Makeshift Anchor Text... Link Title Attribute vs Image Alt Tags: Which is Better?

One of the reasons I was so motivated to change the tagline of this site recently was because the new site design contained the site's logo as a background image. The logo link was a regular static link, but it had no anchor text, only a link title to describe the link. If you do not look at the source code, the link title attribute can seem like an image alt tag when you scroll over it, but to a search engine they do not look that same. A link title is not weighted anywhere near as aggressively as an image alt tag is.

The old link title on the header link for this site was search engine optimization book. While this site ranks #6 and #8 for that query in Google, neither of the ranking pages are the homepage (the tools page and sales letter rank). That shows that Google currently places negligible, if any, weight on link titles.

I have ranked other sites for more competitive queries based exclusively on internal links (without thousands of links from other sites, like those pointing at the SEO Book home page).

Does the image alt text carry more weight? In a word, yes. Here is now I proved that to myself through yet another site error. :)

One of my hobby sites has a fairly flat file structure, and some of the internal pages are somewhat linkworthy. The site was not marketed aggressively and the only sitewide link to the homepage was the logo, which I forgot to put an image alt tag on. Google ranked 2 pages on the site well for the core keyword, but neither of those pages were the homepage. I noticed the lacking image alt tag, fixed it, and within a week my homepage was outranking the other pages.

If the only link to your homepage is a logo check the source code to verify you are using descriptive image alt text.

Published: February 6, 2008 by Aaron Wall in seo tips


Sam I Am
February 6, 2008 - 5:03am

Wouldn't best just be a plain text link saying the same as the logo but with the text being hidden? MC has already said that's fine :) And it is slightly better for accessibility reasons (screenreaders/images switched off/mobile browsing etc.).

February 6, 2008 - 6:32am

MC has already said that's fine :)

But almost every spam technique other than really overt stuff is fine in isolation. Start adding up minor infractions and guestimating judgement and a site that was within reason may no longer be so.

February 6, 2008 - 11:27am

I don't think there is a problem by substituting text with images via CSS. Take any copy of the CSS designed page where they use this technique, make sure it is cached by Google and, while looking at the cache, click the "cached text only" link in the google's heading snippet. You'll see that the hidden text, wherethere it's just a link, or heading or whatever is showing up. Also, if you search for a particular keyword in Google and look at a such page's cache - you'll see that the text is highlighted as well.

I agree with Aaron on "minor infractions" which will add up, especially when Google is really anal lately about them... but, don't be a "smart alek" - use the exact wording as on the image, otherwise it may count as misrepresentation where Google reads one thing and a visitor another...

February 6, 2008 - 6:20am

No the title attribute doesnt carry any weight. during a discussion with one of the big local seo firms they mentioned they did this 'thinking of the future' which is a dangerous game to play - second guessing google, still im sure in the lies they weave to get business it sounds impressive lol.

February 6, 2008 - 6:31am

I've always assumed that the alt attribute would carry more weight than the title attribute, but never tested it.

It makes sense, of course. When the image is not viewable for whatever reason, the alt is shown in it's stead. The title is not.

In addition, when the image is inside a link, the alt text functions as the anchor text of the link whereas the title, once again, does not.

February 6, 2008 - 9:24am

good tip. tyvm

February 6, 2008 - 11:20am

I've read (which doesn't necessarily make it true) that the use of the ALT tag in addition to the TITLE tag helps in Google image search. Considering they're barely using Picasa (for now), there may be benefit in using both for images you want to appear in the Image Results.

For others, not so much.

February 6, 2008 - 12:25pm

Aaron, have you repeated the test to verify this is what really happened?

February 6, 2008 - 3:57pm

If the link title was algorithmically favored, this site should have had the homepage ranking #1 for the associated query (instead of having 2 internal pages from this site ranking in the top 10) as the site has way more authority than the other sites ranking in Google.

With the image alt tag, I will probably run into another site that I fix down the road that confirms the issue, but due to the quick change in rankings (especially after the wrong pages ranking for many months) I have to believe in cause and effect.

Reynder Bruyns
February 7, 2008 - 4:34am

But I wonder if an h1 with the image in the background is better then your div with a image and alt tag. I think it is. Maybe you could also test this ;-)

February 7, 2008 - 3:10pm

If you put an H1 tag sitewide to something that was not relevant to all those pages I think that would throw the relevancy off a bit.

Reynder Bruyns
February 8, 2008 - 5:36am

Interesting. Never thought about it like that. Thanks!!

February 7, 2008 - 8:44am

I have a client with JS navigation and I was wondering if there is a way to do give those navigation elements an alt tag...something that will tell the search engines about the text of the nav-links.

I can put plain links at the bottom of the page...but what are my other options?

February 7, 2008 - 3:10pm

I would do text links at bottom of the page most likely.

February 7, 2008 - 10:05am

I was just asked about this last week. My thinking was that the 'alt' attribute carried more weight than the link 'title', so this is a great confirmation.

Sam I Am
February 8, 2008 - 4:54am

As gemini said you shouldn't be dumb about it, but logo substitution is one place where it makes a lot of sense as long as the text is the same. To be quite honest, isn't Google's main mantra "code for users"? In terms of accessibility, the text option is by far the best. In terms of mobile devices it's a no brainer that that's what's best.

For design purposes it's also highly desirable to be able to create a rollover effect, but we'll leave whether that's best for users or not aside.

So if we're going with what's best for users then you have no choice but to go with text and an image pushed in through CSS. At the moment this is the only viable solution and Google knows it. If they start penalizing for keeping users first and foremost they are taking a long and slippery slope down the s**tter.

But yes, don't overdo it text wise and don't do it in combination with a lot of other dodgy stuff.

February 8, 2008 - 3:06pm

A title attribute carries no weight for google as it's for usability, that's not really anything new. As far as the alt text pushing your ranking up. Alt text is just treated as an onpage factor for that specific page. It's not like a link (link reputation) where they just add an addendum to the page receiving the link. So your experiement is the equivalent of saying that you added one additional keyword to each page and your rankings shot up. Besides that, within a week is a little fast for a change like that to propel you through the rankings, it's not like you made a title tag change, which is not only weighted much heavier but also doesn't extend across 10's of pages.

February 8, 2008 - 4:48pm

Hi Dave
I think alt text is treated similarly to anchor least to some extent.

Using no anchor text on a sitewide link vs using targeted anchor text is a big difference in relevancy.

September 25, 2008 - 5:26pm

Tx Aaron - I see how an 'alt' tag offers G info on the image, and so acts like anchor text.
What about a flash file that's linked back to home? Design friend is telling me the you can't do anything like an 'alt' tag when linking the flash file to home. Is this true?
If it is true, then what's the best alternative?
Am thinking of an image beneath the flash that's linked back to home. Would you need to use CSS to position this so as not to tip off the SE's?

Have been a long time fan of your blog btw.

September 25, 2008 - 9:51pm

Hi Coburn
I answer SEO questions inside our member forums.

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