Web Accessibility and SEO

What is the value of finding content if the user experience and accessibility of that content is poor?

Does it matter how accessible content is, if nobody ever finds it?

Web accessibility and search engine optimization (SEO) are both about getting relevant content to users. Accessible content and search engine optimized content are both machine readable. Search engines and assistive technologies (such as screen readers) are quite similar. In many ways, search engines are deaf, blind, use only a keyboard, and have limited technical abilities. Both rely on content structure, semantics, and functionality to either present content to users or determine the relevance of content.

Accessibility and SEO Magic

SEO has always had an element of what I call “voodoo magic”. It involves guessing or deducing what algorithms a search engine might use to determine the relevance of certain content, then implementing content strategies that best utilize those supposed algorithms. Fortunately, web accessibility has more straightforward guidelines – though a fair amount of voodoo magic is still required to get content to actually work correctly across browsers and assistive technologies. Occasionally the recommendations of SEO “experts” and accessibility “experts” have been at odds; implementing a tactic for SEO would be detrimental to accessibility, or vice versa.

In the 10 years I have been working in the web accessibility field, I have seen SEO and accessibility align more closely. There is now significant overlap between these two fields. Interestingly, SEO has lost most of its “black hat” techniques and has evolved to align more with accessibility, which has changed very little. This, I suppose, provides some validation to long-standing accessibility principles and their intent on making the web a better place for everyone.

Keyword stuffing – using keywords in portions of the page that would not typically be noticed by most users (such as alternative text or title attributes values), but that would be identified by search engines – is a good example of “black hat” SEO. This ‘hidden’ content often isn’t – it may be read or made available to users with disabilities resulting in confusion and poor accessibility. Fortunately, search engines have progressed and now penalize such tactics. SEO, like accessibility, now advocates proper, descriptive alternative text and advisory title attributes that are accurately descriptive of their related content. These are used by search engines to help determine the content of images.

SEO and Accessibility Alignment

The list of accessibility and SEO practices that are closely in alignment include:

Of course content is king, in both accessibility and SEO.

HTML5, Accessibility, and SEO

HTML5 provides the following improved semantics that will increase both accessibility and search engine accuracy:

  • <figure> and <figcaption> for associating images and descriptive text.
  • <nav>, <header>, <footer>, <article>, and <aside> for better identifying significant page areas. ARIA provides even enhanced functionality here (especially in the notably missing identification of page main content).
  • <details> and <summary> for associating related content.
  • Associated <track> elements with <audio> and <video>.
  • Microformats, RDFa, microelements, <time> and many similar features can provide useful metadata and functionality.

I believe that HTML5 will further bring SEO and web accessibility into alignment.

Off-screen Content

SEO advocates often have concern over the accessibility technique of using CSS to hide content off-screen. This technique allows useful content to be presented to screen reader users. This should, of course, be used sparingly and only in cases where the content makes sense visually, but additional content may be necessary for users that cannot see the visual presentation. While keyword stuffing in hidden content was once part of the “voodoo magic” of SEO, it is now verboten. Search engines can inflict harsh ranking punishments on pages that are found to be using deceptive or malicious tactics.

Despite these concerns, rest assured that the proper use of off-screen content will not impact search engine rankings. We have received confirmation (unofficial, of course) from Google that such practices are perfectly acceptable, so long as they are not deceptive or malicious. Perhaps the strongest indication that this is true is that the first link on the Google.com homepage is hidden using the off-screen technique WebAIM has always advocated.

SEO + Accessibility = Win!

There is much evidence that suggests that accessibility not only supports high search engine rankings, but that Google may actually favor pages that have strong implementations of accessibility. This is, of course, difficult to prove. I do know that the WebAIM site, which we have tried to keep highly accessible, has certainly been highly favored in search engines for accessibility related terms despite implementing very few SEO-specific techniques.

Good accessibility and good search engine optimization is a great combination for content authors and end users.

Comments

  1. Lucy Dodd

    Hi Jared,

    Great article and very timely too. Just had this very discussion with a client recently.

    Lucy, Director
    Inclusive experience Ltd

  2. Sandi Gauder

    Most, if not all, of our clients would rank SEO at the top of their ‘must have’ list. We’ve been building accessible sites for quite some time and am convinced this plays a key role in search engine rankings for many of our clients.

    However, there is an on-going debate in our office about page titles. Titles that are good for SEO are not always good for accessibility. Generally, as the developer, I have to relent to the wishes of marketing and the client.

  3. Monica Guy

    Fantastic article and very clearly explained, thanks!

    Perhaps pushing the SEO advantages of accessible websites will persuade more web designers to look seriously at accessibility. I still think there’s a moral responsibility to make online information accessible to everyone. But if the SEO argument works better than the moral or even economic arguments, let’s push it.

  4. Priti Rohra

    Brilliant post Jared!

    SEO, mobile-friendly, usable…. & much more: Accessibility is beneficial from so many aspects, still people find ways of not designing/developing accessible websites and provide escuse’s for not doing the same!

    Some say contrast is king other say content is king… in fact Accessible website is king and must be done by people across the world!

    Always BPositive,
    Priti Rohra

  5. Sowmya Kagalkar

    Hey Jared,

    Its a good post!! This is where it is recommended to create your webpages with dual intention of satisfying your website users (targeted audience) and Search Engines.

    thanks

  6. Stephani Roberts

    This is excellent Jared! You pulled together all the salient points in one of my favorite arguments about the overarching benefits of accessibility. Thank you!

  7. James Bailey

    Great post Jared. I have forwarded it around campus.

    James Bailey
    University of Oregon

  8. Rakesh

    Very nice article Jared.. Very much interested in SEO and Accessibility.. Thinking on similar lines since long and happy to see an article from my accessibility Guru Jared.
    I have a question for you.. If we say accessibility and SEO have overlap what extent can we say they overlap?

  9. Jared Smith

    Rakesh-

    It’s difficult to define the amount of overlap because both fields are not absolutely defined. But as I note in the article, I think the overlap in techniques is significant, even though the focus and intent of those techniques might be different.

    There are, of course, some deviations. The recommendations of many in SEO to place content in the title attribute, for example, is somewhat at odds with accessibility. As Sandi noted above, there are some recommendations for use of page titles that may be problematic. I think these conflicts are relatively few and minor. The point is that the techniques are very similar and that with a bit of care you can have a highly accessible and SEO-optimized page.

  10. Chris

    I agree on the off screen content. I see developers abusing it all the time and I mention to be careful with it.

    Content is King and it seems to have come around full circle.

    Good Post…

  11. Greg Deckers

    Really a nice article. I have to agree with most points you say.. Accessibility and SEO should work tougether to get the most of from a website!

  12. Manish

    SEO is a laborious process and keep consistency and good efforts. you aligned the things in very good manner and it will benefit a lot for me. Thanks…

  13. Adrian

    This is a road that never ends, hardly a technology is well understood when the other is already in the pipeline.
    It seems that HTML 5 will bring us many benefits so there have to learn to take advantage.

  14. Prodmetrics

    There are, of course, some deviations. The recommendations of many in SEO to place content in the title attribute. I have to agree with most points you say Accessibility and SEO should work tougether to get the most of from a website!