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Image Alt Text vs. Title Text vs. File Names: What’s the Difference?

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Brian Harnish
Brian Harnish VIP CONTRIBUTOR
Image Alt Text vs. Title Text vs. File Names: What’s the Difference?

What’s the difference between image alt text and title? Do you keep them the same?

This post will examine the differences between the image alt attribute, image title text, and image file name, and provide some basic recommendations on how to optimize them.

Alt Text vs. Alt Tag: Which Is Correct?

When you think of image alt text, the term that may immediately come to mind is “alt tag”.

Well, alt tag is really a misnomer and doesn’t exist at all. Because alt text, or alternative text, is the alternate text attribute of the image tag.

This is where communication in the SEO world can get dicey, because it may be known as one thing that just about everyone knows what an alt tag is, but in reality, it is entirely different.

Alternative text is used by screen readers for the blind to decipher what an image is about. It lets you specify an image description that is fed through an audio-based prompter that tells blind people what is currently on the page as they are scrolling through the page.

According to W3C Accessibility Guidelines, for code to be considered W3C-valid, it is important to include both image alt text and image title text in the image for important images on the page.

For design-based images that are unimportant, blank alt text attributes may be used. In this situation, screen readers will just skip over the image.

What Is Image Alt Text?

Alt text, or alternative text, is used to display text that describes an image to “alternative” sources.

Primarily, its goal is to make images more accessible to the blind who use screen readers, to make the web much more accessible per W3C accessibility guidelines.

Its secondary goal, as previously mentioned by Ann Smarty on SEJ, it is for people who have decided, for whatever reason, to turn off images in their web browser application. In addition, it satisfies those user agents who are also unable to “see” the images.

As a rule, alternative text should include targeted keyword optimization in a context that describes what the image is about. If no alternative text exists for the image, it will be displayed as an empty image.

Image alternative text is that text that displays in place of an empty image. Because Google cannot exactly crawl images in-depth, and mostly text, Google uses alternative text as a focus when they are trying to understand what the image is about.

It is important to note the W3C’s Accessibility Guidelines for Alternative Text:

When using the img element, specify a short text alternative with the alt attribute. Note. The value of this attribute is referred to as “alt text”.

When an image contains words that are important to understanding the content, the alt text should include those words. This will allow the alt text to play the same function on the page as the image. Note that it does not necessarily describe the visual characteristics of the image itself but must convey the same meaning as the image.

What Is Image Title Text?

The image title text attribute is an attribute that is used to provide additional information about the image. That being said, the image title is not used for search ranking, so it is not quite as important to optimize for.

But, if you’re an obsessive SEO completionist and want to optimize everything for the best in W3C optimization, by all means, do include both the alt text and title text for your image.

You don’t have to do anything super insane for title text optimization, however. Just use a quick, short, catchy title that complements what you optimized for the alt text, and you will be good to go.

User Intent & User Experience Should Be the Main Focus of Your Optimizations

User intent and user experience

Not much has changed in the past 10 years when it comes to optimizing for alt text and title attributes.

While optimizing both of these attributes, you should be focusing on not only keyword targeting, but also user intent.

This should be the primary ideal that you should strive for in the course of this optimization. Don’t keyword stuff, and of course, do switch out your keywords when appropriate.

It is important to note here that keyword stuffing is still keyword stuffing, so don’t do it even during the course of your alt text optimization. Do be careful and don’t spam these attributes, because it will get you in serious trouble.

When you do optimize for alt text and titles in images, it is important to make sure that you focus on the following:

  • Will this alt text and title text help my users?
  • Will this alt text and title text satisfy user intent?
  • Will this improve the user experience?

John Mueller from Google has also confirmed in a recent tweet that images that are used for design/positioning purposes do not have to have alt text, so blank alt text like this (alt=””) is fine.

John Mueller discusses alt text

Google’s Image Recommendations

Here are Google’s suggestions for improving the user experience of alt text, direct from their Image Publishing Guidelines:

Create a Great User Experience

To boost your content’s visibility in Google Images, focus on the user by providing a great user experience: make pages primarily for users, not for search engines. Here are some tips:

  • Provide good context: Make sure that your visual content is relevant to the topic of the page. We suggest that you display images only where they add original value to the page. We particularly discourage pages where neither the images or the text are original content.
  • Optimize placement: Whenever possible, place images near relevant text. When it makes sense, consider placing the most important image near the top of the page.
  • Don’t embed important text inside images: Avoid embedding text in images, especially important text elements like page headings and menu items, because not all users can access them (and page translation tools won’t work on images). To ensure maximum accessibility of your content, keep text in HTML, provide alt text for images.
  • Create informative and high quality sites: Good content on your webpage is just as important as visual content for Google Images – it provides context and makes the result more actionable. Page content may be used to generate a text snippet for the image, and Google considers the page content quality when ranking images.
  • Create device-friendly sites: Users search on Google Images more from mobile than on desktop. For this reason, it is important that you design your site for all device types and sizes. Use the mobile friendly testing tool to test how well your pages work on mobile devices, and get feedback on what needs to be fixed.
  • Create good URL structure for your images: Google uses the URL path as well as the file name to help it understand your images. Consider organizing your image content so that URLs are constructed logically.

Optimizing File Names

Optimize file names

Google uses the file names of images to gauge exactly what the subject of an image is.

By optimizing file names in accordance with optimizations of alt text and title text, it is possible to provide increased understanding that will help your images rank in image search.

For the most part, you don’t need long file names with long descriptive text.

The keyword phrase that mostly describes the image is fine.

Just make sure that your file name text also accurately reflects what the image is about.

Optimizing Images Is Necessary, but Don’t Overcompensate

While it is important to optimize images properly, it is not necessary to spend so much time on them that you lose sight of the bigger picture.

Make sure that you spend only what is necessary to get your images to rank and supplement your online marketing efforts. But, don’t lose sight of the ultimate goal by doing so.

More Image Optimization Resources:

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Brian Harnish

SEO Consultant at Site Objective

Brian has been doing SEO since before it was called SEO, back in the days of 1998. Back then, SEO ... [Read full bio]

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