If you’re not familiar with alternative text—more commonly known as alt text—it’s the written copy that physically describes an image in a digital space and plays a significant role in making the online world more inclusive.
The purpose of alt text is two-fold:
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and even Pinterest all allow for custom alt text to be written when a user uploads a new photo. See the below videos to learn how to add alt text on each platform as well as tips for writing effective image descriptions and examples.
Are you looking into a third-party site or app to help you manage your social media? Make sure they have alt text capabilities as part of their publishing experience! Here's a breakdown of how some popular management systems handle accessibility for images.
On Facebook, custom alt text can be added by uploading an image to a personal profile, business page or community group, clicking Edit in the upper left corner of the image before posting it, and typing the custom alt text in the appropriate field.
For more information, see Facebook's instructions for adding alt text to your images.
On the web version and mobile app for Twitter as well as the TweetDeck platform, the alt text option appears on uploaded images as Add Description or +ALT. You can also add alt text to GIFs if you use Twitter's built-in GIF library.
For more information, see Twitter's instructions for adding alt text to your images.
On Instagram, when you get to the final screen before posting your image(s), tap Advanced Settings, scroll to Accessibility, click Write Alt Text, and then write your alt text in the available slot(s).
For more information, see Instagram's instructions for adding alt text to your images.
LinkedIn's alt text feature is very easy to find. As soon as you upload a picture to your post, Add Alt Text appears as a button in the upper right corner in the next window.
For more information, see LinkedIn's instructions for adding alt text to your images.
Try to concentrate on describing the physical aspects of the image and use plain language. Resist the urge to be ornate or overly effusive with your alt text. When I write alt text, I try to be as clinical as possible and not let my own feelings about an image influence the description unless I think they will add contextual value.
I normally make my alt text about the length of one tweet, but that’s also dependent on the image that I choose. The more complex your image is, the longer your alt text will more than likely be especially if it features any text. Again, just focus on accurately capturing the most important details in your image.
It’s assumed that your alt text will be for an image, and a screen reader will more than likely say “image of” before or after reading your alt text. However, if your image is something like an illustration or a screenshot, you can include that in your alt text because it gives the user a better idea of how to visualize the image.
Don’t feel like you need to describe everything. If something in the image is significant to understanding the full image or the content as a whole, describe it. If it’s not, skip it and save your characters for the important details in your image.
If you’re posting a text-heavy graphic or flyer on social, you’re going to need to add alt text for all of the flattened copy. In this case, it’s better to link to a webpage that has the text in a readable format. Flattened text also isn't actionable!
If the race, ethnicity, gender, or another identifier for a person is relevant to the overall context of the image, feel free to add it. It also helps, in this instance, to think of your content as a whole. Is that identifier contextually important?
If a well-known person, place, or thing is in your image, go ahead and name it/them. When Senator Elizabeth Warren was running for President of the United States, her social media team always used her title and name in alt text for the images that featured her because it just made sense. The social media was for her and about her campaign.
It’s better to type out the full name or title of a person, place, organization, or initiative because screen readers don’t always read acronyms correctly. Lesser-known acronyms also don’t add a lot of context to an image. If you do use an acronym in your alt text, type out the full name or title first, or you can also place dashes in between each letter.
If you can logically include your keywords in your alt text, go for it. Keep in mind that alt text is meant to be an accessibility tool, not an SEO growth hack. It is not recommended that you write alt text for an image and then follow it up with a block of keywords that didn't make into the alt text. This slows down the experience for screen reader users.
Unsure about the racial or ethnic identity of an image subject? Rather than assuming, describe their skin tone. Much like the unique meta descriptions of emojis with variable skin tones, you can use descriptors such as "light-skinned," "medium-skinned," or "dark-skinned" to describe the people in an image. Cooper Hewitt offers several great examples of different image description scenarios involving people.
Writing alt text is a subjective exercise and relies almost entirely on the observation skills of the content creator and what they deem to be important details in an image. Take a look at the examples below and find time to work at writing alt text for your own practice images. All images courtesy of the free stock photos site, Pexels.
If you frequently use custom graphics with your social media, keep color contrast in mind. Some color combinations make copy difficult or impossible to read, either because there isn't enough contrast between the two hues or because the color pairing is causing the text to almost appear as if it's vibrating.
Check out the below chart for a breakdown of color pairings and whether they're good or poor. And remember, if you use graphics on social media, you'll need to include any flattened copy on them in your alt text.