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Google considers balancing alt text for SEO & Accessibility

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Written by Team EverRanks
18 Oct 2022

Google’s John Mueller and Lizzi Sassman discuss creating image alt text that’s effective for those using screen readers. They briefly touch on what to do about decorative images, and how it can be tricky to write alt text that balances SEO and accessibility.

So let’s dive into this article and explore what Google will do to handle alt text for images in order to satisfy SEO & Accessibility.

 Is Alt Text For Accessibility & SEO?

The purpose of image alt text is to help make images understandable to people who can’t see them (blind, color-blind, low-sighted), which includes search engine bots. This is especially important for people who are using screen readers. 

 Is Alt Text For Accessibility & SEO?
Source: Internet

According to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the official HTML standards body, alt text helps ensure that everyone can enjoy the content on a website, regardless of whether they can see the images or not.

Moreover, The World Wide Web Consortium also says that alt text has an SEO purpose as well:

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.”

Plus, you might be surprised to know that it takes a lot of thought to get the alt text right. In fact, the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) published an alt-text tutorial for seven different types of image contexts. By following their advice, you can ensure that your images are accessible to everyone, no matter what type of disability they have.

Here are seven different types of image contexts:

  1. Informative images: Images that provide information through pictures, photos, and illustrations are called informative images. The text alternative should be a short description of the essential information in the image.
  2. Decorative images: Images that are only meant for decoration should have a null text alternative (alt=” “). This is to ensure that the images are not conveying important information that is necessary for understanding the page.
  3. Functional images: The text alternative for an image used as a link or button should always describe the purpose or function of what the link or button does, rather than what the image itself looks like. A good example of this would be if there’s a printer icon being used to represent the print function on a page, or if there’s a button that submits a form.
  4. Images of text: Whenever possible, avoid using images with text on them since they can be hard to read. However, if you do use images with text for things like logos, make sure that the alternate text includes the same words so that people who are unable to see the image still get the same information.
  5. Complex images:  When an image contains data or detailed information (such as graphs or diagrams), the text alternative should include all of the same info that’s conveyed in the image. 
  6. Groups of images: When multiple images work together to communicate a single idea or message, all images should be given text descriptions. This way, people who can’t see the images will still be able to understand the information that the images are conveying.
  7. Image maps: Image maps are a great way to make your images more interactive and engaging for your users. By providing an overall context for the set of links, as well as the individualized alt text for each clickable area, you can give your users a better experience and help them navigate your site more easily.

An Image is NOT an Image

For those who are looking to improve their website’s SEO, it’s important to note that the alt text for a screenshot should say that the image is a screenshot. 

However, from an accessibility standpoint, this is considered to be redundant information (and it can be quite annoying to have to write out that an image is indeed an image).

Lizz Sassman and John Mueller from Google discuss how to handle this problem:

“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.

John Mueller: Yeah.

Lizzi Sassman: It could be just a descriptive phrase. It doesn’t need to be a full thought, I think.”

Consider Balancing SEO Needs With Accessibility

The SEO industry is constantly changing and evolving, and sometimes that means rethinking the way we approach things that have become second nature to us. In this blog post, John Mueller covers the topic of image alt text and how it relates to accessibility requirements.

Mueller said:

“John Mueller: 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.

Don’t forget to add something to the alt text

The alt text field shouldn’t be left blank because it’s a bad practice for a number of reasons. One reason is that screen readers might start reading the image file names instead, which would be a negative user experience. Another reason is that it deprives visitors who use screen readers from receiving important information that could be in some of the images.

When it comes to SEO and images, there are a few things to consider, like using alt text and making sure your images are properly indexed and found in search.

John Mueller from Google recommends adding something to the alt text because something is always better than nothing. So if you’re not sure what to put, just start with a brief description of the image.

Alt Text and Decorative Images

Lizzi Sassman then moved on to discussing decorative images and how to deal with them.

The first problem is knowing when an image is purely decorative or if it holds some sort of conceptual value that contributes to the meaning of the content. If it’s the latter, then the challenge becomes communicating that conceptual image.

Moreover, the W3C has published an extensive guide on how to properly handle the alt text for decorative images. This guide provides essential information for designers and developers to ensure that their websites are accessible to all users.

The W3C also suggests 4 ways to identify decorative images:

  1. The image is used for styling the document (the look and feel).
  2. The image is supplementary to the link text.
  3. The image does not contribute information to the text content.
  4. The image is described by the surrounding text content.

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

To Sum Up

Google has said that it’s better to have some alt text for an image than to have no alt text at all. So, if an image doesn’t contribute any useful information, you can just use the null value for alt text, which is coded as alt=””.

EverRanks has various information about the alt text above. Hopefully, we hope that you can flexibly use different tools that are suitable for a goal you set for your website.
















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