What you need to know about alt text

Alt text isn’t a left or right textual conspiracy, it stands for Alternative Text but is sometimes called alt attribute, alt description, or alt tags. (It’s not a tag, so that’s incorrect, but we know what you mean.)

Alternative text is simply text that is used in place of an image. This text will primarily be used by screen-readers who are reading the screen for those using the web with visual impairments. 

Alt text will also be displayed in the case when an image is unable to load properly.

Thirdly, alt text is used by search engines to know what your photo, and your page, is about. It is used in SEO because Google bots are essentially deaf and blind. It can’t see your photo, so it’s relying your description.

SEO Implications

Since alt text is used in SEO, a lot of people now use it primarily for this reason. So if their page keyword phrase is “purple penguin” then their alt text is “purple penguin” even if their image is not of a purple penguin. And this is a mistake.

Yes, alt text is used by search engine crawlers to help determine the content of your page, but that doesn’t mean that you should use it solely for that purpose. The primary purpose of that alt text is to serve your user with disabilities, telling them what your photo is about. First and foremost, that should be what your alt text does.

That doesn’t mean you can’t also use it for SEO. You just need to formulate your description making sure it’s an accurate description of the photo AND uses your keyword phrase.

If your photo is a photo of a snowy day and your keyword is “snow removal processes,” your alt text could be “Snow before snow removal processes begin.” Not only is that an accurate description of the photo, but it also uses the keyword.

Alt Text Tips

  • Be brief, but specific. Create a mental image for your user who can’t see the photo.
  • Don’t stuff it with keywords. Remember, only one keyword per page or post means that jamming in keywords isn’t going to help, it’s going to hurt… not only your SEO rankings, but your visually impaired user as well. Use your keyword, appropriately, one time in the alt text.
  • There’s no need to include “photo of” or “picture of” in your alt text. Google knows it’s a photo because of the HTML.
  • Don’t leave the alt text area blank!
Puppies depicting how to use alt text

Using alt text is important for accessibility and SEO. Make sure your addresses the primary use before the SEO use and you’ll be in good shape.

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Amy Masson

Amy is the co-owner, developer, and website strategist for Sumy Designs. She's been making websites with WordPress since 2006 and is passionate about making sure websites are as functional as they are beautiful.

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