The Importance of Accessibility in Ecommerce

Accessibility blog

UPDATED: April 24th, 2020 – Laws and standards are always changing. We will periodically update this post with new information as changes occur in the accessibility and ecommerce industry.

The Internet is one of the greatest inventions of our time; it empowers people to work, learn, communicate, and shop from anywhere in the world. What if you were unable to use the websites you need in order to do those things? This is a reality for many people. 

With over a billion people (about 15% of the world’s population) living with some form of disability [1], and given the importance of the Internet in this digital age, operating an accessible site is more important now than ever before. 

At CQL, we believe that an inclusive web is a better web, and that starts with making ecommerce websites accessible.

What is ADA Compliance as it Relates to Ecommerce?

If you’re starting to have conversations about accessibility, you have likely heard the terms “ADA Compliance” and “WCAG.” They are very different but it’s important to understand both.

ADA refers to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is a civil rights law that was established in 1990 which prohibits discrimination based on disability. Unsurprisingly, a lot has changed since its inception. The Internet has become a pillar of modern digital society, and with the projected growth of retail ecommerce sales in the U.S., alone, over the next five years, it is clearly a disadvantage to not have access.

In response to the exponential increase in the number of websites, the multiple devices people can use to access their content, and the significant role that these technologies play in our daily lives, a set of web-specific accessibility guidelines were established in May 1999 (WCAG 1.0). The guidelines serve as the standard for making the web more accessible to, and equitable for, those with disabilities.

What is WCAG?

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are a set of accessibility standards published and maintained by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). While the original WCAG 1.0 guidelines were released in 1999, it wasn’t until much later that “WCAG” became a common acronym in the ecommerce industry.

In October of 2018, The U.S. Department of Justice released a letter stating that websites are places of public accommodation and must comply with the ADA. Shortly after, in December of 2018, the WCAG 2.0 standards were released, and many businesses started optimizing their websites for accessibility in accordance with these standards.

Benefits of an ADA-Compliant Ecommerce Website

As an ecommerce agency, CQL possesses unique insights into ecommerce trends and ideas due to the extensive client projects completed across a variety of industries. One of the trends that continues to hold true is the focus on optimizing websites for accessibility.

Your website is the most important asset of your ecommerce business. Your customers use your website to browse and buy your products, look up tracking information, find a store, manage their accounts, modify orders, contact customer service, check hours, and more. One in four adults in the U.S. lives with some form of disability [2], which means that if your site doesn’t meet the WCAG standards, then millions of people are potentially unable to interact with your company. 

Let’s look at the benefits of an ADA-compliant ecommerce website. It can be used to:

  1. Increase your Audience: By operating an accessible website, you are opening your online business up to millions of potential customers who otherwise might not be able to transact business with you. By providing your customers with a great shopping experience, you can increase conversion rates, create raving fans, and increase your lifetime value to your customers. By ensuring your site’s accessibility, you are providing users with disabilities the same opportunity to have a positive interaction with your company that individuals who do not have a disability enjoy. Ultimately, this can translate into an even greater number of loyal customers.
  2. Create a Competitive Advantage: It’s likely that many of your competitors are not taking ADA compliance seriously and are not investing in an accessible experience. In a study conducted In February 2020, an accessibility evaluation showed that 98% of the home pages for the top 1,000,000 web sites had compliance issues. [3] While this is unfortunate for those who require and benefit from accessible experiences, this can be an impactful area of differentiation for your business.
  3. Improve Usability Experience for All Customers: According to the WCAG guidelines, accessible web content should be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. These principles not only help make your site accessible but provide a more user-friendly experience overall. By evaluating and optimizing these particular elements of your site, you will likely make your website easier to use for all of your customers. Look for a deeper analysis of what it means to provide accessible web content that is perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust in a future post in this series on accessibility.
  4. Improve your Organic Rankings and Value: Did you know that assistive technologies, such as screen readers, crawl your site similarly to how Google crawls your site? Both depend on descriptive, well-structured information to interpret and communicate your site’s content. By optimizing alt text on images, transcribing audio files, providing keyword-relevant titles and descriptions, descriptive heading tags, and quality page content, you are also providing search engines with better, more optimized information to crawl, typically resulting in higher organic search rankings for your business.
  5. Stay a Moral and Reputable Business (and Avoid Lawsuits): By being a proactive and inclusive business, you are more likely to see the positive impacts of accessibility on your business. Showing all current and prospective customers that you are committed to inclusion makes it clear that you care about everyone’s experience with your brand. The alternative in the industry is negative press in the form of lawsuits, with legal and settlement fees, such as what is discussed in the next section.

Lawsuits for Non-Compliant Websites

An unfortunate reality of the ADA compliance laws is that most websites are not anywhere near compliant, which opens them up to lawsuits.

Companies like Nike, Amazon, Uber, Target, Harvard, and Chipotle have been hit with high-profile lawsuits due to their websites not being accessible. From 2017 to 2018, there was a 200% increase in lawsuits and demand letters alone, and 2019 saw triple the amount of papers served than 2018. The most recent notable case was in October of 2019, when the Supreme Court refused to hear Domino’s appeal [4], and upheld the ruling that required Domino’s to conform to the WCAG standards. 

As these cases make news headlines, more and more lawsuits have been targeted at ecommerce websites for non-compliance. And if you think your business is too small, think again. There have been over 150,000 demand letters served since 2017. Small- to medium-sized businesses are being targeted for quicker and easier settlements. These settlements can range from $15,000 – $100,000, depending on the size of your business [5], which doesn’t include legal fees or the costs to fix the accessibility problem(s).

The Future of Website Accessibility

Accessibility has many benefits for your business, your website, and your customers. There are also large fees and legal stress ahead for businesses ignoring ADA compliance laws. So be proactive and consider the benefits of optimizing your website to make it accessible to everyone.

The W3C and WIA are constantly working to evolve accessibility guidelines to stay current and applicable to our diverse digital age. The WCAG is scheduled to release version 2.2 in November, 2020, with the largest overhaul yet version 3.0 (Silver) coming in November, 2022.

If you are interested in learning more about WCAG, here are direct links to the W3C guidelines:

If your business is ready to create a more accessible experience and a better website, contact us today!