When To Optimize Alt and Title Text for Images

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Customers using Raven software have asked, “What’s the difference between alt tags and title text on image files?” My response: Good question. So I went in search of an answer.

For those using WordPress, the image upload module offers fields for Title, Caption, Alt Text and Description.

WordPress Image Text Attributes

Honestly, I frequently use the same words for the title and alt text, ideally including a keyword phrase. Sometimes I leave the title blank. But, in researching this post, I discovered that there’s a benefit to including both and making each unique.

Some of the confusion is because of the language used to describe these features.

All of these can refer to the img alt="text" attribute:

  • Alt tags
  • Meta data
  • Meta tags
  • Alt attribute

Meanwhile, all of these can refer to the image title:

  • Title tag
  • Title text
  • Title attribute

Why To Use Alt Tags

At a minimum, you want to fill in the alt text field.

Not including the “alt tag” is one of the most common SEO mistakes I see new website owners make. This is sloppy SEO for two reasons:

  1. Search engine robots can’t read images without text, plus you’ve missed a keyword opportunity.
  2. Not labeling images is a poor user experience for those who have disabled images in their browsers or for those with visual or certain cognitive disabilities.

“Alt text” stands for “alternative information.” According to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the “alt” attribute specifies an alternate text for user agents that cannot display images, forms or applets. For example, the user agent Googlebot cannot “see” images directly. Instead, it relies on the information in the alt attribute to determine what the image is and what to display in search results.

Here’s a good overview on the importance of alt tags from Matt Cutts, Google’s head of Web spam. Notice that he does say “alt tag” and calls it alternative text that helps describe the scene found in the image.

Your text should describe what the image is about and be limited to 10 words or less. This text does not have to be a sentence but more a descriptive, keyword-rich phrase. If the image doesn’t fit the theme of your post or page, then you might want to reconsider your image choice.

Alt text for the image below could be: a dozen social media icons demonstrate reach of social networks. This phrase includes the keywords “social media” and “social networks” giving search engines an additional clue regarding what the page is about.

Alt text also helps the visually impaired navigate the Internet. For those with disabilities, alt text is read by screen readers in place of images (which is why you don’t see it when hovering) allowing the content and function of the image to be accessible and understandable.

Why To Use Title Tags

The alt attribute is for search engine crawlers. The title tag, however, is for human readers. It’s what’s revealed when you hover over the image without clicking.

So title text can be written as a call to action to prompt a reader to act. Using the same example, our alt text was “a dozen social media icons demonstrate reach of social networks.” However, our title text is “Learn the Don’ts of Changing Usernames on Social Networks.”

Can I Duplicate Title and Alt Text?

If you have a large page with a lot of images, what keywords you use in your image alt and title fields could make a small difference in your rankings.

But keyword stuffing is still keyword stuffing.

Rules of thumb:

  • Provide explicit details about your image and include keywords, but use different keywords for the title and the alt tag.
  • Ideally, an image title should follow the same rule of a regular post title or article headline — it should be relevant, catchy and concise.
  • Sometimes we all run out of time and simply use the same text in both the image title and the alt text. It’s not the end of the world.

Should I Include These in a Website Audit?

For those using Raven’s Site Auditor, the Summary page could display a number of error messages that, at first glance, are confusing, especially when the webmaster knows he or she labels all uploaded images.

Many of those error messages are a result of blank or duplicate title attributes on images. While technically not a ranking factor, usability is a big deal for SEO, so Raven flags those images to alert you to a possible negative signal for Google (now or in the future).

If your website or blog contains thousands of pages, it’s not worth your time to make those changes yourself. (You can hire an intern to make the changes :-). If the red No Text warnings bug you, you can exclude those from your Site Auditor reports.

Going forward, remember to include keywords in the image file name and use different ones in both your alt and title attributes.

Photo Credit: tacker via Compfight cc

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