“There is no turning back the clock. So the question in life becomes: What are you going to do while you’re here?”
-Goldie Hawn, American actress
For millions of seniors in the United States and worldwide, going online is an integral part of their life – and in ever growing numbers. So the question in your business or organization becomes, “Are you serving the unique needs of older Americans and others who have special needs when using the Internet?”
Your answer is the difference between advocates and alienation, attention and abandonment, and a potential share of a very large economic pie… an $11.6 trillion pie, to be exact. That’s the market potential for the 65 and up crowd in the United States alone, a financial bucket as large as Japan and China’s stock markets combined. To gain a real advantage in the digital landscape, simple SEO isn’t enough to lure new traffic and a growing population of Web-based consumers. You have to put effort into web accessibility.
Seniors: the economic advantage
According to Pew Internet Research, 89% of all American adults use the internet. The older Americans get, the lower the usage. For Americans over 65, Internet usage overall falls to 66%, on average.
Ok, if you’re doing the math, you’ll think, “why should I go through any extra trouble for a demographic group 25% lower than the overall average? I have bigger fish to fry.”
But, that’s not all the math. Let’s break it down. Pew finds that the higher the income, the higher the online presence. In fact, 90% of seniors with an annual household income of $75,000 or more go online.
So older Americans are definitely not turning back the clock. Higher income seniors, in particular, are out there with everybody else, searching the Web and checking Facebook. And, in general, the population of Americans aged 65 and older is growing every year. It’s expected to double between now and 2060, and those 98 million seniors will increasingly have grown up using the Web. Furthermore, Internet usage among seniors is no longer just a recreational pursuit. With more seniors in the work force, access to Web-based resources is becoming a necessity.
Here’s the thing – aging is a process. While seniors feel younger than ever, time still takes a toll.
Increased age, increased accessibility
The comedienne, Phyllis Diller, said, “Maybe it’s true that life begins at fifty. But everything else starts to wear out, fall out, or spread out.” Web developers, take that to heart. Although said with humor, designing web sites for an aging population is something to take seriously. As people grow older, there is an increased risk of health problems that impact web behavior, such as:
- Visual impairment
- Physical ability and motor skills
- Hearing difficulties
- Cognitive ability
These health problems are not restricted to seniors. For example, about 37.5 million American adults over the age of 18 report some trouble hearing, but 25% of people over 65 report disabling hearing loss. And while more than 7 million American adults have some kind of visual disability, so do 694,000 kids under the age of 20.
The advantage of focusing on Web accessibility for the senior market is this – you’ll also be serving the needs of many individuals with disabilities. At the same time, you’ll improve on your SEO strategy and create more opportunity for everyone to discover and effectively use your website.
The grandmother test
…and a more scientific approach to accessibility
Would your website make Grandma happy? If she had trouble reading text on the screen or hearing audio, does she have multiple ways of getting information? If she suffers a serious impairment and requires the use of a screen reader, does she still have a delightful user experience?
We know, grandmas can be biased. They’ll love anything you do. Fortunately, there’s a better way to measure your success in providing effective service to all people with impairments and disabilities. The Web Accessibility Initiative’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines WCAG 2.0 is a technical reference for Web developers and authors. It provides guidelines that are considered “perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust,” allowing access to information by people and assisted devices. The Web Accessibility Initiative and WCAG 2.0 are managed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). So while they won’t be baking you a pie, they’re a reliable source for accessibility information.
Another source for great information and resources for accessibility is the A11Y project, an open-source accessibility community. A11Y provides front-end developers with content to help them serve the estimated 560 million people worldwide who are moderately to profoundly visually or hearing impaired.
The SEO factor
Here’s the great thing. While you’re making your site easier to use for those who have unique challenges, you’re increasing access to your site for everyone. Many of the technical enhancements you make to bring accessibility to your website also lend themselves to sound SEO tactics. Here’s a few examples:
Use alternate text strategically. Using clear alternate text is important for conveying the right message for those people who are using assistive devices like screen readers. Strategic use of keywords as part of that text provides an SEO advantage.
Get your document structure right. To use the title and heading tags within your HTML content most effectively for SEO and accessibility, create a hierarchy of <title>, <h1>, <h2> and <h3> tags that summarize the main points of the page content, using keywords as appropriate.
Ensure links make sense. Use intuitive links for accessibility. Don’t use phrases like “click here” or “more,” as these are difficult to understand out of context. Alt text should also be clear and read well over assistive devices.
Video and audio transcriptions and captions. Google ranks video higher than web content, and users tend to spend more time on pages where multimedia appears. Including a text or html transcript (a separate audio or video “script”) and closed captions (a content file that is referenced by the video itself) is even better. It allows search engines to index the entire text of an audio or video placed on the site. Furthermore, it serves the needs of visually impaired, hearing impaired and cognitively impaired users who need to take more time reading the information, or who need to use keyboard commands or screen readers.
Write clear, easy-to-read content. Marketing on the Web is all about good content. Rules matter, like writing clearly and making your point in a way that is easy to understand. As mentioned earlier, subheads in the form of heading tags help break up content into logical and digestible chunks. Use a service like Hemingway or Readability Score to ensure a reading level that is appropriate for your audience. Aim for a reading level of Grade 8 for web copy delivered to the general population. Write naturally, but remember to include keywords that you want search engines to notice (especially in the title and headings).
This is not an exhaustive list by any means. There are many other practices to improve both accessibility and SEO.
The point is, thinking about SEO and accessibility early and together is good design, good technical practice, and good marketing. The Internet is maturing and people are maturing with it. There’s a great diversity of users with specific needs and issues. By building web accessibility into your projects, you’ll help a lot of people live better, perform better and feel better as they use technology to fulfill their unique life goals. Now, wouldn’t that make your grandmother proud?
A version of this article was published as Making Your Website Accessible to Older Visitors on July 21st, 2016.