As a search engine optimization specialist and sister of a woman with visual impairments, I pay close attention to how SEO and website accessibility intersect and, in some cases, conflict.
I’ve seen where SEO practices sometimes hurt accessibility (example: keyword stuffing). I’ve also seen SEO and accessibility work together to create an all-around great user experience (example: alt text).
At Campaignium, we focus on making website content comprehensive and helpful. We incorporate keywords when it makes sense. We don’t say things just to say them if there’s no benefit to your audience. We prioritize the user above all else.
As I learned while working on my master’s thesis, there’s a way to balance website accessibility practices and still optimize content.
The Context & the Study
The first thing I did was research the relationship between SEO and accessibility. I didn’t find much. What I did find, though, told me there was a general impression that these were two distinct fields. However, these studies showed time and again that they had more in common than most people think.
A 2017 study conducted by a research team at King Saud University in India found that when web content was optimized for both readability and accessibility, larger pools of users were accessing the content.
An article published in 2019 explained that all of the good SEO work you may be doing isn’t worth much if users aren’t able to easily navigate your site. If they can’t complete the goal or transaction because of accessibility barriers, your SEO efforts are pointless.
Almost all of the studies I found about this topic concluded that intentional action to improve accessibility practices could only, ultimately, lead to better SEO returns. Although there was something missing in these studies—firsthand accounts from the people actually doing the work.
That’s why I developed a survey and gathered 34 active SEO practitioners to help expand upon the existing research. I wanted to know more about the current climate for accessibility practices and what they thought about combining the two disciplines in their day-to-day work.
The survey included 14 questions about each individual’s interpretation of the intersection between accessibility and SEO, with opportunities for further comments.
Do Website Accessibility and SEO Practices Go Hand-In-Hand?
When posed with this question, two-thirds of those surveyed agreed that accessibility and SEO practices go hand-in-hand.
One practitioner who worked in the field for less than three years shared his perspective about how SEO and accessibility don’t necessarily always agree. He wrote, “It would be nice if accessibility and SEO truly went hand-in-hand like we are told they are supposed to. At the end of the day, an SEO’s job is to get pages/sites ranking higher in search and increase clicks/entrances from organic search.”
Conversely, another specialist wrote, “Because Google values accessibility, accessibility is part of search engine optimization. I don’t feel like it isn’t an either-or situation. If a website is not accessible, it is not fully optimized.”
Another respondent felt pressure from clients to incorporate more branded messaging in alt text, which often conflicts with generally accepted accessibility standards.
Is Accessibility My Responsibility as an SEO Professional?
The survey also asked, “Is accessibility your responsibility to consider in your role?” A vast majority (nearly 82%) said yes, indicating general agreement that their role is multifaceted.
One practitioner who’s worked in the field for five years stated, “Most of the time accessibility and search engine optimization go hand-in-hand, as accessibility best practices are usually SEO best practices.”
Another respondent noted, “Accessibility is likely to be overshadowed by other tasks. It is often neglected. However, by making images, buttons, and content more contextually relevant and machine readable, you’re improving the depth of the page which affects ranking.”
So What Have We Learned?
The findings of this study may be best summed up by one respondent who suggested, “If a website is not accessible, it is not fully optimized.”
Practitioners were more interested in balancing both accessibility and SEO. Many believed accessibility often lent itself to good SEO. However, several participants seemed to lack specific direction about how to practically make that happen.
Many even stated that accessibility should take precedence over attempting to make something “searchable.” Also in this study, accessibility professionals voiced concerns that SEO practices were sometimes an obstacle for individuals with disabilities if not done intentionally and carefully. From the group surveyed, though, it seems those intentional choices are being considered.
So do accessibility and SEO practices clash? Most studies say “no” and, in general, industry professionals from both sides say they don’t have to. The majority think that by considering accessibility, optimization follows. My study confirms our industry is paying attention to accessibility and on the right track.
Now more than ever, SEO practitioners have a responsibility to think about how their choices might affect minority audiences. SEO is about serving your audience, and that’s the guiding principle for accessibility, as well.
Additional SEO & Website Accessibility Resources
W3C Accessibility Standards Overview
Schmutz, S., Sonderegger, A. & Sauer, J. (2016). Implementing recommendations from web accessibility guidelines. Human Factors. 58(4). 1-24.
ADA Website Accessibility Requirements and Guidelines. (2020). Essential Accessibility.
Smarty, A. (2019). Accessibility and SEO: Where they overlap and how to optimize for both. Search Engine Watch.