With accessibility being more and more important these days, particularly for organizations that are required to be Section 508 compliant, there’s been a lot of discussion of “How accessible is too accessible?” This generally involves questions of how much instruction to include, whether to use accesskeys, and to what extent it’s important that a site look good when text size is increased, at the cost of how it looks when the text size is normal.
But one area that’s rarely discussed is when and when not to use Alt tags, particularly in email. Alt tags, the captions that appears when the image does not, or when hovering over an image, are particularly handy for describing to screen readers what the included images are. They can also improve site search engine optimization and act as a place to put copyright info.
But they can wreck havoc on emails, when messages like this arrive in your inbox:
More below the fold on why Alt tags like this are unnecessary and why it’s important to consider your teaser when writing an email.
The first thing I thought when I saw this email was, “It’s a message about photos of people on conference calls? That’s a little strange…” Looking closer at it, it appears that this was just the Alt text of one of the photos in the standard header, so, in theory, every email ReadyTalk sends is about photos of people on conference calls.
Outlook is one of several email readers that gives a short teaser along with the sender and subject line. Many users find this information vital when deciding whether to open an email right away or leave it until later, and whether that email is spam or not.
Beyond just alt tags, the tendency to try to hide other system information or to place navigation at the top of an email can often result in poorly planned teasers. – a look through my Gmail box revealed emails about such topics as:
The latest – Sign up – Contact – RSS Feed
This message was sent to [me]@gmail.com. To remove yourself, click here
Yahoo – Help width=1 Do not reply to this message
To ensure delivery to your inbox, please add email@example.com to your address book
and my personal favorite:
If this email does not show correctly, click here to show it in your browser
which is a 100-foot tall sign in neon letter that reads “Mass mail en route!” None of these are messages that you want to be leading with, so consider moving them down to the footer, if you use them at all (obviously, you need an unsubscribe and want to include a navigation, but “Do not reply” could be used as an autoresponder (or companies could respond by email instead of just webform and robot phone menu) and there’s some debate on how to best phrase an “open in browser” link, if it’s used).
With regard to Alt tags, however, a smarter way to consider them is to ask if it’s really necessary to know what’s in the image to understand the email. So, to use the example at the top from Readytalk, I would argue that the images in the header, while attractive and useful for branding purposes, are not really relevant to the email, so I’d cut the Alt text. A callout with a call to action, on the other hand, is very relevant, so I’d make sure to include that.
To a lesser extent, the same applies on the web. Do people really need to know that your header images are header images or what they contain? More dramatically, do they need to know that spacers are there? On the other hand, your logo should always include Alt text – in addition to being good branding for accessibility, it’s good a SEO practice.
Looking back on my earlier posts, it seems that I’ve generally made use of Alt text either to describe images, to add that necessary credit for images borrowed under CC licence from Flickr, or to add a caption that just doesn’t fit in the space. I’m as guilty as anyone of not Alt tagging consistently.
But when I send you an email, you can be sure it’s not going to be about, “Click here to display this in a browser.”