Beyond SEO: Website Optimization for AI Bots. AIO Redefined
Since the days of Lycos, Alta Vista, and Excite in the early days of the web, we’ve been fine tuning websites to improve organic rankings on search engines. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) has ever since been the key to getting the best traffic.
Looking ahead, it's not too hard to see users switching to an AI Bot to scan the web for the information they seek rather than a traditional search engine. That citation backlink is the new equivalent to #1 organic ranking goal. And then as AI Agents come online that can perform actions such as booking a hotel room, how do we ensure that such booking systems are streamlined for such agents to book without friction.
So the question arises: Do barriers exist for AI Bots or Agents interacting with websites… and can we fix those? This was a question that my buddy, Pete Jewett had over at Accessible Web. So I dove into this and it turns out there are, and we can.
The term Artificial Intelligence Optimization (AIO) was coined this past year by Julia McCoy, who defined it as “the process of making AI content better with an expert human trained in optimizing the content AI puts out”. So, this definition isn’t about optimizing for AI, it's simply the use of AI to improve SEO. So it’s AI powered SEO. Not AIO.
Just as SEO was the optimization of websites for search engines, I suggest the definition of AIO should instead be the optimization of websites for AI. But I’m not here to debate this definition. I just want to clarify my use of the term.
Shared Barriers and Potential Solutions: AI Bots, Assistive Technologies, & WCAG
Interestingly, the obstacles these AI bots encounter often mirror the web accessibility barriers faced by individuals with disabilities using assistive technologies (AT) like screen readers. Similarly, websites that are accessible to ATs will also be accessible to AI bots as well. The good news is that we have a set of guidelines for accomplishing this. It is known as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. The WCAG was developed to improve the accessibility of websites (and SaaS and mobile apps) for ATs and in general for people with disabilities. And with all the court action of ADA compliance of such digital “places of public accommodation”, the WCAG has received quite a bit of attention.
This intersection presents a notable opportunity to ensure that websites perform well for AI bots, search engines, as well as assistive technologies by adhering to WCAG standards. This triple win not only promises to drive more traffic and sales today via search engines, and tomorrow by AI assistants, but also expands access to people with disabilities (and seniors), while shielding you from web-related ADA lawsuits due to WCAG non-compliance.
As we explore the concept of AIO further, a challenging question arises: as IA Bots and Agents evolve so quickly, will any investment in AIO be short-lived? Will AI Bots just learn to navigate around current barriers, making such efforts in AIO moot? This thought appears to throw shade on the concept and adds an underlying consideration. Luckily there are other benefits for WCAG compliance that will continue regardless.
But yes, while the swift evolution of AI could potentially mitigate some of the current challenges faced by AI Bots, the value of WCAG compliance expands beyond AIO. Increased accessibility delivers expanded reach and increased traffic, improved user experience for all abilities and technologies, plus better organic rankings and newly coveted AI citations are all tangible values that will be lasting.
Barriers AI Bots Face During Web Scanning
Let’s clarify the challenge. AI Bots contend with various challenges when navigating and consuming content on websites, many of which align with barriers encountered by AT users:
- 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.
WCAG Compliance for Expanded Digital Accessibility for AI Bots, Humans, and ATs.
Now let’s dive deeper into the solution. The WCAG is a globally recognized standard introduced and maintained by the W3C. It is designed to guide digital designers, developers and content authors to better create websites and web content that is more accessible for people with disabilities.
In the United States, following WCAG is required for compliance with the ADA, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act as well as a growing number of state laws requiring website accessibility.
Primary benefits of WCAG compliance:
1. Enhanced Accessibility for People with Disabilities
By adhering to WCAG’s guidelines around semantics, structure, and supported interactions, websites become more usable and accessible to individuals with a diverse range of disabilities. Not only does this expand the audience size but can also help to avoid lawsuits.
2. Improved AI Bot Scanning
Since WCAG promotes logical information flows, clean code, and machine-readable semantics - the very factors AI bots rely on - WCAG-compliant sites are inherently easier for AI bots to systematically scan and comprehend.
3. Built-In SEO Advantages
WCAG compliance shares many best 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.
The Path Towards Inclusive Digital Experiences
By adopting WCAG principles, we remove barriers to make the digital ecosystem more inclusive for both humans and AI systems. As AI bots become integral to how we find, consume, and interact with online information, ensuring websites follow accessibility guidelines will be crucial.
This is a potential boon for the WCAG. If my assumptions are correct (once in a while it happens), then the value of WCAG compliance should grow even more. When websites implement these methods, they open the gateway to the ever growing audience of tomorrow.
With AI blowing up at a hysterical/historical pace, website designers and marketers need to use every tool available. So investing in optimization for AI, SEO, and digital accessibility all seem to make good sense.
David Gibson - President