Google’s Lighthouse accessibility audit tool has the potential to make billions of websites more accessible without legislation.
History tells us unless Google makes accessibility a ranking factor, we will continue to see slow progress.
Why does Google want the web accessible?
The answer is simple. Google wants everyone to be delighted with their online experience. This goal goes beyond the use of its products. Just read these excerpts from Google’s accessibility statement for proof. 
- “Everyone should be able to access and enjoy the web. We’re committed to making that a reality.”
- “Google’s support of accessibility extends beyond products to include research, education, and design efforts.”
While most would agree that Google products make lives better, one question remains unanswered. Will Google provide an economic incentive to designers to use its new Lighthouse accessibility audit tool? Improving the way we create websites as a result. All while making lives better for millions of people with disabilities.
The History of ADA regulations and web accessibility
In 1990, legislators passed the American Disabilities Act (ADA) with no explicit reference to websites. This fact is not a surprise since the web was just starting to evolve in the early 90s. In 1998, Congress changed the ADA to include Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 508 required federal e-government websites to be accessible to persons with disabilities, but it left the majority of websites unregulated.
However, since 1996, the Department of Justice has stated that the ADA applies to all websites since they are a “public accommodation.” The Supreme Court has not taken up the issue yet, but many lower courts have held that the ADA applies to websites.
Therefore, with no legal requirement make sites accessible, it seems like progress on web accessibility has continued at a snail’s pace.
Today’s Accessibility Laws and Regulations
Fast forward to 2017 and see that website accessibility lawsuit filings are still going strong, but current legislative action has been absent. Most court decisions have taken the position that meaningful access the Internet is a civil right. Court settlements forced many websites to be remediated to follow Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. However, the Trump administration delivered a setback for accessibility advocates when it moved web accessibility regulation to its “Inactive List.”  As a result legislative progress in the area of online accessibility is going nowhere fast.
42% of Federal Government websites fail accessibility tests
In March of 2017, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) released a study on accessibility of federal sites.  The findings show that 42 percent failed accessibility tests. The government websites that failed the accessibility test include the Internal Revenue Service (irs.gov) and the International Trade Administration (trade.gov). Therefore how can the federal government regulate accessibility standards when it can’t even keep its websites up to standard?
Google takes up the gauntlet for web accessibility
Google released Lighthouse at it’s I/O 2017 event. The focus of the product is to help the developer community improve progressive application development. Lighthouse also included an accessibility auditing feature. The accessibility audit feature is a positive sign for millions of people living with disabilities. Hence, with Lighthouse Google can fill the void where government regulators have failed to act.
Will the Google Lighthouse accessibility audit tool make millions of websites accessible?
It seems like Google is just packaging an existing accessibility testing tool into its Lighthouse product. In fact, there are numerous free online tools for accessibility testing. Many have been around for years. You can try out 25 website accessibility testing tools by visiting Dynomapper.com. Therefore if developers are not using these tools why should one expect Google’s dev tool for accessibility to be any different?
The Google Lighthouse accessibility audit tool makes accessibility programming easy for developers.
Why does Lighthouse make accessibility programming easy for developers? Google packaged the accessibility audit in Lighthouse with the tools that developers will use to create progressive web apps. As a result, Google helped advance accessibility in three ways.
- First, it endorsed accessibility programming as something that must be part of the web development process. The decision to include an accessibility audit in Lighthouse is a bold statement which could give credibility to plans for future SEO benefits of having an accessible website.
- Second, a familiar Chrome developer toolbox displays the accessibility test results. Web designers can see the code and test results side by side. Hence developers can identify and fix issues quickly.
- Third, programmers can run experiments and see the results without lots of extra work. As a result, this change brings down the cost of development for everyone.
Watch this video to see how programmers can leverage Lighthouse to improve accessibility:
Does the Google endorsement make website owners want to fix accessibility issues?
It is too early to know if developers will start using the accessibility test to make the web more accessible. To see the possibilities, we can look at Google’s products and how developers have used them over time. Let’s consider Google’s products for improving website development. Google has created popular search and development tools to improve the Internet. These products include mobile-friendly tests, search console, structured data testing, Google My Business, PageSpeed Insights and now Lighthouse for progressive app development.
Here is why it could happen sooner than you think.
Google has a history of rewarding those who use its products. Most noteworthy Google has publicly recognized that performance is a ranking factor. This change has given a push to mobile-friendly sites and those that have a fast download speed. Hence web designers that use Google’s PageSpeed Insights and Mobile Friendly Tests can improve a website’s rank in search results. Maybe we will see the same happening with the accessibility audit tool.
Will Google advance the Lighthouse accessibility audit tool by changing it’s search algorithm to favor websites that use it?
Google’s search algorithm can be changed to improve the web for everyone, including those with disabilities. Here’s how. The automated tool creates data points and a score. Google can use these data points as criteria for evaluating websites. Hence Google could rank a site based on how well it scores on Lighthouse.
As of today, it is difficult to measure the exact impact of using these tools on search engine placement. Quality content is still the #1 driving force for search engine ranking, and as a result, we do not see this changing in the near term. The vast majority of people use the Internet because they are looking for quality content. Therefore Google needs to be the best at helping people find what they are seeking.
The approach many SEO experts are taking is this; if Google says something will improve search engine results for a website, then it may be worth doing. As a result, it is difficult to justify making a significant investment. Business decisions tend to focus on today’s ROI rather than what might happen in the future.
The future of web accessibility and the Lighthouse accessibility audit tool
In conclusion, it is not clear if Lighthouse will result in a considerable upgrade to millions of websites. Google says it makes accessibility a priority, yet the vast majority of sites need improvements to allow access for people with disabilities. Maybe not right away. Unless Google’s changes its search algorithm, the Lighthouse accessibility audit tool will only offer a minimal reprieve. This outlook is because there is a limited financial incentive for website owners to take action. Therefore a handful of webmasters may make the jump and start initiating changes, but this will do little in the long-term.
Google must show the world it takes accessibility seriously by making it a publicly recognized ranking factor. If not, websites will continue to fail for people with disabilities. Maybe if everyone takes the time to ask Google to make the change, it will happen sooner or later. If you agree, take a moment to use the get in touch feature and let Google know how you feel.
If you like this article, try reading why there is a strong business case for accessibility in web design.
Structured data is another underutilized resource waiting for a boost from Google. Learn why by reading: “Hey Google: advance structured data.”
- Google’s Accessibility Statement
- President Trump Moved the Web Accessibility Regulation to Inactive List
- 92Percent of Most Popular Federal Government Websites Fail to Meet Basic Standards for Security, Speed, Mobile Friendliness, or Accessibility, New ITIF Study Finds
- Google selects Deques aXe for Chrome dev tools
Contact one of our Boston accessibility web designers to discuss your project. Call 978-851-9077