According to a 2018 survey by ViSenze, 62% of Gen Z and Millennial users prefer visual search technology over traditional text search. And search engines are responding to shifts in user preferences by displaying more visual content on search engine results pages (SERPs). To stay competitive on SERPs, you need to focus on optimizing images for search.

The use of alt text is one of the easiest and most effective image optimization techniques out there. Aside from allowing Google to understand the images in your content, alt text also creates a better user experience. Overall, adding alt text to your visual content is a powerful step in a successful image SEO strategy.

What is image alt text?

Image alt text is the text that the search engine displays if an image cannot load properly. It is also the text that screen readers dictate out loud for visually impaired users. Other names for alt text include “alt attributes” and “alt descriptions.”

While alt text is essential for improving your site’s accessibility, it can help improve your SEO as well. An alternative description:

  • Gives crawlers more context to analyze any images
  • Provides you with an opportunity to highlight target keyword(s)
  • Tells Google that the content of the image is relevant to the rest of the page

In the following image from Wix, the alt text is “Girl at Antelope Canyon,” letting users and crawlers know that the photo is relevant to the topic of Antelope Canyon.

An example of good image alt text.

Users viewing a page about Antelope Canyon would be able to tell that this photo shows the girl at that park. Anyone who can’t see the image (including Google), though, will rely on the alt text to understand its importance. It’s for this and many other reasons why image alt text is important for your website’s SEO.

Why is image alt text important?

Visual content is a great way to package a message. Research has found that people remember what they see more than what they read or hear:

Most people remember more of what they see and do than what they hear or read.

And if you want your content to reach more users, you absolutely have to include alt text. Here’s why:

Alt text gives context for image-linked pages

Using images as external links is a common practice among content creators. Unlike in-text links, however, image links don’t have obvious anchor text.

That’s where alt attributes come in – they serve as the anchor text for image-linked pages. This helps Google analyze the linked page and how it relates to your content.

Alt text influences image search rankings

Over 20% of all web searches come from Google Images. This figure doesn’t even include the number of standard Google searches that return image results.

A pie graph showing that more than half of all web searches go through Google.

When a user searches a query, Google will check image results from its index for the searcher. Google primarily uses alt text to determine whether that image is relevant to the user. So without alt text, you stand little chance of ranking with images in Google at all. When 20% of web searches come from Google images, that’s a hefty chunk of traffic you can’t afford to miss.

Alt text demonstrates relevance

Areas of SEO like meta descriptions, title tags, and H1 tags allow you to connect your content to user searches. Alt text is no different.

How does Google know what’s in an image? You tell it. The keywords that you put in alt text descriptions explain to crawlers how the image relates to certain topics.

Without alt text, Google simply won’t know an image’s value to users. The more specific the text, the more accurate connections that search engines can make between topics and images.

Alt text increases accessibility

Alt text is important for making your site accessible to users with visual impairments. These people rely on screen readers to dictate image descriptions. If you leave an empty alt attribute, these users won’t benefit from the visual content you’ve provided.

That’s especially true if you include charts or infographics. Leaving your alt attribute blank can have a big impact on the overall experience and comprehension that these users have.

According to a June 2021 survey of screen reader users, the majority feel that the accessibility of web content hasn’t improved in the past several years.

While it’s unclear how many websites regularly use alt text, it’s safe to assume that most brands have room for improvement. Consistently using alt text helps you build relationships with users who may struggle to find reliable sources of information.

How do you add alt text?

Adding alt text to images is relatively simple. Most content management systems like WordPress have built-in features that allow you to do it without coding. Even Microsoft Word has an alt text feature when you right-click on the page:

The drop-down in Microsoft Word showing the "image alt text" option

There are two main ways to add alt text in WordPress. The first is straight through the WP Block Editor. Once you upload your image, you can put your alt text content in the box underneath the “Image Settings” drop-down menu:

The block editor option for adding image alt text.

The second way is to add it through the media library. Once your file uploads, you will have the option to write your title and alt text:

The media library option for adding image alt text.

Another popular way to add alt text is through the Yoast SEO plugin:

Adding image alt text with the Yoast SEO plugin.

Many people like using Yoast because it will notify you when images are missing alt tags. This plugin is a good option if you need to be more consistent with writing alt text for your images.

How do you find out if an image has alt text?

To find out whether or not an image has alt text, you need to look at the page’s HTML data. Here are the steps for finding alternative text in the code:

  1. Right-click anywhere on the web page.
  2. Click on “inspect.”
  3. Select the icon in the top left-hand corner of the code panel that pops up.
  4. Click on the image that you want to find alt text for.
  5. View the image’s code in the side panel and look for the alt attribute.

Here is what steps 1 and 2 look like:

How to right click and inspect an element.

And here are steps 3-5:

Clicking an image to see its alt text.

If the alt attribute is empty, it will be followed with double quotation marks instead of text (alt=””).

This means that no one has written an alternative description for that image.

Should you add image alt text to every image?

As confirmed by WebAIM (Web Accessibility in Mind), you don’t need alt text for every image on your site. Decorative images don’t require an alternative description. Here are some other scenarios and types of images to consider:

  • Background images: They are part of the page’s layout, not the content, so they don’t need a description. Most of these images will be part of the website CSS code where you wouldn’t need alt text, anyways.
  • Decorative icons: Because these don’t have a functional purpose, you can just use an empty alt attribute.
  • Logos: Most website logos lead users to the site’s homepage. If this is true of your site, describe them as “Your Brand home page” vs “Your Brand logo.”
  • Complex images: Things like charts and data tables are often too hard to explain in 125 characters or less. Use a longdesc attribute to expand on the image further. This is an informative technique that is included in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
  • Image buttons for website forms: You want to describe what clicking the button will do. For example, “Sign up” could be alt text for a button that lets users sign up for your newsletter.

For images that don’t need explanation, simply add an empty alt attribute in place of a description. This prevents screen readers from using the image file name as alt text.

Tips for writing great image alt text

While it may appear easy from the outside perspective, writing great image alt text takes skill. There are some pitfalls to avoid, like not adding enough detail or using irrelevant or unnecessary filler words. Write good alt text by following these tips.

Use keywords responsibly

Incorporating your target keyword is necessary for image SEO success. But don’t go overboard. In body text, adding your keyword once or twice for every 100 words is an acceptable approach. Anything over this amount will likely come across as keyword stuffing, which is a black hat SEO technique that may damage your site’s performance.

In alt text, a similar mindset applies. Don’t stuff your alt text with keywords. Your main keyword should appear at most once in your image, and only if it fits naturally. Using keywords can make your images appear higher in search results, but

Make it an appropriate length

The recommended maximum alt text length to accommodate most screen readers is 125 characters. To create the most value possible, get rid of unnecessary words like “picture of.” The user already knows it’s a picture. What they don’t know is what’s in the picture. If you plan to write longer alt text, don’t forget to add a longdesc attribute.

Be descriptive but direct

The goal with alt text is two-fold:

  1. Provide crawlers with context.
  2. Help users understand the image without seeing it.

As always, choose your words carefully. The text should form an accurate description of the image.

If you’re showing an image of how to tie a tie, for example, you need to explain where the subject’s hand is placed. Some users will rely on the text to perform a task, so writing descriptive text is essential.

Eliminate any words that don’t contribute to the user’s understanding of the image as a whole. You wouldn’t want to focus too much on the color, pattern, texture of the tie itself. Instead, focus on the image’s goal: to show someone a step in the process.

When you read the alt text out loud, it should form a coherent thought to convey a message. By focusing on the user’s experience hearing and comprehending your alt text, you should provide enough context for crawlers to appropriately index the image.

Image alt text examples

There are several characteristics that separate good image tags from bad ones. Context is key. You don’t need to write a novel. You simply need to describe what’s in the image and/or explain its purpose.

Check out these examples for ideas on how to improve your own alt text.

Alt text example #1: In this image from Bridgestone, the code reads:

<img src=”/content/dam/consumer/bst/na/learn/changing-tire-items-included.png” alt=”Changing Tire Information Image” title=”Changing Tire Information” loading=”lazy”>

But the alt text “Changing Tire Information Image” doesn’t tell the user the valuable information in the infographic. A better way to write this would be “A spare tire, wrench, and jack for changing tires should come with your vehicle”

An example of bad alt text showing an infographic that is not described fully.

Alt text example #2: This blog post is titled “Hiking for Beginners: 10 Essential Tips.” This alt text is ineffective because it’s the same for all of the images, which are also purely decorative. Each picture has the post title as the alt text. In this case, it’s better just to leave the alt text blank.

An example of a decorative image with needless alt text.

Alt text example #3: This alt text simply uses the header for the section below the image (“Dental Implant Pros”). It would be more effective to use the alt text to explain the image’s valuable content. A better description might be “Dental implants can last more than 50 years.” It doesn’t exceed the 125 character recommendation, mentions the keyword “dental implant,” and eliminates fluff.

Non-descriptive alt text.

Alt text example #4: Dick’s Sporting Goods has a great description for this product jpg. The alt attribute reads:

alt=”Brooks Women’s Adrenaline GTS 21 Running Shoes product image”

For product images, simply naming and describing the item is a good use of space.

A product image with descriptive alt text.Alt text example #5: Better Home & Gardens has descriptive alt text for this post titled “Make Your Own Gorgeous Pour Paint Pumpkins.”

The first picture description reads: “pouring more green paint on pumpkin”

The second picture description (shown below) reads: “green paint drying on pumpkin”

This means that assistive technology will be able to explain each step in the process to people who can’t see the pictures. It’s also effective because each image gets its own unique description even though the pictures are very similar. Any non-decorative image should have a specific purpose, meaning that it needs specific alt text as well.

Alt text of two pumpkins describing the steps of painting them.

Good alt text example #6: Princeton University does a great job of explaining this image with the following alt text:

“Image of a landfill with mountains of clothes due to fast fashion from the University of Queensland.”

A few ways to make it better might be:

  • Remove the words “Image of a” from the beginning, as those details are already implied.
  • Reorder the words to say “Image from the University of Queensland that shows a landfill with mountains of clothes due to fast fashion.”

Overall, however, this alt text explains the purpose of the photo and even shares the source.

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Optimizing images is essential for creating a user-friendly website. And writing high-quality alt text for your visual content is a key ingredient in your overall image SEO strategy. Not only will it make your content more accessible and likely to rank in images searches, but it will also provide essential context that crawlers need to better understand and rank your web pages.

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