How SEO has made the web more accessible for everyone

Search engines like Google are dependent on the same accessibility attributes that many people depend on to comprehend and navigate sites. Search engine optimizers have unwittingly made the web more accessible, and they are in the best position to make it even better.

Accessibility
The accessible web has been helped by SEO

Sentiment towards SEOs varies depending on who you ask. Some people associate opportunism and spam with SEO, while others see it for what it truly is, an essential method for achieving visibility in search engines. It ends up that SEO affects much more than search engine visibility. It also helps make the web more accessible.

SEOs use semantic HTML, hierarchical headings, and descriptive alternative text because they want to communicate clearly to Googlebot. But its original purpose, and its most important purpose is accessibility for all people.

The HTML elements and attributes that are used to get Google to understand what pages are about are the same things that people with disabilities need to comprehend and navigate sites. It’s not just common elements like h1 and attributes like alt that are used for accessibility, it’s also attributes like lang and elements like blockquote and abbr that help people fully understand the context of a web page.

Making Accessibility part of SEO

Historically, there haven’t been many SEOs that have included accessibility as part of their approach to optimizing sites. Part of the problem is that SEOs typically have a narrow focus on just search visibility and rankings. However, there are some SEOs who have seen the relationship between SEO and accessibility from the very beginning.

Kim Krause Berg, founder of Creative Vision Web Consulting, is one of the few SEOs that has incorporated accessibility into her services from the outset. Alongside her SEO services, she consults and advises companies on how to make their sites more usable and accessible. She says that one of the biggest hurdles with incorporating accessibility alongside SEO recommendations is convincing web developers to do the extra work. She discovered that having engineers experience what it’s like to read and navigate a site with an impairment has convinced most of them to include accessible code.

I could pass around blindfolds and computer devices loaded with screen reader apps, or web pages with juggled up letters that dyslexic people see, or fonts and colors with emulators to demonstrate what colorblind people experience and what it’s like to go outside in the sunlight or forget your reading glasses. There are all kinds of ways to demonstrate computer-based responses for humans who arrive to our web pages and internet applications, content, buttons, forms, barcode scanners, bank card swipers, all the things we use and do and when we suddenly are unable to, what happens?

Another effective method is to show videos of people using accessibility features. This UCSF screen reader video is an excellent example of why sites need to be accessible.

Ashley Berman Hale, Technical SEO Lead at DeepCrawl, is also working on getting SEOs to incorporate accessibility. She recently gave a presentation at the BrightonSEO conference on Accessibility for people and bots. She outlined all of the significant ways SEOs can incorporate accessibility principles and code within their optimization efforts.

BrightonSEO Presentation
“Accessibility for people and bots: Compassion-led technical SEO” presentation by Ashley Berman Hale

Accessibility resources for SEOs

The documentation for accessibility has been available for decades. One of the best resources for SEOs is W3C‘s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. It outlines four key areas that should be considered:

  1. Perceivable
  2. Operable
  3. Understandable
  4. Robust

The W3C also has an interactive Quick Reference that provides techniques for implementing WCAG. In addition to WCAG, another web standard for accessibility that SEOs should consider implementing is Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA). ARIA defines a way to make web applications more accessible to people with disabilities. Similar to WCAG‘s Quick Reference, ARIA has an Authoring Practices document for understanding and creating accessible rich internet applications.

Implementing the WCAG and ARIA is relatively straightforward with standard HTML and CSS, but it can get much more complicated if a site is using a JavaScript (JS) framework like React or Ember. JS frameworks already have significant issues with SEO. For example, they require the addition of server-side pre-rendering to ensure search engines can properly crawl and render pages. They also support functionality, like links without the use of an href attribute, which can block search engines from being able to crawl a site fully. It gets even worse when it comes to accessibility.

React references accessibility in its docs, but its considered an advanced topic. Fortunately, developers can more easily add accessibility options thanks to the ally.js library. Ally.js is a JavaScript library [that simplifies] certain accessibility features, functions, and behaviors. The library doesn’t automatically fix accessibility issues. Instead, it provides functions that developers can reference to make their JS-based sites more accessible.

Making a more accessible web

Most SEOs have unwittingly made the web more accessible. It’s possible that SEOs could end up being champions for accessibility. They work closely with web developers, and their optimizations align perfectly with accessibility principles. It may just be a matter of the SEO industry making accessibility a priority and a best practice.

Jon is the founder and Managing Editor of Coywolf. He is a serial entrepreneur with over 25 years of experience in web development, SaaS, internet strategy, and digital marketing. Follow @henshaw

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