Web accessibility and SEO

Is your website any good if people can’t find it? What about if they can’t see or experience it?

SEO is the practice of increasing website traffic from major search engines and Web accessibility involves building your web content so that everyone can understand, navigate, and interact with it. The alignment between the two is undeniable.

two cartoon pieces of bread exclaim 'you're the peanut butter to my jelly'.

Most people don’t realize that many on-page SEO elements can do double duty as ways to support accessibility. Below is an overview of how these two disciplines are the same, where they differ, and tactics you can use to optimize your marketing material for both.

How Web accessibility and SEO are similar

Both SEO and Web accessibility help make your marketing better.

If you apply the best practices for either, you’re doing work that will help you get in front of more people. The bigger the audience the more impactful you can be.

Both require technical knowledge

When applying either Web accessibility or SEO practices to your website you will require a certain level of technical knowledge as well as buy-in from your leadership team (especially if it costs money). It’s not always straight forward but, as a non-developer, they’re not tasks that are as intimidating or technical as they may first seem. I promise, there’s a lot of value in having a top-level understanding of how both disciplines work.

You don’t need to be a full-fledged expert in either to make a positive impact. A general understanding of both will help you make better marketing.

Both send signals

batman signal shines in the sky

Both Web accessibility and SEO will help you send small pieces of metadata to parts of a webpage that most users never see. When you’re optimizing a page for SEO, you’re sending signals to search engines to prompt them to rank your website for certain terms. When you optimize your website for accessibility, you’re sending signals to tools (like screen readers) that will help relay information to users who can’t access your content using traditional methods.

Both are evolving

Finally, it’s important to recognize that both SEO and Web accessibility are both continuously evolving. SEO ranking factors change daily and Web accessibility standards are constantly being questioned as new trends and platforms emerge. Notice how almost every TikTok video has captions on it compared to a year ago? That’s no coincidence.

How Web accessibility and SEO are different

The overall intent of SEO is to connect people with a website from a search engine results page (SERPs), whereas accessibility connects people with information that they need regardless of where they’re spending time online. You can be using social media, a landing page, or listening to Spotify to be impacted by Web accessibility.

For example, the other day my Google home read aloud the title of a Spotify playlist that I’d written and included the sun emoji. ☀️ I nearly fell over after realizing that this type of Web accessibility was something that would impact my own personal experience.

Different audiences

One is a set of standards designed to help people and one is meant for search engine robots.

This is by far the most defining difference. Personally, I think this one of the reasons why SEO is harder for people to embrace compared to Web accessibility. No one wants to write extra material simply to comply with a set of robot rules that might change tomorrow.

Different goals

The goal of SEO is to drive people to a specific webpage whereas the goal of web accessibility is to ensure everyone can see/hear/experience all of your material regardless of their abilities.

How to optimize for both accessibility and SEO

There are several places where you can leave hints for search engines and accessibility tools that will help ensure that your marketing material is available to wider audiences.

Below are six web elements to consider when optimizing your website for both SEO and web accessibility.

Headings

Headings help all users get a sense of the page’s organization and structure. This includes people, robots for search engines, and web accessibility tools.

Web accessibility benefits of headings

Headings are coded onto a page using HTML. When presented in a specific order (eg. H1, H2, H3, etc.) they help those who are keyboard-only users navigate through a web page. Screen readers also benefit from headings because you can listen to a list of all headings and then skip to a specific part of the page.

SEO benefits of headings

In terms of SEO, when you include headings on a landing page it helps tell search engines which keywords the page should rank for.

Hyperlinks

Hyperlinks act as a way for people to navigate to different web pages. They provide value by linking people to relevant information based on the content of a page they’re already looking at.

Accessibility benefits of hyperlinks

Inaccessible links are considered to be one of the bigger online barriers, which is why they need to be built in a way that everyone can understand and use.

Consider these guidelines:

  • When adding links, avoid generic text like ‘click here’…These kinds of links can be confusing when a screen reader reads them out.
  • In addition to making the linked text a different colour, include a visual cue like underlined text (for those who can’t see colour).
  • Choose hyperlink text that clearly identifies the content of what’s being linked to.
  • Hyperlink text should not consist of the actual URL unless it is likely to be printed.

SEO benefits of hyperlinks

There are a few ways that hyperlinks can benefit your site’s SEO. When you link out to credible sources, Google takes note and rewards you for it. Alternatively, you could include an internal link to another one of your own web pages. The anchor text you use in the link acts as a keyword indicator to search engines.

Alt-text

Alt-text is a small piece of metadata that tells algorithms and screen readers what an image is all about. It’s a tiny piece of copy, usually just 1-2 lines, that describes the image.

This is a great resource of how to write stronger alt-text.

Accessibility benefits of alt-text

If you don’t include alt-text, screen readers will either skip over an image or read out the file name instead. By design, it helps web editors provide additional context to their audiences who can’t experience every part of a page.

SEO benefits of alt-text

The content of the alt-text is a helpful signal for search engines to understand what your page is all about. It’s considered to be a very small ranking factor.

Title tags

Title tags are small pieces of code that act as a way for you to give a title to each page on your website. If you’ve got several tabs open right now, you may see part of the title tag displayed. If you’re in Chrome and you hover over the tab, you’ll see the rest of the title tag:

Accessibility benefits of title tags

The page title is often the first element ‘read’ to a user by a screen reader. As such, it’s important that page title tags accurately reflect the content on that page. As a rule of thumb, they should be descriptive, not clickbaity.

Man speaking to camera with text that reads 'I don't do that clickbait shit'.

SEO benefits of title tags

Title tags are crucial for SEO, and one of the primary ways your content should match your users’ intent.

Title tags determine the display title in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) and act as a first impression for anyone who finds your site via search engine. Even if your site ranks well, a good title can be the determining factor of whether or not someone clicks on your link.

Captions

Video is becoming a more prominent part of marketing campaigns across many channels. While search spiders can’t necessarily ‘hear’ or ‘see’ web video content, they can read any markup, written text or code tied to a video.

Accessibility benefits of captions

Adding captions to videos helps include anyone who is audibly impaired. If you’re a small team and have limited resources (budget, time, tools, etc.) YouTube has a free captioning tool worth looking into.

SEO benefits of captions

Captions benefit SEO because the text of the captions will help search spiders know how to index it.

How Web accessibility and SEO overlap

Given all the similarities, why does SEO feel more familiar to most marketers than Web accessibility?

If people can find you online with SEO but can’t experience (see, hear, understand, etc.) your message there’s definitely something missing. It’s hard to ignore the overlap between the two.

two circles overlapping.

At the end of the day, both help send signals intended to help users better understand what a page is all about. However, it’s hard to ignore that the overall goal for each is very different.

By Christine

Hi, I'm Christine. I'm a public speaker & marketing professional with a specialization in digital strategy. I live and breathe all things content & marketing. In my previous positions, I've done everything from rebranding companies, launching new SaaS products, writing sales copy, and developing long-term SEO & social strategies. I believe that quality communication and measurable results are the key to every digital marketing strategy.