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Start Your (Search) Engines: Alt Text

Posted on July 12, 2021

Hello everyone, and welcome to week 2!

As promised, this time I’m covering the topic of Alt Text – also known as Alt Descriptions – and how they apply to SEO. I’ve had a lot of practice with Alt Text over the last couple weeks, and I think I’m finally starting to get the hang of it – whatever that “it” is.

Without further ado, let’s start our search engines!

Alt Text: Who Is She?

Google is a very good listener. If you type in “french fries,” you’ll get exactly that in the form of definitions, images, recipes, and more. It’s such a good listener, in fact, that the next time you type in “French,” it’ll remember your previous searches and fill the “fries” in for you. Google can even figure out your location and show you a map of all the delicious french fries near you.

In short, Google is smart, considerate, and one heck of an enabler – pretty good date material overall.

someone dating a computer

“So what do you do for fun?”

Collect your personal data, mostly.

But what if you typed in “French” because you’re planning a trip to Paris, or comparing brands of mustard? Like any robot, Google has quite a few blind spots, mostly because it has no eyes. Here is an accurate depiction of what Google sees when it looks at an image:

bunch of random numbers, like those hacking screens on tv

This is where Alt Text comes in. Alt Text is a sentence attached to an image that describes the contents of said image. This description provides necessary context if an image doesn’t load, or if a user requires a text-to-speech program to interpret content. Overall, Alt Text is a pretty simple concept with many benefits for user experience – but how does it relate to SEO?

Alt Text And SEO

Image content is always on the rise. More and more, Google prioritizes ranking images over text, even on non-Google-Images SERPs. For example, if we go back to french fries, look at what we get in the top right corner:

Writing blog posts before lunch was a mistake

That’s why it’s important to make sure your images have Alt Text for Google to read. Without Alt Text, all Google can use to interpret your image is the file name, which can be a problem if it doesn’t relate to your content.

Accurate, descriptive Alt Text helps Google connect images to content. This makes it easier for the engine to crawl through your website and add everything to their index. Google favours uniform pages where all the content, including images, is relevant to the main focus. If a gap appears, Google will get confused, and our robot overlords don’t like not knowing what’s happening.

obot destroying a town

Google’s response to using an AdBlocker in 2055

Finally, since you want your Alt Text to be relevant to the topic of your page, it’s an excellent opportunity to add more keywords. Of course, there are limitations to this, which we’ll discuss in the next section.

Speaking of which:

How To Write Alt Text For SEO: One Approach

When it comes to writing Alt Text for SEO, opinions vary. Aside from a few cardinal rules, there is no consensus on which way is best. From what I’ve read, SEO’s tend to tip towards one of two sides: Prioritizing user experience above all else, and optimizing Alt Text for search engines first and foremost.

What follows is the approach I’ve adopted after a month or so of trial and error. I think it strikes a good balance between user accessibility and SEO value. I may develop or alter this approach in the future, but if I’ve learned anything, it’s that SEO is constantly changing. Might as well evolve along with it!

This, here, is an image:

Cute dog sitting in Ontario kitchen with rose behind ear

His name is Ollie and he’s a very good snoot

Let’s pretend I’m using this image for a blog post titled “The Cutest Dogs In Ontario.” Now, the ultimate goal for Alt Text is to come up with a description that is concise, detailed, and accurate, with a good balance between the three. Avoid using Alt Text like this:

“Floor dog”

(Accurate and concise, but not detailed)

“Cute rough collie sitting on tile floor with rose behind ear and hints of fake wood laminate behind him on a Tuesday”

(Detailed and accurate, but not concise)

“Portrait of King Henry VIII in golden robes”

(Concise and detailed, but not accurate – he’s still a king, though)

To come up with the best Alt Text, pick out the most memorable details of the photo and briefly summarize them. Here’s a good example of this approach:

This Alt text is a good blend of concise, detailed, and accurate. Potential readers of our fake article will have no trouble interpreting the image. However, there’s still more we can do to add some extra SEO value to the text, all with one little change:

By adding “in Ontario kitchen,” we directly relate the content of the image to the main keyword of the post, “The Cutest Dogs In Ontario.” That way, as long as the content is optimized, search engines will connect the image to the body of the post and consider it when ranking. You can sacrifice a little bit of accuracy here – it doesn’t really matter if the photo was taken in Ontario, or if the dog is actually cute.

You aren’t just limited to main keywords, either: LSI keywords like “collie” or “Canada” will still signal to Google that your image is relevant. With stock photos especially, you might need to get a bit creative.

SEO professional examining French Fry statistics

There are, however, limits to the number of keywords you should put in Alt Text. I’ve scrolled through dozens of websites where someone copied the same description for every image, ripped directly from the main keyword of the page. This practice makes sense on paper, but is terrible for user experience, and there’s nothing Google values more highly. Google is always improving its ability to interpret images, and is very savvy when it comes to keyword spam.

And besides, if you’re not crafting your content for users, then who is it for?

Wrap-Up

Out of everything I’ve learned in SEO, Alt Text is probably the simplest concept. It’s also the one that’s taken me the longest to get down. In the beginning, I stuffed my text with keywords and recycled the same template over and over. Most of my sentences looked like they were written by one of these:

This is before I learned how important Alt Text is for accessibility, and that there are real people out there who count on these descriptions – not just robots. To get myself a bit more engaged, I try to start by capturing the details of the image, then incorporate a single keyword if possible. This approach may or may not work for you, or even for Google, but I’ve found it’s gotten me the closest to the balance I’ve been looking for.

It’s now officially(ish) my month-a-versary at Merged Media! I’ve learned a lot more about SEO, so the next topic is going to be more comprehensive. I’ll be going over Google My Business (GMB) Profiles, and the things you can do to optimize them for SEO and track their progress.

See you then!

– V. J. P.

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