I’ve had a lot of conversations with people on social media about alt text, including common myths about alt text and how to write alt text. Alt text isn’t really talked about a lot, and many people have misconceptions about what it does or how it should be used- in fact, I recently read an article that shared a lot of incorrect information about alt text that would exclude blind and low vision users from being able to understand what is in an image, which is one of the primary purposes of alt text. For this post, here are seven myths about alt text, and how it should be used to help visually impaired users to understand what is in an image.
First, what is alt text?
Alt text is a short written description that displays in place of an image if the image fails to load that tells people what is in an image, such as text, colors, or basic essential details. Screen readers will read alt text out loud so that users who are blind or that have low vision can understand what is in an image. If someone fails to add alt text for an image, the screen reader will either simply say “image” or ignore the image entirely, which means that users miss out on potentially valuable visual content.
- A to Z of Assistive Technology For Low Vision
- How To Write Alt Text For Memes
- How To Write Alt Text For Gifs
Myth #1- Alt text can be seen by everyone
In most cases, alt text is hidden so that users cannot access it unless they are using a screen-reader or if they have a slow internet connection that would allow alt text to be displayed instead of an image. Depending on the website, users can also read alt text by hovering over an image or using a bot on social media that can post the alt text for everyone to see. There are many people with low vision who can benefit from alt text but that don’t use a screen reader full-time, so I recommend having alt text or an image description available in the caption of an image or within a post so that people can read it as needed to get more information about an image.
Myth #2- If a brand doesn’t have any visually impaired customers, they don’t need alt text
Brands have no way of knowing if they have any visually impaired users unless these customers speak up, as websites have no way of knowing if a user is using a screen reader. This is because screen readers get webpage information from the browser itself, not the website. The same goes for social media, which will be discussed more in Myth #4.
Myth #3- Alt text should be filled with keywords and related words to boost SEO
While it is true that alt text can help to boost SEO, the main purpose of alt text is to describe an image for people who may not otherwise be able to see it or understand what is going on. Of course, it can be helpful to incorporate keywords into descriptions, but it’s confusing for me to read alt text and have it mention a bunch of keywords that may not have anything to do with the image, or that distract from the original purpose of the image.
Myth #4- Alt text isn’t necessary on social media
There are blind and low vision users on all major social media platforms, and they don’t necessarily all use a blindness cane or guide dog emoji in their username to disclose that they have sight loss. Thankfully, social media platforms have made it really easy to add alt text to posts- I have an entire post on this topic linked below.
- How To Add Alt Text On Social Media
- Options For Writing Extended Image Descriptions On Social Media
- How To Write Alt Text and Image Descriptions For Instagram
- How To Make Instagram Stories Accessible For Low Vision Users
Myth #5- Alt text is only for images with text in them
While alt text should contain transcriptions of text, alt text should also be written for images that don’t contain text- things like product images, food, outfits, cute animals, and other visual content should all have their own alt text. There are some exceptions, which are addressed in Myth #6.
- How To Write Image Descriptions About Online Products For Visual Impairment
- How To Write Image Descriptions About Jewelry For Visual Impairment
- How To Write Alt Text And Image Descriptions For Food
- How To Write Alt Text For Casual Outfits
- Writing Image Descriptions For Red Carpet Outfits
- How To Write Video Descriptions For Animal Videos On Social Media
Myth #6- Alt text should be included for every single image
I love having alt text across as many different types of images as possible, but there are some cases where having alt text isn’t necessary, such as with decorative images. These are images that do not add information to the content of a page, which can include images that are meant to make a webpage more attractive or images that information provided by the adjacent text. To use an example from my own website, the title graphics for posts on my website do not contain alt text because the title of the post is directly underneath the image, and there’s no reason to have the title of a post read twice. However, I do have alt text on my logo and graphics for Pinterest, as well as other images on my website.
Myth #7- Alt text is confusing to write
A lot of people get overwhelmed when trying to figure out how to write alt text, or how to write alt text that makes sense. My favorite tip is to imagine bringing up the image in conversation- what details should be mentioned so that someone who isn’t looking at the image can still understand it?
- How To Write Alt Text and Image Descriptions for the Visually Impaired
- How To Write Alt Text And Image Descriptions For Photojournalism Images
Summary of common myths about alt text
- Alt text is not visible to people unless they are using a screen reader- adding exposed image descriptions can ensure that all audiences are able to understand an image regardless of if they are using assistive technology
- Websites do not track screen reader usage, so there is no way for a brand to know if they have users who use a screen reader unless these users speak up
- While alt text can help to boost SEO, its primary purpose is to help users who are blind, that have low vision, or that can’t otherwise understand what is in an image
- Blind and low vision users are on social media, and adding alt text to social media posts means that users can engage with this content more easily
- Alt text should be written for images that do not contain text
- Decorative images that do not add any information to the content of a page do not need to have alt text
- If writing alt text seems confusing, imagine how you would describe the image in a conversation