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Alt Attributes in Image Tags and Web Accessibility

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I seem to return to the topic of web accessibility time and again, mostly driven by things I and my colleagues are confronted with on a daily basis.

A few posts I recently discovered in a number of webmaster and design newsgroups seem to be taking the stance that alt attributes in image tags play no part in disability access, and never the twain shall meet.

Aside from the fact that statements such as these made by web designers and developers denote a stunning ignorance of the very architecture which actually makes the Internet tick, they are simply untrue, as anyone who's ever used a screen reader will readily testify to.

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Anyone claiming that Alt Attributes in Image Tags and Online Disability Access are Poles apart...

...is full of it, to put it politely.

Had the individuals posting these derogatory messages taken even a moment to carry out a little research on the subject, they may have learned a thing or two and thought twice before publishing such complete and utter cra... shall we say... wildly inaccurate statements. Be that as it may though, I thought I would take this opportunity to demonstrate that making a web image accessible requires neither Voodoo nor advanced Quantum Physics.

From the visually impaired person's point of view, his or her text-only browsers or screen-readers is not able to actually ascertain a picture’s content, and convey its meaning to the user. Therefore, to make an image accessible and communicate its content to blind or partially sighted internet surfers, it needs a little something extra; the ‘Alt Attribute’.

An Alt-Attribute is just another element added to the image source code, which is expressed as alt=”Description of Image”, and is there for web accessibility reasons, not in fact so unethical SEOs can stuff it as full of irrelevant keywords as humanly possible, but more of that in a minute.

You can see the image's complete source in the... errrm... image below.

The Alt Attribute in the HTML Image Tag

By moving your cursor above the image, you will see web accessibility in action, as your browser displays the Alt-Attribute’s content as a visual ‘tool-tip’. Similarly, any text-only browser or screen-reader will express the Alt-Attribute’s content verbally and thus enable the user to understand the picture’s meaning.

Search engines view and index web images in much the same way, so it makes prefect sense for web designers to use descriptive alt attributes in their image tags even if web accessibility is not exactly top of their priority list.

Interestingly enough, this fact has led some unethical search engine optimisation professionals to stuff as many meaningless keywords as humanly possible (and often impossible) into their Alt-Attributes, in an effort to fool Google into allocating them higher rankings.

Since Google isn't stupid, however, this keyword-stuffing practice has been noticed and is becoming less effective than its properly descriptive counterpart.

Ultimately, there is far more mileage (For web promotion and web accessibility alike) in writing properly descriptive HTML alt attributes than merely using them as a receptacle for meaningless keywords and phrases.

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Page two of this article explains the difference between keyword stuffed tags those which provide vital information to disabled web users and search engines alike.

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