The author’s views are entirely his or her own (excluding the unlikely event of hypnosis) and may not always reflect the views of Moz.
Welcome back to Whiteboard Friday! To start us up after our break, guest host Cooper Hollmaier has put together a three-part series that shows how SEO and accessibility go hand-in-hand.
In part one, he introduces us to what accessibility in SEO means, goes through some common myths associated with the work to make websites optimized and accessible, and discusses some of the major impacts that work can have.
Click on the whiteboard image above to open a high resolution version in a new tab!
Hey, Moz fans. Welcome to the latest edition of Whiteboard Friday. I’m Cooper Hollmaier. Today we’re going to be talking about SEO and accessibility: the idea of optimizing not just for some of our audience, but all of our audience.
I’ve been doing SEO since 2016, and I started out working on small businesses, local mom-and-pop shops. Then I found the allure of e-commerce SEO, and I’ve been doing that ever since. Today I work on an in-house team doing technical SEO for a large outdoor e-commerce retailer.
The relationship between SEO and accessibility
Now, if you’re anything like me, you know that SEO is a little bit more than just code on the page and copy that’s crafted to meet searchers’ intent. Whether you’re a seasoned SEO pro or you’re looking for the latest tips as that mom-and-pop shop, or you’re maybe starting out in an SEO role for the first time, you understand that we have to take our content that we’re producing and we have to, in some way, make sure that it shows up in search engines.
So for me, as a technical SEO, maybe I’m thinking about things like my H1 tag or my paragraph tag or my title tag, for this example page here for Mozville Dog Rescue.
Now most of the time I would say my job revolves around the idea of making sure that what I’m doing, the stuff I’m producing, what I’m designing for, can be seen, digested, consumed, and then essentially regurgitated by our friend the bot.
Optimize for people, not just bots
But have you stopped to think about maybe there’s a larger audience out there? Maybe it’s more than just my bots. If you’re thinking that way, you’re moving towards the right direction. You’re moving towards a more inclusive approach. You’re thinking about more than just a search engine but also the users, the people that are consuming that content, engaging with it, and maybe even engaging with your business.
If you think about only optimizing for bots, you’re thinking about something kind of like someone sitting in a spotlight on a stage. You can see that person front and center, but you maybe can’t see the surrounding cast because they’re out there in the darkness. What we want to do is we want to think about a larger group of people.
We want to take that spotlight away and give everyone a chance to shine, everyone a chance to consume, engage with, and be delighted by the content that you’re producing. So as you’re thinking about search engine optimization, as you’re thinking about building a new product, service, experience, think about not just can a search engine bot see that. We know that’s important as an SEO.
How do people interact with your content?
But also think about can other people interact with, engage with, or be compelled by this content. If the answer is no, you have some issues. But I can give you a few tips on how to solve those issues. When you’re making some content, whether it’s marketing material both digitally and on a website or offline in some sort of print material, ask yourself these four things.
Content should be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust
Is my content perceivable? Is it able to be seen or understood, or does it exist for my user? Is it operable? Can they do something with it? Is it understandable? Am I writing at the right reading level? Am I explaining this in a way that’s going to be consumable by a large audience and maybe not just somebody with a PhD? Is that content robust? Is what I’m building available in multiple different formats, fonts, sizes, etc., so that, regardless of who my user is, they’re going to be able to understand what I’ve given them?
These are the four principles of web accessibility. These are the guidelines that the Web Consortium has given us, and you can apply them every time that you’re building something new, or even retrofitting something old.
For example, let’s say you have this playbill or you have maybe a menu for a restaurant. If I don’t offer that menu or that playbill in both a digital and a print format, I end up in a situation where someone who needs Braille, needs a screen reader, need some sort of assistive technology in order to understand and consume that content, is going to be kind of left out in the dark.
They’re not going to be able to do those things. In the example of a menu, I can’t order from a restaurant if I don’t know what they offer for me to order. So it’s important that we make sure that our content and the things we’re producing, the marketing materials that we’re developing, are perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.
But okay, I’m only talking about maybe one example of disability.
Types of disability
When I say “disability,” what does that mean to you? You might think of an elderly family member who needs a cane to walk. You might think of your friend who has a hard time reading large words or gets anxious when there’s a math test coming up in class. If that’s the case, you’d be talking about only two types of disability, maybe body structure, shape and size disabilities for someone who’s walking with a cane, or cognitive disabilities or even learning disabilities that your friend might be experiencing.
There are a bunch of different other types of disabilities that even I didn’t know about until I learned about it. Those might include blindness, low vision, deaf-blindness, color blindness. I’m the first to admit here that this whiteboard being in blue and red and green and black may not be the most accessible for someone with colorblindness. That’s why it’s important that we have closed captioning and a transcript below this video. These all make this content more accessible.
Auditory, cognitive, anxiety, mood, seizure. You can see that this list is long and it’s not exhaustive. There are a ton of different types of disability, and many of them aren’t even perceivable by you or I. People may be suffering from disability and dealing with this in their life that you might not know.
So it’s important to recognize that we need to start optimizing content not just for bots but for people as well. We need to make sure that people are able to actually consume and engage with our content.
So how does this relate to your world as an SEO? Well, there’s a lot of similarities between accessibility work and SEO work, and I want to kind of break that down into some myths and legends.
Myths and legends
1. It has a small impact
Number one, commonly people will say accessibility only impacts a small group of people. We’re looking at this through a lens of able-bodied individuals who we think, okay, they can see my content if I write it on the page. But the reality is one in five people in the United States are dealing with a disability. That’s a lot of people.
That’s almost 60 million people. So it’s not a small problem if you ask me. For SEO, if I do something for SEO, if I write a tag title tag, if I write a meta description, if I craft my H1 in a certain way, I may not only be helping a bot, but I’m also helping probably other channels of marketing as well.
I’m going to help that email campaign have a better title. I’m going to have that pay-per-click ad that’s going to have a better page to go to. So small impact is really a myth. Accessibility and SEO both fall into that bucket where they impact a lot more people than I think we commonly realize.
2. It’s a short-term problem
Number two, it’s a short-term problem. For accessibility, the ability to be able to order from a menu or read this playbill is more than a short-term problem.
It’s going to happen every time I go to that business or this restaurant. So it’s important that we keep our accessibility work ongoing and continue to improve and evolve our practices. We know that for SEO it’s a zero-sum game, too. We know that the world is always changing. Search algorithms are changing. User intent and behavior is changing.
So it’s important that we stay on top of our SEO work and make sure that our business understands that SEO work if you’re working in an enterprise situation. So that way we’re not falling behind our competitors, and we’re not disadvantaging people that we may not realize we’re disadvantaging.
3. Worry about it at the end
Number three, we should do it at the end. I hear this a lot when we’re talking about SEO but for accessibility especially, too.
Hey, I have this website. Maybe we should do an audit. Then we can do some work to remediate this problem so that the website becomes accessible. It’s always faster, cheaper, and easier to make a website accessible from the get-go than to do it retroactively, and do this kind of retrofitting. For SEO, we know that it’s way easier and also a lot more effective if we build content for users with SEO insights to inform what they’re looking for, what questions we need to answer.
If you trying to optimize something after the fact, a lot of times I think you’ll find that the content that you’re producing feels like it’s SEO driven. It’s not going to feel like it’s for a customer because it wasn’t. You’re coming in after the fact.
4. It costs too much
Number four, it cost too much money. You know what cost a lot of money? Lawsuits. If you don’t work on accessibility first and foremost, in the beginning of the process and in an ongoing fashion, you’ll find I think that accessibility lawsuits can cost your business a lot more, and they can be detrimental.
But so can SEO and penalties. If you take a shortcut, if you don’t take the time to think about what your user needs, how this is going to be received by a search engine as well as customers in general, I think you’ll find that those penalties are going to hurt a lot more than doing it right the first time and doing it in an ongoing fashion.
5. It’s distracting
Number five, it’s distracting.
For accessibility, in a lot of cases the things that we’re going to be implementing aren’t going to be visible to your average user. They’re going to be visible to assistive technology and the screen readers and the things that people with disabilities might be using to interact with the same content that someone else is. But in most cases, it’s better to be correct and there and visible in terms of what a screen reader can see than be impossible to use altogether.
For SEO, we know that bad and unethical SEO is obvious. We’ve seen keyword stuffing. We’ve seen a bunch of links on a page that don’t belong or don’t really provide value to my customer. That is more distracting I think, than doing the work to make it right.
Okay, so there’s some similarities between accessibility and SEO.
In most cases, there is a very large impact if you do it right. It’s not a short-term problem. It’s ongoing. We shouldn’t do it at the end. We should be doing it at the beginning. It really doesn’t cost that much money if you do it right compared to if you do it wrong and get it wrong. Then number five is, in most cases, the best work goes unnoticed because it’s organic, it’s ethical, it’s honest.
The impact of accessibility work
So what’s the impact of doing accessibility work and also I guess doing SEO work that aligns with accessibility practices?
1. Makes the impossible, possible!
Number one, it helps people with disabilities first and foremost. It makes the impossible possible.
2. It helps businesses
Number two, it helps businesses. You as a business owner or as someone who’s optimizing a website for a business or even maybe someone who is just trying to get into SEO and learn more, it’s going to help your public perception.
If you make a website that’s accessible, it’s going to be obvious and people are going to thank you for that. They’re going to say, “Oh, this company cares about all people and a diverse group of abilities.” It’s going to be a more durable experience for your customers. When you start to think about things like text alternatives and captioning and transcripts and you kind of build this practice up over time and you really build this habit of doing accessible work and inclusive work, you’re going to find that your website is more durable.
It’s less likely to be hit by these algorithm changes and things like that, where people have taken the short-term approach. I know you’re going to love this. It’s going to help your SEO. It’s going to give you a bigger audience. You’ve now taken your spotlight focus on just your bots and you’ve expanded it to see the entire stage in front of you. So a bigger audience is going to be in front of you as well for a business, and that means more money and more people and honestly a lot less problems.
I think we all know this one, but lawsuits. If you do this, if you start implementing accessibility work, you start thinking about accessibility first and foremost as you’re developing things, you’re going to have a lot less lawsuits. People aren’t going to complain. They aren’t going to be upset by your lack of accessibility because you won’t have any. It will be accessible and inclusive for all people.
3. It helps family and friends
Then number three, doing accessibility work, thinking about accessibility, thinking about whether my website, whether my marketing material is going to be able to be consumed and enjoyed by people is going to help those family and friends who are working with people with disabilities. It’s going to make things possible for people with disabilities. It’s going to make their lives more independent and therefore release a little bit of that burden on family and friends.
It’s also going to allow you, as a practitioner, as an SEO or maybe another discipline, to have a chance to interact with people with more diverse perspectives, learn more, get a richer, more intimate experience with these different users and craft a better overall experience.
So as you can see, accessibility and SEO are very similar, and it’s important to recognize that we need to kind of shift our mindset from thinking about just optimize for bots, how can I get Google to see this, how can I get other search engines to see this, and think about people first and use the rich insights that we get from search engine optimization and the tools they give us for free to make a big impact on people and everyday life.
Okay, so now what do I do with this information? — is the question you might have. Well, you can learn and test. So you can learn a little bit more about accessibility by checking out Global Accessibility Awareness Day. You can join a meetup. There are tons of people out there who are as passionate as I am about accessibility, who can show you the way and give you tips and tricks on how to think about this.
You can subscribe to a newsletter. I’ve included a bit.ly link here, bit.ly/wbf-week, for White Board Friday. You can sign up for a weekly newsletter from Accessibility Weekly and get more tips and tricks and really cool stories about how people are doing this and implementing this work on their own business. Then you can also test your actual pages. Once you kind of get this awareness and start understanding how accessibility fits into your workflow, you can use either WAVE or Axe, and I’ve included the bit.ly links here and down below, and you can look at those tools as just another thing you can do to make sure that the things you’re producing are visible, they’re accessible, they’re able to be accessed by assistive technology.
Thanks for spending some time with me today and talking about SEO and accessibility. I really hope that this changes your perspective and gives you a broader idea of how you can impact people’s daily lives with the SEO and the accessibility work you’re doing for your own business. Thanks. Have a good one.