How Instagram Users are Setting the Example for Alt Text?

Conscientious Instagram users are setting the example on how to use alt text. Instead of leaving alt text at the bottom of their ever-growing to-do list, Instagram users are hauling alt text to the top, just where it should be!

Instagram users are dusting off this neglected and misused marketing tactic and pouring in all of the love that it deserves and placing it into the public eye. Forcing all of us to see alt text as both a focus and central part of usability online.

That’s exactly how it should be.

Alt text is a fundamental part of the online experience. If you’re already using it, properly, that is, then you have every reason to feel a bit smug, and for those who aren’t, don’t worry – we’ve got you!

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

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 years. Instagram’, ‘alt text Linked In’, and ‘alt text Pinterest’ over the past five 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 raise your 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. However, since 2018, exactly the time when Instagram introduced alt text as a feature, alt text-related terms started being searched in reference to Instagram.  After that, it began being searched up in relation to other terms, 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 even better, everyone is finally starting to understand 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 on instagram ?

Alt text is how blind 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 web. Alt text is commonly used by blind people or by people who are partially sighted. For this reason, it’s incredibly useful to have attached to your images.

Meaningful alt text helps those with a visual impairment 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. Some browsers, such as Mozbraille, offer the same feature.

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 the moment captured in a posted picture?

Image loading problems are somewhat less frustrating if alt text has been used correctly. Although this has slightly less of an impact on Instagram as users tend to not browse Instagram when the images aren’t loading nicely, it’s still incredibly important for users who are browsing the web. We’re all familiar with a slow internet connection from time to time. It’s frustrating, isn’t it?

If you’ve written meaningful alt text, then instead of being faced with a blank, empty white space, your user will see the alt text that will be displayed where the image hasn’t loaded in properly. Although it doesn’t bring as much impact as a visual would, at least your user can contextualize 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 other people. 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 terms of hashtags. What hashtags are you adding to your post? Use them, where natural, in your alt text to help Instagram 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 that’s available. Let’s take a look at this example of alt text in instagram using the term ‘innocent smoothie’.

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

Next, a click into ‘innocent smoothie’ on Instagram; a hashtag with 27,200 uses. Right at the top, the user natsbookshelves is featured. If you click into her post, it’s clear to see that natsbookshelves has taken the time to use the keyword both 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. A good exemple of alt text in instagram to use as an inspiration.

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 + symbol and choose an image, then hit next.

Step 2: Edit Your Image as Normal

Add your filters and make any desired edits to the picture, so that your next post pops! Click next.

Step 3: Write Your Content

Write your content the way that you normally do, add your locations, tag your friends etc. etc. This part’s simple – it’s the same thing you always do when you make a post but… 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 images featured on the web.
  • To replace images where they can’t load – especially if you’re using alt text on a website.
  • To help your content rank in searches on both Google and the site that you’re posting on.

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

  • Short and succinct. Only one to three sentences, up to around 100 words total, should be enough.
  • Descriptive of the image – try and include 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 Instagram does not aggregate content based on likes or most recently updated. It has its own algorithm – much like the Google Search Results Pages. We know alt text helps images rank on Google, so apply the same strategy to Instagram and other socials.

TIP: if you’re uploading images to the web in hopes that they’ll be found on Google image results, then try changing the file name of your image before you upload it. The file name does have an impact on SEO content. Make sure that the file is not called something unhelpful like ‘IMG7780’. Instead, change it to something useful. Make sure that you’re using your keywords! A more helpful title would be ‘an infographic showing the ten reasons why your business needs SEO’.

Example of Alt Text in Instagram

If you’d like some inspiration on well written example of alt text in instagram, then you can look around and be inspired by some of the creators who are doing it best! Here are some great examples of alt text – and yes, this format can be applied to alt text across the web, too.

Note how these creators all 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? Its benefits are immeasurable to your account’s visibility and most importantly to your user’s experience. 

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

As more people understand the importance of alt text through platforms like Instagram, businesses and marketers 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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