Written by Katelynn Wiley
Alt text for images! Most search-engine-savvy businesses think of alt text (also called alt tags) as an extra place to stash keywords on blogs and web pages. But they’re actually designed to make the internet a more accessible place for people with visual impairments. That means they should be used for accessibility before anything else used even when S.E.O. isn’t a factor—like on social media.
How Do Alt Text for Images Work?
People who can’t fully access visual content use tools called screen readers. Screen readers do exactly what they say. When activated, they read all the words on the screen out loud.
When screen readers reach images, they read the alt text. In an ideal world, this text gives simple but helpful descriptions of images.
Who uses screen readers?
- Visually Impaired & Blind Users
- People With Temporary Injuries that Interfere with Vision
- People with Visual Processing Impairments
Alt text will also appear visually in place of an image when someone is on a device that can’t load images.
All this means that great alt text for images can open up your content to new audiences! Accessible marketing can only help your brand.
How to Write Great Alt Text for Images
Alt text can make or break a page for people using screen readers. So it’s better to write nothing at all than to write badly. Luckily, simple adjustments can help you write stellar descriptions that will improve your blog, website, and social media accessibility!
Keep it Short
You don’t need to describe everything in an image. And some screen readers cut the text off at 125 characters.
A busy freeway off-ramp in a city.
A freeway off-ramp in a city. There are lots of cars and a tall electrical tower. There are also lots of buildings. The sky is blue and there are clouds in it.
Don’t Say, “Image Of” or “Picture Of”
Screen readers will indicate to users when there is an image.
A kitten smelling a flower in the grass.
Photo of a kitten smelling a flower in the grass.
Only Use Keywords When They Add Detail to the Description
Keywords that don’t match with images aren’t helpful to screen reader users. Plus too many keywords in your alt text is considered “keyword stuffing,” which may hurt your S.E.O.
A volunteer in an International Fund for Animal Welfare t-shirt holds a baby kangaroo.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare rescues animals.
Write Out Important Text in an Image
Exception! Don’t include text that isn’t necessary for understanding the image.
Hand holds up a golden balloon that says “love.”
A menu that says, “Eat. ALL DAY. Toast 4.00 DF V Brown sourdough with almost butter & strawberry jam. Avocado Toast 7.00…” (I’ll stop. I think you get the idea).
No Need to Use Full Sentences
(But you can if you have enough to say)
Overhead view of half a papaya against a teal background.
This is half of a papaya laying against a teal background, and it has been shot from above.
Only Mention Gender or Race When It’s Relevant to the Image
Also, remember you can’t tell someone’s racial or gender identity by looking at them. So you should have good reason to believe that your identifications are correct.
Note: This decision also depends on the overall context of the page. For example, a non-profit that provides counseling services to Black women might want to label a photo “Black woman embraces children.” But the same image on a site about general counseling services might read, “Parent embraces children.”
Black person kneels with their fist up at a protest while holding a sign that says, “I can’t breathe.”
Asian woman and three children splash their feet in a pool by the ocean.
Write Out or Put Periods Between Abbreviations
Screen readers will often read abbreviations as words if there are no periods.
Letters in various patterns spell out S.E.O.
Letters in various patterns spell out SEO.
Use Plain Language
This is just a good writing tip in general. Plain language makes everything easier to understand. Shorten your sentences. Simplify sentence structure. Choose simple words.
A person wearing a surgical mask holds a lemon while looking at produce in a grocery store.
Within a retail food store, a person adorned in a surgical mask deliberates over produce, grasping a lemon in hand.
Skip Decorative Images
These are any images that don’t add context to the page. For example, lines that divide pages or simple graphics accompanying text.
Just say nothing…
Graphic of a phone.
Use Proper Punctuation and Check Your Spelling
Spelling and punctuation mistakes can confuse screen readers. So always double-check your work.
We’re going to skip the example for this one because we think you get it…
Using Alt Text for S.E.O. & Accessibility
Strategic use of alt text can improve your S.E.O. on blogs and web pages. But accessibility should be your first priority when writing them. We would even argue that writing alt text for accessibility can make your S.E.O. better. Just like any other text on a page, search engines scroll alt text for clues about your content. So sprinkling keywords into alt text helps search engines categorize and rank your page.
But slapping your keyword onto every image can get you flagged for keyword stuffing and be confusing for people who use screen readers.
Search engine image searches also use alt text. So placing strategic keywords in alt text can help you rank in image results. But if you’re applying keywords to unrelated images, you’ll quickly lose this image search benefit as Google connects the dots and realizes your images aren’t good representations of your keywords.
How To Add Alt Text for Images to a Blog or Web Page
Adding alt text to an image on a blog or website is usually as simple as going into image settings and typing into a box labeled “Alt-Tag.”
Some custom sites might require alt text be added to the code manually. In this case, you should pass your alt-tag copy on to your web person.
Using Alt Text for Social Media Accessibility
Of course, alt text on social media has no effect on search engine results. But it’s still an important element for making your brand accessible.
How To Add Alt Text For Images to Social Media
All major platforms (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram) have the option to add alt text to images. To use this tool, you’ll need to go into the advanced settings for a post. And if you use a third-party scheduler, many have the option to add alt text to Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Unfortunately, no third-party app can add alt text to Instagram.
The Image Description – Instagram Alternative to Alt Text
An alternative to writing alt text on social media is to add “Image Descriptions” to captions. Here’s an example. If you shared this image to Instagram…
A caption with an image description would look like this…
The live stream of our Friday Park Concert starts at 3 PM! We hope you’ll tune in to listen.
[//ID: A man holding a guitar sits on a park bench and smiles at the camera.]
Why Use an Image Description When You Could Use Alt Text?
For Instagram, this is actually the best way to improve image accessibility. First, because no scheduler has the power to add alt text. So unless you want to start posting manually, this is the only option for screen reader accessibility. But on top of this, Apple Screen Reader, one of the most used screen readers, skips over alt text on Instagram. Get it together, Apple and Instagram!
You can also do this for other social media sites if you discover that your scheduler doesn’t have the option to add alt text.
What Does Accessible Marketing Have to Do with the Law?
If you needed one more reason to prioritize accessible marketing, you should know that in 2019, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of a blind man who couldn’t order from the Domino’s Pizza app. This landmark case means accessibility requirements apply to the digital world, not just the physical. While improper use of alt text isn’t automatically against the law, good alt text can help keep you in compliance.
You’ve got this. It may feel awkward at first but soon it will feel like just another aspect of content writing. Then your content will truly be accessible to as many people as possible. And we think that’s pretty rad.
If you’re looking for more resources, try this shortlist of relevant blogs for assistance + subscribe to the Potluck Consulting newsletter to get our weekly emails. Click the blue “Newsletter” tab at the bottom of your screen.