The Intersection of Usability, Accessibility, and Search Engine Optimization, by David Minton

15 Mar 2011 5:00 PM | Anonymous

Usability, Accessibility, and SEO (search engine optimization) all contribute to successful website projects. Though not always adequately addressed for a variety of reasons, when they are it is typically by different teams, at different points in the design/development process (see A. in figure 1). This makes sense if they are three distinct disciplines, but what if they are approached as three aspects of the same process (see B. in figure 1)?

Usability, Accessibility, and Search Engine Optimization

Figure 1: Two ways to look at Usability, Accessibility, and Search Engine Optimization. A. Illustrates a common approach, with the issues addressed separately. B. Illustrates a coordinated approach to the three disciplines, displaying the intersection between the three.

How can this be? One concerns making websites easy to use for the majority of visitors, one for serving the special needs of a subset of visitors (thought of together as “the disabled”), and the last focused on how the website does in search engine results. If you really think about it, they are all forms of usability; only the latter two serve special audiencesundefinedthe disabled, and search engines. This is of course somewhat simplistic; though there are many differences they are not completely unrelated.

In the realm of website design and development, a good example of this interaction is the crafting of hyperlinks, the heart of html (hypertext markup language). It is generally accepted that the link text (i.e. the hyperlink) should contain descriptive text to help a user easily determine what a link refers to. Jacob Nielsen named “non-standard links” one of his Top Ten Web Design Mistakes of 2005.

“Explain what users will find at the other end of the link, and include some of the key information-carrying terms in the anchor text itself to enhance scannability and search engine optimization (SEO). Don't use "click here" or other non-descriptive link text.”

As Nielsen suggested, using non-descriptive text such as “click here” is not just poor usability, it is also weak SEO, since search engines such as Google favor text in hyperlinks in ranking pages for given phrases. How many websites ignore these suggestions? If you perform an exact phrase search on Google for “click here” you will receive over 1.3 billion results.

'click here' Google Search Results

Descriptive hypertext is also a factor in how disabled users interact with websites. A common form of assistive technology (AT) used by the vision impaired is screen reader software. One of the ways screen readers allow users to interact with web pages more efficiently is to skip from link to link. If all of the links read “click here,” this shortcut is rendered useless.

Something else all three have in common is that extensive thought and planning should be done at the very beginning of a website development project for it to be successful in these three areas, at least if time and money is a factor (and when is this not the case?).

While most website publishers (the website developer’s client) will put some thought into usability, whether they consciously realize or not, they won’t put much thought into search engine optimization, and even less into accessibility (unless they are in an industry in which there are accessibility requirements). Just as with designing for usability, deciding a website needs to be accessible, or perform well in search engines will be time consuming (which equals expensive) if only considered during development, or after the deployment of the website.

While its possible content can be rewritten to optimize a site for search engines without programmatic complications (in the case of a well implemented content management system), recoding a website for accessibility, as with usability, can involve drastic reengineering later.

With SEO on the other hand, the issue is knowing the correct parameters to optimize for. In contradiction to popular misconceptions, SEO is as much about researching, and selecting the correct keyword phases to optimize the website for, as much as anything else. If you haven’t taken the time to figure out what terms your potential site visitors are searching by, you can’t properly optimize a website for search results. Only once the best terms are figured out, can the website be optimized by including the phrases in specific parts of each webpage. Successful SEO (at least the on-page portion of organic SEO) requires either writing copy to appeal to search engines (by including the search terms), or rewriting the copy on an existing website.

In the end, the best strategy is to figure out the goals of the project at the start, and determine the importance of Usability, Accessibility, and SEO, since they will all come with a price, which may come in the form of time, money, simplified design, or a reduced feature set. No matter the combination, the effort will be more efficient if usability, accessibility and search engine optimization are performed in a concerted effort.

David Minton is a founding partner of DesignHammer, a full-service website design and development agency in Durham. He regularly writes about Usability, Accessibility, and Search Engine Optimization on the DesignHammer blog.

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