How to Describe Images for Accessibility and Findability

The University’s template for external websites gives great flexibility in the use of images. From visual grid layouts to mastheads and galleries.

Many users of our websites don’t see these images. They may have chosen not to download images, or might be using a screen reader to turn visual information into audio. This means it’s important to provide contextual information about our images.

Alternative text, or alt-text, is used to describe images to screen readers used by visually impaired people. It is also a useful aid for search engine optimisation, as search bots can crawl this field to get information about the image.

Good practice for alt-text

In T4 when you add an image to the media library, whatever you put in the description field is output as alt-text.

To make your alt-text effective, keep it short and descriptive. For all our web content, we recommend you write naturally and clearly – alt-text is no exception.

Long alt attributes will disrupt the flow of the content on your page. If you have a lot to say about the image, eg for a chart or graph, add a caption or describe it in the text on the page. Don’t cram this into the alt-text.

It’s good to think about including key words in your alt-text to aid findability, but they must be relevant to the image. Don’t fill your alt text with a string of random keywords just to help search optimisation. This will be confusing for users of screen readers. As we recommend for all content – write for people, not search engines.

We recommend that you avoid using text in an image as it can’t be seen by screen readers or search bots. Therefore it’s not accessible or findable. But, if you do have text in an image, make sure you also include that text in the alt attribute.


Alt text is not needed for:

  • purely decorative images, eg the masthead images on the NICA website
  • where there is also link text, eg top task boxes on homepages

However, there still needs to be an alt tag in the code of the page. If the alt tag is missing, a screen reader will try to add context by reading the image name, and this is often unhelpful.

An empty alt tag indicates to the screen reader that the image is meaningless. This means it’s simply ignored by the screen reader. The good news is that in T4 if the description field is left empty then the alt text field is left empty and still appears in the code.

Find out more

This video, created by Mike West, gives a great overview of what I’ve covered in this blog post. It includes examples of exactly what a screen reader picks up from images with and without alt-text.

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A Quick Guide to…Hyperlinks

Hyperlinks help with reading and navigating online content. They provide users with a next step/further information, support scan-reading and enhance search engine optimisation.

In the latest of our Quick Guide series, here’s a reminder of our best practice for hyperlinks:

Link text

Your link text should be short phrases – don’t link entire sentences.

Link text needs be descriptive of the content you’re linking to so the user has an idea of where they will be taken if they select the link. Phrases such as ‘click here’ or ‘download’ are unhelpful and not accessible – think about someone relying on a screen reader to navigate your content.

Generic phrases hinder search engine optimisation (SEO). Search engines, like users, take notice of link text. It’s therefore important that link text contains keywords and phrases that you want to rank highly for. No one wants to appear at the top of search results for ‘click here’!

Open in the same browser

Hyperlinks should always open in the same browser tab/window. We leave it up to the user to decide whether they want to open a new tab/window.

Links must work

It sounds obvious but hyperlinks must be checked regularly to make sure they work. My colleagues laugh at me as I often quote Kara Pernice (Nielsen Norman Group) that a broken link is like a broken promise. However, I personally feel disappointed and frustrated when I select a link on a website that turns out to be broken, or if takes me to an unexpected place.

Broken links can damage your credibility to users and won’t help search engine optimisation, as search engines respond to well linked sites.

Related posts

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Breaking Bad When It Comes to Links

Broken links are the bane of user experience.

There’s nothing worse than finding a 404 error page. And people who tart 404s up with quaint local dialect or jokes to apologise should just stop.

If you remove a page or change a url and leave the old link lingering elsewhere, you’re breaking trust.

You’re damaging the confidence people have that your website is up-to-date. You’re frustrating them with the promise of information you’ve snatched away.

Search engines won’t like you either. You are breaking their trust in sending people to your website.

Identifying broken links

You might say it’s unavoidable to have broken links. It’s not, it just requires care. If you’re killing a page, document or changing a url remember where you’ve placed links and change or remove them. This could be on your website, social media or even in print.

If you can’t remember where website links were, use these services to find them:

Make search engines work for you

What happens if search engines have indexed the page/document you removed?

They make it difficult enough to get up the search rankings without causing this kind of headache.

If you can’t redirect people elsewhere, it’s time to make Google and co work for you.

Do a search for the page/document you’ve just deleted and if you find it in their listings – report it.

Google (if you have an account) will remove dead links from search listings on request. Make them work for you.

Further reading

A Link is a Promise, Kara Pernice, NNg

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Top 5 Tips: Search Engine Optimisation

In our recent Planning and Writing Web Content training there were a few questions about how to improve your website’s position in search results. So we thought it timely to share our top 5 tips for search engine optimisation (SEO).

There’s no mystery to it – writing content that will be highly ranked by search engines is the same as writing effective web content for your users.

1. Use the language of your readers

It’s important to think about the terms your readers might use to search for your site, and then to use these words in your content.

You should also identify keywords and phrases that you want to rank highly for. Keep these narrow; it’s unrealistic to compete with general terms like ‘student experience’.

2. Keep your content up to date

When a page was last updated matters to search engines as well as your users. It’s essential to check for, edit and delete out-dated content.

3. Highlight important content

Highlight key words to make sure that the search engine can work out which content is most important. You can do this by:

  • including keywords in the page title and subheadings
  • making keywords bold
  • using keywords in hyperlink text

Don’t rely on graphics or text in images to convey your message. Search engines can’t get to this copy and your content won’t get indexed.

4. Use descriptive web addresses (URLs)

URLs appear in search results. It’s therefore important that your URLs are descriptive of the content on your page. Users can then tell if the page will be relevant to them.

5. Links

Search engines respond to well-linked sites. You should link to relevant content on Newcastle University’s website and externally. Also look for opportunities for colleagues at the University and external partners to link back to your site. This verifies your content’s relevance and importance to search engines.

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Do you need to worry about Google’s mobile update?

On 21 April Google launched a new search algorithm that includes mobile friendliness as a ranking factor in search results. This week we’ve received a number of queries about the update and what affect it will have on how our sites perform in searches.

What we know about Google’s mobile update

  • It only impacts mobile search results
  • It’s likely to take a week to roll out (and for us to see what the impact is)
  • It’s a live algorithm, so if a page becomes mobile friendly after 21 April it won’t take long for this to be shown in the results, with the mobile-friendly tag
  • Mobile friendliness is just one element of a complex ranking algorithm

We (the team, industry experts, perhaps even Google) don’t yet know exactly what the impact of these changes is going to be. All the sensible, non-scaremongering experts out there are saying – don’t panic. And we’re inclined to agree with them.

“this is just one of over 200 signals we use to evaluate the best results. Non-mobile-friendly sites won’t disappear from mobile Search results—they may still rank high if they hold great content the user wants”

Cody Kwok on Google’s Inside Search blog

As this quote from one of Google’s principle software engineers makes clear – mobile friendliness is not the only thing you’ll be ranked on, sites that already perform well will continue to do so and the key is to provide the content that meets your users’ needs.

Making our site mobile

The good news is a number of key areas of our website are already mobile friendly, eg Clearing, Open Day, Postgraduate and Research Impact. By tracking usage of these we’ve learnt valuable lessons about what works for our users and for Google.

We’ve also prioritised transforming the parts of our site that receive high traffic and are most visible to Google (including the University homepage, Undergraduate and About). These sites are all in the first 20 to go through our Go Mobile programme.

We’ll be monitoring mobile search results for a sample of our site over the next few weeks and will respond to any changes we observe.

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