Alternative Text

Images play a key part on social media, but how does someone with a serious vision disability experience a picture? Assistive devices and programs need alternative text, a physical summary of an image, to accurately describe it to a user. Alternative text is commonly known as alt text or more simply, an image description, and it serves two major purposes:

  • If an image on a webpage fails to load, the alt text will indicate what the missing image was supposed to be. In this instance, alt text is usually extremely short and more commonly known as an alt tag or an alt attribute.
  • Alt text is also vital for someone who is blind or has low vision and uses assistive technology like a screen reader or text-to-speech program to access digital content because it’s meant to accurately describe images to the user.

While adding alt text to images on websites is mostly considered a best practice today, social media is only just starting to catch up.

Looking for examples of alt text? Check out our sample social media scenarios! Each scenario is paired with an image and example alternative text is written for that image based on the context of the given situation.

Tips for Writing Alternative Text

Something to always keep in mind when writing alt text is that it’s a completely subjective exercise and will vary image to image and creator to creator. Just focus on writing an accurate description of your image to make it as accessible as possible. 

You don’t need to describe everything 

If something in your image is significant to understanding the whole visual or post, describe it in your alt text. If it’s not, skip it. You don’t need to include every nitty gritty detail. The details you include in your alt text should be contextually important to painting an accurate picture in someone’s mind.

Write in plain language

You should focus on describing the physical aspects of your chosen images. Resist the urge to be ornate or overly effusive with your descriptions and stick to writing in plain language. You want to avoid having your own opinions or feelings about an image interfering with your ability to write accurate alt text. Try to be as objective as possible.

Focus on accuracy, not length

How long your alt text will be is entirely dependent on the image you choose for your content. The more complex your image is, the longer your alt text will more than likely be especially if the image features any text. Again, just focus on accurately capturing the most important details in your image and you should do just fine.

Exclude writing “photo of” or “image of”

It’s already assumed that your alt text will be for a photo or image, and a screen reader will more than likely say “image of” before or after reading your alt text. However, if your image file is something like an illustration, a painting, a graphic, or a screenshot, you can include that in your alt text because it gives the user a better idea of how to visualize the image.

It’s okay to use proper nouns and names

If a well-known person, place, or thing is in your image and it adds context to your content, go ahead and use its proper name in your alt text. For example, if you use a picture of the Eiffel Tower while writing content about Paris, you can name the landmark in the alt text.

Consider positional information

Think about the view someone has when they’re looking at your image. Is it a partial view of someone sitting at a table? Do you have a bird’s-eye view of a snow-covered forest? Is your image a close-up of a hummingbird’s fluttering wings? Does your image show a person tilting their head upward towards the sun? Directional or positional information can add important context to your alt text.

Avoid using images with excessive flattened copy

If you’re posting a copy-heavy graphic like an event flyer or an image that has text overlayed on it, you’ll need to add alt text for all the flattened copy because a screen reader will not be able to read it. Flattened copy is text that has been turned into an object upon being exported from whatever program it was created in. You may also hear or see it called embedded copy or outlined text.

If you drag your cursor over the text on an image and it does not highlight the individual words or characters, that means the text is no longer readable, therefore, it’s also not actionable because it cannot be clicked. JPEG, PNG, and GIF files do not support readable text. Usually, assistive devices and programs can only transcribe readable text and cannot pick up flattened copy.

Use Personal identifiers for people when needed

This tip on writing effective image descriptions should be taken with a grain of salt since it was written by a white cis woman. Identity and representation are complex and multi-faceted subjects that should always be treated with respect and care.

If the race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, or another identifier for a person is relevant to the overall context of the image, feel free to add it. It also helps in this instance to think of your content as a whole. What information is included in the written part of your post? As the author, do you feel that extra identifiers in your alt text would add contextual value to the rest of your content?

For example, let's say your content is about the history of Women's Suffrage. Including the gender and race of any people in the alt text of your images would be contextually important because both identifiers are prominent topics when talking about the history of women fighting for their right to vote.

If you’re unsure about how the subject of an image identifies or don’t want to assume how they identify, stick to neutral terms such as using “person” instead of “man” or “woman”? For someone’s race or ethnicity, describe the physical aspects of the person like their skin tone or hair. According to Cooper Hewitt's guidelines for image descriptions, you can use descriptors such as “light-skinned,” “medium-skinned,” or “dark-skinned” to describe the people in an image.

Of course, the best way to ascertain how someone in your image identifies is to ask them, if you are able to do so. Just make sure to explain to your subject that you're trying to accurately represent them in your content.

Avoid abbreviations whenever possible

It’s better to type out the full name or title of a person, place, organization, or initiative because screen readers don’t always read abbreviations like acronyms and initialisms correctly. Lesser-known abbreviations also don’t add a lot of context to an image. If you use an initialism in your alt text (or any of your content for that matter), type out the full name or title first, and then place dashes, spaces, or periods in between each letter of the initialism so that the screen reader says it properly. 

An initialism is an abbreviation consisting of initial letters pronounced separately. Examples would be KPI, NYC, and FBI. An acronym is an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of other words and pronounced as a word. Examples would be NASA, SCUBA, and FOMO. 

Add keywords for improved SEO

This piece of advice is more relevant for images on websites, as search engines currently do not pick up alt text on social media images.

However, keywords in Instagram’s alt text field do supposedly affect search results for posts within the app. Just make sure that you’re prioritizing the accurate description of your image. You should never keyword-pack your alt text, which just means adding a block of random words to the end of your image description to improve in-app search results. 

A block of miscellaneous keywords may affect how accessible your image is because it could make the alt text confusing. Instead of keyword-packing, find ways to logically work your keywords into your alt text or use hashtags in your caption.

An example of alt text that has a keyword block in it would be, "A stack of pancakes covered in gooey syrup, powdered sugar, and fresh fruit on a white ceramic plate. Buttermilk, breakfast, cafe, local eats, diner, organic food, cooking, culinary arts." The bolded portion is the keyword block and would not make an image more accessible.

What to Avoid in Your Alternative Text

Now that you have a better understanding of how to write effective alt text, let's talk about what shouldn't go in your alt text.

First and foremost, a designated alt text field is not a place to hide messages or put additional marketing content. The primary purpose of alt text is to make images accessible through thoughtful description, and that purpose should not be distorted or manipulated for the sake of engagement.

Other things to avoid in your alt text:

  • Emoji Icons: emoji are typically added to social media content to give it additional visual interest, so adding them to alt text makes almost no sense and could result in confusing alt text depending on the icons that you use.
  • Links: if you put a link in your alt text, it's not going to be clickable and a screen reader will just read it out like any other word in your alt text. Links should go in the written part of your post or tweet, not the alt text.
  • Hashtags: like with links, hashtags aren't clickable in alt text and do not typically add additional context that would make an image description more accessible.
  • Additional Symbols: symbols like the ones for trademark, copyright, and registered don't make an image description more accessible and will get read aloud by a screen reader, so avoid using them.
You should never rely on auto-generated alt text for your images! Alt text written by artificial intelligence isn't normally very descriptive or accurate. Just check out the below tweet for proof.

Alternative Text by Platforms

Alt text can be auto-generated by some platforms, but thankfully, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Pinterest all allow you to manually write custom alt text, which is preferred to auto-generated alt text.

WARNING: the below images contain minor elements that blink for five seconds upon scrolling into view.

Facebook

The alt text function on the desktop version of Facebook can be found by clicking Edit in the upper left corner of an image before posting it to your Facebook page, profile, or group and typing the alt text in the appropriate field.

Screenshot showing how to add alt text to a Facebook post via the desktop.
How to add alt text to a Facebook post via the desktop.

If you’re in the Facebook mobile app, you’ll find the alt text function under the three dots in the upper right corner of your uploaded image. This can be deceptive since there’s also an Edit button like there is on the desktop, but alt text is not housed there on the app.

You may notice a warning flash that alt text is normally less than 100 characters. Your alt text should be as long as you need it to be in order to make your image accessible.

Screenshot showing how to add alt text to a Facebook post via the mobile app.
How to add alt text to a Facebook post via the mobile app.

Unfortunately, adding alt text to an image when you post it from the desktop or mobile version of Facebook Business Suite is not currently possible, and Facebook Creator Studio fluctuates between having and not having the ability to schedule posts with alt text. If you want to schedule Facebook posts with alt text you’ll either need to use a third-party management tool or write your image description directly in the caption of your post and schedule it through Business Suite or Creator Studio.

Twitter

On the desktop version and mobile app of Twitter, along with TweetDeck, the alt text option appears with images as Add Description or +ALT below your uploaded image. 

Screenshot showing how to add alt text to a Twitter post via the desktop and mobile app.
How to add alt text to a Twitter post via the desktop and mobile app.

You can also add alt text to GIFs on Twitter if you use their built-in GIF library on the mobile and desktop versions of the platform or on the beta version of the updated TweetDeck platform.

Instagram

When you get to the final screen on the Instagram app before publishing your post, tap Advanced Settings, scroll to Accessibility near the bottom, click Write Alt Text, and then add your image description in the provided field. If you have a carousel of images, there will be a slot for each image on that final screen. Once you’ve written your alt text, you can click Done in the upper right corner.

Screenshot showing how to add alt text to an Instagram post via the mobile app.
How to add alt text to an Instagram post via the mobile app.

In October 2021, Instagram announced that it would finally allow users to post from the desktop version of the platform. The alt text feature is actually easier to find on the desktop than it is on the app. You’ll find a drop-down labeled Accessibility just below the caption area on the final publishing screen. Click the drop-down and the expanded view will show each of your uploaded images with a field next to them where you can write your alt text.

Screenshot showing how to add alt text to an Instagram post via the desktop.
How to add alt text to an Instagram post via the desktop.

Because Instagram is owned by Facebook, you can also use Creator Studio to post to the platform using the alt text field. Just make sure that your Instagram account is a Creator or Business account and linked to a published Facebook page. You'll find the alt text field under Advanced Settings after you upload an image to your post in Creator Studio. Like with the app and desktop, Creator Studio will show you an individual field for each image you upload.

Screenshot showing how to add alt text to an Instagram post via Creator Studio.
How to add alt text to an Instagram post via Facebook Creator Studio.

An alternative option for writing alt text on Instagram is to include your image description directly in the caption area of your post, as shown below. Some users have found that some assistive devices don’t always detect the alt text field on Instagram, so this is a solution to that potential problem. Writing your alt text this way also makes it very clear to your audience that you value accessibility and creating inclusive social media content.

You can also easily use this method for Facebook and LinkedIn posts as well.

Screenshot showing how to add alt text to an Instagram post by writing an image description directly in the caption of the post.
How to add alt text to an Instagram post by writing your image description in the caption of the post.

LinkedIn

LinkedIn has one of the easiest alt text fields to find. As soon as you upload an image to your post, the option to add alt text appears below your image in the Edit your photo window. Just be conscious of the fact that LinkedIn has a 300 character limit for alt text, so you'll want to be intentional about the images you choose lest you run out of room for describing them.

Screenshot showing how to add alt text to a LinkedIn post via the desktop.
How to add alt text to a LinkedIn post via the desktop.

Pinterest

Finding the alt text field for Pinterest is also quite easy, but it’s only an option for new pins that you upload directly to your account. You cannot retroactively add alt text to someone’s else’s pin that you want to share to your own board. When you create a new pin, you’ll see a button labeled Add alt text to the right of the image you upload.

Screenshot showing how to add alt text to a Pinterest post via the desktop.
How to add alt text to a Pinterest post via the desktop.

Scheduling with Alternative Text

Alt text publishing capabilities vary across popular third-party management tools and apps, and as of January 2022, Sked Social is the only third-party site that can post to Instagram using the platform’s alt text field due to API restrictions. You can also use Facebook Creator Studio to post to Instagram with alt text because Instagram is owned by Facebook. Just make sure that your Instagram account is a Creator or Business account and linked to a published Facebook page.

Click any of the below tabs for a sampling of popular management tools and their alt text publishing capabilities by platform as of January 2022.

The following social media management tools and apps can access Facebook's alt text field when scheduling posts:

  • Agorapulse
  • Emplifi
  • Facebook Creator Studio
  • Falcon
  • Hootsuite
  • Publer
  • Sked Social
  • Sprout Social

The following social media management tools and apps can access Twitter's alt text field when scheduling posts:

  • Agorapulse
  • Buffer
  • Emplifi
  • Falcon
  • Hootsuite
  • Publer
  • Sked Social
  • Sprinklr
  • Sprout Social

The following social media management tools and apps can access Instagram's alt text field when scheduling posts:

  • Facebook Creator Studio
  • Sked Social

The following social media management tools and apps can access LinkedIn's alt text field when scheduling posts:

  • Agorapulse
  • Emplifi
  • Falcon
  • Hootsuite
  • Publer
  • Sked Social
  • Sprout Social

The following social media management tools and apps can access Pinterest's alt text field when scheduling posts:

  • Sked Social

If you use a management tool other than Sked Social and want to continue using it to publish to Instagram, you can simply write your image description directly in the caption area of your post.

If you'd like to learn more about how alternative text can impact your content, be sure to check out the year-long alt text A/B test that Alexa is conducting on Twitter.

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