Many web designers view search-engine optimization (SEO) as a “dirty trick,” and with good reason: search engine optimizers often pollute search engine results with spam, making it harder to find relevant information when searching. But in fact, there is more than one type of search-engine optimization. In common usage, “black-hat” SEO seeks to achieve high rankings in search engines by any means possible, whereas “white-hat” SEO seeks to code web pages in a way that is friendly to search engines.
Two years later, I am going to take Brandon’s conclusions a step further. I have been a search engine optimizer for several years, but only recently have become infatuated with web accessibility. After reading for weeks and painstakingly editing my personal website to comply with most W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, I have come to a startling revelation: high accessibility overlaps heavily with effective white hat SEO.
Accessibility for all users, even search engines
Walking through a few checkpoints
Now that I’ve discussed the theory of why high accessibility overlaps with effective SEO, I will show how it does so. To do this, I am going to touch upon each Priority 1 checkpoint in the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines which affects search-engine optimization.
Not only are search engines unable to understand image and movie files, they also cannot interpret any textual content that is based on vision (such as ASCII art).
longdesc attributes will, therefore, help them understand the subject of any such content.
Search engines are also “deaf” in reference to audio files. Again, providing textual descriptions to these files allows search engines to better interpret and rank the content that they cannot “hear.”
Text links are very important to search engines, since anchor text often succinctly labels the content of a link’s target page. In fact, many search engine optimizers consider anchor text to be the single most important factor in modern search algorithms. If a website uses an image map rather than a text-based menu as the primary navigational method, a redundant text-only menu elsewhere on the page will give search engines additional information about the content of each target page.
Major search engines maintain country and language-specific indexes. Specifying the language of a document (or of text within a document) helps search engines decide in which index(es) to place it.
It is a bit less obvious how this particular checkpoint aids SEO. But if a website contains the “clearest and simplest language appropriate for the site’s content,” it is probably using those keywords with which potential searchers will be most familiar. Searchers tend to use succinct queries containing familiar language. Thus, to receive maximum traffic from search engines, it is best that a website contain the same words which the site’s audience will use when searching.
The benefits do not end with Priority 1—many of the Priority 2 and 3 Checkpoints are important for SEO purposes, too. For instance, Checkpoints 6.2 and 6.5 refer to the accessibility of dynamic content. In fact, making dynamic content search engine-friendly is one of the most daunting tasks a search engine optimizer faces when working on an ecommerce or database-driven site. Following the W3C’s recommendations can help to avoid any indexing or ranking problems related to using dynamic content.
From the horse’s mouth
If you doubt any of the above, perhaps a visit to Google’s Webmaster Guidelines could convince you that Google rewards high accessibility. This page specifically mentions best practices which will help Google “find, index, and rank your site.”
Design and Content Guidelines:
Note that each of Google’s guidelines actually correlates with a W3C Web Content Accessibility Guideline. (Oddly enough, the word “accessibility” does not actually appear in Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Perhaps they are afraid of scaring off some webmasters with technical jargon? In any case, it is clear that Google is lobbying for high accessibility.)
SEO: just another feather in accessibility’s cap
The checkpoints I highlighted above are just a few of the many ways that high accessibility will help optimize a website for search engines—many of the other checkpoints in the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are helpful to SEO, as well. Of course, to most web designers, the goal of accessibility is (and should be) to make sites accessible to all people, independent of their platform or any disabilities they have. But if accessibility gets a website more traffic from Google, even better!
The good news is that a web designer who follows best practices for accessibility is already practicing solid white hat SEO. Search engines need not scare anyone. When in doubt, design your site to be accessible to blind and deaf users as well as those who view websites via text-only browsers, and SEO will fall into place.