Five ways digital accessibility can boost your SEO

There are many ways organisations and digital content providers can increase their online presence through search engine optimisation (SEO). Strategies can range from quick tricks to temporarily push up search engine rankings, to longer term solutions ensuring your website receives recognition for providing an optimised, positive browsing experience. It’s important to note that targeting search engine hits over the experience of your visitors can do more harm than good for your brand and digital content. But is it possible to boost SEO and create a user-friendly experience at the same time?

Woman pressing floating 'SEO' text surrounded by hand-drawn icons
Woman pressing floating ‘SEO’ text surrounded by hand-drawn icons

Web accessibility is the easiest and most efficient way to make your digital content available to the broadest audience possible while enhancing your brand recognition and reputation at the same time. Here are five ways to boost your SEO through digital accessibility.

1. Provide descriptive text alternatives

Alternative text fields exist for written descriptions to be applied to non-text content, which is useful for making visual elements like images accessible to people who are blind or vision impaired and use screen readers to browse websites. Poor SEO practice takes advantage of this feature through ‘keyword stuffing’ – filling alternative text fields with non-descriptive spam words in an effort to trick web crawlers into boosting search engine rankings. This is not only frustrating and inaccessible for assistive technology users, but major search engine providers are able to combat improper alternative text use by blacklisting pages with spam-like descriptions from being listed at all.

Providing contextual descriptions, titles and captions for your non-text content is easy to do, giving screen reader users access to visual media while providing web crawlers with information to improve search results from your images. Google’s Image publishing guidelines provide further details on how proper alternative text offers a great combination of web accessibility and SEO, and WCAG 2.0 Guideline 1.1 Text Alternatives notes how to successfully implement this technique for screen reader users on your website.

2. Make your content distinguishable and understandable

Hiding components like white text on a white background, text in small font sizes, text positioned off-screen or content hidden behind images are a few unethical SEO techniques used to conceal keywords and website components in an attempt to attract web crawlers and increase hits from search engines. Whilst these components may be hard to see, assistive technology users are able to pick up on these ‘hidden’ elements just like any other part of the website, meaning this content isn’t actually hidden at all.

Making all information on your website clearly distinguishable and understandable is important to achieve a consistent and compliant browsing experience for all website visitors, particularly users with disabilities. Ensuring adequate colour contrast for people who may be colour blind or visually impaired, providing sequentially structured headings for screen reader users and removing reliance on sensory characteristics are great ways to improve the quality of your website while building an inclusive experience for people who use different input devices and assistive technologies. Clearly understandable content leads to a better user experience, which ultimately translates into improved SEO. Google’s Quality guidelines explain the basic principles and best practices to avoid hidden components, while WCAG 2.0 Guideline 1.3 Adaptable explains how to use these principles to improve website accessibility.

3. Use meaningful and contextual links

Doorway pages, sneaky redirects and cloaking are examples of ‘black hat’ SEO techniques which use linked website components to influence search engine results, causing a highly disorienting browsing experience for website visitors. Less malicious and often unintentional examples of links which are harmful to SEO and accessibility are instances of “click here” and “read more”, which do not provide an adequate text description for users to understand the link’s purpose. Using misleading or non-meaningfully-described links can cause significant issues for users with cognitive disabilities who rely on contextually described link names to understand information, as well as people with visual disabilities who navigate websites based on link names alone.

Ensuring that your links effectively enhance navigation across your website, as well as providing links with contextual descriptions have many benefits for your website’s recognition and visitor experience, such as helping people with disabilities streamline their browsing experience, and aligning with existing guidelines for SEO best practice. Google’s Quality guidelines provide advice to avoid cloaking, sneaky redirects and doorway pages on your website, and WCAG 2.0 Guideline 2.4 Navigable lets you know how to help users with disabilities navigate, find content and determine their location using links within your digital platform.

4. Ensure consistent identification and navigation

Applying constant structural and design changes to websites whilst retaining the same content is sometimes used to trick search engines into believing that fresh information is available due to code changes present. There’s no harm in updating your website to enhance the experience for your visitors, but frequently rearranging the position of core components can disorient users from effectively navigating and engaging with your content, leading to a frustrating browsing experience. This is especially an issue if your website provides links to pages that users need to quickly and easily access to complete specific tasks.

Consistent navigation and identification is important to help visitors locate and interact with repeated components which appear in the same relative order on your website. This may include ensuring menu items appear in a consistent manner, providing a search mechanism in the same relative place on each page, or making social media icons consistently available in the same position across the website. This can particularly help users with cognitive limitations, people who use assistive technology and people with intellectual disabilities find and engage with your website content efficiently. Google’s Browser compatibility guidelines cover the importance of clean code and ensuring page consistency for SEO, and WCAG 2.0 Guideline 3.2 Predictable describes how to make your website appear and operate in a consistent manner.

5. Create accessible multimedia content

Current auto-captioning tools for videos highlight the fact that technology isn’t ready to automatically convert multimedia into accessible alternative formats. These features may improve over time, and it’s likely you can help them along by manually adding accessibility features to your multimedia content.

Providing your own video captions significantly increases access for people who are Deaf or hearing impaired. You can use a third-party captioning solution like Amara, create captions using YouTube’s in-built captioning tools or make use of YouTube’s community captioning feature allowing viewers to submit their own captions which can be uploaded to your videos after review. An audio description track, which is a WCAG 2.0 Level AA requirement, can also be added during the post-production editing process to help blind or visually impaired users engage with your video content. Google’s Creator Academy outlines best practices for captioning to expand your video’s reach, and WCAG 2.0 Guideline 1.2 Time-based Media describes how to ensure your multimedia content is accessible to people with disabilities.

Conclusion

Digital accessibility plays a significant role in determining your search engine standings, and major search engine providers acknowledge this point within their guidelines for achieving optimal SEO. Creating an accessible website improves user experience, and positive user experience translates into greater recognition of your content and brand reputation.

Media Access Australia offers a range of training, consulting and expert services to ensure your content achieves full accessibility compliance. Call us on +61 2 9212 6242 or request a quote to find out where you stand with our Digital Accessibility Maturity Assessment (DAMA). Check out our new Accessible Video Content service to ensure your videos meet WCAG 2.0 compliance.