Skip to content

How to Structure Your Content to Make It Accessible

Back in 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that one in five people in the United States was considered disabled to some extent.

That means 20% of your audience on average may need assistance using the internet from either assistive technology or other people. These disabilities could include:

  • Hearing difficulty
  • Vision difficulty
  • Cognitive difficulty
  • Learning difficulty
  • Physical disabilities (sometimes called “motor disabilities”)
20% of your audience may need assistance using the internet from assistive tech or other people, says @seoSmarty via @cmiContent. #accessibility #inclusionNow Click To Tweet

Does your content strategy take all these people into account?

If it doesn’t, it may be considered discrimination. Web accessibility is being regulated around the world. Specifically, the United States has the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) with which U.S.-based and global publishers must comply or risk facing reputation crises and expensive lawsuits.

Making your website accessible is about more than preventing risks of a lawsuit, though. It’s also about including all people with various disabilities into your marketing strategy by allowing them to efficiently interact with your website. And, as mentioned, they may represent a huge part of your target audience.

To make the internet more accessible for those who would otherwise have difficulty, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) released the Web Accessibility Guidelines. The guidelines highlight ways digital publishers can make their websites more available and accessible to those with disabilities.

Here are guidelines for content marketers on structuring articles to make them accessible to those with visual, audio, motor or cognitive difficulties.

Use short sentences and paragraphs

Not only does this standard reach all the way back into the fundamentals of writing, but it also makes your content accessible on many levels. Crafting sentences and paragraphs in short form focuses on making sure your content is understandable. According to the W3C guidelines, “users must be able to understand the information” that you have on your website:

  • Your content should have a logical flow, with each paragraph having a single main point. People listening to your content read by a screen reader will find it easier to understand.
  • Using short paragraphs also gives users more control when customizing their view (e.g., when using a screen magnifier).
  • Short sentences make it easier for people with learning difficulties to understand your content.
  • Short sentences also help people with cognitive difficulties get focused on reading your content.

TextOptimizer is a handy tool to help check your content and suggest areas of improvement in terms of readability, including choice of word, sentence and paragraph length; diversity – yet clarity – of your vocabulary; and more:

.@textoptimizer is a handy tool to help check content readability & suggest improvements. @SEOSmarty #tools Click To Tweet

TIP: Keep your TextOptimizer score at 80% minimum.

Use H2/H3 subheadings consistently and logically

To make your content more meaningful to assistive technologies (as well as search crawlers), always use H2 and H3 subheadings to structure your content properly.

To make #content more meaningful to assistive technologies & search crawlers, use H2 & H3 subheadings. @SEOSmarty Click To Tweet

Maintaining proper hierarchy also helps communicate how those subheadings relate to each other. That said, don’t start your article with an H3 subheading followed by an H2 subheading.

You should nest your subheadings logically to communicate the organization of your content:

Read more on using H-subheadings to reflect the content structure here. You can also use your subheading structure to create a clickable on-page table of contents to improve usability and engagement.

SE Ranking offers a comprehensive analysis of web pages inside its audit section. It gives a nice overview of on-page, h-labeled headings as well as possible areas for improvement:

.@SERanking offers a comprehensive analysis of web pages inside its audit section, says @SEOSmarty. #tools Click To Tweet

Click through the buttons on top of the report to have subheadings highlighted.

The tool also alerts you to missing or non-descriptive image alt tags that are also essential for web accessibility. Screen readers use image alt text to inform users of visual content and its contents:

Mark up quotes properly

Many content writers create quotes using italics, which is tough for assistive technologies to interpret properly. When quoting someone or something, use:

  • <blockquote> for longer and complex quotes
  • <q> for in-line quotes
Mark up quotes properly so assistive tech can convey them, says @SEOSmarty. Click To Tweet

In both cases, use <cite> elements to refer to the source of the quote.

This way assistive technologies can convey where the quote starts and ends as well as who or what provided the quote:

You can find the detailed W3 guidelines here.

Use tables to convey data relationships

For pricing and package comparisons, schedules, and other complex data sets, use tables that help assistive technologies properly convey data relationships. This way, your readers will be able to understand large amounts of data without seeing the grid.

Use tables to help assistive technologies properly convey data relationships, says @SEOSmarty. #websitetips Click To Tweet

To make your tables accessible, don’t forget to identify table headers. Screen readers read each cell at a time and connect it to the corresponding header. This way, a visually impaired reader won’t lose context.

The full guidelines can be found here.

Moreover, for steps and enumeration, use numbered and bulleted lists. Lists help screen readers and other assistive technologies to understand and convey the structure of information.

Supplement embedded multimedia with text content

With the explosion of video and podcast creation, users with hearing or visual disabilities are somewhat left behind.

To include this vast audience into your content marketing strategy, provide:

  • Video captions (for full guidelines, check out this article)
  • Video and audio transcript

While the transcripts don’t have to be word-for-word scripts, they should cover the essential information that describes your content. Besides, transcripts can be searchable, which will improve your video content rankings.

To create accessible transcripts:

  • Create a summary of the audio or video content.
  • Include descriptions of important on-screen visuals and actions (when it helps users to understand the overall content).
  • Include any on-screen text (if it adds essential context).

It helps to hand your transcript to co-workers who haven’t seen the video and ask them what they were able to understand and what needs clarification.

When including a transcript inside your article, it is important to precede it with the subheading “transcript” to clearly point people or assistive technology to where exactly they can find the contents of the video or the audio:

You can see it in action here.

Create a consistent accessible content marketing strategy

Keep all those guidelines in mind every time you are working on a new content asset. It is easy enough if you have the same person writing (and formatting) all of your on-site content. But if you have multiple team members or if you outsource your content creation, copy and paste these requirements into your content task every time:

  • Use short sentences and paragraphs to make your content readable. (Note: Check content readability prior to accepting the order.)
  • Use H2/H3 subheadings consistently and logically: Don’t skip headings in the content hierarchy. Make sure the subheadings are spread out evenly.
  • Mark up quotes with <blockquote> or <q>.
  • Use meaningful alt text for images.
  • Include a meaningful transcript for every embedded video.

Bulk optimize existing pages

Finally, while these steps make it clearer as to what to do with your content strategy going forward, what about your existing content? It is essential that you make it accessible too.

accessiBe can automatically handle your site’s accessibility compliance – including your old content. The tool takes care of your on-site elements (buttons, links, etc.) to ensure that they are accessible; automatically adds supplemental text where it’s missing; and makes your site fully navigable using the tab key alone, including drop-down menus, pop-ups, and forms.


Make it accessible

By focusing on a few key areas, you can create both high-quality and accessible content. It’s also the first step to embracing the positive marketing strategy.

By prioritizing content accessibility, you not only broaden your target audience by including those people who have disabilities, you also make your content easier to understand for search engines. Making sure your information is available to any user may just be a matter of making subtle changes to your content.

By making your website understandable, perceivable, operable, and robust, you can give all users the best possible chance to interact with your business and become your brand advocates.

Please note: All tools included in our blog posts are suggested by authors, not the CMI editorial team. No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used). 

Make sure you’re accessing some of the best content marketing advice, tips, and trends to further help your audiences. Subscribe to the free weekday CMI newsletter.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute