How to Write Good Alt Text
The best way to create image alt text is discussed in Google’s podcast. So let’s jump right in and talk about how to write good alt text!
In a Google Search Off the Record podcast, Lizzi Sassman and John Mueller discussed alt-text writing and the reasoning behind exceptional alt text. The subsequent discussion revealed that there are problems to address, such as balancing SEO needs with properly utilizing alt text for accessibility.
Lizzi Sassman starts the discussion by wondering whether being descriptive in the alt text is the best approach or if there is another better approach.
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- Lizzi Sassman:
“Is your alt text adequate? Is it adequately descriptive, or does it adequately describe the image? Writing the alt text forces you to think about what you could say about it. For example, a diagram might describe a Search concept.
Is the image of an event or something else? Do you start by describing what’s in the picture?Besides improving the words we use to describe an image, are there other strategies we could employ?”
Alt Text & Accessibility
In his article, John Mueller discusses the issue of image accessibility and alt text. Alternative text in pictures provides screen readers with a description of the images.
The Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C), the official standards body for HTML, provides a little trick for writing alt text for accessibility purposes to help you understand how alt text and accessibility intersect.
“Imagine you are reading the website page out loud over the phone to someone who needs to understand it. This should give you some idea of whether or not the images have any purpose or content.
It’s safe to treat non-links or buttons as decorative if they appear to have no informative value.”
- Mueller said:
“It’s my opinion that you should be careful about accessibility… I’m not sure about everything related to accessibility.
Someone more knowledgeable about accessibility might be able to answer that question. For example, how alt text should be chosen.”
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Image Context & Alt Text
Continuing, John talked about alt text from an SEO perspective.
- He said:
“It is always a good idea to provide context for the image in the alt text from an SEO perspective. Don’t just say, ‘Here’s a photo of a beach.’ Instead, describe the context and describe the photo.
Rather than saying, ‘This is the beach before the chemical spill happened,’ it’s better to say, ‘This is what the beach looked like before the chemical spill.’ In other words, if someone is looking for a beach for a vacation, it’s better to say, ‘I want to see a beautiful beach.’
Before the chemical spill happened, if you notice, it’s like, ‘Well, that would lend itself to different types of Search queries.'”
After identifying what users want from images shown in Google’s Image Search, John focuses on identifying what users want from images shown in Google’s Image Search.
- He explained:
“Ultimately, when it comes to Image Search, people aren’t interested in pictures; they want information associated with those pictures. They want to learn about a specific topic to find out some information.
Adding context to an image is what the alt text does. That additional information may be what they are looking for.
If customers are searching for something, make it easy for them to find it.”
- Lizzi Sassman answered:
“It’s correct. In addition to providing alt text, you can also provide context for the picture to reduce the number of required words. For example, you may introduce the beach in a paragraph rather than in the alt text.
Moreover, it may have more information about the location where the photo was taken, such as which beach it was taken at, what year it was taken, and so on. Because the alt text should be a manageable length, it is essential to use the space around the image.
How, then, do you decide which text goes where? Providing context is always a good idea when writing for screen readers since they read in a top-down manner.
It depends on the context, but if there’s a little bit of text to set the stage, like, ‘All right, like this is….’ I don’t know… ‘the background on the oil spill before the oil spill.’ Then the pre-oil spill beach is followed by more information, and the post-oil spill beach is shown. The clean-up activity is unknown. That’s the sort of thing that might happen.”
- John Mueller said:
“Those are the kinds of things I was referring to.
Looking at the search documentation, you can provide additional context by describing the screenshot in the alt text, saying, ‘This is a recipe result with these five fields.”
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- Lizzi Sassman said:
“Yes, even the way you phrased that sentence. For example, ‘This is a recipe with lots of flavors.’ That is not the best alternative text because it is a whole sentence. It starts with words that are not related to the subject.
People might skip through it, so one of the most acceptable practices is to begin only with some images with a screenshot of a screenshot, as it just becomes repetitive.
It’s already clear that it’s an image. There isn’t any need to say, ‘It’s an image of’ and then the thing. Just give the description straight away. It can also be a phrase rather than a whole phrase.
A phrase could be just descriptive. I think it does not have to be a complete thought.”
Descriptive Phrase With Context
Thinking about the context of an image to write an appropriate alt text is an intriguing idea brought up during this podcast. The other significant idea is to write alt texts with words to avoid describing an image as a photograph or screenshot and focus instead on the image’s context within the web page’s overall message.
If we are describing a beach before an oil spill, we should describe it as such.
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