The Alt Text War! SEO VS Accessibility
There is always a cold war between different compartments of digital world and accessibility. One such cold war scenario has come to us as a question this time.
Here is that interesting question from Stefania:
We have public website with stock photos of people looking at their computer screens and similar. I was wondering if they should be considered pure decorative, and therefore having empty alt text. Marketing people claim that it’s important to have alt text for that kind of images, because they can be used in google image search and for this reason increase the page view rates of our site (SEO reasons). Google search uses alt text as target for image search? Does this claim make sense? I didn’t find any good reference. Thanks.
SEO teams often want to make changes to the website in a certain way that does not always align with the goals of accessibility principles. One such change is to provide alternative text for all images on the website, irrespective of what the image conveys. Here are some mistakes that SEO teams make when dealing with images on the site:
- They provide alternative text for all images, including decorative images.
- Images are stuffed with keywords and do not make sense.
- Sometimes, alt text is provided in more than a few hundred words.
- Text that does not accurately describe the image, which can be confusing for users.
To answer Stefania’s question, stock images are already being used by many other websites on the internet, so providing alternative text for them does not really help with search rankings. Alternative text for images needs to be provided depending on the context. Here, the question to ask is “if the user must understand the image in order to understand the content?” If the answer is yes, then we provide alternative text to describe the image sufficiently. Otherwise, we need to mark it as decorative with alt=””.
If an image is not a stock image, but as a content author and accessibility specialist, you feel it is decorative, then mark it as decorative. The SEO team can still get these images into search results by using them in their social media posts with appropriate alt text, posting them on Google My Business, and other content distribution sites. This way, the image is tagged to the brand and can still appear in the search results of image search.
Here are some resources and references.
I have been struggling with the question which images are decorative for quite some time, and I find this decision a really difficult. If the only relevant aspect is whether an image is needed in order to understand the content, on some websites (e.g. banks or insurance, just to name a few) 90% of the images (if not more) would be decorative. But images on brand websites have a function beyond explaining the content. They also convey a sense of the brand, like showing situations with a special twist (funny, moving …). And besides that, there are blind users who want to know if there is an image on a page and what it shows, be it as a reference when they communicate with sighted users. What’s your take on this?