September 7th, 2012

13 Ways the W3C’s Accessibility Guidelines Also Help SEO

Blending Accessibility and SEO

ByE A Quinn

Improving accessibility means making your site available to a broader range of users.  Improving search optimization means making it possible for a larger group of people to find your site. These two practices overlap in some areas. By increasing your site’s accessibility you can also help improve your website’s search rankings!

The techniques below are from the General section of the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Accessibility Guideline document. General accessibility techniques are considered techniques that can be applied to any technology used to access the web, from phones to desktops.

The W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 breaks down their guidelines by technology-specific techniques. In total, there are over 200 different accessibility techniques with focuses ranging from HTML to ARIA to Flash. In contrast, approaches to SEO vary greatly in breadth and depth; what is mentioned below may or may not work for your situation.

The techniques I’ve outlined below will not necessarily make your site 100% accessible, nor will they guarantee the highest search rankings. But what they will do is bring awareness to important factors for your online strategy. Heck, they may even open your eyes to potential improvements for your website – and we all know knowledge is power.

The 13 WCAG Guidelines:

G1: Adding a link at the top of each page that goes directly to the main content area
G53: Identifying the purpose of a link using link text
G63: Providing a site map
G64: Providing a Table of Contents
G65: Providing a breadcrumb trail
G82: Providing a text alternative that identifies the purpose of the non-text content
G87: Providing closed captions
G88: Providing descriptive titles for Web pages
G91: Providing link text that describes the purpose of a link
G125: Providing links to navigate to related Web pages
G130: Providing descriptive headings
G141: Organizing a page using headings
G185: Linking to all of the pages on the site from the home page

G1: Adding a link at the top of each page that goes directly to the main content area

SEO:

Although adding ‘skip to content’ links won’t bring your website to #1 in the SERPs, it will create a more agreeable experience for users.  Getting people to spend more time on your page and engage with content is important. Engagement helps drive conversion, the ultimate goal of any SEO effort.

ACCESSIBILITY:

‘Skip to content’ links allow users to easily navigate directly to relevant content. Having these links helps tremendously when navigating with assistive technology by eliminating scrolling, which can be a major hurdle for disabled users.

G53: Identifying the purpose of a link using link text combined with the text of the enclosing sentence

SEO:

The search engine bots seek to rank pages based on relevancy. The more semantic clues you provide (e.g. having links included in the semantic context of sentences), the better the search engines can understand the purpose of your page and therefore place you on the result pages for relevant queries. Since bots can’t necessarily use visual clues to determine context, everything must be literally spelled out.

Accessibility:

Disabled users may not have the luxury of visual clues about a page or a link. Screen readers can only read the text aloud to users. To ensure these users grasp the meaning of a link, sufficient context must be provided by the sentence and the link’s actual text.

Examples:

Bad: Our restaurant has food from all over Italy.  Check it out here.

Good: The menu of our Italian restaurant contains food from all over Italy. 

G63: Providing a site map

SEO:

Site maps are like a roadmap for search engines when they crawl and index your website. Without a site map, search engines may miss pages. Site maps are an essential piece of any SEO effort.

Accessibility:

Site maps provide a simple navigation for users using assistive technologies. By providing links to every page on a website, sitemaps do the following for disabled users:

  • Present a concise overview of your entire site;
  • Assist with understanding site content and organization, much like a table of contents;
  • Act as an alternative navigation to potentially complex navigation structures existing on a live site.

G64: Providing a Table of Contents

To clarify: a table of contents provides more granular context to documents or pages within a website.  A sitemap is a broad overview of a website’s structure.

 SEO:

Avoid scaring people away from a page because of too much content. Soothe their content fears with a table of contents. Getting people to stick around means you’re improving engagement, which leads to conversions. And we all know, as stated previously, conversions are the ultimate goal of any SEO efforts.

Accessibility:

Navigating large chunks of information can be tough, even for the non-disabled. Imagine your users trying to scan a 15 page PDF while using a screen reader. A table of contents allows someone to understand the structure and contents of a document without having to navigate. The key is that these users are not navigating until they know where they are going, which makes all the difference.

G65: Providing a breadcrumb trail

SEO:

Breadcrumbs are another tactic that can contribute to the conversion portion of the SEO funnel. Breadcrumbs are especially useful for those dark, dank pages hidden deep within the forest of your website. Like Hansel and Gretel, your users will appreciate a way out and you will appreciate increased user engagement.

Accessibility:

Users with visual impairments or cognitive disabilities may not be able to see, let alone associate, the image with the context of your web page. Alt text is read by assistive technologies to explain to users how the non-text content relates to your webpage’s content.

G82: Providing a text alternative that identifies the purpose of the non-text content

SEO:

Using alternative (Alt) text (primarily on <img> tags) is considered a best practice for optimal website structure. Alt text links context between the non-text content on your page and the text content. Currently, search engines cannot make these connections. Alt text informs search engine bots that the non-text content supports the overall content, which builds relevancy.

Accessibility:

Users with visual impairments or cognitive disabilities may not be able to see, let alone associate, the image with the context of your web page. Alt text is read by assistive technologies to explain to users how the non-text content relates to your webpage’s content.

G87: Providing closed captions

SEO:

By transcribing your video, you allow bots to fully analyze what is being said in your video and attribute any necessary context. Transcription and closed captioning help with YouTube search ranking. Therefore, using the transcription and closed captions together will improve your rankings.

Accessibility:

Closed captioning allows users who can’t hear to understand what is being said in the video. By being able to read the closed captions, these users can now understand the video.

G88: Providing descriptive titles for web pages

SEO:

Search engine bots determine the overall gist of your webpage by its title tag. From there, page relevancy to a keyword stems from your content / title relationship. If a search engine deems your page relevant, your page’s title will display in the search result.

Showing up in the search result will only get you so far, and having a useful title helps draw users’ clicks. Once you have their clicks, are they going to stick around or leave?  This question can be answered by your title’s relevancy to content. And we’ve come full circle. Point is: take some time with the title.

Accessibility:

Titles set the stage for disabled users in the same way they do for search engine users.  Since these users do not have visual cues, you must be straight-forward and relevant with your title. If you’re trying to be ironic, this may not come across to the visually impaired user. Nor will irony come across to the search engine bot.

G91: Providing link text that describes the purpose of a link

Note: This guideline varies from G51 whereas it focuses specifically on the link’s text.  G51 takes a broader approach, discussing the link’s context within a sentence and paragraph.

SEO:

The anchor text of a link provides context for search engine bots about the link’s destination. This context allows search engines to better understand what you are linking to and how to assign relevancy to the page you are linking to.

If you just use <a href”=http://www.readbelowthefold.com”>click here</a> as your link text, the link has no information about the page it is linking to (nor does it provide context for your page).

Rather, strive for something like <a href=”http://www.readbelowthefold.com”>a blog about accessible web design</a>.   This gives the search engines context for the link’s destination.

Accessibility:

Using this technique provides context for users before they decide to leave the current page. Informing and guiding users to the content is extremely important. Changing pages can be an extremely disruptive process. By not providing sufficient information about what’s coming on the other side of a link, you may inadvertently bemuse disabled users.

G125: Providing links to navigate to related web pages

SEO:

Links to other pages are considered external links and in SEO, there are basically two approaches: one for using external links and one against using external links.  The no-links approach means keeping users on your page only, with no links out to other resources for fear of promoting your competition. The friendly approach references other authorities and benefits your user by providing paths to other resources (who may also be your competition).

No one is quite sure how external links effect your SEO efforts. However, there is the possibility that external links provide context for search engines about the content of your page. Personally, I appreciate the added reference external links provide. And, let’s be honest, external links keep the whole community-vibe thing alive

Accessibility:

Providing additional resources for users underlines the purpose of the web: a network of connected and related resources. Links should always go to related content; this is especially important for disabled users. As previously discussed, changing pages can be a very disruptive action for a disabled user. Sending users to an unrelated page increases the chance for disruption.

G130: Providing descriptive headings

SEO:

Descriptive headings provide context for search engine bots about the content beneath the heading. Creating a relevant relationship between title, heading, content and link anchor texts are all part of a successful content strategy for SEO.

Accessibility:

Headings are guides for content and could be considered the next step after a table of contents. Headings help break down chunks of content and keep users informed of their location within a page.

In addition to the benefits of navigation for disabled users, headings allow users to easily tab through content and only read what they deem necessary.

G141: Organizing a page using headings

 SEO:

Bots will use headings to help navigate and assign importance to web pages.  Bots denote H1 content as more important to the page’s overall subject than, say, an H4 tag.  Therefore, your headings should start with general descriptions and work towards the specific. Think of your heading structure like those science fair outlines you did in 6th grade – start general and become more specific.

Accessibility:

This guideline takes heading descriptions one step further and uses conventional heading tags to organize content hierarchies. For example, you can organize content by setting a defined style where H1 is always the overall content title, H2 highlights major sections under H1, H3 provides sub sections to H2, and so on and so forth down to H6 (not that you should be using them all on each page).  Using such conventions further helps all users with two things: finding what they are looking for and making sure they do not get lost in the content.

G185: Linking to all of the pages on the site from the home page

SEO:

Providing links from the home page helps the search engine bots locate all pages on the website. In addition, link juice will pass from the home page – the often most linked domain – to all subdomains for the site. This helps improve ranking for all pages on the domain.

Accessibility:

Allowing users to easily navigate to any page on the website from one location improves the ease with which disabled users may access your content.

 

Thanks for reading and good luck implementing these accessibility guidelines.  If you have any questions about accessible web design you could always send VIUS a tweet or visit the VIUS homepage for more info. Cheers!

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