An accidental find by a Google Photos user has the potential to make images more accessible, and make digital marketers’ lives easier in the process.
Twitter user Can Duruk made the realization when using the app last week, sharing with his followers that “@googlephotos has OCR to turn screenshots into copy/paste text!” The Google account replied, “Starting this month, we’re rolling out the ability to search your photos by the text in them.
You spotted it! Starting this month, we’re rolling out the ability to search your photos by the text in them.
Once you find the photo you’re looking for, click the Lens button to easily copy and paste text. Take that, impossible wifi passwords
— Google Photos (@googlephotos) August 22, 2019
Once you find the photo you’re looking for, click the Lens button to easily copy and paste text.” This is a major discovery for anyone using the tool and struggling to search for images that have text in them, but the announcement of this technology could have major implications for digital marketers, or anyone wanting to make the internet more visual…and more accessible in the process.
The Promise of OCR
OCR, or optical character recognition, is an invaluable feature for those using screen readers or other accessibility tools to experience an increasingly visual internet. Whereas now, images and PDFs that are not OCR-enabled can be difficult for anyone using a screen reader (a challenge when things like transcripts or forms are uploaded in PDF or JPG formats), the power of OCR can make more types of files accessible to visually-impaired internet users.
Google Lens has enabled it since its inception; major apps like Photos enabling this technology could pave the way for other Google properties, like Google Images or Google Slides, to similar deploy this capability. I liken it to the ubiquity of QR code reading capabilities, a feature once only available by downloading “unitasking” apps to do it.
The result? Simpler interpretation of images that also feature text, in more and more places across the internet. And in an online landscape dense with inspirational quotes overlaid over scenic landscapes or pensive men, this could unlock a far easier way to make this experience seamless for the visually impaired.
An Alternative to Alt-Text
At present, if we upload an image with text to a website or social media post, users who can’t see the image are at the mercy of our ability to describe the image (including the text within) in the alt-text or the image’s caption.
But if OCR recognition of the type currently found with Google Lens and Google Photos were to spread, it could spread some of the “work” required to make these images usable out, requiring less description from social professionals who frequently must include it as part of the photo-posting process. Especially when platforms like LinkedIn or Medium severely limit the characters permitted to do this (generally around 125 characters), tools that pull text from images can widen the scope of understanding.
What To Do in the Meantime
At present, this capability only exists in Google Photos, although users of Google Lens can apply it in a variety of other spaces. For those of us currently in charge of creating common understanding with our posts, the following can serve as helpful measures until OCR support becomes more widely available:
- Use alt-text, every time. Be as descriptive as possible in the limited characters provided. As with crafting a tweet, it can be challenging to get the point across in a small space. But with practice, it becomes easier.
- Supplement overlaid text with captions or additional inline text that could help a reader glean understanding even if alt-text is incomplete.
- Be thoughtful about how information ordinarily presented in images or “flat” PDFs is presented. Are there more accessible formats you can have available? If so, lean toward those and encourage colleagues to do the same.
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