Optimizing Internal Links for Accessibility: 10 Key Strategies

10 min read

Internal linking, a longstanding pillar of SEO, has traditionally served as a vital mechanism for connecting webpages and enhancing visibility on search engines. Yet, its significance transcends SEO; it is crucial in crafting a user-friendly, navigable website, particularly for individuals with disabilities.

Despite its importance, SEO practices have sometimes led to inaccessible website structures due to misguided linking recommendations. However, the SEO community is well-positioned to drive positive change, promoting enhanced online visitor experiences and aligning with search engine preferences.

Nevertheless, SEO efforts alone are insufficient. Achieving accessibility requires integrating individuals with disabilities across all workforce levels, fostering inclusivity from executive leadership to entry-level positions. Such diversity enriches workplace culture and significantly raises accessibility standards.

To initiate a shift towards prioritizing accessibility in internal linking practices, consider implementing the following recommendations.


1. Enhance Accessibility with Clear and Descriptive Anchor Text


Utilizing precise and descriptive anchor text is essential for ensuring website accessibility. Anchor text acts as a roadmap, guiding users towards the content they can anticipate upon clicking a link. Unclear descriptors may lead to navigation difficulties, particularly for users reliant on screen readers.

Stephanie McCoy, the founder of Bold Blind Beauty, emphasizes the importance of avoiding vague anchor text like “click here” or “read more.” Such text must provide context, posing challenges for screen reader users who lack immediate access to surrounding content that could offer clues about the link’s destination. Non-descriptive anchor text can result in a frustrating browsing experience with unexpected outcomes.


2. Enhancing User Experience: Aligning Anchor Text with User Intent


Aligning anchor text with user intent ensures a seamless browsing experience. Users rely on the description provided by anchor text to anticipate the content they will encounter upon clicking a link. When the linked content fails to meet these expectations, it can result in a disappointing user experience, particularly for individuals with learning disabilities, eroding trust in the website.

According to Alice Rowan, a website copywriter, SEO consultant, and a member of Neurodivergent in SEO, anchor text is paramount in internal linking. Using vague phrases like “click here” fails to convey meaningful information to readers, search engines, or screen readers. This lack of clarity can lead to utter confusion among all users.

This discrepancy can be particularly frustrating for screen reader users. Imagine selecting a link labeled “gluten-free chocolate cake recipe” only to be redirected to a page selling chocolate. Anchor text should accurately represent the content it links to, fulfilling a promise to users.

How to Implement:

Regularly review internal links to guarantee they lead users to pertinent and anticipated content. Maintaining a consistent delivery on promises articulated by anchor text instills trust and enriches the user experience. For further guidance, refer to the template example provided at the end of this article.


3. Streamlining Link Density for Enhanced User Experience


In our efforts to provide comprehensive information, we sometimes inadvertently clutter pages with excessive links. This saturation can create visual chaos and cognitive overload, particularly challenging for users with attention-related disabilities. Simplifying the layout and reducing link density can alleviate strain, fostering a more manageable online experience for all users.

For neurodivergent individuals and those with cognitive disabilities, navigating a cluttered page filled with links can be disorienting and taxing on cognitive resources. By minimizing link density, we facilitate smoother information processing and improve content absorption, ultimately enhancing user satisfaction.

Screen reader users also face challenges when encountering an overload of links. Assistive technologies vocalize each link, and sifting through many links can be tedious and overwhelming. Striving for a more user-centric approach, with approximately 25-30 links or fewer per page, improves accessibility and usability for all users, including keyboard-only navigation.

To optimize the layout further, consider spacing out links within the body text and utilizing formatting tools like bullet lists or tables for improved organization.

Implementation Tips:

Exercise restraint in linking and prioritize relevance and value over quantity. Ask yourself whether each link enhances user understanding or exploration rather than being added solely for SEO purposes.

Adopt a user-centric mindset, providing valuable content and experiences rather than overwhelming users with excessive links.

Maintaining the same standards of relevance and value when engaging in link building ensures that links add genuine value to users’ browsing experiences.


4. Signaling Links Opening in New Windows


Links that open in new browser windows or tabs can disrupt user expectations, akin to abruptly shifting rooms mid-conversation. For users having faith on screen readers or anyone with neurodivergent traits, such unexpected changes can significantly disrupt the browsing experience.

According to Raghavendra Satish Peri, founder of DigitalA11Y, screen reader users may not immediately realize when a new window or tab opens, leading to confusion as they attempt to navigate as if still on the original page.

Moreover, individuals with motor disabilities may find managing multiple windows or tabs challenging, which can add to the browsing difficulty.

Although previously recommended in SEO practices to open new windows for external links to prevent users from leaving entirely, it’s now considered best practice to keep users within the same window whenever possible. Exceptions include situations like calendar-based date pickers where a new window enhances usability.

To implement this effectively:

  • Use visual or textual cues to indicate when a link will be opened in a different new window or tab. 
  • By providing clear indicators, you foster transparency and predictability in the user experience, ensuring users are aware of potential changes in the browsing context.


5. Opt for Easily Identifiable Styles


The visibility and distinctiveness of links play a pivotal role in guiding users to interact with them effectively. When links blend into regular text without clear differentiation, it hampers navigation, potentially leading users to overlook vital pathways and impacting metrics like page views and bounce rates.

Denis Boudreau, founder of Inklusiv and Director of instructor-led training at Deque Systems, emphasizes the importance of ensuring links maintain a minimum 3:1 color contrast ratio for low-vision users and those with color vision deficiencies. This ensures links stand out and remain visible amidst surrounding content.

Similarly, individuals with learning disabilities may face challenges when links lack consistent styling or deviate from standard conventions, adding unnecessary complexity to their browsing experience.

Implementation Tips:

Ensure links across the website adhere to a uniform style. Consistency in link presentation, whether through color, underlining, or other visual treatments, aids users in swiftly identifying links regardless of their location on the site.

Maintain a 3:1 color contrast ratio between the link text and its surrounding content and a contrast ratio 4.5:1 against the background. This ensures links remain discernible to all users, regardless of visual impairments.

Employ visual cues to indicate a focus on hyperlinked text, such as changes in color or style, enhancing user awareness of interactive elements.


6. Implementing Breadcrumb Navigation


Breadcrumb navigation is a supplementary navigation tool that showcases the user’s current location on a website and the path taken to arrive there. Typically displayed as links at the top of a page, breadcrumbs offer users a swift means to comprehend their position within the site’s overarching structure.

For screen reader users, breadcrumbs furnish a rapid overview of the page’s placement within the site hierarchy, offering an alternative navigation route to higher-level sections without the need to backtrack through multiple pages.

Breadcrumbs must remain static rather than dynamic, a feature crucial for neurodivergent individuals as it provides consistency and predictability, aiding website orientation. This steadfast format reduces cognitive burden by furnishing a clear, unvarying path, facilitating smoother information processing.

According to Jack Chambers-Ward, co-founder of Neurodivergent in SEO and Marketing & Partnerships Manager at Candour, static breadcrumbs offer neurodivergent users a consistent navigation structure, mitigating cognitive load and enabling them to navigate back to parent categories more easily. This clarity aids users in retracing their steps and returning to previous pages or categories.

Implementation Guidelines:

Ensure breadcrumbs are prominently positioned, typically at the top of a webpage, and visually distinct from other content.

Each segment of the breadcrumb trail should be linked (except for the current page), allowing users to effortlessly navigate back to the preceding sections or pages.

Semantically markup the breadcrumb using appropriate HTML elements and ARIA roles to ensure screen readers interpret it accurately.


7. Implementing Global Static Navigation


Global static navigation entails maintaining consistent navigation options that persist unchanged across all web pages. Typically situated at the top or side of a website, this navigation structure furnishes users with a stable and predictable menu, ensuring they always have access to a familiar array of options to facilitate seamless navigation.

While businesses may occasionally adjust the top navigation based on user interactions to highlight specific products, services, or content, such dynamic changes can sometimes complicate the user experience, particularly if they disrupt the site’s consistency or predictability.

According to Billie Geena Hyde, founder of Uptake Agency and a community member of Neurodivergent in SEO, static navigation benefits neurodivergent users, including those with dyslexia or memory-affecting disabilities. Consistent navigation layouts across every page mitigate disorientation, benefiting users who rely on stability for ease of use.

Ensuring minimal effort is required to understand and navigate a website is paramount. Navigation difficulties may drive users with disabilities to seek alternatives, emphasizing the importance of prioritizing accessibility to foster loyalty among this user demographic.

Implementation Tips:

Adopting a uniform global navigation menu across the website gives users a reliable anchor, reducing cognitive load and enhancing navigational efficiency.

Arrange links in a predictable, logical, and intuitive order, including those leading to the most important or frequently accessed sections of the website, to ensure users can easily reach key areas.


8. Avoid Linking Headings


Headings are essential for organizing content and guiding users through a webpage’s structure, acting as navigational aids akin to signposts or a table of contents. Hyperlinking headings, however, can disrupt this organizational flow, complicating navigation and comprehension for some users.

For screen reader users, headings are particularly significant. They often navigate by jumping from one heading to the next to quickly grasp the layout of content. Hyperlinked headings can disrupt this navigation process, potentially leading users to unintended pages or sections.

It’s worth noting that feedback on this issue from screen reader users varies. While some users report no disruption from hyperlinked headings, others find them bothersome, highlighting the diversity of user experiences.

Implementation Guidelines:

As a general practice, refrain from linking headings. This ensures headings fulfill their primary role of structuring content without introducing potential confusion.

If a link related to a heading’s topic is necessary, consider including the link in the text immediately following the heading. This approach preserves the clarity of the heading while still offering the relevant link.


9. Resolving 404 Errors


Broken links act as virtual dead ends, disrupting the user experience and leading to frustration. Commonly manifested as “Page Not Found” errors, these occurrences arise when users attempt to access webpages that don’t exist on the server. Causes can range from deleted pages to mistyped or improperly redirected URLs.

Nasreen Bhutta, Chief Communications Officer of Bold Blind Beauty, emphasizes the disruptive nature of 404 errors from an accessibility perspective. They interrupt the navigation flow through the website, potentially leading to user abandonment and tarnishing the website’s brand, trust, and credibility.

Implementation Strategies:

Utilize tools and conduct periodic audits to ensure all internal links direct users to active, relevant pages. Swiftly address any broken links discovered.

If a user encounters a 404 page, ensure the error message is clear and guides the next steps. This may include offering a search bar, a link to the homepage, or a list of popular destinations to help users continue their journey seamlessly.

Facilitate user feedback mechanisms to report broken links or encountered issues. This input can help promptly identify and resolve errors, maintaining the website’s reliability and user satisfaction.


10. Restricting Redirect Usage


Redirects serve as mechanisms to automatically redirect users from one URL to another. While they can be beneficial in specific scenarios, such as guiding users from outdated content to its updated version, excessive or incorrectly executed redirects can present accessibility hurdles.

Unexpected redirections can induce disorientation, especially for screen reader users who may find themselves on an unforeseen page without comprehending the reason behind it. Individuals with specific cognitive impairments may struggle to grasp the contextual shift associated with redirects, leading to frustration.

Implementation Guidelines:

Minimize the use of redirects to enhance page rendering speed and user experience. Reserve their utilization for necessary situations only.

When altering URL structures or relocating content, update internal links to direct users to the new location, eliminating reliance on redirects whenever possible.

If redirects are unavoidable, ensure they execute swiftly and avoid chaining multiple redirects together, mitigating potential accessibility challenges.


Closing Remarks


While this article highlights critical internal linking best practices, it’s essential to recognize that there are additional strategies worth considering, such as optimizing HTML sitemaps and Table of Contents. Use the insights provided here as a foundation if you need to incorporate them into your approach.

Prioritizing accessibility often improves SEO outcomes, but the reverse isn’t always true. For instance, adding links solely for SEO metrics can detract from user experience rather than enhancing it.

A simple template example for adjusting anchor text is provided for those seeking a starting point to address the topics discussed in this article. The objective is to make the destination of each link more transparent, thereby enhancing user experience and, consequently, benefiting SEO efforts. If navigating these concepts feels overwhelming, consider exploring our monthly SEO packages, where experts can assist you.

Shilpi Mathur
[email protected]