How Instagram Users Are Setting the Example for Alt Text

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    Conscientious Instagram users are setting the example on how to use alt text. Instead of leaving alt text at the bottom of the ever-growing to-do list, Insta users are hauling alt text to the top of their priority list.

    They’re dusting off this neglected and misused marketing tactic and pouring all the love it deserves and placing it into the public eye, forcing all of us to see alt text as a focus and central part of usability online.

    And so it should be.

    Alt text is fundamental. If you’re already using it (properly) you have every reason to feel a bit smug, and for those who aren’t, we’ve got you!

    Let’s deep dive into alt text, so you too can make the internet a better place for all.

    Google Trends graph showing the popularity of search for terms 'alt text instagram', 'alt text linkedin', and 'alt text pinterest' over the past 5 years.
    Google Trends graph showing the popularity of search for terms ‘alt text instagram’, ‘alt text linkedin’, and ‘alt text pinterest’ over the past 5 years.

    What is Alt Text?

    Alt text (or alternative text) is a string of text that you assign to an image upon upload. 

    In recent years, thanks to the growth of social media, alt text has crept out of the depths of a marketer’s to-do list and into the hands of every content creator. Instead of just being used as an SEO tactic to help page or social posts rank, alt text is finally fulfilling it’s true and meaningful purpose.

    If you’re familiar with SEO then alt text is not a new concept, in fact alt text as a term has been frequently searched in Google over the past decade (and more). However, since 2018, exactly the time when Instagram introduced alt text, alt text related terms started being searched in reference to Instagram, and slowly but surely, other social media channels, too.

    This growing awareness of alt text on social media channels means that alt text is on the road to becoming synonymous with image uploads (finally) and better than that, everyone is understanding the true purpose of alt text.

    Infographic showing the 3 main functions of alt text.
    The 3 Main Functions of Alt Text.

    The Purpose of Alt Text?

    Unbeknown to many, alt text actually has a few functions. The main three, listed in order of importance:

    Alt text is how blind people or partially sighted people browse the web. This is alt text’s most useful purpose. It’s important beyond measure and should be the primary focus when writing alt text for any image across the world wide web. Alt text is commonly used by blind people or people who are partially sighted and is incredibly useful.

    Meaningful alt text helps them understand a page. The contents of alt text is accessed and read aloud by accessibility features found on mobile phones (yes probably the very same phone you’ve got in your hand or by your side right now) or browsers such as Mozbraille.

    You can see why alt text is important for use on any image whether it’s embedded into your website or posted to social media, how else might someone who is partially sighted or blind enjoy your moment captured in a picture?

    Image loading problems are somewhat less frustrating if alt text has been used correctly. Although this is slightly less impactful on Instagram since users probably don’t browse Insta when the images aren’t loading nicely, it’s incredibly important for users who are browsing the web. We’re all familiar with a slow internet connection from time to time, frustrating, isn’t it?

    If you’ve written meaningful alt text, then instead of being faced with a meaningless white space, your user will see the alt text that will be displayed where the image isn’t. Although it’s not as impactful at least your user can contextualise the page with or without the image. 

    Alt text displayed after an page loading error fails to show the image
    Alt text is displayed after an image loading error.

    Alt text helps social media sites like Instagram, or search engines like Google understand and show your image to others. Keywords are effective on Instagram and especially effective on Google. If you include a keyword in alt text it’s more likely that your alt text will show up in front of those who are looking for something just like it.

    If you’re not sure how keywords relate to Instagram, think in hashtags. What hashtags are you adding to your post? Use them, where natural, in your alt text to help Insta understand what your image is about.

    How Alt Text Helps with Search

    You can see the importance of alt text in Instagram by taking a quick search of the content available. Let’s take a look at this example using ‘innocent smoothie’.

    Here is a search for the word ‘innocent smoothie’ returning three suggested keywords: ‘innocent smoothie’, ‘innocent smoothie drink’ and ‘innocent smoothie book’.

    Next, a click into ‘innocent smoothie’, a hashtag with 27,200 uses. Right at the top natsbookshelves is featured. Clicking into her post it’s clear to see that natsbookshelves has taken the time to use the keyword as a hashtag and within the alt text of her post.

    Note: many users on Instagram pull their alt text into the post content, too. It’s usually identifiable by ‘ID’ or ‘alt/alt text’

    As for alt text across the web, here’s one of our images ranking in Google Image results thanks to some well placed alt text.

    How to Add Alt Text to Images

    Generally, alt text is added into a text field which is usually easy to get to and integrated into the image upload flow.

    If you’re posting an image to Instagram, here are the steps on how to do it:

    Step 1: Click + in the Top Right

    Create your post as normal. Click the +, choose an image and hit next.

    Step 2: Edit Your Image as Normal

    Add your filters and make your desired edits to make your next post pop! Click next.

    Step 3: Write Your Content

    Write your content in the normal way, add your locations, tag your friends etc. etc. This time, don’t hit next…

    Scroll down instead…

    Step 4: Scroll Down to ‘Advanced Settings’

    Click advanced settings. Here you can hide likes and view counts, turn off commenting, edit your preferences for Facebook and finally add alt text.

    Click in and write your best, most meaningful alt text that serves all three of alt text’s main purposes.

    Best Practice for Writing Alt Text Strategically

    Before you get to writing, remember the three purposes of alt text in order of priority:

    • To allow blind people or partially sighted people understand the web
    • To replace images where they can’t load (if you’re using alt text on a website)
    • To help your content rank in searches

    In order to meet these three purposes alt text needs to be:

    • Short and succinct: 1-3 sentences, upto around 100 words should be enough.
    • Descriptive of the image – try and include adjectives (descriptive words)
    • Use a ‘keyword’ – on Instagram consider which hashtags you’d like this image to be found for, so when people search you’ve got a good chance of being featured. 

    Please note that the search feature of Insta does not aggregate content based on likes or most recently updated. It has its own algorithm – much like Google Search Results Pages and we know alt text helps images rank on Google, so apply the same strategy to Insta and other socials.

    TIP: If you’re uploading images to the web, in hope they’ll be found on Google image results, then try changing the file name of your image before you upload it. The filename does have an impact on SEO. So, make sure the file is not not called something unhelpful like: IMG7780. Instead, change it to something useful, using your keyword, such as: ‘an infographic showing the 10 reasons why your business needs seo’.

    Examples of Alt Text on Instagram

    If you’d like some inspiration on well-written alt text be inspired by some of the creators who are doing it best! Here are some great examples of alt text on Instagram (and yes, this format can be applied to alt text across the web, too).

    Note how these creators pull a form of alt text into the caption under identifiable from ‘ID’ or ‘image description’.

    Examples of Alt Text on Instagram using @nina_tame and @natsbookshelves as examples.

    How Instagram Alt Text is Making the Internet a Better Place for all

    Instagram is a platform used predominantly for B2C marketing (plenty of B2B too). Instagram is also used by the average person documenting memories with friends and family and lots of influencers sharing their content with a wider audience, too.

    The influx of ‘ID’ popping up at the bottom of captions will naturally lead people to wonder: ‘what is the ID on Instagram all about?’ which will lead them to learn more about alt text and its significance.

    Once any conscientious person knows what alt text is and why it’s important, they’re naturally going to use it. Why wouldn’t you? It’s benefits are immeasurable to your accounts visibility and most importantly to your user’s experience. 

    The standards of alt text will begin to change and the prominence of it will certainly increase. 

    As more people understand the importance of alt text through platforms like Instagram, businesses and marketeers can expect that alt text will become a primary focus by users (those who need it and those who don’t, but will, rightfully, speak up about it.)

    Through alt text we’re all learning about accessibility and its importance. As more people use alt text the internet can only become a better and more inclusive place.

    Transferring What You Know From Instagram to Other Online Marketing Channels

    If you’ve got a website and you’re uploading images there, be it images embedded in content, hero images at the top of the site, logos etc. you really should be using alt text. 

    As people become more conscious of alt text, the focus on it will increase, so don’t wait around to get your site in order. Start using alt text following best practice before Google puts a strong onus on it; there’s good reason to believe it’s coming!

    Prepare your marketing channels as best you can and think about how you might be able to serve the algorithm in the process.

    Here are some ideas for transferring what we know about alt text, from Instagram, to the wider web:

    • People like using alt text and they certainly like creating a more inclusive space online. This is quite clear from the content we see online, today. Don’t just tell your users you’re a caring company/person that cares about everyone, prove it by taking a moment to add alt text to your social posts.
    •  Write descriptive alt text, Instagram users are brilliant at this. It makes sense that Insta uses might write the most descriptive alt text since this Insta itself is such a visual platform. Also, most instagram users have not fallen prey to the dreaded ‘SEO-first’ approach to Instagram.
    • Weave in your keywords after you’ve written descriptive alt text that serves purpose one (helping blind and partially sighted people understand and navigate the web).
    • Use adjectives, use adjectives, use adjectives. Adjectives are describing words think colours (red, blue green), words that describe someone’s state (happy, proud, ambitious), words/phrases that describe a person (brown hair, blue eyes, beautiful) or words that describe a setting. There are so many more but be conscious of adjectives, because this is one way a complex algorithm could validate the quality of your adjectives.
    • Use your keywords (or hashtags if you’re using Insta) and weave them in naturally, so it reads well and grammatically correct.


    About the Author

    Zoe Ashbridge is a Senior SEO Strategist with a special interest in on-page SEO and SEO content strategy. Her background as a Digital Project Manager means she has a wide range of experience across the digital marketing landscape.

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