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Alt Attribute & SEO

Optimizing images is becoming more and more important in SEO (Search Engine Optimization) for websites. The ALT attribute is a critical step that is often overlooked. This can be a lost opportunity for better rankings. In Googles webmaster guidelines, they advise the use of alternative text for the images on your web site: Images:. Use the alt attribute to provide descriptive text. In addition, we recommend using a human-readable caption and descriptive text around the image. Why would they ask us to do that? The answer is simple, really; search engines have the same problem as blind users. They cannot see the images. Many webmasters and inexperienced or unethical SEOs abuse the use of this attribute, trying to stuff it with keywords, hoping to achieve a certain keyword density, which is not as relevant for rankings now as it once was. On the contrary, high keyword density can, on some search engines, trigger spam filters, which may result in a penalty for your sites ranking. Even without such a penalty, your sites rankings will not benefit from this tactic. This method also puts persons who use screen readers at a greater disadvantage. Screen readers are softwarebased tools that actually read aloud the contents of what is displayed on the screen. In browsing the web, the alt attributes of images are read aloud as well. Imagine listening to a paragraph of text which is followed by repetitions of many keywords. The page would be far from accessible, and, to put it bluntly, would be found quite annoying.

What exactly is an Alt attribute?


An ALT attribute should not be used as a description or a label for an image, though many people use it in that fashion. Though it might seem natural to assume that alternate text is a label or a description, it is not! The words used within an images alt attribute should be its text equivalent and convey the same information or serve the same purpose that the image would. The goal is to provide the same functional information that a visual user would see. The alt attribute text should function as a "stand in" in the event that the image itself is not available. Ask yourself this question: If you were to replace the image with the text, would most users receive the same basic information, and would it generate the same response? Some examples:

If a search button is a magnifying glass or binoculars its alt text should be search or find not magnifying glass or binoculars. If an image is meant to convey the literal contents of the image, then a description is appropriate. If it is meant to convey data, then that data is what is appropriate. If it is meant to convey the use of a function, then the function itself is what should be used.

Some Alt Attribute Guidelines:


Always add alt attributes to images. Alt is mandatory for accessibility and for valid XHTML. For images that play only a decorative role in the page, use an empty alt (i.e. alt="") or a CSS background image so that reading browsers do not bother users by uttering things like "spacer image".

Remember that it is the function of the image we are trying to convey. For instance; any button images should not include the word "button" in the alt text. They should emphasize the action performed by the button. Alt text should be determined by context. The same image in a different context may need drastically different alt text. Try to flow alt text with the rest of the text because that is how it will be read with adaptive technologies like screen readers. Someone listening to your page should hardly be aware that a graphic image is there.

Please keep in mind that using an alt attribute for each image is required to meet the minimum WAI requirements, which are used as the benchmark for accessibility laws in UK and the rest of Europe. They are also required to meet "Section 508" accessibility requirements in the US. It is useful to categorize non-text content into three levels:

Eye-Candy Mood-Setting Content and Function

I. Eye-Candy

Eye-Candy are things that serve no purpose other than to make a site visually appealing/attractive and (in many cases) satisfy the marketing departments. There is no content value (though there may be value to a sighted user). Never alt-ify eye-candy unless there is something there which will enhance the usability of the site for someone using a non-visual user agent. Use a null alt attribute or background images in CSS for eye-candy.

II. Mood-Setting

This is the middle layer of graphics which may serve to set the mood or set the stage as it were. These graphics are not direct content and may not be considered essential, but they are important in that they help frame what is going on. Try to alt-ify the second group as makes sense and is relevant. There may be times when doing so may be annoying or detrimental to other users. Then try to avoid it. For instance; Alt text that is identical to adjacent text is unnecessary, and an irritant to screen reader users. I recommend alt="" or background CSS images in such cases. But sometimes, its important to get this content in there for all users. Most times it depends on context. The same image in a different context may need drastically different alt text. Obviously, content should always be fully available. The way you go in this case is a judgment call.

III. Content and Function

This is where the image is the actual content. Always alt-ify content and functional images. Title and long description attributes may also be in order. The reason many authors cant figure out why their alt text isnt working is that they dont know why the images are there. You need to figured out exactly what function an image serves. Think about what it is about the image thats important to the pages intended audience.

Every graphic has a reason for being on that page: because it either enhances the theme/ mood/ atmosphere or it is critical to what the page is trying to explain. Knowing what the image is for makes alt text easier to write. And practice writing them definitely helps. A way to check the usefulness of alternative text is to imagine reading the page over the telephone to someone. What would you say when encountering a particular image to make the page understandable to the listener? Besides the alt attribute you have a couple more tools at your disposal for images. First, in degree of descriptiveness title is in between alt and longdesc. It adds useful information and can add flavor. The title attribute is optionally rendered by the user agent. Remember they are invisible and not shown as a "tooltip" when focus is received via the keyboard. (So much for device independence). So use the title attribute only for advisory information. Second, the longdesc attribute points to the URL of a full description of an image. If the information contained in an image is important to the meaning of the page (i.e. some important content would be lost if the image was removed), a longer description than the "alt" attribute can reasonably display should be used. It can provide for rich, expressive documentation of a visual image. It should be used when alt and title are insufficient to embody the visual qualities of an image. As Clark [1] states, "A longdesc is a long description of an image...The aim is to use any length of description necessary to impart the details of the graphic. It would not be remiss to hope that a long description conjures an image - the image - in the minds eye, an analogy that holds true even for the totally blind." Although the alt attribute is mandatory for web accessibility and for valid (X)HTML, not all images need alternative text, long descriptions, or titles. In many cases, you are better off just going with your gut instinct -- if its not necessary to include it, and if you dont have a strong urge to do it, dont add that longdesc. However, if its necessary for the whole page to work, then you have to add the alt text (or title or longdesc). Whats necessary and whats not depends a lot on the function of your image and its context on the page. The same image may require alt text (or title or longdesc) in one spot, but not in another. If an image provides absolutely no content or functional information alt="" or background CSS images may be appropriate to use. But if the image provides content or adds functional information an alt would be required and maybe even a long description would be in order. In many cases this type of thing is a judgement call.

Image Search Engine Optimization Tips


Listed below are key steps in optimizing images:

Choose a logical file name that reinforces the keywords. You can use hyphens in the file name to isolate the keyword, but avoid to exceeding two hyphens. Avoid using underscores as a word separator, like for example "brilliant-diamonds.jpg"; Label the file extension. For example, if the image search engine sees a ".jpg" (JPEG) file extension, its going to assume that the file is a photo, and if it sees a ".gif" (GIF) file extension, its going to assume that it is a graphic; Make sure that the text nearby the image that is relevant to that image.

Again, do not lose a great opportunity to help your site with your images in search engines.

Optimizing Image Tag Alt Attributes: Good Use and Abuse


I recently went to the Amazon website and as I landed on the homepage, I noticed a large amount of text that appeared while the main image was loading (image 1)... After looking at the source and cache version of the page (image 2), the text was actually included in the alt attribute of the image tag. Nothing amazing about this! What surprised me however, is the amount of content in the alt attribute... not a few keywords, not a few sentences, but an entire paragraph of text! I assumed that the alt tag had to be descriptive, accurate and short and therefore I was not expecting this from Amazon and therefore decided to investigate the topic in further details. Image 1:

Image 2

About using a Alt attribute in your Image tag As per the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, it is recommended to provide a text-equivalent for every non-text elements in case some of the users have visual impairments or if users have the image display turned off on their browsers. Matt Cutts from the Google Web Spam team, has recommended in one of his video, to use the alt attribute of the image tag and the Google Webmaster guidelines also consider the use of the attribute in the development of a search engine friendly websites. The reason behind this is that search engines spiders are not able to 'read' the

content in your image.. and therefore cannot index it without a text equivalent. How to use the Alt attribute: Who should you trust? Even if the alt attribute has only a moderate importance in the search engine algorithms, optimising them can have an impact on search engine rankings especially if you want to target the long tail of searches with contentpoor pages. I did some research and found a large amount of really basic information on how to optimize the alt attribute. But quite surprisingly, I came across mixed messages on how to 'properly' use the alt attribute: According to the W3C, the content in the alt attribute should fulfills the same function as the image. On the other hand, Google Webmaster Guidelines quote that the alt attribute should be used to describe the contents of an image file. This is quite confusing: Should we focus on the description or the function? In theory it does not seem to be a big deal, but in the practice, such confusion can lead to very different uses of the alt attribute. Lets take the example of the image on the Amazon homepage: Following Google's guidelines, a proper alt tag could be something like: Letter from Jeff Bezos annoucning the new products and services available. Following W3C's recommendations, the function of the image is to inform customers that new products are available and therefore the alt tag should basically contain the entire text (what Amazon did). (Note: To be fully compliant with W3C guidelines, Amazon should have included a short description in the alt attribute and the entire content in a longdesc attribute, but let's not talk about this now) Who should we trust? Google? the W3C? Yourself and your common sense? I would probably say a bit everything. As Google is the dominant search engine, you do not want to alert their spam filters (might have some) with some long or improper alt attributes. If you are a leading website you also want to make sure that users with disabilities will be able to understand your content and therefore it is probably better to focus a little bit more on the function of the image rather than the description. Moreover, the decision you make on how to use the alt attribute also depends on the type of image you have. In the case of Amazon, providing a simple description of the image will be quite frustrating for a blind user as they probably wants to know what is in the letter instead of knowing that it is a letter (Still do not understand why Amazon did not use pure text for that ???) Optimizing Alt Attribute: Good Use and Abuse While there is no clear guidelines, I have tried to summerize some of the good practices and bad practices I have noticed in my research. It is probably not the absolute truth, but these recommendations should help you to optimize your alt attributes correctly: - If the image is used for layout/design purposes should have empty alt attribute (no space between the ""). Using irrelevant keywords in spacers or layout pictures is an abuse. - If the image is used for navigation purposes, it MUST have a alt attribute that match with the keyword used in the image. Alternatively it should describe the linking page accurately. To avoid any issue, make sure you use the same term in the alt and image. - If the image is used as a link, you should also have a alt tag equivalent to the title of the linking page. The content in the alt attribute of image links is usually regarded as more important. - If the image contains a lot of text(e.g Amazon), use the text from the image in the alt attribute. For this one, I

would be careful though! If the text is too long, it could risk to look suspicious, so I would advise to offer a summary or to use a longdesc attribute. Alternatively why using an image when you can use text ?? - Do not just stuff a list of comma-separated keywords in the alt attribute, try to make a sentence that describes the picture/function and includes some relevant targeted keywords in it. You might not be able to use all your targeted keywords in the alt tag of the same image, that is fine, you probably have more than one image. - For individual product pages in E-Commerce stores, I would recommend to use the product name as the alt attribute of the product image. That will help ranking for the product name phrases.

Why You Need to Stop Ignoring Image Alt Attributes


As you are coding your site, you most often get the necessary stuff in, and then sweep back for all the leftovers. Quite often, developers forget to add the alt= attribute to images because its not required to appear completed. Since image alts are not visible to the majority of searchers, theyre easy to forget. Id like to cover why you shouldnt forget about them, or why you should go input them now.
Traffic from Image Searches

How do you think Google classifies images in order to display in images.google.com when a searcher enters a keyword? A few options come to mind. They can pull the filename (ie. Bluecar.jpg will likely be relevant when someone searches for blue car), text surrounding the image, the alt text, and they can inspect the image digitally (their technology is improving fast). By including your page keywords in your alt text, you raise your chances of showing up in image searches, and getting subsequent visitors from those image searches.
The Visually Impaired

Users who are blind have browsers that read the page text aloud. When the browser comes to an image, if there is no alt text, the browser cant add to the users experience. Visually impaired users should definitely be able to get the gist of images like the rest of us, so take a few minutes and write some descriptive alt text.
Google Usability Love

What is Googles goal? They are first and foremost a business, so they want to make money. They make a good 98% of their money through paid ads. The more users on Google properties, the more chances that users will click their ads, and add to the bottom line. The better the experience that users have surfing sites through Google, the more they will return. Of course it makes sense for Google to reward complete, fully-usable content to hover near the top of their indexes.
Rankings

Keyword usage in image alt text is classified as having minimal importance by a consortium of SEO experts, but that doesnt mean its worthless. It is yet another opportunity to declare your relevance to your given keyword. The little things add up to big things together, so dont ignore them. Personally, I feel that image alt text plays a larger role than most on-site factors due to the previous point about usability, but thats personal opinion. So there you have it, dont forget your image alt text.