Google Clarifies Alt Text Only a Factor for Image Search

image search

Google has been stepping up efforts to provide users with a safe and easy way of finding what they are searching for. Google’s latest endeavor is its expansion into image search, with only one major change: now, images without any alt text will not show up on the first page. That may seem like a disappointing change, but this affects everyone who searches using keywords that are relevant to our lives, such as cats, dogs, or sunset, for 100% of an image’s content to be visible when I was trying to find high-quality photographs of these fuzzy creatures! This blog post explores how this impacts how we search for images online.

Google already has an algorithm for ranking image search results. Google firsts look at the site’s title to determine its trustworthiness and looks at the sites’ alt text to determine how much relevance it has to our search. Alt-text is an interesting addition because Google uses it as a secondary signal of relevance in addition to the title. It is also why alt text shows up on the images themselves so that users can understand when images are being looked at or shared without being overwhelmed by tons of information all in one place. In addition, alt text is used on sites like Wikipedia and Digg as additional information about a particular article or item. We can see that alt text isn’t just used in image search but to help rank content or edit content with additional information.

The Change

In 2009, Google began using alt text in image search. They quickly found that users weren’t taking advantage of the alt text field because only the most relevant content would appear on the first page of image results. The first page is what we see when we search for something and typically only has 3-4 results, which is why Google began making this change. The changes were gradual, but over a year ago, now all images without an alt tag will not show up on the first page of any Google search result. Furthermore, if you attempt to upload an image without alt-text, it will not appear on Google.

The Impact

Some users may not see a benefit, but most searchers who use images as a primary way of finding information online will see more relevant content. The knowledge graph is a huge part of the search engine’s future, and making sure that all of that information is available with one click is important. When we search for things like ‘images of dogs,’ our primary results now have alt text in the image results.

Not only that, but you don’t have to go far down in the results for relevant content. When you start searching for something like ‘dog breeds,’ we now see the first few results are all images with alt text, even including image titles and descriptions. It may not seem like a major improvement, but when trying to find an image quickly, this can be more than just helpful.

The Result

Users make more effort to use alt text than Google. As mentioned before, Google has verified the most relevant images with alt text for us, but not all images have a list of alt tags to help find the most relevant content. We see so many duplicate results – people will upload multiple copies of a single image or try to click through each one manually to find the best copy. The reality is that this can be time-consuming, and it’s also difficult for users who aren’t aware that images without alt tags don’t show up in first-page results.

Alt-text is a helpful way to understand what we’re seeing in Google image search. If it’s not something that we can understand with a glance, we’re less likely to click on the images, which will result in less relevant results and perhaps a loss of clicks altogether.

What this Means for you

Google image search is a great way to find relevant content fast. It’s also easy for users to understand what they’re looking at with alt text and thumbnails. If you want to save even more time, use keywords or phrases like ‘dogs running’ or ‘a puppy wearing a hat,’ but if you want additional information, then you’ll need to click through each image individually. That’s how Google wants it – the easiest way for them to show relevant content quickly is by prioritizing alt text over anything else.


  • What is Alt Text?

Published on: 2022-04-04
Updated on: 2022-06-17

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Isaac Adams-Hands

Isaac Adams-Hands is the SEO Director at SEO North, a company that provides Search Engine Optimization services. Isaac has considerable expertise in Search Engine Optimization, Server Administration, and Cyber Security, which gives him a leg up as a Google Algorithm Analyst and SEO Expert.