Have you ever opened an article, scrolled down to an image, and wondered, “Well, what exactly am I looking at?”. Or maybe even opened up a page on faulty internet, and was greeted with an endless ocean of unformatted words and unloaded images. Perhaps you laid back and allowed text-to-speech relay an article to you, only to find out you had missed vital information contained only within the images. For some, this could only be an inconvenience. For others, it’s a barrier to accessibility. Here’s what makes alternative text important, and then check my next article to learn how to apply it to your own works!

 

Image of code on a computer screen

Image Display Issues

Sometimes, your image just has a tough time displaying itself. Ever had weak internet, and had a website load for so long that it finally just displayed basic HTML? With loading issues like those, you can kiss fancy images and formatting goodbye. The most you can expect to load is an endless wave of your words on a white background. Which isn’t always a bad thing! Having the text accessible at all is always better than the alternative: the internet completely barring you from the website and content.

However, wouldn’t it be better to take it a step further? What if being unable to load images had no impact on the overall content of the article? With alt text, this would be the case. No longer would people feel like they’re missing out when words are loaded without images: now the words are the image! It may not have the same visual quality, but when working with poor wifi and only text, it’s the best you’re going to get.

Social media is also a big propagator of alt text. Take, for example, social media site Tumblr. The mobile version of the popular site is infamous for sometimes having images that will never load, even if the text has loaded instantly. To combat issues like that, many users have taken it upon themselves to add their own version of alt text to theirs and others’ images. While an official alternative text function isn’t supported at the time on Tumblr, a simple caption is a lifesaver in many cases. Many times, it decides whether or not the image is worth waiting for, and gaining all the information from an image without having to wait is a huge timesaver as well.

A woman looking confusedly at a laptop.

Clarity

Other times, images can just downright confuse you. This can be for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, the image itself is unclear. This is the case when faced with images that are the only of its kind. Images of a specific occurrence that won’t happen again, like historical images, are good examples. In this case, you can’t simply find a better image with higher quality or not as blurry – you get what you get. So if the image itself is slightly confusing, it’s important to explain it to make the audience understand what the image is and why it’s there. Even if the images seem clear as day, it is still important to provide alt text captions to avoid any possibility of a mix-up.

This is also the case for scientific or research articles, especially if trying to make the content readable by non-specialized audiences. Graphs are already extremely helpful for readers when trying to put together the raw data from the findings. Seeing it visually makes an easier and longer lasting impression on the human mind than simply reading out the numbers from the findings.

However, sometimes graphs can be a bit counterintuitive. Looking at them may provide all the essential information in an easy way; however, when faced with an overwhelming display of graphs, sometimes you’re faced with the question, “What am I supposed to take away from all of this?” This is where alt text comes in handy. When including an alt text caption, at a glance you can see what makes the findings significant. Even having a caption that simply says something like “(Variable X) reports 20% more (blank) than all other (variables)” can be extremely helpful. It points your eyes to what matters most on the graph, rather than glossing over them until they’re later explained in the article.

A woman in a diner, listening to audio through her headphones.

Accessibility

The biggest reason, above all, is accessibility. Adding alt text when having image loading issues deals with accessibility, but it goes even deeper than that. Text-to-speech is an incredibly important thing nowadays. It’s an invention that benefits everyone – the busy, the illiterate, and most importantly, the blind. Text-to-speech allows them to access articles on their own that would not be accessible otherwise.

Alt text for images is an integral part of text-to-speech, and without it, the whole article would not be complete audibly. While the on-the-go listeners and illiterate can always go back to the article later and look at the images without any issue, the blind must trust text-to-speech to explain the images to them, since they cannot look at them themselves. Without alt text to text-to-speech, the article lacks all visual elements, which may be integral to the understanding of the article. Alienation of a whole audience is not something we can accept – we must strive further with the content we create. Nowadays, it’s common to see closed captions on videos to help the deaf and hard of hearing. Why wouldn’t we do the same for the blind, and open the world to images?

a Google search of analytics

Search Engine Optimization

“Nearly 93% of all web traffic comes through search engines.” On the grand internet-driven scheme, search engines matter a lot. So if something is inaccessible through search engines, it may as well be wholly inaccessible. Alt text matters a lot in this regard – even captioning images in general is a huge help in making your content accessible to the greater internet. This can benefit people greatly, both personally and business-wise.

Have you ever seen a funny image, and know exactly what it looks like, but don’t have it saved anywhere? Then you frantically type into Google as much as you remember, and magically, the image is just there? You can thank alt text and captioning. Without added captions, these loose images without any definition would be lost to the internet, nothing to link to it. Just one person adding captions now allows the greater public to find the ultra-specific image you’ve been searching for. That is how alt text can benefit you personally, along with benefitting anyone else that may be looking for your article’s images again.

Along the same vein, alt text and captions are imperative for businesses as well, and how their articles interact with search engines. Search engine optimization is critical to getting natural traffic to your website without paying a penny. It is recommended to add alternative text to your images – this makes it easier for your website to be found in the wide expanse of the internet. Beyond that, when alternative text is added, your website has a greater chance of ranking in Google Images: if the keywords typed in are the exact same (or similar to) the keywords inputted for an image’s alternative text, your image (and therefore, linked article) is more likely to show up as a match. 

A webpage.

          Hopefully, at this point you understand how vital alternative text is to creating a good website or article – not only does it keep all audiences engaged, but it also keeps it more accessible – to people and search engines alike. Be sure to check out my next article for some examples of alternative text, along with how to apply it to your own content.

 

Taylor Jordan

Taylor Jordan

Content Management Intern

I aim to help business owners through my writing, in whatever way I can!