Alt text is a small but significant part of search engine optimisation for your website.
Even the savviest business owners might not use it properly, fail to use it altogether or even know what it is. Get your alt text right and you can give your search engine rankings a boost. Get it wrong (more on keyword stuffing to come) and you could do some damage instead.
Fortunately, this guide will give you everything you need to start adding alt text to your images with confidence.
If you’re just getting started with choosing imagery, you may want to check out how to choose the best images for your website to make a powerful first impression before diving into the ins and outs of including alt text on your images.
In this guide, we’ll run through everything you need to know about image alt text, what it is and it’s important – plus a few alt text examples to put things into context.
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What is alt text on images?
In simple terms, alt text is copy that’s added to an image when it’s uploaded to your site.
It’s short for “alternative text” and also known as an alt description or alt tag.
What does alt text do?
That’s all well and good. But why is it there?
Initially, its purpose was in the name. If an image failed to load on your site, the alt text would act as an alternative in its place. Not quite the same user experience, but at least they can close their eyes and imagine what might have been there!
Over time, image alt text has gained some more important roles.
Firstly, it can be used by screen-reading tools which help visually impaired visitors on your site. These software programs read text that’s displayed on a user’s screen, so they can also read the alt text to provide a more complete experience.
Finally, there are the benefits of search engine optimisation – SEO for short.
Search engines use image alt text when crawling your website to get an idea of what each page is about. Additionally, images can appear in search results if their alt text matches a relevant search term.
Is image alt text important?
Absolutely! Image alt text is important for a number of reasons…
Ensuring your site is accessible
Broadly speaking, accessibility is improving in the real world. But online, things are moving very slowly. According to AbilityNet, 90% of websites don’t meet Level A requirements from the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. One such guideline is to provide alternatives to visual content – website alt text, in other words.
It’s not just about giving visually impaired users the same experience though. You might not realise the importance of images on your website.
For example, a page might include an image that links to a downloadable how-to guide. Without alt text, a visually impaired reader would miss out on this information – and miss out on the guide.
Their experience isn’t just below average, it’s truly compromised. As well as the moral implications, this means you’re missing out on a conversion.
Search engines are pretty clever, but they’re not quite ready to understand images without a bit of human help. That’s where alt text comes into play. The short, text tags provide vital context so the likes of Google and Bing can identify image files.
Let’s say your DIY website has images with tags like “power tools”, “gardening” and “home improvement”. Search engines will see that these terms are related to DIY and assume that your images are relevant, helpful and appealing to users.
But it’s not just a case of missing out on an SEO boost. Failing to set tags can actually be damaging to your site’s rankings. In short, Google doesn’t like what it can’t understand.
Without image alt text, those images will count against your score.
Appearing on image search results
Did you know that 18.8% of Google search results show images? That’s just shy of one in five standard searches, where “image packs” are displayed. For the uninitiated, that’s a row of images displayed in an organic position amongst other search results.
Here’s an example of an image pack in the listings when I searched for photos of London.
On top of that, Google Images itself accounts for 10.1% of overall Google traffic. With over 3.5 billion searches per day in total, that’s… let’s just say it’s a lot of searches you could be showing up for!
So, how does Google find the right images? Alt text of course. Partly, at least. Other factors include associated text on the page, file names and captions. But you’ll be putting yourself at a distinct disadvantage without website alt text.
How to write alt text – with examples
The importance of website alt text is clear.
Given that importance, it’s not something you should rush like a mere obligation. Nor should you focus on just search engine optimisation. Firstly, because SEO-focused alt tags are rarely helpful for accessibility. Additionally, search engines can see through strategies like keyword stuffing.
Below, we’ll look at three rules for image alt text with an example of how to do it well (and what to avoid).
Sounds obvious right? But all too often, sites focus purely on keywords and completely sacrifice quality. Instead, you want to get a balance. Let’s put this into context…
A bad alt text example might say something like:
Freshly roasted coffee takeaway disposable cup drink
Here are the problems with this alt text:
- It’s trying to stuff in too many keywords
- The sentence doesn’t make sense
- As a result, it’s hardly any use from an accessibility perspective
- It also stops Google from properly understanding what the image is showing
- Google penalises sites for keyword stuffing too
Instead, a good alt text example might be:
Starbucks coffee in a disposable takeaway cup on a wooden table
The next rule is to be specific. You might give a decent description of an image, purely from a quality standpoint. We’re talking about good grammar, accuracy and decent keywords, broadly speaking. But that’s not always enough for search engines to truly understand what’s happening…
A subpar alt text example could be:
Football match at a stadium with lots of fans
If you want search engines to index this, it’s going to get lost. The keywords it uses, such as “football match” and “stadium” are too popular on their own. It might show up on those searches, but very low down.
By being more specific, the image could show up high for the most relevant searches.
A better alt text example would be:
Liverpool playing a football match against Manchester United at Anfield with fans holding up scarves.
Finally, there’s the relevance to your site. Not all images have their own specifics. That gives you a bit of freedom to make them relevant to your own context. For example…
A basic alt text example might be:
Two men shaking hands and smiling
But what if this image appeared on a website focussed on networking for the web design industry?
Two web design professionals meeting and shaking hands at a networking event.
Alternatively, it could appear on a dating website:
Two men meet in a bar on their first date.
Become a master of image alt text for your website
Like many things on your website, alt text might seem tricky at first. But with a bit of expert guidance, it can soon become second nature. That’s where The Website Mentor can help.
We provide website creation courses and one-to-one support to give you confidence in all areas of site building and ongoing maintenance. Soon enough you’ll be a master of alt text – and see the benefits for your site.
If you’re ready for more tips and resources, take a look at why you should optimise your images for WordPress and how to do it.