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SEO and web accessibility

Digital accessibility guide for Marketers

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How website accessibility can positively impact SEO

Across the world, 15% of people are living with a disability. That’s a large number! In fact, it’s 1 billion people. In the UK, 7 million people have digital access needs. These are needs which arise because of the effects of their disability when interacting online. Accessible websites help people with disabilities to access and use digital content. It improves their user experience, and can make them feel more welcomed by your brand.

Web accessibility makes a huge impact in the online experiences of many. The importance of accessibility in business also has a huge impact for brands.

There’s a considerable overlap between features that improve accessibility and SEO performance. By making your web pages accessible to everyone, you’re also boosting your chances of being found in search. 

Google Lighthouse is a tool for improving web page quality. Accessibility is one of the metrics they check alongside performance, best practices, and SEO. You can be sure that if Google is measuring accessibility that it must be important!

The newest accessibility standard that accessible websites aim to meet is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1.

On this page, we explore the benefits of accessibility for WCAG, SEO, the user experience and more.

This page has been created in partnership with Claire Brotherton, Founder of A Bright Clear Web.

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Meaningful page titles

A page title, or <title> tag, is the name of a web page. It’s shown in the top of a user's browser bar when they’re on a web page. Page titles help to improve both web accessibility and SEO.

How do meaningful page titles help accessibility?

Digital accessibility requirements call for page titles that are descriptive. For example, Success Criterion 2.4.2 of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1. This says that users should be able to understand a page’s purpose without having to read the content on the page.

Good page titles help users with multiple tabs open to quickly identify the one they want.

Titles are also helpful to people living with a disability.

For example, when a screen reader user arrives on a web page, they’ll hear the page title read out. It’s important that page titles are accurate so that they can feel confident they’ve arrived at the intended page.  

A typical format for a page title is to have the name of the article followed by the website name. This is fine provided the title is not too wordy. Short and snappy page titles provide a better user experience. Especially for a screen reader user who relies on hearing content read out loud. It helps them to ‘scan’ open tabs and web pages much quicker.

How does a meaningful title tag help SEO?

A page’s <title> tag is what’s shown on the results page of search engines as the clickable link. Adding meaning to a page’s title benefits accessibility, and also helps search engines to better understand what your page is about. After all, both accessibility and SEO are about getting the relevant content to users.

In this example, you can see that the results shown include the exact terms used in the search query ("web accessibility" "SEO") in the titles. If your <title> matches the subject of your page, your page is more likely to be found in search.

As part of SEO best practices, Google’s guidelines on titles say that Page titles should be clear and descriptive.

Avoid vague descriptors like "Home" for your home page, or "Profile" for a specific person's profile.

Also avoid unnecessarily long titles, which are likely to get shortened when they show up in the search results. To avoid this, it’s recommended to keep to a maximum of 60 characters.

You can use relevant keywords in your <title> so that search engines understand what your web pages are about. But don’t overdo it.

Headings

Headings, or <h> tags, structure your pages into clear sections.

How do headings help accessibility?

Using headings improves content accessibility, because it helps your online visitors to quickly scan your content. They can easily and quickly find a section of the page that’s relevant to them. It also ties in with the requirements of an accessible website. It relates to Success Criterion 1.3.1 of WCAG.

Headings improve the user experience for everyone. They’re also particularly helpful to a screen reader user who can navigate pages by headings. It means they don’t have to wait on the entire page being read to them to find relevant content.

There are six levels of Headings.

Heading levels go from Heading 1 to Heading 6. They should be used following a hierarchy, like so:

  • <h1>Main heading</h1>
  • <h2>Section heading</h2>
  • <h3>Subsection heading</h3>
  • <h4>Sub-subsection heading</h4>

If a page has skipped any heading levels, a screen reader user might think they have missed some content.

How do headings help SEO?

In most cases, accessibility and SEO do go hand-in-hand. However, there’s some debate about whether headings on a page play a part. 

According to a Moz study, search engines don’t seem to be too particular about headings. Either the type or the number of them. Nevertheless, we recommend putting the benefits of accessibility first. It’s better for the user experience, and helps the greatest number of people to navigate your content easily. 

Improve content accessibility by using a Heading 1 as the first heading on a page. Followed by the suggested heading hierarchy above for the rest of your page content.

For information about creating accessible headings, check out our guide on ‘Creating Accessible Content’.

Lists

As you know, a list is a bullet point list or numbered listicle. But what you might not realise is that for the benefits of accessibility, lists must be properly marked up.

List markups define a group of related items. Web developers commonly use lists in navigation menus for this reason. It’s another technique that helps with structuring pages. And this benefits both web accessibility and SEO.

How do lists help accessibility?

Sighted users will recognise that bulleted or numbered list items are associated. But with list markup, a screen reader user will be told that there is a list. They’ll also be told how many items are in that list.

Marking lists up properly means using the correct tags to define the content. For example <ul> for underordered lists, <ol> for ordered lists, and <dl> for definition lists.

How do lists help SEO?

As you’ll know, search engines give organic results in a number of ways. As Marketers, we aim to appear on the first page of results, but hope for more. To get that featured snippet would be a dream.

By marking lists up correctly, you’re letting Google know that there’s a list within your content. Search engines know that lists are useful for certain queries, so it’ll help give your content some weight. Here's an example.

Google has rewarded our blog with a featured list snippet when someone searches for 'free online reading resources'. Again, we can see the benefits of accessibility playing a part in SEO.

Descriptive links

Interlinking content is an important part of our customer journey. Being descriptive in the text you use to link to a new page is helpful for the user experience. It’s also helpful for web accessibility and SEO.

How do descriptive links help accessibility?

Descriptive links let users understand what a link’s purpose is before they follow it.

The words “click here” or “read more” don't give enough information out of context. A screen reader user might navigate through all the links on a page to find where they want to go. Being descriptive helps them to find what they’re looking for much more easily.

Not only that, being descriptive also helps meet the web accessibility requirements of WCAG. Such as Success Criterion 2.4.4: Link Purpose (In Context) and Success Criterion 2.4.9: Link Purpose (Link Only). Based on user research, Nielsen Norman group say you should link important words first. This is because many people only read the first couple of words.

How do descriptive links help SEO?

Using descriptive links isn’t just beneficial for accessibility, SEO can be supported too. Good link text, which SEO pros call anchor text, helps search engines understand what a site is about.

SEO experts from Moz say that link text should be succinct and relevant to the target page. Links that aren’t descriptive will fail Google Lighthouse’s SEO audit.

See the list of generic link text that fails the test.

For information about creating accessible hyperlinks, check out our guide on ‘Creating Accessible Content’.

Breadcrumbs

Breadcrumbs are a series of links that help online users to determine where they are on a website. They’re a secondary way of navigating a website, and are often used to track movements through a set of grouped pages. They create a better user experience, because it helps lead visitors back through the page order, so they can get back to the main page.

In both accessibility and SEO, using breadcrumbs has its benefits.

How do breadcrumbs help accessibility?

Breadcrumbs meet web accessibility requirements of WCAG 2.1. They are a means of meeting Success Criterion 2.4.8: Location. They help improve the user experience for everyone. But are particularly helpful for people with disabilities. They help people with memory problems or low attention span from becoming confused as they flow through a set of pages. They also help screen reader users to go back through a set of grouped pages much quicker.

How do breadcrumbs help SEO?

Search engines like breadcrumbs because they help them understand how a site is organised.

To see breadcrumbs in the search results you need to add structured data to the links.

In this example you can see that both articles and product pages with breadcrumbs can show up in Google search.

Text equivalents for images and other non-text content

As part of any digital campaign, you’ll choose a mix of content types to attract attention. You do this because you know that different people prefer different things. Some people prefer to watch a video or attend a webinar. Others like to read a blog or download a guide.

When it comes to content accessibility, it’s important to remember that for some people, this comes down to necessity rather than choice. Providing your digital content in multiple formats helps to open up your messages to more people. In doing so, both accessibility and SEO can benefit.

How do text equivalents help accessibility?

Without accessibility being considered, people with visual impairments have no way to access non-text content. That’s why all non-text content should have a text equivalent. It’s actually a web accessibility requirement, under WCAG 2.1 Success Criterion 1.1.1: Non-text

By adding a text alternative, it means allowing non-sighted visitors access to images, animations, CAPTCHAs and more.

A text equivalent also supplies meaning for sighted visitors if content can’t be downloaded for any reason, like a patchy Internet connection. 

For images, alternative text is typically used as an equivalent. Alternative text is often referred to as “alt text” or “alt tags”. In fact, it’s more correctly an alt attribute.

Many content management systems like WordPress allow you to add alternative text when you upload images.

Alt text must give a non-sighted visitor the same experiences as a sighted visitor. It should be accurate, clear and provide meaningful information. 

For our top tips, check out our guide to creating accessible content.

How do text equivalents help SEO?

Search engines recognise the information in alt attributes. It’s not a big ranking signal but it does contribute overall. After all, it adds some more context around the content of your page. 

However, don’t feel tempted to stuff your keywords into alt text. This is bad practice for both accessibility and SEO.

Transcripts and captions

In the same way that text equivalents of non-text content opens up visual content, transcripts and captions do the same for audio-content. Again, they have benefits for both web accessibility and SEO.

How do transcripts and captions help accessibility?

If you use audio or video content on your website, adding captions to video or transcribing the content helps you meet these success criteria in WCAG 2.1:

Captions and transcripts don’t just benefit people with sight and hearing problems. They can help other users such as people with a learning difference and people watching or listening in noisy environments.

Here are 15 benefits of using transcripts and captions for your media.

How do transcripts and captions help SEO?

Using captions and transcripts can help your content get indexed more quickly and rank higher.

Moz cites a nonprofit who saw a 50% increase in organic traffic when they included transcripts alongside their podcasts.

At Texthelp, we include transcripts for all of our podcasts.

According to Rev, adding video captions improves search engine visibility and engagement.

Two of the three videos that are listed on the results page for “how to set up a YouTube channel” have captioned their videos in English.

To help you create transcripts and captions, check out our guide to creating accessible content.

Readability

Readability is the word used to describe how easy something is to understand.

The use of jargon words, difficult language and long sentences affect readability. Choosing to use simple language and friendly sentence structure can improve accessibility and SEO.

How does readability help accessibility?

When it comes to writing content, it’s important to remember that not everyone has the same level of literacy. For example in the UK, as many as 1 in 4 adults have very low literacy skills. Not only that, some people also have reading challenges like dyslexia. Others may speak English as a second language. Complicated content can have an impact for many.

Keeping content simple, short and clear can help. It opens up your content so that more people can access and understand it. It also makes your content more enjoyable to read, for everyone.

A few top tips for improving readability:

  • Use Plain English language that’s easy for everyone to understand the first time they read it. 
  • Keep sentences short, or under 21 words. 
  • Stay clear of jargon words that only certain groups would understand. 

How does readability help SEO?

Improving readability improves content accessibility. It also benefits SEO because it improves the user experience. In fact, SEO experts at Yoast say it’s an essential part of every SEO strategy

Search engines track the behavior of website visitors. Content that's easier to read will keep visitors on your website for longer. This tells search engines that your website has been helpful for your visitors. 

Not only that, as voice search grows, readability will continue to become more important for SEO. Search engines don’t want to give their users voice results that are wordy or use difficult language. Content that’s simple and clear has a better chance of being read out loud.

To help, check out this webinar all about writing in Plain English.

Consistent navigation

As a fellow Marketer, we’re sure you can agree that in any new campaign, consistency in the look and feel of all digital assets is key. For your website visitors, consistency across your website matters too. Consistent navigation has its benefits for both accessibility and SEO.

How does consistent navigation help accessibility?

Every web visitor should be able to navigate your website easily. One way to achieve this is to keep the layout and presentation the same across all your web pages. That way, every visitor will know what to expect as they move through your website.

For people living with a disability, this is really helpful. It helps people with cognitive differences and visual impairments to be able to predict where they can find things on each page.

For example, those with low vision might use screen magnification to make content larger. When doing so, consistent visual cues can help them to quickly locate repeated content. 

Consistent navigation is also called for as part of the accessibility requirements of WCAG 2.1. It’s found under Success Criterion 3.2.3: Consistent Navigation. 

How does consistent navigation help SEO?

Search engines take note of how visitors behave on your website. That’s why factors like session time, bounce rates, and conversion rates matter in SEO. A well-structured website that’s consistent helps visitors to navigate a website easily. That means they’re more likely to stay on a website, and engage with content. This tells search engines that your visitors are happy. As such, they’re more likely to ‘recommend’ your pages. In other words, list your pages as a result to a user query.

Sitemaps

As you may know, sitemaps give web visitors a full overview of what a site contains. Including one on your website helps your visitors to understand how your content is organised. It also has benefits for web accessibility and SEO.

How do sitemaps help accessibility?

Sitemaps give your visitors an alternative way to get around your website. Rather than use your main navigation menu, they can visit a ‘page of contents’. This can help screen reader users to reach the content that they need quicker. It can also help people with cognitive difficulties by giving them a page of text without other distracting content.

Sitemaps are also considered effective under the accessibility requirements of WCAG 2.1.

How do sitemaps help SEO?

Sitemaps help search engines to crawl your web content much quicker. 

Sitemaps usually contain a website's most important pages, in hierarchical order. Search engines look for sitemaps to find the most important information that relates to a user’s search query. As you add new web content, updating your sitemap with that content will help search crawlers to find and index it much quicker. Therefore helping to boost SEO.

A final note on the overall benefits of SEO and accessibility

As you’ve seen so far, accessibility and SEO go hand in hand. By working on one, we enhance the other. After all, a better user experience for your visitors, also offers a better experience to search crawlers too.

That being said, as you work on your SEO strategy it’s important to follow SEO best practice.

Just because providing alternative text has benefits for SEO, doesn’t mean you should use alt text to stuff keywords. Web accessibility and SEO can be positively linked, but you must consider the best practices of both to achieve this.

To help, we’ve created a guide on creating accessible content. It’ll help you to consider a lot of the factors you’ve read about today.

Further reading

Making sure your website is accessible is the right thing to do. As you’ve seen it can have benefits for search too. Not only this, it also has many other benefits including:

Legal compliance

Legislation exists to make sure people with disabilities can take part in all aspects of life. Discover how accessible websites reap the benefits of both ADA compliance & SEO.

A better user experience for everyone

Website accessibility doesn’t just improve the user experience of people with disabilities. It improves the experience for everyone.

View the complete guide

Head to our contents page, and view our full accessibility guide. We’ve lots more areas of digital accessibility for you to explore.