SEO Advice: Use text

This tip is simple: don’t bury words in an image, especially if those words don’t appear in normal, index-able text.

73 Responses to SEO Advice: Use text (Leave a comment)

  1. David[de]

    he just needs these extra ‘after midnight postings’ to keep his geek status….
    ;-)

  2. Very good tip.
    Unfortunately, some website designers I know are quite stubborn and insist on having some text displayed as images, especially titles, as they want to use specific fonts.
    I have seen one using tags around such images with the appropriate alt property (corresponding to the text).
    Is this type of workaround a viable solution?

  3. Spike

    Matt, is this tip a reaction to how Google interprets image replacement techniques? They are a reasonable accessibility consideration IMO.

  4. Matt, you know I allways use tons of text. Real text. All over my cloaked pages – and it works really well, thanks :)

  5. Ian

    What about where you have an image for text, but you include text

    E.g. say the image say “We love Matt”
    How about the code (I’m leaving out the less than and greater than in case it gets cut off):
    h1 img span “We love Matt” /span /h1
    Where the span is display:none and the bit in “” is text.

    There’s a good example on http://www.bankofscotland.co.uk/business/ that does this.

    I seem to remember you saying some time ago on your blog that something along these lines would be ok?

  6. Ian

    Or is alt-text the only method sanctioned for this sort of thing?

  7. Let say Google has only one database where all the data or meta data store, but the for the images googlebot need to make a relation with another database where google stores the images only no text.

  8. Alt text will help, but if you (for instance) have an image with a list of product features, alt text isn’t going to work that well. Plus a screen reader is going to have trouble (especially if there’s a lot of text)

    Almost as bad as hiding text in flash. :)

  9. g1smd

    I recently tried finding the website of a company by typing in part of their postal address into Google. I only found business directory listings for the company, none of which linked to the business website.

    When I eventually found the website for said company, I also found the reason why they did not rank for their postal address: all of that information was in an image – it never appeared in their website text (and neither did their company name for that matter).

    That must be somewhere high up in the “”#101 of webdesign mistakes”” list, no?

  10. Matt,

    You can say this forever, but webdesigners won’t listen. They will just continue making very beautiful designs, that load slow (but not on their 2 megabit connection), use images where they should use h1, and if they can they will do the whole site in flash.

    It´s ok actually, because of them we get questions like: “Why doesn’t my site rank high? We just paid $xxxx for this site. What should we do?”

    * Just to make sure, I do know there are webdesigners that do keep SEO in mind when turning their designs into HTML pages. But there are very few of them.

  11. David[de]

    @g1smd people do this on purpose just as they hide their email addresses in images. there are harvesters around collecting these information.

  12. Ian’s question is bothering me and some colleagues here too, especially for page headings people tend to want these nice photoshopped / illustrator made images, but you’d want the text to be there in a browser like lynx (and in Google) too. So is some form of image replacement technique allowed?

  13. Text buried in images is certainly a problem for those that shoot themselves in the foot by using that technique. It is also easy to solve by webmasters, unless Google solves it for them by OCR’ing images ;)
    On a similar note, it will be certainly interesting to see how Google and other search engines will tackle Flash-based websites. With so many creative/artistic sites fleshed out with Flash, there clearly exists a challange for indexing them properly.

  14. As simple as this sounds its amazing how many people I come across that just do not get it…

    They think google has incorporated some OCR into there engine…

  15. Thank you so much for posting this Matt!

    I’ve had this discussion with others where we were developing web standards for a large organization. I knew this was the case, but I was having a hard time pointing to concrete evidence. Although not speciffically concrete, having it come from a respected source certainly helps. Again, thanks. This is the most helpful post I’ve read yet : )

  16. Is another option to just show the image to the user, but text inside an appropriate HTML tag to Googlebot ? It sure would help keep the web ‘pretty’ ;)

  17. Very simple tip – yet one that should be taken very seriously.

    RE: Peter
    You are very correct in your statement. My father in law does ‘web design’ and gets paid money to do it, yet has NO clue about how a website works. (HINT: for some humor, visit http://www.celuch.com or http://www.celuch.net). He is so set that Flash is the way to go, and that he only builds sites for clients who already have flash on their computer (nevermind the rest of the world that wants to see/index it).

    I seldom hide emails in images, I just process them through a form. However, I believe the CSS trick listed above would work. For using images in different instances, you could specify one image, different x/y for the rotation, and an actual text alternative with a negative indent or display: none. Technically, the page WITHOUT CSS is what google would see, so they would see the text just fine.

  18. Of course alt attributes qualify as indexable text right? Likewise, “hidden” text used in CSS image replacement techniques also qualify, right? ;-)

  19. Images used to be popular a long time ago because most monitors showed text ugly, and the pretty anti-alias effects in photoshop looked good.

    Guess what? Today’s monitors are very very good at displaying text, the problem is most webmasters are still old school in their ways of thinking. It’s like the people who swear that vinyl sounds better than mp3, even though we all know that the differences aren’t audible to the human ear. (unless you like the clicks, pops and white noise..)

  20. Вася

    ПРЕВЕД! :)

    Thats the best SEO Advice I’ve heard off.

  21. Peter

    I just did a redesign on a website that only used images and they wondered why they didn’t show up in search engines. They had added some of the text and a put a font tag around it to hide it. Luckily they didn’t get banned for it not that what they did was that egregious. They just didn’t know what an alt tag was.

  22. Maybe you should tell that to the 100% Flash website crowd. I can’t seem to get them to listen. :P

  23. ScottW

    How do you feel about SIFR?
    - http://www.mikeindustries.com/sifr/

    It’s also good to hear to hear from you Mikkel, I’m glad that you appreciate Matt’s call for text.

  24. Esrun

    Maybe I have mis-understood this post but I read it as people stuffing keywords and optimised text on top of images with the same colour background so visitors don’t see it.

    For example a image of a white boat with keywords in white font colour stuffed over the image… ?

  25. Maybe you should tell that to the 100% Flash website crowd. I can’t seem to get them to listen

    That’s because they’re permanently deafened from the sound of silence caused by lack of traffic to their websites. ;)

  26. LOL

    Matt, that’s the most useful tip I’ve every heard…

    But some clarification on guidelines for Fahrner Image Replacement and similar techniques for heading and styling would be appreciated.

    When is it regarded as spam and when isn’t it?

  27. Lately Google appears to do much better at understanding which images are header graphics, and using the alt text from them. Is this really the kind of graphic we should stop using?

    Well designed sites that use graphics for buttons and text (generally) have a much nicer appearance. And that can and has been done with quick load times. Again I hope this is not Google wagging the dog — isn’t it the search engine’s job to index sites well, not demand that websites become ugly text-filled monstrosities.

    And Flash is an incredible (though sometimes abused) tool. The SEO-or-nothing mind set is ruining websites. Search engines need to catch up and index Flash, not the other way around. Do you think TV should go all-text just so we can search it better?

  28. g1smd, I agree that this is a common mistake among newer site owners. Just out of curiosity, do you remember the site that was using images instead of text?

  29. Ben

    Yea, just like this security code I have to type in to make this comment…

  30. vayapues

    IMHO search is not the end all of SEM, conversion is. If text in images increases conversion, I believe most of us are going to do it, despite the consequences in the search engines.

  31. Ok some basic webmaster advice needed here.

    I am putting alt=words and title=words in my posts with images, how much it too much.

    Please explain:

    What to put in alt

    What to put in title

    Really easy question for some but I bet many are still going ?

  32. g1smd

    No. Sorry. I don’t remember the site. It was many months ago, maybe last year sometime.

  33. If you are looking for a site with address as an image, I do it on my site. The image includes phone,fax,email and physical address. We don’t encourage drive up business since we do mainly direct mail, internet and conventions. Phone, fax and email we want to hide from harvestors. Doing a search on google for the address finds a variety of manufacturers linking to us as well as some affiliates. The only result from our own website was in a pdf catalog.

    As for local search traffic, we are in a zip code with more corn silos than people so there wouldn’t be much. I can see people in situations like ours getting a virtual address (one of the ones with a physical address and a suite number) in a major city to spam local search.

  34. Marc, I think you mis understand. The text over images debate isn’t just about SEO. It’s about accessability. Those that are blind, using a screen reader, text browser etc don’t find images very useful.

    Putting that aside, Most effects that people use images for can be replicated cleaner, and more efficiently using CSS anyway.. even those stupid javascript dropdown menus… but that’s another topic.

    I agree with you that flash is pretty.. but you’re alienating too many visitors by using it. Do you really think that many people sit there and wait for the loading? If it’s from a search engine, the user will probably just click back and go on to the next site, and your web logs won’t count that.

    Switch your page to a non flash, non-image based version using CSS (and make it still look good) and measure it’s effect on conversion rates.. I bet they’ll go up. They key here is to disregard the direct URL type in conversions.. they’d buy from you no matter what.. measure the other people.

    If doing what I say doesn’t improve both your search engine rankings AND conversion rates among non-direct type in visitors.. I’ll print this comment out and eat it.

  35. Glenn

    Hi Matt,

    I have talked to several site owners about this who use images instead of text. It DRIVES ME CRAZY!

    But maybe you can lay to rest, are ALT tags completely useless in images for SEO if it truly describes the image?

  36. Hey!

    I know an excellent way to test out Google’s algo. Instead of having images instead of text. What about having images of people using sign language instead of texts? WOW! Where do these brilliant ideas come from??

  37. William

    Hey Whimpering Warror please do something about the size of your site you must have a super duper sizzer screen as it is way to big for most screens, just a little SEO 101

  38. g1smd

    I love this classic search of how well a totally Flash site gets indexed:

    http://www.google.com/search?num=100&filter=0&q=site:armani.com

    They obviously don’t need any “by product” targetted search traffic….

  39. Matt, would you consider adding text below an image that repeats some of the content that has been placed in the image to be duplicate content? I understand that the Bot cannot read the text in the image, and unfortunately the site in question doesn’t want to redesign using text instead of image-based content. Is this in your mind a good work around? I am not talking about hiding the text here, but simply repeating some of the main points that the previous designer stuck into the image.

  40. Google SHOULD be OCR’ing every page, but for a different reason. That would be a great way to uncover hidden text and other spammy tricks.

    Think of it this way:

    1. OCR a screenshot of a page.
    2. Compare the results to the normally spidered content
    3. Throw out whatever isn’t in the OCR.

    Maybe they already do this?

  41. g1smd

    How many domains and subdomains, at the top of the rankings?

    http://www.google.com/search?num=100&filter=0&q=armani

    Hope that’s not duplicate content I see (can’t see)?

  42. Dave

    RE: “When I eventually found the website for said company, I also found the reason why they did not rank for their postal address: all of that information was in an image – it never appeared in their website text (and neither did their company name for that matter).”

    Unless ranking for their postal address is vital, what does it matter? I think addresses, emails, phone numbers etc are fine as images. Keeps the harvesters at bay.

    Company name should be as text somewhere though.

  43. Big Daddy

    Hi Matt,

    If there is an image button that clicks through to another page with ALT text is that ok?

    Example- ” Image is a Button: MLS Search and Alt Text is: Search MLS” That button clicks through to a MLS Property search page.

    Thank you for such a great forum!

  44. Dave

    RE: “If there is an image button that clicks through to another page with ALT text is that ok?”

    I would say no problems at all if the ALT text is descriptive of the linked page. Make it a short and to-the-point.

  45. RE: “If there is an image button that clicks through to another page with ALT text is that ok?”

    There is a rather obscure attribute, longdesc, that may help you.

    http://webdesign.about.com/od/htmltags/p/blatlongdesc.htm

    AFAIK, it’s not deprecated in XHTML Strict either.

    (Sorry if I opened up a can of worms for you, Matt.)

  46. In some industries, some sites MUST use Aesthetics to attract and give credibility to a certain TYPE of customer. The Headers are most likely to be Attractive Image-text, and the wording could be for Effect – like a tag-line-.

    And of course, from a copywriting standpoint, it might not make sense to have THAT text in the body.

    3-D images, Drop Shadows, image pattern-text, flash Animations etc…. are what will SELL a site to a type customer who is apt to make subliminal judgements.

    How often does such a tagline or Flash animation contain keywords of such significance that they could not fit elsewhere in the body?

    That’s why they have choruses in songs…the major message often bears repeating.

  47. Al

    Hi Matt

    Any news on Google’s test program, mentioned by you at Las Vegas PubCon last November, of notifying some webmasters and/or site owners when their site is about to be penalized?

    The view of webmasters on WMW was that the pilot program is a sign that Google does understand the need for this kind of feedback from webmasters who are committed to good quality control.

    Additionally, I put a suggestion on WMW, with mostly positive responses, about a paid service being available, perhaps via Sitemaps. The feeling was that a more in depth & technical communication was needed with Google support. How does this sound ?

    All the best

    Al

    PS – thanks for the feedback on your Q & A’s

  48. Al

    oops , i forgot ….

    in case you’re looking forthe thread it’s here – i go under the name Whitey

    http://www.webmasterworld.com/forum30/33552-5-10.htm

  49. Jon Cram

    Peter (Brane) said:
    “You can say this forever, but webdesigners won’t listen. They will just continue making very beautiful designs, that load slow (but not on their 2 megabit connection), use images where they should use h1, and if they can they will do the whole site in flash.”

    I agree with what you’re saying here, however I feel I have to jump to the defence of web designers or, more specifically, the correct use of terminology.

    A web designer is, quite simply, someone who designs websites and the design of a website takes into consideration a plethora of factors and most prominently usability and accessibility (I’m sure I never spell those two words correctly, though I might have got it right this time!).

    Those who make fancy shiny flashy sites are more on graphic artist scale – they just want something that looks nice. This does not count as web design as such websites, quite frankly, are not designed but just created. Graphic designers are a fraction better as these are people who design graphical bits and bobs whlist taking the time to consider the importance of each bob and bit.

    Sadly the term ‘web designer’ has generally come to be accepted as someone who makes websites.

    To paraphrase some wise words (from whom I don’t recall), making a website is easy, designing one is a completed different kettle of phish. Or something like that.

    Nevertheless, what you are saying is very true.

  50. Jon Cram

    Aaron Pratt said:

    “I am putting alt=words and title=words in my posts with images, how much it too much.

    Please explain:

    What to put in alt

    What to put in title”

    I think this is worth commenting on as this might be useful for others.

    alt
    This is alternative text. As the name suggests, this is to be used as an alternative to the image. What you want to think here is: “What text should be displayed instead of the image such that the user experience is as unchanged as possible?”.

    If images are being used correctly, that is for illustrative purposes, then your alt text should simply describe the image. Imagine what you’d say if you were describing the image to someone over the phone and you’ve only got three seconds in which to do it. Completely avoid using the word ‘image’ as this is pointless – of course it’s an image. The same applies to ‘picture’ and so on.

    As for length, keep the alt text as short as is needed to get the point across.

    For example, if you had an image showing you and your family on a skiing trip in the Rocky Mountains in December 2005, your alt text might read: “Family skiing trip, Rocky Mountains, December 2005″.

    title
    I’d try and avoid these for images. If you have alt text and title text, which should a screenreader pick? No reason to make things more complicated! The alt text should handle things fine for people with images turned off and for screenreaders. The rest can see the image and so don’t need it described in title text. A caption below the image would be better.

    Using title text on links is advisable. The title of a link helps the user decide whether or not it would be a complete waste of time to click the link. In this respect, your title text needs to describe what the user should expect if they click the link. If it’s a link to an HTML document, or similar, use the HTMl title of the target page if you’re really stuck. If it’s a title for a link to an image, describe the image as you would do for alt text.

    Perfect title text will let the user know what the link will take them to, allowing them to fully analyse whether it is worth the effort before they even consider clicking.

    Remember that alt and title text are examples of microcontent. Take a look at Jakon Nielsen’s ‘Microcontent: How to Write Headlines, Page Titles, and Subject Lines‘ for a good starting point.

  51. vayapues

    The comment was made
    “I agree with you that flash is pretty.. but you’re alienating too many visitors by using it. Do you really think that many people sit there and wait for the loading? If it’s from a search engine, the user will probably just click back and go on to the next site, and your web logs won’t count that.”

    Not true. In most cases Flash actually loads faster than images. Unless the programmer gets carried away.

    Also, conversion is what matters, not search engine traffic. Your focus should be almost entirely on converting. Focusing on search is a poor way to build a business.

  52. Alt and Title tags are made a little bit more fun by the fact that IE uses alt tags to display tool tips style descriptors and FireFox uses title tags. I generally will put both in (when there is important content) because we see about 80% IE and 17% FireFox, and that’s enough to justify using both for me.

    With regard to screen readers, if I was using one, I’d rather be given information on a link or image twice than not at all. And I’d imagine that most screen readers use the information that is presented by the browsing engine, so that shouldn’t be a huge issue.

  53. Jefft

    Speaking of text, there are so many site create in ASP.net now. Is the viewstate code indexed / recognized as page content. ie. does the .net viewstate code dilute content relevancy?
    eg. of viewstate: view source at bottom of this page:
    http://www.jefftomlin.com/Real__Estate_Listings/page_6837.html

  54. John Cram, I enjoyed your commentary debating the definition of the term “web designer” and think it should be more accurately coined “designer, developer, marketer grunt”.

    Me and a non-web inclined co-worker were talking earlier today and I commented on how being into web development makes you a snob. Everyone has their own way of wanting to do things, and they all think it’s the right way and that anything else is wrong. This is proved by arguments I’ve had with other developers on simple concepts like Meta tags and the Google cache, and realized both of us were being extremely stubborn and had our own “facts”.

    Define the three types of web folk? Remember that this is a biased perspective:

    1.) People that post on here, on the best forums on the web, the “designer, developer, marketer grunts”. I consider myself part of this group – the true web snobs! For if you’re not a snob at something, then you’re just average :).

    People that follow standards, accessibility, good design practicies, usability, and want to know everything about it. We look at sub-par web work and laugh, but occasionally bicker between each other about stupid “seo tricks” (or maybe that’s the people that have been in the industry for a long time).

    2.) People who “think” they know good web development, but really haven’t learned anything new from the industry in a good six years and still think that font tags and spacer gifs are the way to go as long as all the Coldfusion comes out ok :). Inflexible to new concepts, so this doesn’t just apply to the web industry but most of life.

    3.) Graphic designers – people who can string together a great design but when it comes to HTML or even basic WSYIWYG programs they don’t really know what to do. I’ve actually had long conversations trying to show people that Dreamweaver and GoLive perform the same basic function.

    Group 1 seems to pick up correct SEO rather quickly, while Groups 2 and 3 are the people most likely to stuff alt tags and overload with flash and animated gifs. If you really want an example of these types of people, just visit a few MySpace profiles and let me know when your computer crashes from 11 animated gifs and 6 quicktime movies :)

  55. Alt tags in the images do not work unless the image is linked. Rectify me if I am wrong somewhere…

  56. * blinks *

    Zee Mee: put your mouse over Matt’s captcha tool (the graphic for the security code) and see what it says. Compare that to the alt tag.

    Nuff zed?

  57. Dave

    RE “Rectify me if I am wrong somewhere…”

    Ok. You are wrong :)

    Alternate text is used to descibe the image when not linked and to describe the landing page when linked. The reason is 2-fold.

    1) Screen readers for the blind
    2) In case the picture does not show….for whatever reason.

  58. Hi Matt,

    I have heard that Google can now read CSS files, so SEO’s who hide content with the”display:none;” atribute are being removed from Google.

    But what about if this is done for a legitimate reason ie:- if you look at http://www.attentiongrabbers.co.uk we have put the “webstat” code in a hidden otherwise when the page inicially loads it displays a horrible webstat image and then disapears, will this be deemed to be underhanded by Google.

    Regards Andy Horne

  59. search result: 3 pages. Every listing is spam. Every one of them.
    http://www.google.com/search?q=www.travel-nurse.org+ultimatenurse&sourceid=mozilla-search&start=0&start=0&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&client=firefox-a&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official

    I’m always filling out spam reports but this I wanted you to see here.

    3 pages and all are spam. Every result is spam. Sure, I’m only posting this because I can’t seem to get back into the index after a year but it doesn’t make the report any less worthy.

    There isn’t even a listing in there that could even remotely be considered borderline acceptable. I clicked every one of them. The only one that could be, gives a 404 error and judging by the text of the listing, it was equally as bad.

    I’m not posting this comment to flame or anything, I simply want to see better listings.

    The only reason I found this was because I was researching this other site to see if they were using text snippets from my domain since they were in the referrers list.

    Thanks and I hope that this will help you will clean some of those listings up.

    btw, 3 tries and security code still not working so far

  60. Ryan said:

    “It’s like the people who swear that vinyl sounds better than mp3, even though we all know that the differences aren’t audible to the human ear. (unless you like the clicks, pops and white noise..)”

    You are wrong. Mp3s are digital so it looses MUCH information, your brain notice it.. in fact is much more easy to get fatigated listening digital recordings that vinyl.

    I know, i know… this is a Google discussion place and not an mp3 site, BUT i guess sometimes we need mythbusters in both areas ;)

  61. It’s a good thing to be reminded from time to time that it’s all about the text. Thanks.

  62. Jen

    My site (utterpants.co.uk) has been delisted from google since the end of January. We’ve lost the
    majority of our traffic. We’ve been in contact with the google team via the
    help@google.com email address, but they’ve only said that they cannot manually
    reinclude our site:

    “Please keep in mind that we’re unable to manually add your pages to our
    search results.”

    Our “case” number is: #45476517

    A strange thing happened this morning. A fellow satire editor emailed me and
    congratulated me on my reinclusion to google. I checked, and sure as fish have
    tails, there we were, listed right on top – Utterpants – refreshingly
    different. But upon searching again, I noticed that we disappeared every few
    clicks, and finally we went away completely (again). It seems that we were
    briefly reincluded. I saw it with my own two eyes. But now we are gone again.

    I can’t understand it, and now I’m worried that Google is trying to reindex us
    but cannot for some reason… perhaps our robots file is not up to snuff? We
    don’t spam or hijack pages. We’re only a small community of writers running a
    satire site for laughs.

    Any help you – or anyone – can give me will be muchly appreciated.

    Thanks for your time.
    Sincerely,

  63. A picture is worth a thousand words – NOT.

  64. SEO SPAM thrives. My site got penalized last month for approximately 13 hidden words, yet a competitor I have reported numerous times over the last few months to Google’s ‘Report a Spam Result’ remains in the index with at least a thousand hidden keywords on their home page. Does nobody ever read or act on those spam reports?

    Do a search for ‘strategic internet consulting’ number two in the index is McMillan/Doolittle LLP – http://mcmillandoolittle.com/ click their link and the hit ‘Ctrl-A’ and suddenly see the thousand or hidden key words in white text on a whit background.

  65. In terms of SEO, the overall influence of using ALT tags is low. As they have been previously abused like meta tags by some webmasters who fill alt tags with trail of keywords, the major search engines have lowered the importance of ALT tags in their algorithms.

  66. I am a web designer and my client requires a particular font be used in page headers – are all Image Replacement techniques frowned upon?

    Surely, as long as the text is spiderable and accessible to screen-readers, it shouldn’t be an issue if there is a nice looking image version displayed to the site visitor?

  67. Thanks for the useful advise, Matt!

  68. Agreed with Paul above! As long as the text spiderable and not spamming, using image text should be fine.

  69. The problem is I saw some sites use hidden text behind the image, but of course you can only see the hidden text when looking at the text only cache.

  70. I’D LOVE IT when google et al finally reads javascript. While PHP is so versatile, I must admit still getting the jitters deploying PHP code coz it’s often linked to my SQL databases. Oh those vulnerable SQL databases… how often you’ve been hacked!

  71. Someone may have already said this, but if a site has text that has to be displayed on every page (like a site-wide disclaimer), it can be very useful to put this is an image on each page so it doesn’t get indexed.

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