Google Alt Text SEO & Accessibility

Google’s John Mueller and Lizzie Sussman discuss creating image alt text that’s useful for those using screen readers, and they briefly touch on what to do about embossed images and how hard alt text is to strike a balance between SEO and accessibility.

Alt text is for accessibility and search engine optimization?

According to the World Wide Web Consortium (commonly referred to as W3C), the official HTML standards body, the purpose of image alt text is to make images understandable to site visitors who cannot view image content and use screen readers.

Alt text also helps those who use screen readers to understand the purpose of an image or perceive the text in an image.

The W3C also says that alt text has an SEO purpose as well.

The guide says:

“…if you want your website to be indexed as it deserves, use the alt text attribute to make sure they don’t miss important sections of your pages.”

Arguably, the purpose of alt text is to make images understandable and accessible to those who cannot see the image, including search engine bots.

It takes an amazing amount of thought to get the alt text right. The W3C has published an alternative tutorial text for seven different types of image contexts.

Don’t say a picture is a picture

Although SEO may require that the alt text from a screenshot indicate that the image is a screenshot, for accessibility purposes, it is considered redundant (it’s annoying to write that the image is an image).

Liz Sussman and John Mueller discuss addressing this problem:

“So it is a best practice not to start every image with a screenshot or screenshot, because it then becomes repetitive.

We already know it’s a picture. You don’t need to say, “It’s a picture” and then the thing.

Just start with any description. It also doesn’t necessarily need to be a complete sentence, I think.

John Mueller: Yes.

Lizzie Sussman: It could just be a descriptive phrase. I don’t think it should be a complete thought.”

Balancing SEO and accessibility needs

John Mueller introduces the topic of tension between traditional SEO practice regarding image alt text and accessibility requirements.

Mueller continued:

John Mueller: Yeah, yeah. I think that makes a lot of sense.

I mean, maybe the hard part is balancing the two sides. access side type. What people want from accessibility alt text.

And then the SEO aspect where you can do some things like… traditionally, you can do some things that might be a little different.

As if you were listing a bunch of synonyms, eg.

Like, “Oh, that’s an ocean beach with waves.”

And that’s the kind of thing that sometimes makes sense to do this in alt text for SEO reasons, but probably not for accessibility reasons.

Finding that balance is a bit tricky at times.

So it’s good to pay attention to that.”

Something is better than nothing

An important point about image alt text is that it is a bad practice to leave the alt text field blank.

One reason for this bad practice is that screen readers may start reading image file names, which is a negative user experience.

Another reason is that it prevents visitors who use screen readers from receiving important information that may be in some of the images.

Then there are SEO considerations regarding alt text and getting images indexed correctly and found in search.

John Mueller advises adding something to the alt text because something is better than nothing.

He suggested:

John Mueller: But if you’re only adding alt text for the first time, sometimes any alt text is better than none.

Lizzie Sussman: Like nothing.

At least start with something, but then, what can you do to improve on that on top of that.”

Alternative text and decorative images

Lizzie Sussman then discussed what to do about the decorative images.

The first problem is distinguishing whether an image is really decorative or whether it is conceptual and contributes to the meaning of the content, and in this case, the challenge is how to communicate a conceptual image.

Lizzie commented:

“And that’s definitely something…I think I suffer from more, like more decorative pictures, or things that are not…

I don’t know… The search result is pretty straightforward.

But once he gets into things like, “Oh, that’s understandable,” or something like, “It’s decorative,” so it doesn’t…

There are some places that say, “Oh, I don’t need to put alt text in a decorative image.”

As if it was just there for the sake of aesthetics, it’s best to leave the alt text blank.

But on the other hand, why would I put it there? There was a reason to put it there.

So shouldn’t we have something to fill that gap to experience someone who doesn’t see the picture?

Shouldn’t we have something alternative? It served a purpose.

We put it there for a reason, like what’s an alternative experience for still communicating this information, I guess?

So like Googlebot, like doing things.

Sometimes we have these, I guess what can be classified as a decorative image.

Where Googlebot is like exploring the web, or something like that.

Or does it convey some kind of idea, and should the alt text focus on the idea? Or like, “It’s a Googlebot with some friends.”

Or it’s Googlebot…like putting spam into your computer, and then finally feeling happy.

Like describing what’s going on there, so that you still get an idea of ​​what it was supposed to be there, I guess, one of the things that… yeah, it baffles me.

John Mueller: Yes. I mean from a personal point of view, I would definitely add alt text to this kind of image, because it’s kind of unique and special.

It’s not… I don’t know… a floral background, or something like that.

It’s actually something that people spend a lot of time creating that image.

It is also something people may want to find in search results.

So if you’re looking for a Googlebot, like we spend a lot of time creating all these images, it would be great if you found it too.”

The W3C has published a full page of documentation on how to handle alt text for decorative images.

This is the official W3C recommendation:

Decorative images do not add information to the content of the page.

For example, the information provided by the image may already be presented using adjacent text, or the image may be embedded to make the website more visually appealing.

In these cases, an empty (blank) alt text (alt=””) must be provided so that it can be ignored by assistive technologies, such as screen readers.

The text values ​​for these types of images may add audible clutter to the screen reader’s output or may distract users if the subject matter is different from that in the adjacent text. “

The W3C also suggests four ways to define decorative images.

Four tests to see if an image is textured:

  1. The image is used to design the document (look and style)
  2. If it is a complementary image to link the text
  3. Do not contribute information to the content of the text
  4. The image is described by the surrounding text content

Ultimately, it is up to the author to decide what is best for the image’s alt text.

As Google said, something is better than nothing. So, if the image does not provide information, use the null for the alt text, which is encoded with alt = “”

the quote

Listen to this part of the Google Podcast at 15:17 minutes:

Featured image by Shutterstock / Roman Sambourskyi


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