It’s no surprise that web professionals are always looking forward – technology is a one-way street, with opportunities and rewards for those who get to the great ideas first. Lately there’s been a lot of excitement about visual search. Imagine donning your Google Glasses, heading to the park, and having your trusty specs reveal the species of bird you’re looking at. Is it a goose? A duck? Just a plastic bag really far away?
As cool as that is, we can’t neglect the basic architecture that underlies the web. As we move towards a more visual internet, one of the fundamental pieces that will become even more relevant is the image <alt> tag.
For the uninitiated, it’s important to include descriptive text in the image <alt> tag so search engines and screen readers can understand the content of the picture. The first case helps search crawlers get a better grasp of your site. The latter enables programs to read text aloud to the visually impaired.
“I know all about image <alt> tags,” you may say. Most of us do. Which is why it’s so surprising that many prominent sites are still neglecting them. Without outing anyone, here are several common mistakes you still see on the web.
Worst Case Scenario: alt=””
Leaving an image <alt> tag blank is a missed opportunity. It’s letting the low-hanging fruit dangle right within reach. Does it hurt the ranking of your site? That depends on how you look at it. You probably won’t get docked for blank <alt> tags. But a competitor who’s taken the time to include them has a better chance of being seen as a more comprehensive source. It’s also a great opportunity to get another keyword on the page, and opens the door to being found in Google or Bing image searches.
That last bit is particularly important for ecommerce sites. If you have a bedazzled purse for sale, and I want a bedazzled purse, it’s much harder for us to meet if you’ve described the bag as alt=””. But your competitor is in image search, having clearly marked alt=”bedazzled purse”. This simple action has given them an advantage — the chance to meet the customer searching for bedazzled purses before you do.
Here’s another compelling reason to put something in the tag: if you’re using an image as a link, the <alt> tag copy is viewed by search engines as the anchor text. Leaving it blank dilutes the signal that could be sent to your landing page. Why would you do that? Fill in the <alt> tag and get the credit you deserve.
The Perils of TMI
When it comes to writing your image <alt> tag, you should keep it simple. Oftentimes a scene can be described in a few words. For example, alt=”pink bedazzled purse” is sufficient, whereas alt=”omg look at this pink bedazzled purse with a gold clasp, sequined strap and velour-lined interior” can confuse a search engine and prove very annoying to a visually impaired visitor.
The worst offenders that I’ve come across use an article headline as the image <alt> text. My guess is that this is the default in their content management systems, but it doesn’t make much sense if you want to get traffic through image searches. For example, applying the headline “Changes Ahead for National Parks” to a picture of a bear doesn’t serve the intended purpose of the <alt> tag. Duplicative copy is never good. It may not lead to severe consequences, but represents yet another missed opportunity to clearly denote your page’s purpose for the search engine spiders and, ultimately, the viewer.
The ability to easily edit <alt> tags is a must-have when choosing a CMS. Many offer a field for entering information alongside an image. A CMS that doesn’t allow this is likely deficient in other aspects, as well. The easier the tag interface, the more likely editors are to utilize them.
A Rose by Any Other Name
When it comes to images on ecommerce sites, you want your <alt> tags to reflect people’s queries. It may be fine to say a dress comes in an “emerald forest” color on the tag, but customers aren’t likely to search for that term online. Instead, you should use either “green” or “emerald green” in the <alt> tag. You can determine the best wording by doing some good old-fashioned keyword research.
Remember, this is a tag that will remain hidden to most users. It’s only there to explain the image to search engines or screen readers. Branding concerns can be safely set aside. Optimize to the image, not the sales team.
A Note for the Haters
I have no doubt that right after some people read this, they’ll start looking at <alt> tags on their favorite sites and in Google Image Search. And they’ll find examples of images that perform just fine in search, but break the rules above.
In many cases, that’s because the sites have a lot of authority working in their favor. Google, Bing or Yahoo will always give an official site like cia.gov the benefit of the doubt, as there is much less chance of that site selling links or engaging in spammy behavior. Most of us haven’t earned that inherent trust, and therefore have to work harder to rank.
So start applying those <alt> tags. Be conservative but descriptive, and you’ll have one of the fundamental best practices of SEO checked off the list.
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