One of the challenges of having a beautiful site, is that it usually includes graphics and lots of pictures. Even if your site is all text, the easiest way to control how your site looks is to make them into graphics. It solves lots of problems with columns lining up and borders being just right.
The problem is, as smart as Google is (or is not), Google (or Yahoo or Bing) cannot really tell what an image really looks like. But that is ok, there are a bunch of people that cannot tell either. Some are visually impaired, some are technically impaired. Others may be on limited bandwidth – whether it is a slow connection of dial-up across the world, or a ‘smart phone’ that automatically strips out all the graphics. Many of your visitors may not be able to see your site with its pretty graphics.
So why is this OK? Because when HTML/WWW was designed, they allowed for that possibility of graphics that not everyone could understand. The designers implemented a standard called ‘ALT Tag’, as in Alternative description tag for graphic elements. So what does this have to do with SEO? The ALT Tag is the tool to tell the search engines what your site is about.
The ALT Tag is the place to describe your site as if a martian was looking at your site, and had not come from another page, another search engine or link to your site. They just walked in the room and sat down at a computer and here was your site’s page. What do the graphics mean? So do not describe the front page as ‘home’ but instead as ‘Flutist Jennifer Bartel of Chicago North Shore Home Page‘. Do not describe a page as ‘Hot links, Cool Tips’ but as ‘Resume Writing Links and Tips by Executive Career Services’. That way the descriptions stand alone. When Google visits, it looks at how you describe the pages and takes the hint. These are far more descriptive then ‘page 1′, ‘home page’, ‘about us’.
How do you know when your ALT tags are complete? When you can have a friend look at a page with only the ALT tags and understand what your site is about, and where to go next.
Are your ALT tags not complete yet? Don’t worry, after 14 years of doing website optimization for search engines and usability, I have found few sites that are complete. Of course there are all the ‘clever’ graphic designers that feel I must intuitively know what every icon and graphic relates to. Those are the ones that most often don’t use ALT tags. What does a purple smiley mean – where will it take me? Most often it takes me to the ‘x’ for close this tab, and I go to the next site.
Optimizing ALT tags is a continual process of improvement. But it is a lot easier to fix a website than it is to fix a printed brochure. So keep on tweaking and asking for feedback on how to improve how you communicate to your visitors, including the spiders in the night that Google, Yahoo and Bing send out to try and understand your site.
What have you seen? Do you ever use ALT tags to find your way around a site?
Let me know your favorite ALT tags and your ALT tag experiences.