Accessibility Tips

A collection of tips, guidance and practical suggestions in developing accessible websites

Avoiding redundant title attributes

By Isofarro on April 14th, 2008 - 9 comments

The title attribute is one of the overlooked attributes in the HTML collection. It’s most often used to mark up abbreviations with their expanded forms. Sometimes it’s used to rout around Internet Explorer’s tooltip behaviour of image alt attributes.

The attribute itself is meant to supply optional supplementary information. The most beneficial example is in conjunction with the abbr element, providing the knowing user with an expansion of an abbreviation. A second practical example is using it with forms to provide additional relevant information. (We also looked at using titles with form fields.)

But there are many examples of a title attribute being used to provide the same information that’s already available and accessible. The most common example is links, especially in navigation you see the following piece of markup:

<a href="/sitemap/" title="Visit our sitemap">Sitemap</a>

Here the title attribute is just a plain duplication of the link text. Sure, it may have two extra words of Visit our which don’t appear elsewhere, but this explains what a link does, and is just as redundant and irrelevant to site visitors. Most of them would need to have understood what a hypertext link is and what it does before even arriving at your site. Its just not necessary.

The extra text is a variant of the click here problem, it explains about how to activate a text link rather than succinctly describing the destination.

Some users have their screenreaders configured to read out both the link text and the title attribute. In this case, the above link would read out “Sitemap visit our sitemap”, and either prefix that with the word “Link”, or switch to a different voice to indicate the presence of a link. The duplication slows down the reading of the page, and is an unnecessary hiccup.

There is very little benefit to the title attribute in this code example. It is better, accessibility wise, to just drop the title attribute altogether in this instance.

Creating barriers for screen magnifiers

Screen magnifiers have the tendancy to make all title attributes appear when they have a titled element within the view of the magnifier. Any title, be it on a div, or a header, or a paragraph or a link, will appear in a tooltip like fashion. A significant use of titles may distract a screen magnifier user, even prevent them from seeing a particular piece of content because it has been obstructed by a tooltip.

There’s just no positive accessibility benefit to using a title attribute to duplicate existing content. The title attribute. when it offers no extra value, hinders more than it helps.

9 Responses to “Avoiding redundant title attributes”

  1. Great post!

    Another point about titles is that by default screen readers like Jaws don’t read them. You have to enable this feature. Which most people never do. So if a designer uses inappropriate link text and tries to fix this by using a title most users will never see/hear it.

    Also different browsers display differing amounts of the title text. So you can’t even be sure that all of the text you put in a title will be seen by a user.

    Titles have their place but I think at the present time a lot of people are over/miss using them.


  2. 2 Andre says: May 7th, 2008 at 8:21 am

    Hi, well, from an SEO perspective the title-attribute is very useful. It provides machine-readable content that fits into the context (both: context of the page and context of the linked site). It´s one of the most overlooked possibilities in onPge-SEO.

    So when I have to decide between SEO an accessibility, I choose SEO, of course. What about microformats? Can´t we use microformats to improve accessibility?

  3. Andre asks: “What about microformats? Can´t we use microformats to improve accessibility?”

    As they currently stand, microformats do nothing to improve the accessibility of a page. In two particular cases, the abbr datetime pattern and its geo-location relative, the content added in the name of microformats actually creates an accessibility barrier to screen reader users who chose to take advantage of marked up abbreviations.

  4. Confirmed what I had assumed. Would the same logic:

    “title attribute being used to provide the same information that’s already available and accessible.”

    work for the img alt attribute, assuming a description already exists within the page content?

  5. This is an interesting debate, and I hope you’ll permit me to make the following comment. The view being propounded here is that accessibility design is somehow _only_ for disabled people – can we perish this? My view, even if it seems outrageous, is that designing for accessibility enriches the web experience for _all_ visitors, regardless of disAbility!

    So, I’m not sure that I agree with the redundancy of the title attribute for hyperlinks – quite the reverse! Quite apart from the SEO aspects, which are fairly important, giving any visitor a helpful text tooltip of where the link is likely to take them is the main bonus. In Opera for example, links without the title attribute still display a tooltip, but with only an often unintelligible URL. Much better to prefix that with a human readable indicator – surely?

    As far as screen readers are concerned, my belief is that users are able to configure how the software deals with the absence, or not, of link title attributes

    So far, I’m not sufficiently convinced that ommiting titles from links is a good thing – so I’ll be leaving them in place.

  6. Scott, yes, if the appropriate text-equivalent you put into an alt attribute is content that already exists on the page in a text format, then the alt attribute is essentially redundant and it can be a null alt instead (alt=””). The one exception to this is when the image is the only thing inside an anchor link – since then a situation will be created where there’s no link text, and the screen reader will attempt to divine something readable from the image source URL.

  7. Peter, no. Web accessibility is making content perceivable, operable, understandable and robust for people with disabilities. There are benefits for non-disabled people, but this is a side-effect of web accessibility, not the primary purpose. It is fairly important that the distinction is understood.

  8. Good post.

    Regarding SEO benefits from using title attributes: my understanding and experience is that it has either no bearing on SEO or very little.

    Although these two are slightly old posts now, they provide further info:

    1) A small note about title tooltips happens to be mentioned here:

    2) Includes a list of top factors that prominent SEO experts agree were important in 2007 and compares that to 2005 (as years go on, technical things become less and less of a factor)

  9. […] Title attributes are often misused. Here’s a good example: […]

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