We’ve heard a lot about alternative facts and fake news lately, but I’m here to tell you about a more serious issue (for websites, anyway): alternative text. I frequently get asked about alternative text during website maintenance training. This typically occurs when I start discussing uploading, managing, and editing images.
Alternative text, or alt text, is an image attribute that helps describe an image with words. It is intended to help visitors who use software called screen readers. Screen readers do exactly as you would imagine: they read or describe what is on the screen for people who are not able to see it otherwise. While alt text is very important for the visually impaired, there are other benefits as well. Here is what you need to know:
Alt Text Helps Your Site Rank Higher in Search
Alt text has been proven to boost SEO (Search Engine Optimization) results when they include your company’s target search keywords. Ideally, we would like to balance the accessibility of a website with SEO so that we can improve search results and make the page accessible to the visually impaired at the same time.
For example, if your company sells different shades of lipstick, the images on your website, blogs, or other digital content might primarily consist of your products or people using your products. After doing some keyword research, you have determined “brick red lipstick” as a winnable phrase that you want your website to rank highly for. You’ll then want to use that phrase to boost your organic SEO and rank higher when someone searches for that term online. Naturally, the higher you rank, the more likely it will be that someone sees your website and clicks the link.
Instead of simply including “brick red lipstick” in your page copy, you can also include it in the alt text of an image of your red lipstick product on the appropriate page. This helps the search engine understand what the image is while reinforcing your SEO words and phrases.
Alt Text Questions Answered – Believe Me!
Understanding the true purpose of alt text is just the first piece of the puzzle. Questions often arise when pondering what alt text to add. Here are some that spring to mind:
- Does every image need a description?
- Does every image need to be optimized for search?
- How should I describe this image?
Luckily, the web community has been considering these questions for some time and guidelines for both accessibility and SEO are available.
A group called the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) has provided a straightforward alt text decision tree as part of their push for a more accessible web. Google has also published articles like this one to help people figure out how to best optimize their images for search results.
To summarize some important takeaways from the links above:
- Images used purely for decoration that do not add to the context of the page do not need alt text.
- The description of your image should tie into the overall topic of the page.
- Do not spam your keywords into the alt text in an unnatural way. Search engines do not like this and will dock points from your overall quality score, diminishing your page rank.
- Try to integrate your targeted keywords into normal phrases in a way that matches the context of the page and the image.
Using our lipstick example from above, let’s take a look at examples of good and bad alt text.
As we can see this string of keywords doesn’t read like a sentence to a real human. Google and other search engines are increasingly updating their algorithms to filter out alt text keyword strings like this as spam, and your rankings may actually take a hit if you do this.
In this example, we are using a focused keyword (brick red lipstick) that is relevant to both the image and the page. We are also making the information more digestible for humans, and in turn search engines, by using it in a partial sentence with context.
Finding a good balance between accessibility and optimization is the key when writing alternative text. My recommendation is to always describe what the image is about first and foremost. Then reference your keywords to see which ones might make sense to (sparingly) sprinkle in.
We all want our customers to find our website so they can read our content, see our products, learn about our company, and ultimately take steps toward becoming a customer. By using alternative text within your images correctly you’re not only helping those who rely on screen readers, you’re also giving yourself an SEO boost that may just put you ahead of your competitors in a search ranking. Every little bit helps.