I’ve recently seen some questionable takes about the purpose of alt text, mostly from content creators on TikTok. There’s a strange debate about its actual purpose and if creators should be prioritizing accessibility or SEO when they write their image descriptions.
Honestly, I hate that this is even up for discussion.
Given the choice, you should always place more importance on how accessible your content is for users with disabilities rather than how searchable it is. Yes, I know that goes against everything digital marketers, content creators, and brand influencers set out to do with their work, but sometimes you need to make the choice between being a good marketer and being a great human.
Being a great human should always win, and it will if you’re smart about how you write alt text. Now, let’s dive into alt text and how it can be both accessible and strategic.
Alt text—or as it’s known by its full name, alternative text—is the written description of a digital image. Basically, it describes the important physical aspects of an image so that blind and visually impaired individuals using assistive devices like screen readers can understand visual content.
A more accurate name for alt text in relation to accessibility would simply be an image description, and for the sake of clarity, I will refer to it as such moving forward in this article. Alt text is often confused with “alt tags” or “alt attributes”, which are what I would describe as cousins of an image description, but not siblings.
Alt tags and alt attributes are common phrases used in web development and are typically much shorter and less descriptive than image descriptions. They serve two purposes for webpage images:
Think of an image description as a more robust version of an alt tag. Let’s use this image of pancakes as an example.
The alt tag and image description for this particular visual are very different in my mind.
Which one made your stomach growl? More importantly, which one painted a more vivid picture in your head? The alt tag gets the job done on a technical level, but the image description made the picture more accessible.
Absolutely. Just like alt tags, image descriptions can boost the likelihood of your digital images—and by extension, your website—coming up in search engine results, especially if they use particular keywords. If we go back to our pancake picture, the image description could easily be tweaked to apply to a specific business:
A stack of pancakes from Alexa’s Pancake House covered in gooey syrup, powdered sugar, and fresh fruit on a white ceramic plate.
Despite the addition of the business’s name, the image description is still predominantly about the physical aspects of the picture and remains accessible for screen reader users.
This is a slightly tricky question to answer and is completely dependent on your image.
The physical description of your image and making it accessible for screen reader users should always be the priority when you write your image description. If you can logically work keywords into your image description without making it confusing, go for it.
What you shouldn’t do is keyword-pack your image description just for the sake of SEO, which is what some content creators on Instagram have apparently started doing to basically hack in-app search results. While search engines don’t supposedly pick up on image descriptions from social media sites yet, what you write in the alt text field for images on Instagram does affect search results within the app.
Keyword-packing an image description looks something like this:
A stack of pancakes from Alexa’s Pancake House 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.
Everything after the word “plate” is clearly just an attempt to boost the SEO of the image. If you cannot logically work your keywords into your image description, don’t force them. A block of keywords affects how accessible your image is because it makes the image description confusing.
Instead of keyword-packing your image descriptions, find ways to add your keywords to other sections of your website or use hashtags on social media. If you choose to create a block of hashtags on Instagram, put them in the first comment of your post to keep your caption as accessible as possible for screen reader users.
Do image descriptions actually matter for highly visual platforms like Instagram and Pinterest? Why would someone with a vision impairment even be on those sites?
Despite what you may think, disability is not black and white; it’s a full spectrum. There are people who are partially blind and fully blind. There are people who were born with a vision impairment or became disabled later on in life. There are also people who are only temporarily disabled due to an illness or injury.
All of these people deserve to have access to the same visual content as everyone else, no matter their level of physical ability, and more importantly, they deserve respect and consideration from content creators. Good image descriptions help make that possible.
To put it simply, prioritizing SEO when you write your image descriptions means choosing to put yourself first, whereas prioritizing accessibility means choosing to put others first.
Now ask yourself, what matters more to you, being a better marketer or being a better human being?
This story originally appeared on Better Marketing.