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I would be grateful if someone could tell me whether placing a keyword in the image <alt> tags helps ranking for for that keyword on AlltheWeb?
In my opinion it is very important to do this. I cannot prove that it helps in the ranking but if I had to bet on it I would say that it does. Do a search on your keyword(s) and then look at the 'Multimedia Results' 'X Pictures found'. Look at the top 9 in detail and I would be very surprised if you find any without the keyword in the <alt> tag.