Chris Peters's Blog

How SEO improves web accessibility

August 21, 2007

Good search marketers are starting to make a positive impact on web accessibility. Many search marketers say that Google is the ultimate blind user anyway. Most everywhere, web accessibility still remains low on the totem pole of priorities. Let’s dive deep into the realms of user experience and talk about how good SEO can improve web accessibility.

The pains of using a screen reader

Worst case, you’re using a screen reader to browse the Web. You have low vision or blindness, so you have your computer read all of the text on web pages aloud. If you’ve never tried using a screen reader, I’d suggest downloading JAWS and trying to surf the web. It’s painful and inefficient. If you already hate computers, you’ll hate them even more.

To overcome the need to listen to every word on the page, users usually have the screen reader read only the links on the page to figure out what their options are for navigation.

Now imagine running through the scenario of using a screen reader when the page’s content looks like this:

To learn more about Wookiees, click here.

We absolutely love Wookiee hair, so we’ve listed our favorite Wookiee brushes here.

Click here to order some Wookiee ice cream.

The screen reader would read it like so. Imagine the frustration:

Link: click here. Link: here. Link: click here.

If you decide to ignore support for screen readers in spite of that scenario, beware. Even users that can see often look for that blue underlined text instead of reading everything in context. Regardless of sight ability, users that sense that they want to go somewhere else immediately start looking for links. In this case, no one cares about what you’ve written.

Please save everyone time by restructuring the example content so that the link text describes where the link points to:

Learn more about Wookiees.

We absolutely love Wookiee hair, so we’ve listed our favorite Wookiee brushes.

Order some Wookiee ice cream.

What’s great is that SEO encourages content writers to follow this practice. The text you have in a link describes to search engines what the next page is about, so Google uses this link text to determine what keywords the page should rank for. Don’t underestimate the blue underlined text’s ability to let the user know that they want to click it.

Headers are important, too

When a user with low vision is on a page containing the information they need, it’s still painful to listen to the screen reader read everything on the page. So the user will often toggle through the page’s headers, much like they do with links. This helps them find the part of the page they want access to faster.

It just so happens that Google places more value on the text contained within page headers. So that means that search marketers are ahead of the game here as well, knowing that header text should be keyword rich.

Headers should do a good job of summarizing their sections, so be sure to use words that visitors understand. (Also known as key words! Sound familiar?)

Don’t use obtrusive technologies

Search marketers know the importance of not using JavaScript, images, Flash, and other “non-readable” content to convey your message. If you regularly embed text into images on your site, you have both SEO and accessibility problems.

Computers can’t read graphics, so screen readers and search engines can’t read graphics either. If you absolutely must put content within images, JavaScript, or Flash, learn how to provide a text alternative for each situation. It will improve your SEO and also the experience for screen reader users.

I covered how to write effective alternative texts a couple years ago. Recommended reading!

Overall user experience revisited

Let’s not forget that your sites’ visitors with disabilities benefit from the same SEO improvements that everyone else does. Because browsing a web site takes disabled users even more time, they want to consume content that speaks to them in their own words. They want to find your site quickly in Google. They don’t want to spend time listening to a screen reader’s inhuman voice, let alone deciphering your confusing message.

Remember, this is yet another reason to bring in cookies and elaborate gifts for your search marketer.

Written by Chris Peters, your friendly neighborhood digital marketing professional with over 20 years of experience of web design, programming, SEO, and marketing.