The buzz about alt tags and search engine optimization is ramping up again. So it’s time for some myth busting around this oft-misunderstood topic.
Myth 1: They’re Called ‘Alt Tags’
To be exact, they’re properly named “alternative attributes of an image tag.” The alt attribute is a modifier that gives descriptive information about the image called in an individual image tag within a page of HTML code. The alt attribute’s descriptive information is useful to assist visually impaired customers and search engine crawlers as they navigate the site.
For example, see the image below from Amazon’s toy landing page.
The image tag in the example above displays the Holiday Toy List image on Amazon’s landing page by utilizing the following elements.
- img tag. Displays images on a page.
- src attribute. Specifies which image file to display.
- width and height attributes. Specify the width and height at which the image should be displayed.
- alt attribute. “Holiday Toy List.”
The alt attribute is just one element of an image tag. Yes, everyone understands what you mean when you say “alt tag,” but it’s not actually a tag. It’s like pointing to a moped and calling it a car. People will understand that you recognize the moped as a vehicle, but they may also think you’re less experienced.
Myth 2: Alt Attributes Can Replace Text
There is no replacement for unique textual content on the page that’s visible and useful to the customer. If a page contains solely image-based content with no on-page descriptive text, it will have a hard time ranking on search engines.
Even perfectly optimized alt attributes will not have enough prominence to make a difference. They’re just not strong enough SEO signals.
Myth 3: Alt Attributes Are Mostly for SEO
Originally developed to improve accessibility for impaired visitors, alt attributes have somehow become solely an SEO element in the minds of many. This is a false and dangerous mindset, because alt attributes could be “optimized” for SEO in ways that actually hinder their true purpose of improving accessibility.
In actuality, SEO needs are best served by keeping the true purpose of alt attributes in the forefront: accessibility.
Imagine you’re a blind or handicapped consumer that uses a screen reader to navigate a site. Even better, install a plugin like Fangs for Firefox that emulates a screen reader as it reads of a page. If you have trouble navigating your site, chances are an impaired customer will have even more trouble with it.
Alt attributes are only part of the accessibility picture, but they can both help and hurt. Write short, descriptive alt attributes for images that assist consumers in understanding what the page is about and how to complete their desired actions. In doing so, you’ll also be optimizing for SEO without having to worry about stuffing too much content or too many keywords into each one.
For example, if the image is a product, as most ecommerce images should be, the name of the product is an appropriate alt attribute. If your site sells products from multiple brands, adding the brand to the product name may also be a good idea.
Which information will help the customer understand and act without overwhelming her with excess words? That’s your alt attribute.
Myth 4. Every Image Needs Alt Attributes
Many images do not need alternative attributes. If your site uses spacer, line, bullet and other purely design-oriented images, do not use alt attributes in those image tags. Imagine having to sit through a slow reading of something like this just to understand that there are four navigational links in a menu:
“Graphic line separator graphic spacer gif bullet graphic orange arrow link toys and games graphic spacer gif bullet graphic orange arrow link clothing and accessories graphic spacer gif bullet graphic orange arrow link home and garden graphic spacer gif bullet graphic orange arrow link sports and outdoors graphic line separator”
The presence of three images — a separating line image, a spacer image, and an orange bullet to delineate the list of options — takes three times the words to convey in a screen reader. Leaving the alt attribute blank for those three images would save the consumer valuable time and increase her ability to use the site successfully. The consumer would only have to listen to something like this.
“Bullet link toys and games bullet link clothing and accessories bullet link home and garden bullet link sports and outdoors”
In short, consider the descriptive or navigational value of an image before assigning it an alt attribute.
Myth 5: You Need to Fix Alt Attributes Now
Tackle every other possible on-site SEO element before you worry about optimizing existing alt attributes for images that are already in use on the site. Alt attributes have such a small SEO value that there is not enough benefit in launching an initiative of optimizing them as a standalone SEO tactic.
Optimize title tags and meta descriptions, optimize templates to give prominence to the optimal text fields, optimize navigational and cross-linking elements, and clean up duplicate content. When your site is perfect and only alt attributes are left, go for it.
The three exceptions to this rule are:
- If you’re loading new images, absolutely include alt attributes as part of the upload process;
- If image search is a priority, alt attributes are somewhat more important;
- If improving alt attributes is part of a larger initiative to improve accessibility.
Myth 6: Alt Attributes Take Forever to Write
Actually, this one is mostly true unless you have the support of a developer. With the proper scripts, tools, and shortcuts in place, the process of writing alt attributes can be cut to a tenth of the time it would otherwise take you.
Ask your developer is she can write a script to include the product name as an alt attribute automatically for every product image.
Ask your photographer to label images descriptively. He has to call the images something, after all. Rather than “image02345s.jpg”, have him name it in a way that a developer could write a script to build alt attributes with. Talk with both teams to determine the best way to accomplish this.
Think hard about more automated ways to generate good alt attributes and ask your developers and other digital marketers how they’ve tackled it in the past. The alternative — manually viewing and writing alt attributes for every image — unfortunately can take forever.