Web accessibility is a concept that often makes headlines. Earlier this year, Harvard and MIT found themselves facing lawsuits for a lack of online captioning. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice intends to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking this June that will provide guidance on website accessibility for the private sector. The DOJ’s recent, increasingly aggressive pursuit of its enforcement agenda makes it clear that it views online accessibility as importantly as it does physical-world accessibility. Norway’s record-setting legislation for private sector online accessibility kicked in this year as well.
I live in Ontario, Canada — the first jurisdiction in the world to legally mandate web accessibility for government AND private business. Along with the U.S., similar legislation is marching forward in Australia, the EU, and elsewhere. This is a great win for social justice, not to mention the many other powerful arguments for making your sites inclusive (doing the right thing, leaving no one behind, broadening reach, fulfilling corporate social responsibility, etc).
But even if you are able to skirt the law and ignore all the visitors to your site that may be negatively impacted by a lack of accessibility standards, there is one visitor you can’t ignore: Google.
Google Is Disabled
Google is the most common visitor to your website, making determinations on how well-organized and optimized a site’s content is and what search terms it is most associated with. This is how all rankings are determined, not just on Google, but on all search engines.
What many may not know is that Google is blind. And deaf. And has severe cognitive challenges. This means that the most common visitor to your website has disabilities that have to be addressed. In a world where most online shopping begins on search engines, accessibility is a discipline you can no longer ignore.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) grew out of the standards that Google (and other search engines) set for ranking websites. It is no coincidence that these standards often overlap with standards of accessibility. Google has taken into account the limitations of its search technology and compelled business owners to comply. In short, structuring a site’s content in a way that makes it perceivable and understandable to people with disabilities will also result in Google finding and ranking your content.
For example, the same alternative text we add to images so that a screen reader can describe content is also used by search engines to index that content. The rigor we apply to heading levels (ex. H1 tags) and ARIA landmarks to structure a web page accessibly also suggests to a search engine content priority and context. The accessibility guidelines that force us to word headings and labels in plain and consistent language help search engines know what our pages are about.
But the overlaps don’t end there. Trusted SEO techniques and optimizations pop up time and again in WCAG 2.0—the world’s de facto standard, referenced in nearly all web accessibility legislation.
- Relevant, textual links (say what the link is within the link itself)
- Detailed headings, titles and descriptions
- Providing links to navigate to related web pages
So What’s Next?
While accessibility has business benefits beyond making your website more friendly to all visitors, meeting WCAG standards goes beyond SEO optimization. Site elements like carousels and lightboxes must be re-engineered on both desktop and mobile devices, rich navigation must be accessible to screen readers and more. In short, SEO is just the beginning. Be sure that your budgets are taking incremental engineering work into account when preparing any accessibility effort.
One common objection is the fear that adhering to accessibility standards will negatively impact design. This could not be further from the truth.
When we work with our clients, we always urge them to achieve accessibility and great SEO without any tradeoffs for the mainstream user experience. In fact, usually everyone experiences an improvement. Design is not just about decoration: it’s about compliance without tradeoffs, better business results, and reaching beyond accommodation.
Do Good Design
Here are some examples where the intersection of optimization, design and accessibility resulted in a better web experience for all.
- For private sector multinationals in the U.S., Canada and beyond, brands in consumer electronics and agribusiness sectors have been able to build accessible modules that can become a library that makes building accessibility into other online properties more affordable and sustainable. For example, we collaborated with Kanban on their library of accessible, responsive Bootstrap components like image carousels, popovers and lightboxes that can now be used across projects today and in the future.
- For municipal websites, such as the City of Ottawa and the City of Toronto, we were able to teach how to increase citizen-centred engagement with forms and mapping applications that complied with WCAG 2.0 Level AA.
- For federal clients, such as the tax department or the census, we were able to implement accessibility in a way that drove down the cost of telephone and manual intervention, saving millions of dollars.
- For not-for-profit organizations, such as the Ontario Soil & Crop Improvement Association, we’ve been able to modify their online applications to embrace accessibility while engaging over 80% of the family farms in our province.
- For Blindside Networks and their open source software product, the Big Blue Button meeting application–popular on many campuses–we were able to keep the functionality identical while injecting Level A and Section 508 compliance into their backend.
- For post-secondary institutions such as Carleton University–arguably the most accessible campus in North America–we were able to help educate the entire community on accessible publishing: students, teachers, and administrators alike.
Design is about making things work, often in an intriguing and delightful way. An accessible design is about making things work for everybody.
So while the accessibility standards speak of how to accommodate all users, far better strategically is to delight all users…and communicators. So go ahead: delight Google. When we design for the extremes, everybody benefits.
David Berman is the Principal of David Berman Communications, a firm specializing in universal design (accessibility), communications strategy, graphic design, web site information design, process facilitation, and electronic publishing services to government, NGOs, and private firms.