Accessibility is often overlooked – not because people don’t care, they do, they just don’t know the daily challenges someone with disabilities may be up against every day. Indeed, I wasn’t aware of a lot of these challenges until my sister became a wheelchair user last year, and I’ve been banging the drum for online accessibility improvements since I started out in digital marketing way back in 2008.
‘Where does accessibility fit into SEO or websites at all?’ I hear you ask! Well, some disabilities affect how people use computers. And, by making it easier for those users to access your website and have as comparable experience as an able-bodied person as possible, you are opening your site up to more potential customers. A lot of the Assisted Technology (AT) that disabled users rely on use signals within the code of a site to understand the context, and these signals are often also used by search engine crawlers. None of this is to say my only interest in this area is related to SEO – my personal feeling is that web accessibility is super important even if you take the SEO-benefits away. Making life easier for people is never a bad thing – but if you do need to tie this to a business case, let me tell you a little story about Tesco…
Back in the ‘dark ages of the web’ – the late 1990s – Tesco (one of the UK’s leading supermarkets) developed its first-ever online shopping experience. The idea behind this was to reach ‘time-poor, cash-rich’ customers, for whom online grocery shopping would be a benefit, as it negates the need to go to the shop, walk around said shop, wait to pay, and then drive home. Instead, these customers were given the opportunity to do their grocery shopping on their lunch break and have it delivered at a time that suited them – rather like the experience we know (and love) today.
What Tesco hadn’t considered is that online grocery shopping, in theory at least, would seem like a very helpful and useful option for people with disabilities. Wheelchair users may find navigating their way around a supermarket extremely difficult (and even getting there may be hard too, especially if they rely on public transport). Blind people often also find it tough to go to a shop and find what they need without asking for help, and many other people who face challenges with their mobility or senses may also find it very hard to go to a shop and buy something – things able-bodied people just don’t even think about become a battle. And for all those people, online grocery shopping would be ideal, right?
Unfortunately, Tesco had not considered these people when developing their first-ever ecommerce experience. The site was pretty much inaccessible to a lot of the people for whom it could (in theory) have been an absolute dream.
Tesco learned pretty quickly though, and kudos to them; they did take on board the feedback from users, and created a stand-alone accessible website, which was put live back in 2001. The accessible website achieved RNIB ‘See it Right’ accreditation and was extremely successful – back in 2006, the accessible website made up 5% of Tesco’s online grocery business. In 2023, the accessible website no longer exists because the accessible features were eventually rolled out into the main ecommerce site – simply because it made it easier for everyone to get their groceries online that way, and it is easier for Tesco to maintain one grocery site rather than two, of course. Win-win.
It should be noted that the creation of a separate accessible website isn’t the best solution for SEO (duplicate content issues would abound), or really for helping make a cohesive and inclusive society where we can all use the same tools (albeit some of us may require AT to get the best use out of them).
Making sure your website is accessible is beneficial for SEO and UX. It may be that the colours you’ve chosen for your site make it difficult or even impossible for someone with colour-blindness to read the text (and that’s approximately 3 million people in the UK alone), or that you haven’t used the correct XHTML code for elements that someone who uses AT requires to navigate a site. These are simple things that able-bodied people don’t even know about that could make a huge difference to people with disabilities (14.6 million people in the UK have a disability according to the Family Resources Survey, or 22% of the total population).
If I said, “Let’s exclude 22% of the population from accessing your services or products”, you would not be very impressed, right? But you may be doing that – inadvertently, without malice, just going about your day not knowing that you are potentially excluding so many potential customers from doing business with you!
The knock-on impact of making a site accessible from an SEO perspective is not to be sniffed at either – by making it easier for AT users, you’re also making it easier for search engine crawlers too. This, in turn, makes it more likely your site will be crawled regularly, indexed quickly and ultimately rank better – indeed, many of the recent changes to the algorithm (in particular, the inclusion of Core Web Vitals – the UX metrics Google now includes as part of the ranking algorithm) are an attempt by Google to reward sites that provide a good user experience (hint: accessibility = good user experience).
If we take it all the way back to what Google is trying to achieve: serve the best websites at the top of their search results – and considering that whilst we may all believe our own site is ‘the best’, it simply isn’t if it excludes up to 22% of the population.
An accessible website is easier for everyone to understand and use. It really is that simple.
I have been carrying out accessibility audits for some of my SEO clients recently and helping them and their developers make on-site changes to improve the accessibility of their websites. If you would like to reach that 22% of the population you may be inadvertently shutting your virtual door on, get in touch – we’d love to help you reach a wider market and gain awesome organic rankings too.