You always hear it – adding alternative text to your images is the number one suggestion people give when the topic of making your social media accounts more accessible comes up. But sometimes instead of alternative text, people will say image descriptions. Less clear at times is what’s the difference, where to add them, or what to write once you figure out where to put it. So let’s break all of that down.
What is the Difference Between Alternative Text and Image Descriptions?
Although sometimes these terms are used interchangeably, there are a few distinctions between alternative text and image descriptions, particularly on Instagram.
- Alternative text is embedded to the photo and not seen when people view your photos; image descriptions are included as part of your caption.
- Alternative text is announced by screen readers after your user name/location tag and before your caption; you control where in your caption to place the image description (most do it after the content of the caption, but before their hashtags).
- Alternative text is a very brief description to give the primary details of the image and tend to be 140 characters or shorter; image descriptions are more detailed.
Related Post: What is Alternative Text?
Adding Alternative Text on Your Instagram Photos
In Fall 2018, Instagram announced upgrades to their platform to allow users to embed their photo with alternative text to describe the photo for those using screen readers. This is a huge development, and while it’s not perfect, it’s an easy way to start improving your accessibility on Instagram. It’s not the easiest feature to find, though.
On the same screen where you are writing your caption for your post, at the very bottom you’ll see Advanced Settings. Clicking on that gives you several additional options for your posts, including Write Alt Text.
I’ve done some testing, and it doesn’t appear that there is a character limit for the alt-text you provide for an image. That said, keep in mind it will be read after your username and before your caption, so be descriptive, but concise. If you want to go into more detail, add an image description to your caption.
In another huge step to increase the number of accessible Instagram accounts on the platform, they have also started automatically adding alternative text to images using computer-generated analysis for images where it hasn’t been supplied by the owner. For the record, I turned on the screen reader on my phone, and it was hit-or-miss – both in terms of providing descriptions, and how photos were described. Even when it does work, “Image may show two people; outdoors” doesn’t provide nearly the same visual impact as “Johnny and Julie smiling emphatically while holding Mickey-shaped balloons while enjoying a sunny, fun-filled day in the Magic Kingdom.” So there is still benefit to creating your own rather than relying on artificial intelligence to describe your images for you.
Editing Alternative Text After Posting on Instagram
If you forget to add alternative text before you post your photo, or want to change something you’ve written, don’t worry – you can adjust it even after your photo has posted! If you click edit on an existing Instagram post, on the lower-right hand side of the image you will see the option to “Add Alt-Text.”
That takes you directly to the field to add alternative text. This is particularly helpful if you’re using a third-party tool to manage your Instagram account that doesn’t allow you to add alternative text to your photos before posting.
Including Image Descriptions in your Instagram Captions
Prior to the ability to add alternative text to images on Instagram, it was common for accessibility-minded Instagrammers to include an image description within their caption. I would typically place a description after my photo caption, preceded by #PhotoDescription. This hashtag is a good way to signal to blind or visually impaired Instagrammers that you’re including descriptions of your images and that you might be worth a follow because you’re making sure they’re included in the conversations happening.
You may wonder why if you are including alternative text you would also want to include a photo description. Wouldn’t that be redundant for people using screen readers? My friend Katie, from Katie’s Vision, has also made an excellent point about that: “I still try to include an image description in my actual post too, for people who don’t use a screen reader, but may struggle to see a whole picture.”
There are several other reasons to include image descriptions on your Instagram photos:
- Alternative text will only be read by a screen reader in the language that you write it. If you have a large international audience, Instagram captions can be translated into their native language, so any screen reader users can still hear a description of the image in their language.
- Most Instagram schedulers, including Facebook Creator Studio, do not offer the ability to add alternative text to images that are scheduled; you have to edit the photo and add it after it’s been uploaded to Instagram. Including the image description in your caption means your photo is more accessible as soon as it is posted.
Where Can’t You Add Alternative Text on Instagram?
Your Profile Picture
If you’re looking for where to add alternative text for your profile picture, don’t stress out that you can’t find it – it doesn’t exist. This is somewhat intentional, because the alternative text of profile pictures being read before every post makes things more difficult for screen reader users, not easier.
Unlike photos, you cannot currently include alt-text when you upload videos to Instagram. That includes images with animated graphics that Instagram interprets as a video. So if you are uploading a video, include a brief video description in the caption just as you would an image description. If the video includes someone speaking, you should also include captions when uploading the video or a transcript in the caption.
Even if you add text on top of an image on your Instagram Stories, a screen reader will not read that because once you upload it, it becomes part of the image. Screen readers can interpret some things as text within an image, like if you use the Questions or Quizzes features. But that also relies on the person viewing the story to know exactly where to tap their figure to pick up the text. That’s not to say it can’t happen, but you shouldn’t rely on it. And it wouldn’t make sense to use them to add image descriptions, because that would be confusing for your sighted followers.
If you send someone an image or gif through direct messages, currently there is no way to add alternative text to it. A screen reader can interpret emojis, which I often send as a response. But if you respond to someone with a picture or gif and they use a screen reader, they may need more clarification for what it contains.
5 Tips for Writing Alternative Text and Image Descriptions on Instagram
- Write your caption before your alternative text or image descriptions. Your caption is content that is available to everybody; once you’ve decided what you want to say, note the aspects of your image that either help provide context or enhance your message.
- Keep in mind the placement of your alternative text. On Instagram, the alternative text is read after your username/location tags, and before your caption. If your caption references a specific action, item, or person in your photo, that should be included as part of your alternative text.
- Alternative text should be kept to approximately 125 characters or 30 words. It’s okay to go over that, but remember that a person using a screen reader is listening to it before they get to your caption, so you don’t want to extend too long. If you need more words to describe a photo, make a more detailed image description in your caption.
- Alternative text and photo descriptions don’t have to be formal. It’s another way of you to build a connection with your audience, particularly those who may not be able to see your images. If it’s a picture of you reading to your kids, you don’t have to write, “parent and child sitting together, reading books.” Make it personal: “Megan curled up on her couch with her kids, Sarah and Chris, reading Goodnight Moon.“
- Alternative text can boost your rankings in searches. As with alternative text on blogs or websites, alternative text can also be used on Instagram images to improve your ranking and discoverability on through Instagram searches. It’s another way for you to tell Instagram’s search engine what your image contains. If you want to tie certain keywords to that image, you should – but don’t use alternative text solely for your keywords, and do not put your hashtags in the alternative text field. It should be used in a way that helps describe the photo to someone who cannot see it.
Want to Learn More?
As one of the most popular social media platforms, it’s important to make sure when using Instagram you’re able to connect with existing and potential members of your community.
If you want to dive deeper into writing alternative text, I have 7 Tips for Writing Alternative Text that I always follow. I’ve also created a guide for Creating an Accessible Instagram Account so you can learn how to make the entire experience accessible beyond just you images.