Web users conduct more than 3.5 billion Google searches every day, which means getting noticed online is harder than ever. Although most businesses turn to search engine optimization (SEO) tactics to get noticed, many don’t implement website accessibility best practices in order to reach the more than one billion people worldwide living with a disability.
Not surprisingly, there is plenty of overlap when it comes to website accessibility and SEO practices—and the topic of where and how they overlap is often divisive. From promoting the merging of accessibility and SEO activities to avoiding making too much of the relationship between the two, opinions about and approaches to web accessibility and SEO vary widely. The truth is, what you do for SEO can have a major effect on the quality of some aspects of accessibility, and vice versa.
Overall, SEO shouldn’t be a driving business case or reason for committing to website accessibility, because accessibility has its own business case. Web accessibility is about supporting every customer—regardless of ability or limitations—and expanding your customer base while embracing your legal and social responsibilities.
At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge the overlap between SEO and accessibility and how they influence each other because it will affect your teams and how they develop your website or apps. For example, the four main areas where SEO and accessibility overlap are:
- Page titles
- Headings (H1, H2, and so on)
- Alt attributes
- Link anchor text
Page titles, headings, alt attributes, and link anchor text are all crucial for assistive technologies and achieving accessibility compliance according to the widely accepted Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Here are some of our picks for blog articles that discuss and debate the often sticky SEO-accessibility overlap:
“Does Website Accessibility Benefit SEO?” by Lisa McMichael
In this article, Lisa McMichael, a senior user researcher, champions the importance of accessibility-driven SEO, because coding for accessibility feeds the essential needs of SEO. “Almost without exception,” McMichael writes, “Google ranks websites with accessibility techniques included in metadata, content, visual design, and development better in organic search.” After McMichael details the why and how of accessible design and its important overlap with SEO, she concludes that “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 Accessibility and SEO Myth” by Karl Groves
Karl Groves, a tech accessibility consultant, gets straight to the point in this post, writing: “Accessibility doesn’t lead to better SEO.” In stark contrast to McMichael, Groves argues his point by looking at the 400 WCAG techniques and failures, noting that only 21—or five percent—relate to the areas of SEO and accessibility overlap mentioned above (i.e., page titles, headings, alt attributes, link text).
“None of this means that those 21 techniques aren’t important, they definitely are,” Groves writes. “Titles, headings, and link text are important navigation and wayfinding aids for users. But that’s not the same as claiming better accessibility results in better SEO.”
“What You Should Know About Accessibility and SEO, Part I: An Intro” by Laura Lippay
Whereas McMichael highlights the importance of accessibility for boosting SEO and Groves argues against championing accessibility to boost SEO, Laura Lippay tackles the complexity of the issue in her blog article—especially if you dig through the comments section. Lippay mentions additional areas where SEO and accessibility can overlap, well beyond the traditional four mentioned above, including:
- Video transcriptions
- Captions on images
- Site maps, breadcrumbs, and tables of contents
- Order of content
- Text size and color contrast
- Semantic HTML
Lippay, an organic search and technical optimization lead, writes that a page title fully optimized for SEO may not be the best descriptive page title for a user of a screen reader. But having unique page titles as a base level can benefit both SEO and website accessibility. Likewise, having meaningful alt text for images on a page can be good for SEO and accessibility. But if you place too many alt texts to maximize SEO, you could make a page annoying for a screen-reader user who is listening to the page. For example, alt text such as “women’s black Chuck Taylor All-Stars buy Chucks online women’s online women’s chuck taylors all-stars for sale” might be great for SEO, but “Chuck Taylor All Star Classic Colors Black Monochrome” is more appropriate for assistive technology.
The Middle Ground
It’s worth mentioning, as Lippay does in the comments on her post, how far the accessibility and SEO industries have come. “Imagine how bad it was for people with disabilities back in the days when keyword stuffing used to be all the rage,” she writes. “It's no wonder that industry isn't fond of SEO.” So, although there is an overlap between accessibility and SEO, it’s important to strike a balance in order to be accessible to assistive technology users while maximizing the effect on SEO ranking.
Lastly, a number of industry observers have indicated that Google could make accessibility a criterion for search engine rankings—as it did with mobile compatibility—within the next one to two years. This would mainly be an extension of the factors Google already considers important in ranking, such as content structure, semantics, and other best practices for web content. Although it would be welcomed by the disability community to help increase awareness of the importance of accessibility, it may not have a big impact of SEO results, considering the small overlap.
Make the right business case by pushing for the legally and socially responsible solution: complete website accessibility. Find out more about how you can achieve compliance now by downloading our e-book Web & App Accessibility: Your Roadmap to Digital Inclusion.