What Is Alt Text? Why You Should Use It, and How to Write It

A pair of glasses on a laptop keyboard.
Heiko Küverling/Shutterstock.com

Have you noticed prompts to write image “alt” text (sometimes stylized as ALT text) when creating blog posts or sharing photos on social media? Here’s why this part of the HTML standard is important and how to write it well.

Why is ALT text important?

Alt attributes exist as a backup form of content; If the main content type fails to render, its alternate or “alt” attribute is rendered instead. In the case of alt text, if for some reason the image fails to render, you will get the alt text description instead.

For example, someone can copy an image “as text.” Or if you save a website without images, the alt text telling you what the images should show is preserved.

Alt text is also a crucial component of web accessibility. Visitors have visual impairments and rely on screen reader software to hear an image’s alt text description. If there is no alt text or if the alt text is bad, it will negatively impact the experience of users with visual issues. It can also make navigation difficult for those with limited Internet connections who rely on text-based browsers.

Alt text is also important in SEO (Search Engine Optimization) as it helps search engines like Google or Bing to better index your content. Indexing makes content discoverable with these search engines.

How do you write good ALT text?

Alt text shouldn’t just be a literal description of what’s in your image. You have to consider the context of the image and why it’s there in the first place. Look at this picture:

The Statue of Liberty in New York against a cloudy blue sky.

If your alt text for this image was “A large statue of a woman holding up a torch and cradling a book,” that would be an accurate description of what’s in the image, but it wouldn’t be good alt text.

A better description might be “The Statue of Liberty in New York against a cloudy blue sky”. The context of the page also matters. If the image was part of an immigration news story, the alt text might read: “The Statue of Liberty in New York, a powerful symbol for potential immigrants.”

Think about the purpose of the image and write your alt text accordingly!

It’s important that your primary keyword appears in some of your alt text, but don’t include it in every image, especially if the keyword isn’t part of a good alt text description

When not to use ALT text

There are two situations in which the use of alt text should be avoided. The first is for images that are purely decorative. These images are of no interest to anyone using a screen reader and are irrelevant to your SEO efforts. In fact, describing purely decorative images can mess up search engine indexing and make your item harder to understand for anyone using a screen reader.

As with the general principles of writing good alt text, the decision to write alt text at all comes down to what will serve the reader the most. If alt text helps their understanding and helps preserve the value of the original images, you should make an effort to include it.

Adding ALT text on social media

Alt text isn’t just something that website designers and bloggers need to consider. Most of us post images on social media, and most social media platforms provide a way to add alt text to those photos. You may not even be aware of this, but in some cases, alt text is automatically generated using image processing technology.

The steps to add or edit alt text on social media will change over time as these platforms evolve. We’ve seen a lot of outdated instructions for the various social media platforms, so it’s best to check the official documentation for Facebook and Twitter.

Adding alt text only takes a few seconds per image, but it can have a huge impact on the performance of your content and the accessibility of the web for people with visual impairments.

TIED TOGETHER: How to add alternative text to an object in Microsoft Word

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