Alternative Text: The Unsung Hero of Accessibility and SEO

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A fictional image of an alternative text hero flying over the countryside. This image was created using Adobe Firefly and Illustrator and is for decorative purposes.

In the world of vibrant websites, images speak a thousand words… but what happens when those words can’t be seen? Alternative (alt) text, the often-overlooked hero of the web, bridges this gap, ensuring that everyone has access to the whole story your website tells. But it doesn’t stop there! Alt text has some mysterious powers to help move the needle and increase traffic. Not to worry, I’ll explain.

The Power of Accessibility – Alternative Text To The Rescue!

Everyone is talking about inclusivity and accessibility these days, which is excellent. Acceptance of others and all their originality is a part of the inclusive movement. So, let’s consider those who are visually impaired. Alt text empowers the visually impaired by adding descriptive value to explain the image to one who cannot see it well enough to decipher its meaning. Luckily, there’s a piece of software on most operating systems that helps; it’s called a screen reader.

A screen reader is a software application designed to help individuals who are visually impaired or have difficulty reading text on screens by converting digital text into spoken words or Braille. Essentially, it reads out the content displayed on the computer screen, including text, buttons, images (through alternative text), and other interface elements. This software enables users to navigate their computer or mobile device, access web content, and perform tasks such as reading emails, browsing the internet, or using applications without seeing the screen.

Similarly, alternative text is necessary for browsing via voice command, like using Alexa or Siri to provide an auditory answer rather than looking at a screen. So, you see, it isn’t just for the visually impaired that alt text helps – it’s also a benefit to anyone using voice search.

Put this all together, and suitable alternative text is actually a signal that your website uses good, inclusive digital design. But it doesn’t stop at just your website – it also is relevant to email. Remember, people using screen readers or voice access tools for anything on a computer could use a screen reader. So, anywhere you put an image, you should also include alternative text.

Are your website images affecting your website accessibility? Get a professional Website Accessibility Audit of your business website now to ensure you’re leading the way as an inclusive and accessible business.

SEO Benefits of Alternative Text aka Alt Text

A marketing team reviewing the activity of their website using a whiteboard. The graph shows obvious growth over time. This is a stock image by DragonImages via Envato Elements and is for illustrative purposes. Learn more about alternative text and its SEO benefits at Farm6Media.com.

Alt text helps your website in search engine optimization to score better placements in SERP (Search Engine Results Page). Here’s how it works: 

Search engines do not generally use fancy AI recognition for images. Why? Because it would cost far too much money to compute. For this reason alone, we can see the value of alternative text (especially for original images). Alternative text helps tell search engine algorithms what the picture shows. This description allows the search engine to calculate the relevance of the content, and that’s good for search engine optimization.

The Link Between Good Alt Text and Original Images

Original images that use descriptive alternative (alt) text can rank on their own in image search. Furthermore, it helps develop validity and proof of concept in terms of the author’s original works as opposed to regurgitated content.

That, my friends, drives SEO power for your website. Add to that by including specific keywords naturally in the alt text, which can actually help you rank better for said target keyword (assuming you were able to use it naturally). 

Alt Text Writing Tip: Remember – always edit alt text so it’s grammatically correct and without spelling mistakes. I’ll get more into that later when I explain how to write alt text best.

Alternative Text and Global Rankings

Good alt text can help you in emerging markets across the world. Consider for a moment how someone living in an area with poor internet access might feel if they look at a website. The images cannot or take too long to load due to their poor connection (or possibly poor equipment). 

Good alternative text, in this case, helps site users in these conditions by providing context and even possibly further valuable information that they would otherwise not get. Alt text allows people using screen readers, people with poor internet, and people with inadequate equipment to understand your message better. In short, it helps everyone, so don’t exclude people in these situations.

I like to think of alternative text as SEO Fuel. Any chance I have to add this fuel to my marketing is a good chance with positive results.

See what Google has to say about the alternative text here at Google Image SEO best practices.

Alt Text for Emails

A screenshot of including alternative text to a Google Gmail email. Learn more about alt text and web and email accessibility at Farm6Media.com.

Clients sometimes ask me about images in emails and best practices. Over the years, I’ve often encountered alt text issues with emails for several reasons, which can significantly impact users who rely on screen readers to access content. 

Alt text, or alternative text, is a crucial component in making images in emails accessible to visually impaired users, as it provides a textual description of an image when the image cannot be seen or loaded. Similarly, those merely wishing to use voice activation tools to read their emails while they do other things. I once had a client tell me she had a screen reader read her emails in the morning while she got the kid’s lunches ready for school. You see, there are a number of possible reasons why someone might choose to use a screen reader.

Here are some common reasons why images in emails may have alt text issues:

Top 5 Most Common Issues I’ve Seen With Images and Alternative Text In Email Marketing:

  1. Overlooked by Senders: Many email marketers or senders simply forget to include alt text for images within their emails. This oversight means screen readers have no descriptive text to relay to users, rendering the image content inaccessible.
  2. Inadequate Descriptions: Even when alt text is provided, it’s often too vague or irrelevant, failing to convey the actual content or purpose of the image. Compelling alt text should be concise yet descriptive enough to offer a meaningful substitute for the image.
  3. Technical Limitations: Some email marketing platforms or tools might not offer an intuitive way to add alt text, or the functionality may be limited, leading to improper implementation. Additionally, HTML emails with complex layouts might present challenges in correctly associating alt text with images.
  4. Bulk Email Constraints: In mass email campaigns, the sheer volume of content produced can lead to overlooking alt text or hastily adding it. This action often results in poor-quality descriptions that don’t effectively communicate the intended message.
  5. Lack of Awareness or Training: Many content creators are not fully aware of accessibility best practices, including the importance of alt text. Without adequate knowledge or training, the accessibility of email content can be compromised.

How Alt Text Improves Email Deliverability

Using alternative text in your emails, while primarily essential for accessibility, can indirectly improve email deliverability in several ways. Email deliverability refers to the ability of your emails to reach the inboxes of your recipients without being blocked by spam filters or landing in the junk folder. Here’s how properly using alt text can contribute to this goal:

  1. Reduces Spam Score: Email services often scan incoming emails for characteristics typical of spam. Emails that are heavy on images with little to no text (including missing alt text) may be flagged as spam because spammers often use image-based emails to bypass text-based spam filters. Including alt text with your images makes your emails appear more legitimate and content-rich to these filtering algorithms.
  2. Increases Engagement: When images in emails do not load due to slow internet connections or when users have disabled images in their email settings, alt text provides a textual context or description. It can engage readers enough to either enable images or understand the message’s intent without seeing the images. Higher engagement rates are a positive signal to email providers, contributing to better deliverability over time.
  3. Improves Accessibility and User Experience: By making your emails more accessible to visually impaired users through the use of alt text, you ensure a broader audience can engage with your content. Improved user experience and engagement can lead to fewer spam complaints and higher interaction rates, both of which positively influence your sender’s reputation and deliverability.
  4. Signals Quality Content: The use of alt text is one aspect of following email best practices and demonstrates to ISPs (Internet Service Providers) and ESPs (Email Service Providers) that you are making an effort to create quality, accessible content. A good sender reputation, bolstered by practices that include proper use of alt text, helps improve email deliverability.

Want to learn more about marketing with email? 

Check out my book, The Complete Email Marketing Guide for Business, on Amazon.

How to Write Great Alt Text For Web or Email

General Rules for Alternative Text

Always Include Alt Text

Make it a standard practice to include descriptive and concise alt text for all images in your emails or on your website. It not only aids accessibility but also enriches your content for search engines and spam filters.

Balance Text and Images

Ensure your content or emails have a comfortable mix of text and images. Over-reliance on images can trigger spam filters in email platforms like Gmail. Including alt text helps, but it’s also essential to have visible textual content.

Test Your Emails

Use email testing tools to see how your emails render in different email clients and to check if they trigger spam filters. These tools can often provide feedback on aspects like missing alt text. Tools like Litmus (not free; plans start at $79 per month, but easy to navigate, and no, I’m not affiliated with them, so use them at your discretion) can help if you rely on email for your business. For those who are a little more tech-savvy, I recommend tools like the open-source Spam Assassin (it’s free but takes more work to set up than other paid services).

Keep Alt Text Relevant

Make sure your alt text accurately reflects the content or function of the image. Misleading or keyword-stuffed alt text can negatively impact your reputation. So, if you use keyword insertion, the trick is to make it natural. That’s why it’s also critical to ensure proper grammar and spelling similarly.

Remember, even decorative images that don’t necessarily bring relevance should still have appropriate alt text.

Empowering Your Digital Presence with Alt Text

In wrapping up, it’s clear that alt text plays a pivotal role not just in making the web more inclusive but also in fueling your SEO efforts. This unsung hero of the digital world ensures that no audience is left behind, from those relying on screen readers to navigate the vast expanse of the internet to the search engines that guide us through it. Implementing well-crafted alt text is a testament to thoughtful, inclusive digital design and a strategic move for any savvy digital marketer or content creator.

As small as the change might seem, embedding descriptive alt text with your images can lead to significantly positive impacts on your website’s accessibility, user engagement, and search engine visibility. It’s a straightforward yet effective way to complement your digital content, resonating with both your audience and search algorithms.

Now is the time to take action. Review your website and emails: Are you making the most of alt text to enhance accessibility and SEO? Each image without alt text is a missed opportunity to connect, engage, and improve your digital footprint. Don’t let these opportunities slip through your fingers.

If you need a sitewide audit for accessibility, don’t hesitate to check out our Website Inclusivity Audit and other digital marketing services here at Farm 6 Media, where we do everything we can to ensure your business moves forward and gets noticed.

For those looking to dive deeper into the world of effective digital marketing strategies, including mastering the art of email marketing, I invite you to explore “The Complete Email Marketing Guide for Business,” available on Amazon. I wrote this guide as your gateway to maximizing engagement and driving results through strategic email marketing.

Moreover, suppose you’re seeking tailored solutions to elevate your digital marketing efforts. In that case, the Farm 6 Media marketing team is at your service. With expertise in SEO optimization, content marketing, email copy, and more, we’re here to transform your digital strategy and help you achieve unparalleled success.

Embrace the power of alt text. Let’s make the digital world a more accessible, visible, and connected space for everyone.

Article Resources:

  1. Website Inclusivity Audit, Farm 6 Media. https://www.farm6media.com/shop/actionable-accessibility-audit/
  2. Shantz, Jeremy, “The Complete Email Marketing Guide for Business” 2023. Available at Amazon.com.
  3. Email Marketing Services, Farm 6 Media. https://www.farm6media.com/content-marketing_services/email-marketing_services/
  4. Google image SEO best practices, Google Search Central – Documentation. https://developers.google.com/search/docs/appearance/google-images

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