6 Benefits of Ensuring an Accessible Ecommerce Site (Beyond Compliance)

Male hand navigates website using braille keyboard

Image courtesy of Digital Commerce 360

As an ecommerce business grows, retailers often feel a sense of urgency to optimize many areas of their site at once. It can be really tough to determine how to prioritize development work. At the same time, while many technical needs compete for your attention, it is critical to move ecommerce website accessibility to the top of the list. This is especially true if you are facing potential legal action against your company.

When ecommerce retailers comply with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) guidelines for site accessibility, they gain a couple of benefits right off the bat. First, given that approximately 12-19% of the population lives with a disability every day, retailers with more accessible sites are able to share their inventory with more customers. Secondly, now that customers can buy from their store, regardless of ability, compliant retailers no longer fear the threat of legal action. Not only is it kind and considerate to ensure ecommerce accessibility, but it also makes good business sense.

Best yet, there are several other lesser-known, but important benefits to ecommerce website accessibility. Let’s take a look.

Benefit #1: Accessibility streamlines site flow, creating a better user experience for all

User experience (UX) and website accessibility are two very closely related fields. When building a UX-focused website, designers emphasize ease-of-use and site flow to accomplish their goals. Accessibility takes UX one step further. To support people using assistive technologies or alternate browsing methods, such as searching by voice, designers remove any obstacles in the navigation. As a result, all users experience a more streamlined and optimized site flow.

Building for accessibility also ensures there are multiple ways to facilitate the navigation and input required for various tasks. For example, some people may use their keyboard or arrow keys, instead of a mouse, to navigate a site. With this in mind, accessible sites have to facilitate users with assistive devices, such as a screen reader. As a result, a website with accessible code, navigation, and tags ensures these alternate techniques work properly.

Another example where this occurs is with pop-up windows or slide-out shopping carts. Some users may prefer to press escape to close these features. Or they may hit tab to navigate throughout these site elements. Following web accessibility guidelines ensures the web browser’s focus is placed correctly on these pop-up elements. It also ensures keyboard shortcuts work properly which improves the usability of website features for everyone.

Ecommerce retailers can create more accessible websites by streamlining site flow and supporting multiple ways to complete a task. These measures make things easier for all users. Sites will likely have lower bounce rates or higher conversion rates (or both!) since there are fewer obstacles in the way of a visitor’s goals.

Benefit #2: Accessibility adds semantics to site code, allowing browsers and search engines to better understand meaning

We’ll start with a bit of background about code. Website code (HTML and CSS) is used to simply define the structure of the website, the layout of the website, and the content of the website. However, in traditional HTML, there is nothing in the site code to explain to web browsers or search engines what each component of a website does. In other words, traditional HTML does not communicate whether a section is site navigation, header/footer, a blog entry, a carousel or slideshow, a popup window – you name it. The code does not distinguish the components of a site.

Recently, developers have focused on adding semantics to website code. This means that newer versions of HTML now include tags and features to better describe the parts of a website. This is done by using features such as header and footer tags, using a “role” parameter to define the purpose of section tags, or defining which form field a label is referencing.

Accessible websites take this one step further. These sites use aria tags to describe dynamic features of websites, including describing their purpose and how they function. Search engines can then use all of these additional clues to improve how a website is represented in the search index.

Websites also can include microdata. These are additional tags that extend the information available to browsers and search engines. For example, if a website contains a product, microdata tags can be used to indicate the product name, category, price, available colors/sizes, etc. All of these things may be presented graphically on the page, but without the microdata, search engines would simply see it as text on the page rather than understanding what it means. Accessibility tools also leverage this microdata to improve user experience.

Benefit #3: Accessibility makes form submissions easier for everyone

Another feature introduced by recent versions of HTML, and required by accessibility guidelines, are various additional types of form fields. These types, such as “email” or “number” specify not only that a field is for input, but also what type of input is expected. This ensures that accessibility tools can identify the purpose of a field. Plus there’s another benefit: this allows mobile browsers to present the appropriate type of keyboard for input.

Have you ever needed to search for the @ character when typing an email address? If so, then you were dealing with a form field that was not properly tagged as an “email” type field! As you can imagine, specifying the type of field greatly improves autocomplete features. It lets browsers know what’s an address field versus a name or email address, etc. This helps both accessibility tools and standard web browsers reduce the burden in completing a form – and create a more seamless user experience.

Male hand navigates website using braille keyboard
Image courtesy of Digital Commerce 360

Benefits #4: Accessibility boosts site SEO, resulting in improved search engine rankings

Focusing on accessibility makes your ecommerce site visible to people who cannot necessarily see all of the visual cues that are presented. Similarly, search engines are also unable to perceive visual cues. They work through processing the text on a site. Accessibility puts the focus on the text and meaning of your website. As a natural consequence, search engines can also better perceive and understand your website’s content.

The search engine benefits of an accessible site are partly achieved due to a focus on alternative methods of presenting information. The process ensures the information can be perceived and understood by all. (It is also partly due to the semantics and meaning given to site content discussed above.)

By tagging the site’s navigation in an accessible manner, search engines can better understand the site structure. They also better understand how you intend for people to navigate the site’s sections. This can improve a search engine’s ability to provide sitelinks, the organized content sections indented underneath your site’s primary search engine entry.

In addition, accessibility requires any non-text content to also be presented in an accessible way. At its most basic level, this includes alt text on images. But beyond this, ensuring PDF files are built in an accessible manner allows search engines to index those PDFs. Providing transcripts of videos allows search engines to index the content of those videos. The benefits of providing textual versions of non-text content are endless.

Benefit #5: Accessibility forces cleaner site code

While building an accessible website, or while modifying an existing website to meet accessibility criteria, there is a strong emphasis placed on your website’s code. The focus is on ensuring that the code is well organized and streamlined. This means reducing complexity, unnecessary repetition, and ensuring each section is tagged and/or labeled according to its purpose. This is particularly true when a website is built for accessibility from the beginning, but many of these benefits are also achieved during an accessibility audit.

By focusing on the website code to ensure it is streamlined and organized, there is less code to process and transmit. Further, the organized code is easier for browsers to process. This results in faster site performance.

Because an accessible website’s code is more organized, and sections are labeled according to purpose, it’s easier for developers and content managers to maintain the site.

Benefit #6: Accessible websites allow browsing from a wider range of devices

One of the primary goals of accessibility is ensuring your website is available to visitors using a wide range of accessibility devices or alternative web browser configurations. This includes supporting screen reader software to allow visually impaired visitors to hear your website. It also includes ensuring the website remains usable when viewed on a browser which is zoomed in.

By ensuring support with these alternative methods of viewing websites, you also automatically provide support for a much wider range of devices, without having to perform additional work. Imagine browsing a website on a smartwatch, with its tiny screen and limited space to display content. Accessibility guidelines go a long way to ensuring compatibility with these new devices – and devices that have yet to be imagined.

When people talk about accessibility in ecommerce, the focus is usually on the customers. And rightfully so. Online shopping is an integral part of modern life, and it’s vital to make sure everyone can fully embrace it. Yet, shoppers are not the only ones who benefit from increased accessibility. As we’ve discussed, retailers also gain a wide variety of advantages with greater accessibility. Ecommerce sites that meet accessibility guidelines have cleaner code and more streamlined user experiences. These improvements then make it easier for web browsers and search engines to access the site, too, and improve SEO. Ensuring that your ecommerce site is accessible benefits everyone – including your business.

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