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Monday, 12 May 2008
Optimizing Image Tag Alt Attributes: Good Use and Abuse
Thursday, 8 May 2008
I recently went to the Amazon website and as I landed on the homepage, I noticed a large amount of text that appeared while the main image was loading (image 1)... After looking at the source and cache version of the page (image 2), the text was actually included in the alt attribute of the image tag.
Nothing amazing about this! What surprised me however, is the amount of content in the alt attribute... not a few keywords, not a few sentences, but an entire paragraph of text!
I assumed that the alt tag had to be descriptive, accurate and short and therefore I was not expecting this from Amazon and therefore decided to investigate the topic in further details.
About using a Alt attribute in your Image tag
As per the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, it is recommended to provide a text-equivalent for every non-text elements in case some of the users have visual impairments or if users have the image display turned off on their browsers.
Matt Cutts from the Google Web Spam team, has recommended in one of his video, to use the alt attribute of the image tag and the Google Webmaster guidelines also consider the use of the attribute in the development of a search engine friendly websites. The reason behind this is that search engines spiders are not able to 'read' the content in your image.. and therefore cannot index it without a text equivalent.
How to use the Alt attribute: Who should you trust?
Even if the alt attribute has only a moderate importance in the search engine algorithms, optimising them can have an impact on search engine rankings especially if you want to target the long tail of searches with content-poor pages.
I did some research and found a large amount of really basic information on how to optimize the alt attribute. But quite surprisingly, I came across mixed messages on how to 'properly' use the alt attribute:
According to the W3C, the content in the alt attribute should fulfills the same function as the image. On the other hand, Google Webmaster Guidelines quote that the alt attribute should be used to describe the contents of an image file.
This is quite confusing: Should we focus on the description or the function? In theory it does not seem to be a big deal, but in the practice, such confusion can lead to very different uses of the alt attribute.
Lets take the example of the image on the Amazon homepage:
Following Google's guidelines, a proper alt tag could be something like: Letter from Jeff Bezos annoucning the new products and services available.
Following W3C's recommendations, the function of the image is to inform customers that new products are available and therefore the alt tag should basically contain the entire text (what Amazon did). (Note: To be fully compliant with W3C guidelines, Amazon should have included a short description in the alt attribute and the entire content in a longdesc attribute, but let's not talk about this now)
Who should we trust? Google? the W3C? Yourself and your common sense? I would probably say a bit everything. As Google is the dominant search engine, you do not want to alert their spam filters (might have some) with some long or improper alt attributes.
If you are a leading website you also want to make sure that users with disabilities will be able to understand your content and therefore it is probably better to focus a little bit more on the function of the image rather than the description.
Moreover, the decision you make on how to use the alt attribute also depends on the type of image you have.
In the case of Amazon, providing a simple description of the image will be quite frustrating for a blind user as they probably wants to know what is in the letter instead of knowing that it is a letter (Still do not understand why Amazon did not use pure text for that ???)
For more practical examples and resources on alt attributes consult the NASA Section 508 website
Optimizing Alt Attribute: Good Use and Abuse
While there is no clear guidelines, I have tried to summerize some of the good practices and bad practices I have noticed in my research. It is probably not the absolute truth, but these recommendations should help you to optimize your alt attributes correctly:
- If the image is used for layout/design purposes should have empty alt attribute (no space between the ""). Using irrelevant keywords in spacers or layout pictures is an abuse.
- If the image is used for navigation purposes, it MUST have a alt attribute that match with the keyword used in the image. Alternatively it should describe the linking page accurately. To avoid any issue, make sure you use the same term in the alt and image.
- If the image is used as a link, you should also have a alt tag equivalent to the title of the linking page. The content in the alt attribute of image links is usually regarded as more important.
- If the image contains a lot of text(e.g Amazon), use the text from the image in the alt attribute. For this one, I would be careful though! If the text is too long, it could risk to look suspicious, so I would advise to offer a summary or to use a longdesc attribute. Alternatively why using an image when you can use text ??
- Do not just stuff a list of comma-separated keywords in the alt attribute, try to make a sentence that describes the picture/function and includes some relevant targeted keywords in it. You might not be able to use all your targeted keywords in the alt tag of the same image, that is fine, you probably have more than one image.
- For individual product pages in E-Commerce stores, I would recommend to use the product name as the alt attribute of the product image. That will help ranking for the product name phrases.
More tips from W3C
Search Engine Bootcamp Auckland - July 2008
Tuesday, 6 May 2008
The New Zealand edition of the 2008 Search Engine Bootcamp will take place in Auckland on the 3rd July at the Hilton.
Search Engine Bootcamp is organised by Search Engine Strategies, the same company that organised SMX Sydney.
According to the Search Engine Bootcamp website, the Auckland edition will cover some of the topics below:
- Picking the right keywords
- Writing search ads that work
- Building and Optimising
- Landing Pages
- Social Media Optimisation
- Blending the results - Universal Search
- Search 3.0 - dealing with Web 2.0 technology
- Local Search, the nextbig thing?
- Online Reputation Management
- Google Analytics Workshop
- Ad targeting options
- Quality Score - The PPCBlack Box
- Site Structure
- Optimising Website Copy
- Link Building
Some of these topics have been covered in the last SMX Sydney conference, so if you have been in Sydney, you probably do not need to go back. However, if you have not, you can register with 20% discount until the end of May using the following coupon code: EB1
Register before the end of May and save 20% (affiliate link)
EcoCho, Green Search Engine vs. Google's Policy
Thursday, 1 May 2008
Australians are really active and prolific to come up with online initiatives that aims at tackling the issues of climate change. While a great news for Australia and the planet, it seems that these enterprises have unfortunately not reached their high of success.
Good Intentions but Wrong Concept
In early 2007, Blackle, a version of the Google custom search engine was supposed to save energy by displaying a black background instead of a white one. While valid a couple of years ago when CRT monitors were the most popular, the theory behind Blackle has been actively disputed due the rapid emergence of LCD screens. The benefits of a black background are in fact really low or inexistent and therefore the whole Blackle idea is more a cash-machine than an eco-friendly solution.
Great Concept but not compatible with Google Policies
The latest Australian 'green' initiative came this year with EcoCho, a free green search engine. EcoCho claims that a thousand searches on Ecocho allow Yield Media (the company behind EcoCho and part of the Photon Group) to buy enough carbon offset credits to remove 1 ton of CO2 from the atmosphere. This works out at two trees spending a year sucking CO2 from the atmosphere as they grow.
The concept behind EcoCho has been easily criticised, but I personally find it great as it uses the revenues generated by sponsored links from Google and Yahoo to make a direct contribution to the environment. Yield Media makes a profit, but share it with a good cause! Is not it what sustainable development is all about?
It is true that their servers consume energy,which makes the concept not 100% green, but let's be realistic if one waits for the absolute perfect solution, nothing will ever change...
In that case, the concept is not really the question. The issue came from Google, which argued that EcoCho does not satisify the Google Adsense's publisher policy (the advertsing program used by EcoCho to generate revenue).
According to Rob Shilkin, Google Spokeman, interviewed in The Australian
In this case the site was in clear violation of our terms of service and we had previously warned the owner of past violations. We have now stopped serving ads and search results to the owner's sites.
To ensure maximum click relevancy and avoid fraudulents clicks, the Google Adsense guidelines require a publisher not to push users to click on the sponsored links or to compensate users for clicking on the Google Ads. This rule is one of the reasons why Goolge refused to provide its search facility and ads to EcoCho.
While it seems to be clear to Google, it is different for Tim MacDonald, one of the founder of EcoCho. According to him, Google is not really consistent in applying these rules.
Other websites are using Google's technology for similar causes, but have not been refused the access to Google technology. What makes MacDonald even more bitter, is that they presented the website to Google beforehand and they did not mention the violation.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, it is not the first time that MacDonald or its company, Found Agency, had issues with the application of Google's guidelines. In this situation, it is more ambiguous (As ambiguous Google's Guidelines?).
Indeed it is hard to be fully convinced that the website is 'clearly' violating the rules. There is no direct mention that push users to click on the Ads and the 'compensation: the tree' is made in relation to the number of searches not clicks. One can think that people will click on the ads more because it is a 'good cause', but this can only be an hypothesis...
The good thing though is that EcoCho can still use the Yahoo search technology and its ads platform to generate revenue. The bad is that Google has around 80% of share market in the search market, so the potential of generating revenues and therefore planting trees is not so great.
If you are an eco warrior or just like planting trees, use EcoCho. If you want to know a little bit more about this story, there is a great in-depth article at ITNews