ADA compliance ensures your website is accessible to everyone with best practices like image alt text, proper heading structures, and user-friendly navigation. Follow the tips in this guide to stay compliant and avoid lawsuits, inaccessible content, and poor rankings.

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Business owners and digital marketers should want every customer and target audience member to feel seen and included. The best way to do that is to make your website compliant with guidelines. This ensures it’s accessible to everyone.

ADA compliance and SEO go hand-in-hand. Accessibility is good for your site rankings, but more importantly, it welcomes and values every audience member.

We’ll share how to meet ADA compliance standards with help from Franco Colomba, a product marketer with over a decade of experience in search engine optimization (SEO).

Ready to make your website accessible to all?

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How to make your website ADA-compliant and accessible

Here’s a step-by-step rundown of how we make our clients’ websites accessible:

  1. Create logical and descriptive headers
  2. Speed up page load time on mobile devices
  3. Enable keyboard navigation
  4. Add image alt texts
  5. Describe anchor text and internal links
  6. Use an accessibility checker

1. Create logical and descriptive headers

Headings organize your content into a hierarchical order that logically flows together. In HTML, they include title tags like H1s, H2s, and H3s in order of importance. This is vital to your website’s structure and helps people digest information, especially those with cognitive disabilities.

Individuals with visual impairments rely heavily on screen readers, which is software that reads web content aloud. Headings and page titles should clearly communicate content hierarchy with keywords and descriptive copy.

They should also logically organize information to enhance flow so that screen readers can work effectively.

2. Speed up page load time on mobile devices

On-site navigation should be swift and well-organized so your audience doesn’t have to wait more than a few seconds for web pages to load. Excessive delays could bring on high bounce rates.

The biggest culprit? Slow mobile speed times, which are a common issue if brands forget to optimize for mobile devices.

Colomba emphasizes that page speed optimization helps organic traffic on Google’s Search Console:

“When we enable AMP [Accelerated Mobile Pages], that does affect our search traffic and allows a simple version of the blog post to appear to search engines 4 times faster,” says Colomba. “This alone helps improve page speed significantly and improves accessibility for devices with distinct interaction patterns.”

3. Enable keyboard navigation

Navigation helps people move through your website. It’s especially important for people with cognitive or learning disabilities because it clearly identifies where they can find the information they need.

Some people with motor disabilities (like tremors) can’t use a traditional computer mouse. Ever notice a website that lets you scroll through with the up and down arrow keys on your keyboard?

This is an accessible feature that helps people effectively navigate your website without having to use a mouse.

Other examples of keyboard navigation include:

  • “Skip to main content” buttons: This also includes “skip to recipe” for many of Colomba’s clients who post recipes online.
  • Visible menu bars: These help highlight relevant sections throughout the audience’s scrolling experience.
  • Breadcrumbs: These show the journey visitors took to get to the current webpage atop the page and also in the search engine results; for example, Home – Resources — Blog — Best Software for Accessibility 
  • More keyboard commands: This might include “Ctrl” N to open new tabs or “Enter” to “click” on a link

Some companies are taking navigation accessibility to new heights.

For example, Havas Germany’s creative director Michael Schoepf built an app called Staybl. It adjusts browsers for people with tremors due to conditions like Parkinson’s. (His mother was diagnosed with the disease.)

4. Add image alt texts

Your team might admire a polished, professional photo of your latest product, but visually impaired members of your audience might not experience it the same way.

This is where image alt text plays a critical role. It provides a descriptive line of copy for each image, which allows screen readers to vocalize the alt text. This allows visually impaired visitors to understand what each image depicts.

Moz highlights that alt text also benefits other audiences, including those whose devices can’t load a full image.

5. Describe anchor text and internal links

Internal links offer supplementary context to your content by directing your audience to other web pages on your site. Unfortunately, visually impaired audiences won’t be able to access that content if it’s displayed vaguely.

Here’s an example:

Say you have a fitness app and share a blog post about the health benefits of intermittent fasting. You link to another web page with your app download page like so:

“Click here to see the benefits of intermittent fasting in action.”

“Here” serves as your anchor text, but an audience with a screen reader has no idea what “here” refers to. It’s also not clear how exactly they’ll see the “benefits in action.” That’s why anchor text, as well as surrounding text, should be more descriptive.

A more accessible version might look like this:

Curious to experience the benefits of intermittent fasting? Download our health and fitness app to learn more. 

6. Use an accessibility checker

Even our seasoned digital marketing strategists — who specialize in optimizing accessibility — use accessibility checkers as a safeguard. These tools audit your website to identify accessibility issues. Some even make automatic improvements to enhance your site’s usability.

You can use a free tool like Accessibility Checker to see where your site currently stands.

And if you have your website on WordPress? Colomba points to his go-to plugin to evaluate accessibility:

“Our favorite is All in One Accessibility because it takes one click to address all accessibility issues,” says Colomba.

This plugin automatically fixes alt text issues, enhances color contrast, and adjusts web design attributes. These important adjustments offer equal access for people with hearing and visual impairments, cognitive impairments, seizures, ADHD, and more.

Still, an accessibility checker shouldn’t be your final stamp of approval before your site goes live.

Every business and website has special features that assistive technologies like plugins might not catch every time.

For a more comprehensive approach to your digital marketing strategy, we recommend partnering with an agency like HawkSEM.

SEO benefits of an ADA-compliant website

When your website isn’t accessible, it prohibits people with disabilities from being able to easily access and navigate your site. And they aren’t the only ones who lose out.

It might also undermine your SEO efforts.

We know the legal ramifications of noncompliance; but how does it impact your rankings? Colomba says Google doesn’t make the connection so clear:

“Google technically doesn’t have an SEO ranking factor (or at least that we don’t yet know) that affects a website’s organic positioning on the SERP based on ADA features,” explains Colomba.

Then why does Google consistently rank sites higher when they prioritize accessibility? Think about it this way: accessible websites naturally create a better user experience, which is a key ranking factor:

“Google is taking user experience much more seriously, and we saw this with the first HCU (Helpful Content Update) back in September of last year,” Colomba says.

Google specifies on its HCU page that helpful content offers a superior experience, which spans mobile layouts, well-organized content, and distinguishable main and supplementary content.

Meaning? Accessible content keeps search engine crawlers happy.

What disabilities should I consider when making my website accessible?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shares a list of disabilities that affect millions of Americans annually.

Which ones should you look out for in the context of your website?

Some of the main disabilities to keep in mind when you’re ensuring your site is ADA-compliant are:

  • Visual impairments like total blindness, tunnel vision, central loss of vision, low vision, color blindness, and certain eye impairments that inhibit readability or make seeing fonts difficult.
  • Hearing impairments like deafness and hard of hearing
  • Physical impairments like people with tremors or difficulty with motor skills, who may need to use different devices to type
  • Cognitive impairments like memory loss and concentration difficulties

What is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

The Americans with Disabilities Act is a civil rights law that was passed in 1990. Essentially, it prohibits discrimination based on a person’s disability in five areas of life, including:

  • Employment
  • Transportation
  • Communications
  • Government
  • Public accommodations

Title III: Public Accommodations and Services Operated by Private Entities” states that businesses must make “reasonable modifications” to better serve people with disabilities.

Places of public accommodation, as defined by the ADA national network, include:

  • Retail stores
  • Restaurants
  • Hotels
  • Medical facilities
  • Libraries
  • Public parks
  • Any other place outside of home, school, or work intended for public use

Let’s talk about the term “public use.” The ADA categorizes all websites (like the one you’re scrolling right now) as public use.

How does the ADA affect websites?

For over two decades, websites have been considered public in most interpretations of the ADA. So if a brand hasn’t made “reasonable modifications” to make its website more accessible, you could risk a lawsuit:

“Here, court-appointed fines and a complete, ADA-structured website overhaul can be ordered, or a settlement reached directly between parties,” says Mark Pierce, LLC Attorney and CEO of Wyoming Trust. “If found guilty, businesses are also on the hook to pay for a plaintiff’s legal fees and possibly additional damages.”

Just look at these two cases as examples:

  • Robles v. Domino’s Pizza Inc.: Domino’s Pizza was accused of failing to accommodate blind and visually impaired people on its website and mobile app.
  • Connor v. Parkwood Entertainment was cited for noncompliance because it lacked alt text for images and keyword navigation, which prohibited accessibility for people with visual, cognitive, and motor impairments.

Bottom line? The costs of lawsuits far exceed that of making your website accessible. Plus, there really is no reason to avoid making your site accessible to everyone.

Luckily, the Web Accessibility Initiative organization has laid out accessibility standards for web content. They’ve dubbed this the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG.

WCAG for ADA-compliant websites

WCAG principles are organized into four main guidelines:

  • Perceivable – all information on a website should be presented in a way that everyone can perceive by at least one of their senses
  • Operable – everyone must be able to interact with and navigate each component of a site successfully
  • Understandable – all of the information and interfaces on a website should be understandable to all
  • Robust – websites should able to be accessed and interpreted by a variety of technologies and platforms

While the full guidelines are extensive, we break them down into two basic groups. The first is to add a website accessibility interface. The second is to tag images and elements for assistive devices, such as screen readers and keyword navigation compatibility.

Accessible web development includes:

  • ADHD-friendly functions that reduce distractions and allow individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders to ingest website content more easily
  • Visually impaired functions that allow for larger text and color contrast
  • Cognitive disability functions that help visitors with autism or dyslexia focus to understand important website elements

The WCAG also has three different levels of compliance:

  • A Level (some audiences can access)
  • AA Level (almost all audiences can access)
  • AAA Level (all audiences can access).

To comply, most organizations should typically strive to reach at least Level AA.

If you don’t have time to read through the WCAG’s many chapters and clauses, don’t worry. HawkSEM’s team of SEO strategists can help you navigate these guidelines to ensure that everyone can access all elements of your website.

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The takeaway

It’s important for brands to not only value diversity, inclusivity, and accessibility, but to also implement them with fully accessible websites.

ADA compliance requires close attention to details often overlooked. Text content readability looks different for people with disabilities and it’s vital to accommodate them for a better user experience.

While accessibility may seem peripheral to most of your audience, Colomba sees clear benefits as a seasoned SEO manager:

“Accessibility greatly improves website user experience with easier readability, faster loading times, and thus, more search engine rankings and traffic,” says Colomba.

But if keyboard navigation, accessibility checks, and long website design guidelines overwhelm your already busy team? You don’t have to tackle it alone.

HawkSEM is an award-winning SEO agency and Google Premier Partner that delivers high search rankings for clients in pretty much every industry, from finance and healthcare to ecommerce and SaaS.

Part of our process includes a robust accessibility check to make sure your site captures every member of your audience and satisfies Google’s algorithms.

Bring accessibility to the forefront of your strategy — let’s talk.


This article has been updated and was originally published in April 2022.

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