Tale of the alt, title and longdesc Attributes

Most of you probably know that the alt attribute found in the <img> tag is used by screen readers to assist the visually impaired and blind. What is alt text in the first place? It is the text that appears in place of the image if the user turns off graphics or if the user is using a screen reader as is the case for blind or visually impaired visitors to your site.

Is alt text always needed? Well the answer to that question begins with the question whether the image adds to the understanding of the other content on the page. As an example, look at this image found at the top of a page describing an art course:

Example of decorative image that should have a null string for the alt text

Or even the following image found in the page header of an elementary school.

Example of decorative image in a page header that should have al null string for the alt text

Do either of these images add any additional understanding of the art class page or the elementary school page? Would a user who turned off graphics or was blind or visually impaired and could not see these images really understand the rest of the page any less if they never knew the images existed? I would argue that they would not miss a thing. Therefore, these images are considered to be a decorative element on their respective pages and the alt attribute should be set to the null string as in the following: (not the word null)

alt=""

In addition, the title attribute should not be included for decorative images while it usually has the same text as the alt attribute. Strictly speaking, the title attribute is what the page visitor sees when they hover over the image with their mouse while the alt attribute is used by many search engines to catalog the image. So, having both of these attributes set to the same text is really not a bad thing.

Consider the following image with no text. How does it support the other content on the page?

Student races the car he built in the Engineering Magnet program.

In this case, you might have the alt text:

alt="Student races the car he built in the Engineering Magnet program."

Does it matter that the car is blue, the grass is green, they are on an athletic track, or that the student is wearing a helmet? Depending on the purpose of the story, the alt text shown above may be enough when combined with other content on the page.

On the other hand, suppose the image contains text as in the following image:

Example of image with simple text in it that says: Physical Education

While the image itself may not add to the understanding of the content on the page, the text must be included at a minimum in the alt attribute as in:

alt="Physical Education"

Note that the alt text must convey the same information as the text in the image. It is not necessary to say that it is the “Physical Education Banner” or “Physical Education Logo”. Adding words like “banner”, “logo”, “picture” or “image” is considered superfluous.

Some images have text that must be repeated in the alt attribute such as for the following image:

A blue T-shirt that says: We're all in this together

alt="A blue T-shirt that says: We're all in this together".

On the other hand, names on the sides of buildings, text in store windows, etc. if not pertinent to the content of the page do not have to be mentioned.

Sometimes the alt text can even be simplified. It is not always necessary to repeat the image text word for word as long as the meaning and intent are the same such as in the following image.

Image that says: Click image for information about distance learning for parents

alt="Click image for information about distance learning for parents"

Also, it is acceptable to convert the text to upper and lower case, define TLA (three-letter acronyms) as long as the converted text does not change the fundamental message of the image text.

What if the image and the text on the image do add substantially to the understanding of the page or even the purpose of the image. Then that information must be provided to the visually impaired in some way. If the image description is short or if the text is short, as we saw above, then the alt text can provide that additional information easily. But what if it is not short? While there is no physical limit on the length of alt text, it is recommended that alt text is kept short, 125 characters or less. Is that really enough to describe the image and the text on it? Take a look at the following image.

Image with more text than an alt attribute should have

Repeating all of this information in the alt attribute with only 125 characters or less would be impossible. This was the intended purpose of the longdesc attribute.

However, contrary to popular belief, the longdesc attribute is NOT a place for directly entering longer text, perhaps paragraphs or more in which to explain the image or the text on it. Rather, the longdesc defines a URL where the visitor can get more information about the image and/or the text on the image. While the status of the longdesc attribute is not entirely clear under HTML5, the main point is that it is not a duplicate of the alt attribute text nor is it a more detailed explanation of the image even though longdesc sounds like long description. It is a reference to a bookmark on the page or to the relative or absolute URL address of another page that describes the content and/or text in more detail.

In the above example, we might have the text of this information repeated elsewhere on the current page. If so, we can identify the content section by adding an id attribute inside any one of the following content tags that precede the content:

<p id="GraduationEventTimes">

<h3 id="GraduationEventTimes">

<div id="GraduationEventTimes">

(Note: Each id value can only appear once on a page. Otherwise, how would a link know which location to branch to. Make sense?)

Then in the longdesc attribute of the image, we would include the following:

longdesc="#GraduationEventTimes"

Note that the name assigned to the id attribute can contain only upper and lower case letters, no space, no numbers, and no special characters. When the id is referenced, it must begin with the ‘#’ sign to identify it as a bookmark name and not a page name.

It is also possible to reference another HTML page found at the same level as the page with the image. Suppose this page was given the name: “GraduationEventTimes.html” or “GraduationEventTimes.asp”. Then the longdesc attribute would be:

Longdesc="GraduationEventTimes.html"

Note the absence of the ‘#’ symbol, in this case, to identify the relative reference URL as another page on the same folder level as the current page.

You can also use relative URL references to traverse your folder structure, but that is a more advanced topic than what I wanted to cover here.

It is even possible to reference a page using an absolute reference that might exist on an entirely different site such as:

Longdesc="https://myschoolsite.edu/Seniors/GraduationEvents.hyml"

Relative and absolute references are actually the preferred way to handle charts and graphs in which the longdesc attribute points to a ‘hidden from menu’ page that describes the data used to create the charts and graphs and perhaps even includes the actual data tables used by them. Obviously, that much information would never fit within the limits of the alt attribute.

Anyway, I hope you learned something here about the alt, title, and longdesc attributes found in the <img> tag and to not use the longdesc attribute just to insert additional text describing the image or text in the image.