ranking factor, upgrading the importance of overall user experience means accessibility will play an even more important role in search.
All told, Google will now give a slight advantage to sites that are easier to use; and, in the highly competitive world of SEO ranking, any advantage matters and can set you apart.
Web Accessibility + Improved SEO = Good Business
Thinking about accessibility to improve your SEO isn’t just a trend or a good idea – it's here to stay, baked into algorithms. Helping people of all abilities access the internet and all its benefits is the right thing to do. It’s also good business.
Too often, however, marketers delegate the responsibility for accessibility to developers, if they even think of it at all. But if you factor in accessibility lawsuits that could damage both a brand’s reputation and the bottom-line, digital accessibility becomes a priority for any marketing team.
Moving accessibility to the forefront of marketer’s concerns becomes even more critical when you consider that one in four Americans live with a disability. And, according to a recent report on The Global Economics of Disability, the disposable income of people with disabilities in the United States is $1.3 trillion — rising to $7 trillion when you include their families and friends.
A market of this magnitude should not be overlooked when there’s a solution to connect with it. If users find it difficult to view, navigate, or interact with a company’s website, digital tools, or mobile apps, they won’t become customers and instead will look for other options and might even share their frustrations on social media and review sites.
By investing in accessibility, marketers are not just working toward better visibility in search, they are also, by extension, improving user experience, increasing brand awareness, and contributing to revenue.
For years, marketers have been so focused on SEO that accessibility was, at best, an afterthought, even though Google’s stated mission all along has been "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
Now, as digital accessibility and SEO are becoming increasingly interconnected, search algorithms will continue to do the job they’ve always done – giving a higher ranking to pages that are more universally accessible. And, with the recent Google updates that emphasize on-page experience, the relationship between accessibility and SEO has become even more interconnected and important for any business that wants to compete in the digital age.
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