Google Best Practices: Alt Text and its SEO Impact

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In the recent Google Search Central SEO Office-Hours Hangout that concluded on 18 March 2022, Alt Text became the hot topic of discussion. And Google’s Search Advocate John Mueller addressed several SEO implications of using (or not using) Alt Text on web pages, resulting in a number of key takeaways website owners and SEO strategists could potentially benefit from. The most important of them being, an all-important part that Alt Text plays in ranking an image in image search, and not so much when it comes to ranking the web page in the web search. Let’s take a deep dive into how Alt text can impact SEO by looking at what good, old John has to say about a bunch of questions.

Using Alt Text does not mean better web search results

John begins by addressing that the whether or not somebody wants to use Alt Text depends on whether or not they want to the images from their webpages show up in image search. He adds that Alt Text does not improve a page’s ranking and that Google doesn’t measures a page’s value just because its images have Alt text in them. He advises that one should look at using Alt Text not for its SEO aspect but rather for its accessibility aspect. “I think it’s totally up to you. So I can’t speak for the accessibility point of view, so that’s the one angle that is there. But from an SEO point of view the alt text really helps us to understand the image better for image search. And if you don’t care about this image for image search, then that’s fine do whatever you want with it. That’s something for decorative images, sometimes you just don’t care. For things like stock photos where you know that the same image is on lots of other sites, you don’t care about image search for that. Do whatever you want to do there. I would focus more on the accessibility aspect there rather than the pure SEO aspect. It’s not the case that we would say a textual webpage has more value because it has images. It’s really just we see the alt text and we apply that to the image, and if someone searches for the image we can use that to better understand the image. It’s not that the webpage in the text web search would rank better because it has an image.” says John.

When should you avoid using Alt Text?

To be honest, we didn’t think this was even an option and that using Alt Text was always advised for. And John goes on to challenge the norms that seeped into the SEO world without any rhyme or reason. He adds that if the image already has text in it then one can avoid using Alt text altogether. He, however, adds a condition in which Alt text can still be useful despite the fact that image has text in it. He says. “I think, ideally, if you have text and images it probably makes sense to have the text directly on the page itself. Nowadays there are lots of ways to creatively display text across a website so I wouldn’t necessarily try to use text in images and then use the alt text as a way to help with that. I think the alt text is a great way to help with that, but ideally it’s better to avoid having text in images.”

But what if there’s text on the page describing what an image is?

Ah, that’s a tricky one with no-so-tricky solution. So, is it worth using Alt Text if the web page already has text on it that describes what’s in the image? Here, John says that the text on the web page is enough and there is no need to add Alt Text. But he also adds that for people using screen readers, Alt Text is beneficial. Here’s what John says about it. “From a more general point of view, the alt text is meant as a replacement or description of the image, and that’s something that is particularly useful for people who can’t look at individual images, who use things like screen readers, but it also helps search engines to understand what this image is about. If you already have the same description for a product around the image, for search engines we kind of have what we need, but for people with screen readers maybe it still makes sense to have some kind of alt text for that specific image.”

How to write an SEO-friendly Alt text

In one word – descriptive. John concludes that Alt text should be descriptive and should apt describe what is in the image for people aren’t able to view the image. Generic Alt Text should be avoided at all costs, as it neither helps the viewers nor affects the image’s SEO in a positive manner. “In a case like this I would avoid the situation where you’re just repeating the same thing over and over. So avoid having like the title of a product be used as an alt text for the image, but rather describe the image in a slightly different way. So that’s kind of the recommendation I would have there. I wouldn’t just blindly copy and paste the same text that you already have on a page as an alt text for an image because that doesn’t really help search engines and it doesn’t really help people who rely on screen readers.” Ends John.

Additional Tip on writing Alt Text

• Be specific in a concise manner. Think of it as how to best describe an image to somebody over a call.

• Never ever start the Alt Text with words like “An image of…” or “A picture of…” It is quite obvious to people using screen readers and machines accessing information.

• Avoid keyword stuffing; use them judiciously and wisely.

• Never ever repeat using the same text that’s on the page to pass it off as Alt Text. If there is already some text on the page that describes an image, you don’t have to use Alt Text, as advised by John.

• There is no need to add Alt Text to images that are used for decorative purposes; that doesn’t serve any real purpose in enhancing the value.
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