How to Put Your Image ALT Tags to Work in WordPress

Most of the time, you'll never see your image ALT tags. But they matter.

Back in the days of dial-up internet access, you’d often see the text of an ALT tag displayed while you waited for an image to load on a page. These days, with fast broadband connections, that’s rare. But that doesn’t mean that ALT tags have disappeared. Even if you don’t see them in normal web browsing, they matter.

ALT tags were originally adopted for accessibility reasons to make it easier for screen readers. Those are web browsers that read text for visually impaired visitors to your site. Since those users obviously can’t see the image well, or at all, they need a text description to understand what the image is. Logically enough, ALT stands for alternative text, and it’s that text that the screen reader reads aloud.

But Google–and presumably other search engines, as well–uses that ALT text in a related but slightly different way: to help its search algorithms better judge what is in an image and how it might related to a particular search term.

The other image tag that matters for SEO is the Title attribute. But that’s less important than the ALT tag (but the title attribute does provide the tool tip when users roll the cursor over the image).

As Matt Cutts, Google’s former anti-spam head guru, explained it, the importance of the ALT tags is that it helps describe the scene and helps narrow down what the image is about.

The example he used is that if you’re looking for an image of a cat next to a ball of yarn, just doing a search for “cat” isn’t going to the best results. But if you search for “cat next to a ball of yarn” and the image helpfully has that information in the ALT tag, it should take you right to it. It helps differentiate between a cat jumping, for example, and what you’re after–a cat sitting next to a ball of yarn.

Adding an ALT tag is very easy to do, and you should pretty much do it on all of your images. It helps your accessibility, and it can help us understand what’s going on in your image. [Matt Cutts, Google]

The ALT tag isn’t the only factor in determining whether your image or page gets found, but it is one that matters. And it’s one you have direct control over.

The Ideal Approach in WordPress

Ideally, you should be manually typing in the ALT text for each image as you upload it. Ideally it should be individually crafted for each image to create a unique description.

The WordPress uploader makes it easy enough to do it–there’s a field directly under the Caption field.

You can also input the information in the Media Library.

But in practice, I get lazy about manually inputing ALT text. As a photographer, my posts tend to have quite a few images. And going back and typing in ALT tags for all the images I’ve already uploaded isn’t high on the list of things I want to spend my time on. It’s also not entirely effective, because adding the ALT text after an image has already been embedded in a post won’t edit the ALT information that’s actually in that post. Iit will only affect the next time you embed that same image in another post (or re-embed in the same one).

There’s a WordPress Plugin for That

So what to do? Have someone or something else take care of it. No, automated SEO isn’t ideal. But it many cases it’s better than nothing. And as with so many WordPress problems, there’s a plugin for that.

Different plugins tackle the problem differently, from entirely automating the process to making it easier to edit the ALT fields more quickly. Here are some of the best I’ve come across.

SEO Friendly Images

The most automated way to tackle the problem is with the SEO Friendly Images plugin.

Media Library ALT Fields

The Media Library ALT Fields plugin adds an Image Alt Text column to the Media Library screen. It makes it easier to manually add ALT text to individual images more quickly. It’s a one-trick pony, but it works well.

Faster Image Insert

Among the features of Faster Image Insert is the ability to edit the info of the images you’re uploading in bulk.

Other Things You Can Do to Help with Image SEO

Google has said that it treats the ALT tag as the most important textual information about an image.

But it’s not the only factor that goes into their algorithm. Some of the others that you have direct control over are the Title attribute, the filename, and the textual context around the image on the page. I’ve found captions to be an especially useful tool for this, in part because people often seem read image captions even if they’re skimming the page. How much each of these matters relative to the others is all part of Google’s secret sauce. The Title field is also used for tooltips when a user rolls the cursor over an image.

WordPress’s built-in media manager includes fields for Caption and Description. Use both if you want to, but at least in terms of SEO, neither is an important as the ALT tag. You can find information on the purpose of each of WordPress’s media fields is here.

What Not to Do

Google’s entire search empire is founded on giving users the best results for what they’re looking for. It protects that reputation fiercely, which is why it invests so much time and energy into anti-spam efforts.

If you’re jamming 20 or 30 keywords into your ALT tags, Google doesn’t like that. Keyword stuffing is frowned upon no matter where it’s done. 125 characters is the recommended maximum length for the ALT attribute, but 4 to 7 words seems to be widely regarded as the sweet spot.

View Comments

  • Check Out This plugin
    The Alt Manager plugin is a simple plugin that changes images Alt and Title attributes text on your (Pages – Posts) separately to your website name or (post or page) title.This Plugin bulk changes images Alt and Title attributes immediately you don't need to change image info on media library.

    https://wordpress.org/plugins/alt-manager/

  • Hi David,

    I just came upon your post today. I am contacting you in desperation... I just added alt text to over 100s of images (maybe even more...) and i realized that it wasn't getting changed in the source code. When i started googling, i realized that i will need to reinsert all my images in order to have saved the alt text that i added on.

    Do you know of anything that I can do to automatically reinsert all my images into wordpress? This will save me days of time.

    Thanks!

    • My understanding is that Media Library Assistant might be able to do that, but I haven't tried that feature. You can find more information from the developer here.

  • Very well article and the explanation is awesome. Its nice information for WordPress users. It was extremely helpful!

    Thanks,

  • Media Library Alt Fields. This is genius. Thanks! I never would have even thought to look for something so simple.

    Love your photography, too, by the way. The SEO tips are an icing ;)
    I have checked a few photography websites (local competition, basically), manually and using tools (like http://webanalysis.tools/ , but there are tons of these and easily found through search), and so many don't seem to really bother or use the same short description for both alt text and image title. I guess you are not the only one who thinks it tedious. I wonder, though, if it's not more damaging to include identical alt text for several images on one page. Google parses that text - won't they interpret it as duplicate/spam? Or does it recognize that people just tend to do that with alt texts?

  • I've been using WP Smush for quite a while.
    I have put alt text on all my images.
    But I noticed the smushed images, especially other than the original size ones, don't have alt text in them.

    I ended up having hundreds of images that don't have alt-text in my hosting.
    Since the loaded image size is often the smushed ones, will it hurt my SEO?

    • Is the ALT field populated in the Media Library? If it is, it should be applied to all the available sized versions when you embed them through the Media Library.

      ALT tags are a low-level SEO signal. It's better to have them than not, but it's not the end of the SEO world if they're not there.

  • Question. Let's say I use the same image on 3 different pages. Do I have to upload 3 of the same photo each titled different. Example you have a pic of pink frozen yogurt. You want to use it on your strawberry Froyo page so you title it and alt tag it as such. Then you want to use it on your Cotton Cndy FroYo page, can you just use that same photo from your media and change the title/alt tag there or will that now change it on your strawberry page... I'm assuming it should be ok?

    next question - can I just go through all my pages and manually edit the "alt tag" in the line of code? Or do I have to manually go into the properties of each photo and change it there?

    • Unless you're using one of the automated scripts that overrides the code on the page, the ALT tag works on each individual embed of the photo. So, technically, you could embed the same photo multiple times on a single page and manually edit the ALT tag for each instance so that each is different. You don't have to do it in the Media Library--that's mostly there for convenience. What matters is the ALT tag that's in the page's HTML code.

  • I noticed that ı have 350 images without alt text and I added manually alt text to all the images in the media library. But it doesn't update the images on the website. I think there is no plugin to refresh the images. Do you know any plugin for this? I don't want automatically created alt texts.

    • It won't update the ALT text for the images that you've already embedded because that would require updating the HTML code (or embed code) in the post itself. You can re-embed the images (which is tedious) or use one of the javascript approaches that rewrite the output HTML on the fly, but those won't pull from individual ALT entries you've specified in the media library. I can't think off the top of my head of a plugin that can do exactly what you're after, mainly because rewriting the post's code in an automated way carries risks of breaking the post's HTML.

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