What are the SEO Benefits of an ADA-Compliant Higher Ed Website?

Most higher ed websites are mandated to abide by accessibility standards specified in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). For higher ed marketing teams reliant on their schools’ most important recruiting asset to meet increasingly difficult enrollment goals, those standards ensure that prospective students of all abilities are able to access and navigate their school’s site. However, there are even more reasons to design, build and maintain your higher ed website with accessibility in mind.

Many website accessibility best practices overlap with the goals of search engine optimization (SEO) — the technical efforts that help a digital property rank well in users’ search queries. If you want your school’s website to show up in your prospective students’ college searches, you must make it easy to find.


As it turns out, making your higher ed website ADA compliant and optimizing it for maximum digital reach are more similar than you may realize. When implemented, both help people more easily see and explore your higher ed site.

Users: The Intersection of Higher Ed Website Accessibility And SEO

On the surface, web accessibility (complying with legal requirements) and SEO (catering to search engine algorithms) are two seemingly disconnected concepts with two different aims. But that’s only on the surface. What connects them?

The needs of users.

The Goals of Website Accessibility

When created, the internet was intended to be an easy method of sharing and accessing information. However, limitations of technology have not always allowed for equal access to online tools and information. That is the reason behind laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act and organizations like the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) — to make the internet equally accessible to everyone, everywhere, and (most recently) on every type of digital device.

The W3C defines web accessibility as “websites, tools, and technologies […] designed and developed so that people with disabilities can use them.” The goal is to allow people with varying auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech and visual abilities to:

  • Perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the web, and
  • Contribute to the web

In recent years, web accessibility efforts have expanded to cover other limiting circumstances, such as:

  • The use of mobile phones and other smart devices with small screens and different input modes
  • Changing abilities due to aging
  • Temporary disabilities such as a broken arm or lost glasses
  • Situational limitations, such as being in bright sunlight or an environment where users cannot listen to audio
  • Users with a slow internet connection; or, limited or expensive bandwidth

W3C, guided by the design principles of “web for all” and “web on everything”, has led the effort to establish internationally accepted design standards that promote web accessibility. Legislation, such as ADA, has encouraged and enforced the adoption of these standards by government-funded organizations serving the public, including public colleges and universities.

The Functions of Higher Ed SEO

Web accessibility is about empowering all users to utilize the internet. SEO is leveraged to empower your school to reach all of those users, your universe of prospective students. However, counterintuitively, in order to get your site in front of more people, you must cater to non-human algorithms that power search engines and the bots (software programs run by search engines) that scan and index new information on the internet.

Search engine indexing bots are sophisticated (and work incredibly fast), but they do have their limitations. Bots can’t click buttons. They struggle with understanding text embedded in visual elements. And they can’t always easily piece together how website content is structured (information architecture).

Bots don’t navigate or explore websites the same way that most users do. In fact, the manner in which bots navigate websites and engage with digital content is similar to adaptive technologies, like screen readers, that are employed by differently-abled users. As such, higher ed marketers have plenty of motivation to design their school’s sites to be as accessible as possible to bots and assistive technologies.

This is why the best practices recommended for ADA web accessibility compliance — the actual methods to achieve accessible web design — are the same ones SEO experts use to finetune your website for optimal performance in the digital ecosphere.

It makes sense. Because the job of search engines (and the intent behind the indexing bots) is to provide the most relevant information to the most number of users in a way they can access (Google wants the clicks). The ultimate goal of SEO efforts is to satisfy diverse user needs (not bots) — same as the aims of website accessibility advocates.

How do higher ed marketing teams achieve these goals?

3 Areas of Focus For Higher Ed SEO And Accessibility

There is much to learn about both web design accessibility standards and SEO best practices. To understand the basics, start by focusing on these three critical areas of user experience on your higher ed site.

1. Navigation and Readability

The ability to freely explore your site, as well as comprehend and engage with the content on its pages, is of utmost importance. Here are a few things that help make that easier for bots and humans.

Sitemaps

Sitemaps are like the table of contents of your website. All of the important pages that you want your users to find should be included in your higher ed website sitemap. There are two types of sitemaps, and a reason to include each. An HTML sitemap is a simple list of links to all of the pages of your website. It is useful as an alternative method of navigation. An XML sitemap is a more technical document that makes it easier for bots to gain a comprehensive and detailed overview of your site.

Breadcrumb Links

Breadcrumbs are a way to help users (or bots) orient themselves on your site at any given moment. Higher ed websites are big and have many levels. The deeper users go, the harder it is to return to their original path of exploration … unless they have an easy way to retrace their steps. Breadcrumb links offer that additional navigational functionality.

Page Hierarchy and Structure

Clearly labeling information, especially written text, is important for both human and bot comprehension of the content on a given webpage. Providing headings (H1s, H2s, H3s, etc.) and adding other content labels helps to clearly organize the information. Headings also have the added benefit of breaking up text and making it more scannable and digestible for users.

2. Information Transparency

It’s important to clearly structure the content on your webpages. It is equally vital to provide bots and assistive technologies with as much information as possible about each page before they actually arrive there.

Meta Descriptions and Title Tags

Meta descriptions and title tags provide a preview of the content of any given page. These elements contain a short description of the information that will be presented. This also allows bots to understand the relationship between pages and various sections of your site and how the information fits together.

Link and Anchor Text

The usage of link text (the visible and clickable text in a link), has evolved over time. Before, SEO marketers tried to include valuable keywords in links as a way to improve page rankings. Today, however, Google is encouraging a more natural and user-friendly approach to anchoring your links. Aim to tell your visitors as much as possible about the page the link is taking them to with your anchor text.

3. Presentation of Visual Elements

The internet is a highly visual medium. However, bots are not able to discern the meanings of images (at least not yet). And there’s a large segment of users with impaired visual ability. That doesn’t mean that you should limit the use of visual elements on your higher ed site. It just means you have to go the extra mile to explain the images sufficiently.

Alternative Text (Alt-Text) and Image Title Tags

Add alternative text for every image (or video) featured on your higher ed site to provide users and bots with a detailed description of the visual content. Be sure to take advantage of the image title tag, as it provides additional space to add more information. Aim for brevity, but be as descriptive as possible.

Accessibility and SEO for Higher Ed Sites Go Hand-In-Hand

Maintaining web accessibility standards is a top requirement for modern higher ed websites. This requires a purposeful effort during development and a commitment to regular maintenance. The payoff — a better user experience and more prospective students engaging with your school’s digital brand — is well worth the investment.

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