Google’s Take on ALT Text and its SEO Impact

4 min read
Google on Alt Text SEO

In the 48th Episode of Google’s Search Off the Record Podcast that was aired about 3 weeks ago, Google’s Lizzi Sassman and John Mueller discussed the usage of ALT Text and its implications on SEO and accessibility. And how it can be a little tricky to get it right and find the right sense of balance between SEO and Accessibility.  ALT Text, for the uninitiated, is Alternate Text that is used to describe an image to those site visitors who are either unable to view the image because of site loading issues or are using screen readers. It helps such site visitors understand what the image is all about and what is its purpose. Before we delve deep into the discussion between Lizzi and John, let’s first try and throw some light on what exactly is ALT Text and what role it has to play in impacting a website’s SEO.

How important is ALT Text in context of SEO?

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Guide states:

“Some (Web Browsers) cannot display images at all or only a restricted set of type of images. If your code has the alt attribute set in its images, most of these browsers will display the description you gave instead of the images. Some of your visitors cannot see images, be they blind, color-blind, low-sighted; the alt attribute is of great help for those people that can rely on it to have a good idea of what’s on your page. So, if you want your website to be indexed as well as it deserves, use the alt attribute to make sure that they won’t miss important sections of your pages.”

It works the same way with Google Bots; they cannot see images but can read the ALT Text to determine what the image is about and in what context it is being used simply by analysing the content around the image. In that capacity, we can safely say that ALT Text holds tremendous importance when it comes to SEO purposes. While it may take a few misses, once that ALT Text starts to hit the right descriptive tone and length, it will prove to be an asset of immense value.

The Screenshot ALT Text Conundrum

From the SEO point of view, it may seem to make a lot of sense to describe in ALT Text a screenshot as ‘an image of an image’, accessibility wise, it is totally redundant. Lizzi, while discussing the issue at hand in context to screenshots, said and we quote.

“So one of the best practices is not to start every image with a screenshot of, a screenshot of, because then, it just becomes repetitive. We already are aware that it’s an image. You don’t need to say, ‘It’s an image of’ and then the thing. Just launch in with whatever the description is. And it also doesn’t necessarily need to be a full sentence, I think. It could be just a descriptive phrase. It doesn’t need to be a full thought, I think.”

Striking the right balance between SEO and Accessibility

Mueller, in agreement with Lizzi, offered some of his thoughts. He said:

“Yeah, yeah. I think that makes a lot of sense. I mean, the tricky part is probably balancing the two sides. The kind of accessibility aspect. What people want from alt text for accessibility. And then the SEO aspect where you would do some things like… traditionally, you would do some things that might be slightly different.

Like you would list a bunch of synonyms, for example. Like, “Oh, this a beach at the ocean with waves.” And that’s the kind of stuff where sometimes it makes sense to do that in the alt text for SEO reasons, but probably not for accessibility reasons.

And finding that balance is something that’s sometimes a bit tricky. So it’s good to watch out for that.”

He also recommended the use of ALT Text instead of leaving the field blank, stating that something is better than nothing. And that it reflects badly on the user experience when the screen readers start reading the image filenames instead, breaking the whole flow of narration and communication. It also robs its users off any important information that images might otherwise offer but fail to convey on account of not using any ALT Text.

Do decorative images require ALT Text?

Before we look at what Lizzi and John had to say about it, let us first understand what a decorative image is. Simply put, any image that is added to add to the visual appeal of the page and not necessarily provide important information is a decorative image. For example, an image might be considered decorative in case all the information that is needed by both the users and bots is provided in the surrounding text in the main body. In such cases, ALT Text can be left blank so that bots and screen readers do not end up including the same text more than once. John, however, had some interesting thoughts he shared when Lizzi asked whether we should use ALT Text for decorative images since someone spent a lot of time creating it and might want it to appear in the search results.

“Yeah. I mean from a personal point of view, I would definitely add alt text to these kind of images, because they’re kind of unique and special. It’s not… I don’t know… a floral background, or something like that. It’s actually something where people spent a lot of time creating that image.

And it’s also something that people might want to find in the search results. So if you’re searching for Googlebot, like we spend so much time creating all of these images, it will be nice to be able to be found for them as well.” concluded John. You can listen to Lizzi’s and Mueller’s response at the 15:17 minute mark and may be also stick around for the rest of the discussion for some other valuable insights.

Source: Search Engine Journal