In 2013, Google made a substantial change to image search. Users could click to open hi-res images directly in their search results without ever having to visit the source or website.
Simply put, Google had removed an alternative for websites to drive traffic outside of the SERPs.
Getty Images took issue with this in 2016 and filed a complaint with the European Commission, claiming that Google was enabling image piracy while also stifling site traffic.
Fast forward to February 2018, and Google had this to say via Twitter:
“Today we’re launching some changes on Google Images to help connect users and useful websites. This will include removing the View Image button. The Visit button remains, so users can see images in the context of the webpages they’re on.
…For those asking, yes, these changes came about in part due to our settlement with Getty Images this week. They are designed to strike a balance between serving user needs and publisher concerns, both stakeholders we value.”
It’s not often Google overturns UI updates like this. However, this change now means that image SEO is on the rise again.
For brands looking to drive relevant traffic to their site, image SEO has once again become a viable option. For optimizing images, and if it’s been a while since you brushed up on your SEO ranking factors, you may be asking yourself:
Do alt tags still matter in 2019?
Spoiler alert — they certainly do, and here’s a look at why.
What is Alt Text (AKA Alt Tags)?
It’s important to note that what we’re referring to in this post is not technically an “alt tag.” While most website owners and SEO professionals understand what someone means when referring to an alt tag, the correct terminology is alt text or alt attribute.
Despite being most commonly associated with image SEO, alt tags originally had a much different purpose.
Before 2000, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) community – the folks responsible for developing universal standards for the web – wanted to make the web more accessible for everyone. This meant figuring out how to improve online experiences for people with disabilities and visual impairments.
On May 5, 1999, W3C published its Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 (WCAG). The purpose was to explain how to make content more accessible for disabled Internet users and encourage developers to promote accessibility.
Alt attributes were designed for users of screen readers. These programs read content on a webpage aloud, and alt text found in the site’s HTML is the primary way of providing context to help someone understand the visual aspects of the page – even if they can’t see it.
Because accessibility is the core principle behind alt attributes, applying them to images on will always have a positive impact on user experience.
The Anatomy of Alt Attributes
Alt attributes (aka alt tags) are short descriptions of about 100 characters that websites can assign to any image on their site. They are also visible on mouse hovers whenever an image is unable to load.
If you’ve used WordPress, you may have noticed that adding any new media prompts a dialog box with a field for incorporating new alt text.
For the above picture of our favorite office puppy, Digital Duke, the image tag’s alt text as HTML would look something like this:
<img src=”Digital-Duke-Reporting-for-Duty.jpg” alt=”Duke the Digital Dog Sitting in an Office Chair at Direct Online Marketing.”>
As it turns out, screen readers and accessibility software aren’t the only pieces of technology that need alt attributes to understand images.
The Rise of Google Image Search
Fun fact: a green Versace dress worn by Jennifer Lopez at the Grammy awards was the catalyst for Google innovating its image search. In this article written by Google’s former Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt said, “At the time, [Lopez’s dress] was the most popular search query we had ever seen. But we had no surefire way of getting users exactly what they wanted: JLo wearing that dress. Google Image Search was born.”
In July 2001, Google launched its new image search feature with roughly 250 million images indexed at the time. Just four years later, the number of indexed images had grown to one billion.
Google then made a significant update to the user interface where users could hover their mouses over an image result to get more information — such as visiting the website where the original image is hosted.
Along with the rollout of Google Universal Search in the same year, website owners soon learned that image search results were driving traffic to their sites.
The Importance of Alt Text for Image SEO
Google has gotten quite good at determining the value and relevance of content for its users. As good as it is, the fact is that Google is still a machine and needs help from humans to understand visual elements.
Google uses alt text in the same way that the visually impaired use them — as a way to comprehend images because the algorithm cannot see nor cognitively understand images.
Applying an alt attribute on an image helps Google understand what an image is about to serve it in image results.
In the above example, a search for “sales strategy” yields an answer snippet from the top organic listing. However, the supplementary image provided in the snippet is an image from a different website.
The main takeaway: Images with optimized alt text are more likely to populate in image search queries.
Additionally, alt text is important to provide contextual relevance about the page where the image resides. When you use an optimized alt attribute with a target keyword, it gives your page a boost because the alt text is a helpful relevance signal for search engines.
Keyword Stuffing & Image SEO
For SEOs, alt attributes serve as another opportunity to drive organic traffic to a targeted webpage through keyword strategy.
Keyword stuffing was a common tactic in the early days of SEO, and alt text was another place to shove in as many keywords as possible to improve rankings. But Google was fully aware of this practice and released two algorithm changes to combat it: the infamous “Florida” and “Penguin” updates.
Keyword stuffing encompasses more than just adding multiple keywords via alt attributes. The process also shoves various keywords into page copy, heading tags, meta titles, descriptions, and the now-defunct keywords meta tag.
But it should be noted that while keyword stuffing can work short term, any gains will be short-lived.
If you aim to optimize alt text with target keywords, use as much natural language as possible.
Standard Practice or High Priority?
If you’re still unsure about the importance of alt attributes for image SEO, here’s a look at a few questions you might be asking yourself.
Q: Should I write alt text for all of my images?
A: Yes, because it is an easy opportunity to improve accessibility and user experience. Optimizing images with alt text will provide greater relevance to search engines about your content and help drive traffic to your site.
Q: Should alt text be a core focus of my SEO strategy?
A: No, because their impact on rankings isn’t great enough to significantly affect your rankings unless your website is image-focused.
Q: How high priority is alt text?
A: Writing alt text is a high priority whenever you upload an image to your site. Consider making this a standard practice because alt text is relatively simple to implement and stands to impact your SEO for a long time.
Keep in mind that alt attributes won’t have as much of an impact as other ranking factors, so historical alt text optimization shouldn’t be the first thing you address in an SEO campaign. You should only revisit alt text optimization after you address higher priority technical issues and implement content optimization.
Image SEO Insights
Search engines use hundreds of factors to judge how relevant a web page is for users. One of those factors is image alt text, and with the changes to Google Image Search throughout the previous year, websites have the potential to drive traffic with image SEO.
Here are 10 best practices if you’re ready to start writing robust and authoritative alt text:
- Assign alt tags to all images as you upload them.
- 100 characters max.
- Briefly describe the image and add in other important keywords when you have the space like your brand name or business-related keywords.
- Optimize your pages toward specific keywords and integrate that page’s keyword in alt text.
- Don’t use “image of” or “picture of” – it’s a waste of space.
- When in doubt, write it out. Search engines are getting better at recognizing images, but pictures aren’t exactly SEO friendly without signals from page copy or alt text.
- Be sure to apply alt text to site buttons images.
- If you’re running a multi-language site, apply necessary translated alt text.
- Do not use the same title tag text as your alt text.
- At a minimum, try to use natural language to describe an image. Write it like you would a page title for human readers, not search engines.
When in doubt, always include an alt tag on your images because they help visually impaired individuals engage with your site. As for SEO, it doesn’t hurt to throw in a few keywords as an added boost.