WCAG: Beyond ADA Compliance & Into AI Website Optimization (AIO)
As the capabilities of generative Artificial Intelligence models expand it's pretty clear that such capabilities offer amazing opportunities for people with disabilities. In just 11 months, such capabilities have expanded well beyond creative writing. Such bots can now access microphones, cameras, and the web. They can see and hear the world around us, and interpret that world and serve as a guide. A guide with encyclopedic knowledge of any object, building, or sign... written in any language. WOW. What an incredible tool for people with disabilities.
The potential for AI has forced me to wonder about the relevance of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), and the need for web accessibility auditing consultants like us to help people make websites, SaaS product and mobile apps meet current WCAG standards to comply with the ADA, 508, and other state laws.
The WCAG is the de facto international standard designed to ensure websites and other digital properties are accessible to people with disabilities, and their assistive technology devices, such as screen readers.
But will emerging AI assistants make assistive technologies and WCAG compliance obsolete? And if that’s the case, where does WCAG stand amidst this tech evolution? I dropped this topic on the A11y Slack channel and it created a bit of a stir.
Recently my buddy, Pete Jewett from AccessibleWeb mentioned that a company he was talking to recently they asked if WCAG compliance could make it easier for AI bots to scan their content. They wanted to be sure AI Bots would not face any of the same barriers that other tend to block other spiders and assistive technolgoies.
Good question. You might assume that super smart AI bots would have no issues navigating websites and hoovering content. Right? Well, as it turns out, AI can hit roadblocks. Websites with poor structure, poor labeling, and those using certain technology can hold back AI Bots, just as they hinder assistive technologies. If that’s the case could the WCAG serve as a common guide to enhance the browsing experience for both AI and AT?
Could it be that not only is WCAG not dead, but it's about to have its heyday?
While I still expect that the thought that the relevance of WCAG might fade over time, in the near term, WCAG and AI could form an interesting alliance.
Artificial Intelligence Optimization (AIO) - Redefined
Julia McCoy coined the term Artificial Intelligence Optimization (AIO) in January of 2023, defining it as “the process of making AI content better with an expert human trained in optimizing the content AI puts out”. But that’s more about leveraging AI to aid SEO.
I believe this term applies better to the methods and tools for optimizing websites for AI Bots and Agents.
If you google “how to optimize my website for AI bots”, you'll stumble upon a slew of articles on harnessing AI for SEO or achieving WCAG compliance. But what if we flip the narrative? How can WCAG, in turn, be utilized to optimize websites for AI?
So in my recent post on Propeller’s blog, entitled Beyond SEO: Website Optimization for AI Bots. AIO Redefined, I suggest we more accurately apply this term to the practice of optimizing websites for AI Bots.
Issues that AI Bot’s Can Encounter
Let’s back up and test the notion that such barriers for AI bots exist, and confirm that there’s a problem to solve, and not just a solution looking for a problem. As it turns out, AI Bots and AT do face various common issues when navigating and digesting content on websites.
- Website Structure - Well-organized sites with clear headings, sitemaps, and logical information architecture significantly improve comprehension and navigation for both AI bots and AT users. Poor structure leads to confusion.
- Meta Tags & SEO - Complete and accurate meta descriptions, titles, schema markup, and other SEO elements help AI bots properly categorize and index pages, similar to how screen readers rely on them for context.
- Page Load Speed - Fast page loads enable efficient crawling for AI bots, while also providing better experiences for AT users who rely on screen readers that process content sequentially.
- Robots.txt - This file provides key directives for AI bots on how to interact with and index webpages. Unclear instructions lead to indexing errors.
- Dynamic Content - Constantly updating content powered by databases and APIs poses challenges for AI bots to track changes. Similarly, screen readers may not announce dynamic content updates to users.
- Accessibility Features - Existing features like ARIA labels, keyboard access, and semantic HTML make content more comprehensible for AI and AT users alike when implemented properly.
- Error Handling - Clear error messages, correct redirects, and failure notifications help both AI bots and AT users recover from problems and continue interactions.
- Mobile Responsiveness - Adaptive sites provide better mobile experiences for smaller AI bots like chatbots and mobile screen reader users accessing sites on the go.
- Schema Markup - Structured data enhances page interpretation for AI and screen reader context for human users.
A Common Ground: AI Bots, Assistive Technologies & WCAG
The parallels between AI and AT barriers point to a shared solution: the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Designed to enhance accessibility for people with disabilities, WCAG's principles also facilitate AI scanning and comprehension.
This opportunity provides an expanding incentive to make sure websites work well for AI Bots, search engines, people with disabilities and their assistive tech by sticking to WCAG standards. It’s a win-win-win-win – access to an expanded audience of people with disabilities (plus seniors), more traffic and sales through search engines and AI citations, and frictionless access for tomorrow’s AI assistants, booking travel and shopping on behalf of their users. All while meeting DEI commitments to digital inclusion for people with disabilities (and the elderly), and avoiding web-related ADA lawsuits.
Hold on. Let’s not get too carried away. With AI Bots and Agents evolving so fast, will the effort put into AIO be short-lived? Will AI Bots learn to navigate around existing barriers, rendering AIO efforts pointless? This thought casts some shade on the concept for sure. However, the benefits of WCAG compliance stand strong.
Yes, the fast pace of AI evolution will likely ease some challenges faced by AI Bots, but the value of WCAG compliance goes beyond AIO. Wider reach, more traffic, better user experience for everyone, along with better organic rankings and the new allure of AI citations – these benefits are here to stay.
Plus, the legal requirements of the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and additional state laws governing digital accessibility which all point to WCAG compliance are not going away any time soon. This will stand for some time regardless of the advances in AI and AT.
WCAG Compliance: Expanding Digital Accessibility for AI Bots, Humans, and ATs
Now, let’s explore the solution. The WCAG is widely recognized as the international standard for guiding digital accessibility. It was developed by and is maintained by the W3C. Rather than it being a binary testing platform, it takes the form of a guide that digital creators, developers, and content authors can follow to make websites and web content more accessible for people with disabilities. This makes it difficult to test for, and why experienced human auditors (such as us) are still essential.
In the US, following WCAG is key for ADA compliance, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and a growing number of state laws requiring website accessibility.
Benefits of WCAG Compliance:
1. Improved Accessibility for People with Disabilities
By following WCAG’s guidelines around semantics, structure, and supported interactions, websites become more usable and accessible to individuals with a variety of disabilities. This not only broadens the audience but can also help avoid legal issues.
2. Better AI Bot Scanning
WCAG promotes logical information flows, clean code, and machine-readable semantics – the very things AI bots rely on – making WCAG-compliant sites easier for AI bots to scan and understand.
3. SEO Advantages Built-In
WCAG compliance shares many good practices with SEO, like thoughtful content structure, Alt text for images, descriptive links, and proper meta tags. Making sites accessible naturally aligns with search engine optimization.
How to Achieve WCAG Website Compliance
First, what not to do. While you would assume there is a plugin or widget that will work, there are plenty that will make amazing claims and will use the term AI quite a bit, however not only do they not work, there is plenty of evidence that they will actually attract trolling lawyers. (More about why to avoid overlays.)
Second, do not put much faith in automated testing tool. The WCAG is nuanced, interpretive and many testing criteria just cannot be conducted by software - AI or not. Hire experienced auditors who augment the limitations of software with manual testing. Here is a post on what the current standards are and a guide for how to make your website WCAG compliant.
Moving Toward Inclusive Digital Experiences for Humans and Machines
By adopting WCAG principles, we knock down barriers to create a digital world more inclusive for both humans and AI systems. As AI bots become central to how we find, consume, and interact with online info, ensuring websites follow accessibility guidelines will be valuable.
I started out as Debbie Downer on WCAG, but am now Positive Penelope (eye rolls expected). If this idea hits the mark, my hope is that marketers, website managers and management in general will stop seeing WCAG conformity and digital accessibility as a bitter cost, and see it instead as a great opportunity.
For those that do, we are here to assist. Our team of top tier accessibility experts employ established best practice methods that ensure that any gaps left by software are filled by experienced credentialed web accessibility consultants - each with over 18 years in digital accessibility. No interns. No juniors. Just the pros to do it right.
David Gibson - President