Web accessibility is a critical consideration for business owners, website managers, and development teams. Each website stakeholder plays a role in the user experience, and failing at accessibility has consequences for your audience and your marketing strategy.
Despite its importance, web accessibility can feel like an intangible goal for many businesses, so we created this guide to walk you through the compliance process. If you’re hoping to learn what web accessibility is, why it matters, and how to improve your own website’s compliance, you’re in the right place!
What is web accessibility?
First, let’s get a few definitions out of the way. Web accessibility is a subset of general accessibility, which refers to the “quality of being easily reached, entered, or used by people who have a disability.” Most people think of accessibility in terms of the physical world, but there are important implications for the digital world, too.
According to Semrush, web accessibility refers to “the ease with which differently abled users can understand web pages.” The concept applies to those with medical disabilities, like visual impairments, but it also extends to different types of users who may have a specific experience on your site. For example, if a user on a particular web browser or mobile device struggles to use or understand your website, those experiences would also reflect poor web accessibility.
Accepted standards for web accessibility
There are two sets of accessibility guidelines that are widely accepted as industry standards: WCAG and ADA compliance.
We’ll start with a quick overview of WCAG, which stands for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. WCAG is a set of standards determined by the World Wide Web Consortium, designed to give web developers and companies a clearer understanding of how to make their sites accessible. Currently, WCAG is the leading source of information when it comes to digital accessibility.
ADA, which stands for the Americans with Disabilities Act, is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against any person on the basis of their disabilities. As you might imagine, ADA can be applied to virtually every aspect of everyday life, but it also applies specifically to web browsing. ADA guidelines must be adhered to if you’re a state or local government, nonprofit, or business.
Noncompliance puts you at risk of civil lawsuits and hefty fines. Federal accessibility lawsuits increased 14% in 2021, with businesses in California and New York leading in the counts. How much would an ADA lawsuit run you? In 2023, settlements in California reached up to $26,000, so it’s safe to say you don’t want to take your chances.
On the flip side, there are some tax benefits that apply to web accessibility. Under the Disabled Access Tax Credit, businesses can receive a 50% tax credit for any expenses related to web accessibility up to $10,250. (The first $250 of spending isn’t covered, so the maximum tax credit comes out to $5,000.)
For example, if you invest in an automated web accessibility tool or a website overhaul, those expenses may qualify. There are a few other requirements, like ARR under $1M and 30 or fewer full-time employees, but the tax benefit is a great incentive to commit to accessibility improvements.
Here at Polyglot Labs, we recommend implementing both WCAG and ADA standards just to cover all your accessibility bases. While there is significant overlap between the two, on some specific issues, WCAG requirements are more stringent, and on others, ADA requirements are more stringent. Adhering to both is the best way to ensure your website is set up for success.
Why does web accessibility matter?
At its core, web accessibility ensures that all users—from different backgrounds, with different ability levels, and in different situations—can fully and easily experience your website. They can navigate your pages, click on any dynamic elements, understand your text, interpret any images, and generally feel like they’ve fulfilled whatever desire brought them to your site in the first place. Beyond doing your part to accommodate different user experiences, you’ll also open your website up to a wider audience.
The current digital landscape is, unfortunately, bleak. A whopping 90% of websites are inaccessible to people with disabilities who use assistive technology to navigate the web. When it comes to WCAG compliance, 98.1% of websites have detectable failures on their home pages alone.
How web accessibility affects SEO
Many marketers have intuitively believed that accessibility must affect SEO success, and it was well-known that Google’s “Accessibility Score” factored into its SEO algorithm. But thanks to January 2023 research from Semrush, BuiltWith, and AccessibilityChecker.org, we now have a more definitive answer. Using analysis of over 800 websites in different industries, the study concluded that digital accessibility is a critical factor affecting organic traffic.
The study’s approach was simple: 847 websites that had installed accessibility remediation solutions had their traffic analyzed three months before installation and three months after. The resulting models concluded that 73.4% of the sites experienced traffic growth after their accessibility adjustments. Most of the sites (66.1%) had an increase in monthly organic traffic between 1% and 50%, while 7.3% experienced an increase of more than 50%.
From that initial conclusion, AccessibilityChecker.org was able to dig deeper into which specific solutions yielded the highest average increase in traffic. EqualWeb came out on top, with an average 116% change in traffic, and UserWay and accessiBe were the second and third most impactful solutions.
The sites in the study received an average 12% increase in organic traffic after implementing accessibility solutions. For most businesses, a 12% increase in traffic has significant downstream effects on revenue, making accessibility compliance a clear ethical decision and a sound business strategy.
Addressing web accessibility on your site
Assuming you’re convinced that web accessibility is a worthy goal, how do you get started? There are two main categories of solutions: those that can be implemented automatically, and those that require manual work (either one-time up front, or every time you post new content on your site).
Below, we’ll outline both types of solutions and how you can combine them for a fully compliant site.
The Semrush study referenced above tracked the impact of automatic accessibility tools, which expedite the process of implementing WCAG and ADA guidelines. The idea behind these tools is that they cover a variety of common accessibility concerns all at once, without you having to audit or manually adjust your site’s layout, technical elements, content, or other details.
The benefit of this approach is that you can make a significant dent in the process all at once. For example, as we mentioned above, the websites that implemented the EqualWeb automated tool for their site had a 116% increase in site traffic linked to that one intervention alone.
The downside of automatic solutions is that they won’t solve 100% of your accessibility failures in one fell swoop. While they do translate to good progress fairly quickly, you’ll still be left with inaccessible site elements that contribute to a negative experience for some users. For these lingering challenges, manual interventions are best.
Manual solutions help you fill in the accessibility gaps that automated tools miss. Here’s a list of the most common manual solutions to consider for your own site. Keep in mind that some of these updates may require large-scale site changes, while others (like adding alt text) just require an additional step when new content is added to your site.
- Add alt text to images to describe the visual experience to visually impaired users.
- Increase site contrast to ensure that text is readable (low contrast is the most common reason for WCAG compliance failure!).
- Use clear and readable font sizes and styles, avoiding fine print.
- Offer keyboard-only navigation options for users to move through your site without a mouse.
- Provide complete and accurate closed captions (CC) for audio and video content.
- Avoid the use of flashing or blinking content.
- Ensure that the full site is compatible with assistive technologies like screen readers, braille displays, and speech recognition software.
- Use descriptive text for hyperlinks, clearly communicating the destination of the link for all users.
Note that while these are many of the most common issues related to web accessibility, this is not a comprehensive list. To ensure total compliance, utilize WCAG and ADA checklists to cover all your bases, or consult a professional to help you finalize your work.
Industry-specific accessibility examples
In addition to these widespread solutions, some industries have unique challenges related to accessibility. Below, we’ll explore specific recommendations for three niches that have extra factors to consider.
Real Estate Websites
- Provide alternative text (alt text) for all visual material on the website, including floor plans, maps, and virtual tours, to ensure that users with visual impairments can access the information they need.
- Ensure that all videos have closed captions or transcripts, making them accessible to users with hearing impairments.
- Make the website keyboard-friendly so that users with mobility impairments can navigate the site without a mouse.
- Prioritize clear, thorough product descriptions that give users all the information that’s relevant to the product.
- Avoid using color as your only cue (e.g., a form field turns red if it’s incorrect) for users experiencing color blindness.
- Test the shopping experience from a mobile device to ensure that the experience translates well to a smaller screen.
- Make sure all digital forms are designed with clear labels and instructions, making them accessible to users with cognitive impairments.
- Use clear, thorough instructions for any tasks visitors may need to complete on the site.
- Offer a path for users to share feedback on inaccessible elements of your website if they encounter challenges.
Get support for your accessibility initiatives
While the market’s automated tools do make it easier to improve your accessibility, no single tool is going to make your website fully accessible overnight. It’s always best to audit your site, understand where you’re facing accessibility failures, and create a plan to address each issue one by one.
If you’re not quite sure where to start with your site’s accessibility (or you’d just rather outsource the process altogether!), we’d love to partner with you to get your site in compliance. Contact us today to chat about your site’s next steps!