There has been a sharp rise in the number of lawsuits filed against websites for failing to make their content accessible to the visually impaired. Notably, earlier this year, even Beyonce.com came under fire from a blind fan for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.
Despite this situation and a number of other high-profile brands getting caught up in ADA lawsuits, it seems many sites that are otherwise doing the right things to enjoy good online visibility and success on Google are not taking the issue of accessibility seriously enough.
We recently used Google’s own open-source website auditing tool, Google Lighthouse, to test the technical optimization of thousands of sites that rank in the top 20 organic search results. Surprisingly, accessibility for the visually impaired was one of the most neglected issues.
In fact, the overall average score for accessibility was the lowest of all the four main areas of technical optimization tested using Google Lighthouse. The other three were performance (primarily website speed related), SEO and best practices.
The Google Lighthouse accessibility score is based on how sites perform in a variety of tests. For example, over 80% of sites ranking in the top 20 of the Google search results failed the test for color contrast. This is a basic issue that involves ensuring you are using contrasting colors to make text and other elements easier to see on the web page, particularly for common issues like red-green color=blindness.
Almost 70% of high ranking sites failed the test for giving discernible names to the fields within online forms. These names can be read out loud by screen readers to help people with visual difficulties understand more clearly what is required on a form.
Similarly, two-thirds of sites were not deemed acceptable for providing discernible names for links on their pages. Again, this background detail in the site code can be used by screen readers to help visually impaired people understand the content they can navigate to by clicking on those links.
While the ADA has not been amended to specifically address websites, several courts have held that the act does apply to online accessibility. And it seems like these lawsuits are only going to increase in number unless firms wake up and take action.
Around the world too there is increasing regulation to improve accessibility. In the UK, The Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Regulations 2018 is based on a wider European Union Directive, which requires new public sector websites and apps to meet certain accessibility standards
Of course, making your site more accessible is not only a desirable goal because it helps you avoid lawsuits and comply with regulations.
Approximately 1.3 billion people globally live with some form of vision impairment, so there is a vast market you can tap into by making your content more accessible to this audience.
Enhancing accessibility could be an additional way to increase traffic and engagement, cut bounce rates and potentially boost sales.
And of course, the internet is now central to so much of people’s lives -- from checking the weather and booking flights to ordering pizza. So there are not just ethical reasons but also clear business arguments in favor of fairness and inclusivity that mean firms should consider accessibility to be a fundamental requirement.
Many brands regularly review their sites’ user experience and conduct SEO audits, so why not do the same for accessibility?
Google itself is committed to inclusivity and accessibility in its products. Its search results are designed to support accessibility, including working with screen readers and assistive technology.
And with Google encouraging accessibility by including tests and recommendations in its Lighthouse auditing tool who knows, maybe there will come a time when accessible websites might even get a ranking advantage.