SEO thoughts from a top-ranked photographer
As explained in the previous post on my
internet-based photography business,
the goal which drove the design of the terragalleria.com
site was to license images and sell prints of photographs already
created during personal projects, directly from that website. This has
been my sole path to a full-time photography career which supports me
and my family. This, the final installment of my series about my photography business (1 |
) discusses how I managed to generate
the amount of internet traffic I needed to pull it off.
This approach will not work for everyone. When designing your site, you need to define clearly your own objectives,
because some goals are just orthogonal.
photographers often just want to
refer potential professional clients
to an online version of a portfolio. A fancy Flash-based site showcasing their specific vision with an extremely
tight edit of images and a matching design (the kind that wins
design awards) may be the best way to impress a client, but such
a site will never pull a large amount of traffic by itself. Others may have intermediate goals:
for instance a wedding photographer tries to book jobs with
a specific clientele, but this clientele consists of the general public, and there is
a good chance that they could find him on the internet by stumbling onto his website, so some of the ideas in this document would apply.
There are three ways for someone to land on your website: they can
visit it directly (typing the URL, using bookmarks or lists), follow a
link from another website – including a social media site,
or click on search engine results after typing in keywords.
The first way is most beneficial to you, because it is conductive of
repeat visits. Repeat visitors are the audience that you are trying to
build, those who truly appreciate your work and are most likely to buy
something from you. Artwork is not a commodity, therefore priced
accordingly, and seldom bought as an impulse purchase.
On the other hand, search engine users are
fickle. In my case, the majority of them stay less than a
minute on the site. The majority do not visit any other page than the
one they landed on, returning immediately to the search engine page
(this is called a “bounce”). You can see on the graphic below (Google Analytics) that a
substantial portions of the visitors to terragalleria.com are
been around for a
decade, which is a long time on the internet.
If your site is relatively new, your traffic will come almost
exclusively from search engines, and maybe social media links, if you
are very active. Yet, designing your site so that visitors will want
to come back time and time again should be your highest priority.
The only way
to do so is to repeatedly create a great user experience. This means
high quality content (images plus text) and great design (beautiful
and easy to use).
The often repeated “Content is King” has never
been truer, but delivery is also essential, because most photographs
do not function best individually: images have to be
organized in a coherent and pleasing way, with an easy navigation
(including an internal search function)
which makes the site attractive and useful. Photographs are useful for what do you ask
? Many visitors have told me that they use the
terragalleria.com site to help plan their vacations or even photo shoots.
The good news is that making your site user-friendly will also often make it
search-engine friendly. If you love your visitors, the internet will love
you back. The bad news is that it takes a lot of work over a long time.
I do not design for
search engines, but rather for humans. Whenever I am faced with a
design choice, I think first about visitors. Let me give a few examples.
I have an image category titled Waterfalls.
That page includes all of my 400+ images of waterfalls. I could have
used multiple keywords such as “waterfall”, “waterfalls”, “water
fall”, “water falls” to try to target more, but decided against it,
because it would have made it more difficult to
browse. On my National Parks page, I could
have repeated the word “National Park” with the name of each park. I
decided against it because that would have cluttered the page. The
visitor already knows he is looking at National Parks ! Yet
try a Google search for images of national parks using a variation of
keywords and constructs, and see who comes on top. On a page such as
National Park, I could have placed tons of legitimate keywords just by
writing captions below the photos (they are in a toolip instead). However, this would have
prevented images from filling the page at all window sizes. Also, I
find that words get in the way of the images – which is why
many fine-art photobooks do not print any words at all next to the
images, and instead place captions in a separate section. So in this
case, I’ve broken on purpose a cardinal rule of SEO (which I’ll
After people type keywords in a search engine, typically thousands, if not
millions of results are returned – see the example below,
which involves a particularly competitive query.
However, studies have repeatedly
shown that most people will look only at the first page of results.
There is absolutely no way to guarantee that your page will feature on this
first page based on organic (unpaid) results. Anybody who tells you otherwise
is simply a crook. On the other hand, it is possible
to guarantee a top placement with paid results, by buying advertising space on
search results pages (the right column in this example).
However for a photography site this could be a costly approach.
You are not amazon.com. Most visitors do not come to your site to buy anything, so
you would be paying for a lot of clicks that do not generate business.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the process of improving the visibility
of a web page by making it higher ranked in organic search results. Because
of examples such as those shown above, people sometimes assume
that I am a SEO expert, who has mastered complicated and obscure secrets.
There are no such secrets. The reason why it is easy to feel confused about
SEO is that, within a decade, an entire industry has grown around it,
often relies on smokescreens and hype, if not on sneaky tactics that would be
better described as Search Engine Abuse. I do not rely on any such
trickery and do not recommend that you do so. Abusing search engines reduces
the effectiveness of the very technologies you’re depending on. Whenever someone thinks of a way
to artificially improve their web page rankings, every SEO “expert” does
it, making the field level again. Not only that, but if you attempt
to cheat, the search engines have become so sophisticated that eventually you’ll be found and
penalized, sometimes heavily. Google has often dropped entire
websites from its search results. I do not wish to give negative examples here, but I’ve seen
several photography websites that looked to me built more for
search engines than humans plunge dramatically and suddenly in traffic
after doing very well for a period of time.
The most important thing is to understand that the “rules” of SEO
aren’t magic. They are simply based on any search engine goal, which
is to return relevant and trustful results. Once you’ve understood
that, the fundamentals are common sense, although the results themselves
can almost never been predicted with certainty. I am often puzzled by
search results. I’ve read that the
algorithms used by modern search engines are some complex that even the
software engineers who created them cannot predict their outcome.
Because these days Google is so dominant,
all the technical details you need to know are listed in Webmaster
Guidelines from Google that you should study carefully. I also
recommend to open a (free)
Google Webmaster, as this will
provide you with a lot of data relevant to your SEO.
In the rest of this
post I will concentrate on the big picture, because there are a number
of other articles about SEO for photographers which do a good job at
commenting on technical details. Some of
the most useful are listed at the end of this article, but study the
Google document first.
The importance of text
I mentioned earlier that one should design for humans, not for search
engines. For photographers, there is one important exception:
while humans (and, to some extent, artificial intelligence programs) can understand images,
search engines cannot: they are text-based. For a human, an image is
worth 1000 words by itself, but the search engine explicitly needs
those. That’s why
publishing guidelines explicitly asks you to “tell as much as you can about the image”.
That’s also why I advice against the use of Flash as a main platform for the
purposes of SEO. Flash is a visual technology: the text is mixed with the rest of the
design, you cannot cut and paste it, nor can search engines make sense
of it. Flash designers claim that there are workarounds, but I have
yet to see any Flash-based webpage achieving high ranking for a
competitive search. On the other hand, if you treat Flash content as
an image, making it only a portion of a page and surrounding it with
text as explained next, you should be OK.
What should the text be ? Anything that you think is
relevant. Remember that search engines reward relevance: it is easy
for them to figure out that pages are irrelevant by counting
bounces. However, since search engine users enter just a few words
in the search engine boxes, you have to think which of those search
each webpage is going to target, which simply mean include in a prominent manner.
The main trade-off with keywords is
popularity (how many people search for them) vs competition. The more
popular the keyword, generally the more competitive it is. You can
compare specific keyword popularity across time and places by using Google Trends. The
Adwords Keyword Tool provides a measure of both competition and
popularity, so that you could try to target popular keywords with less
Each combination of words is different. You cannot try to win
by “optimizing” for many of them at a same time, as search engines detect
“keyword stuffing”. Try for instance a
search of “america pictures” and compare with the above. If you
will allow me a short digression, I’m very pleased to see
Holdt‘s work so well placed, since I think it is
important. However I suspect that what got it there is not only its
cultural, historic, and artistic importance, but also the fact that
the body of work is so extensive (more on that next).
Where should the text be ? The brief answer is everywhere !
However the single most important element on each page is
the TITLE tag (this is the text you see on the top of the browser
bar). Each of your images should be on its own HTML page, and have a
brief but keyword-rich and unique title. If all of your image pages have a
title such as “My Name photography” (as I often see), you’ve wasted the most precious
real estate on your website. Next in importance is the ALT tag text,
which is the surest way for you to associate words with a specific
image. Search engines rely heavily on the ALT tag, but it is barely
visible to humans, so you also need a descriptive caption
next to the image. Although far from ideal, it’s OK to use
the same text for those three elements – that what I’ve
been doing to save time. Then, you’ll also want keyword text in your navigation
links, headers, description tag text, URL, and image filenames. Here
again, I made the mistake of ignoring the last two ones,
for the benefit of the convenience of using just an image number instead. What does the
fact that I’ve done well in spite of not following some “rules” tell ? That
those technical details are merely tweaking.
As an example, here are the essential elements of the page
One of the two most important factors in high traffic numbers – one that
I rarely, if ever see mentioned in SEO articles, is what I call the
“footprint”. I like to use the following
analogy: the internet as the earth, and your visitor as an asteroid
from space. The chance that it will land in your country is
proportional to its surface. Likewise, everything being equal (which
is obviously not, more later), the chance of a visitor landing on your
website is proportional to its number of pages, which is more or less
the number of images in the case of
a photography website.
I am convinced that no matter how great
your images are, if you do not have massive numbers of them, it will be very difficult
to achieve high visibility through SEO. That’s why, for the purpose of selling work on the
internet, it often isn’t productive to show only the very best of your
work on your website. A portfolio is necessary for client meetings. It
doesn’t hurt to have it on your website (although I’ve done well without
one myself), but if your website consists exclusively of a portfolio,
just do not expect to draw any significant amount of traffic.
As of this writing, there are more than 27,500
images on terragalleria.com. While some redundancy is inevitable for
stock photography sales, I am
making sure that each image contributes something a bit different to
This was not built in a day, or even a
year. As you can see from this site timeline, for the
past ten years, I have strived to post at least 200 images every
month. Having fresh and varied content is important to hold your
visitors interest, and to signal to search engines that your site is
If your website structure is not amenable to frequent updates, use a blog.
SEO is simply not a short-term endeavor. It takes several years
for it to pay off, because besides a large site, what you need to
build is trust.
Besides the footprint analogy, how does in practice having many images
help you ? This has to do with keywords. It makes it possible for you to organize your website in a
layered way so that you can satisfy searches both for popular and less-frequent queries.
First, let say you are trying to rank high for a popular
keyword (such as “Pictures of America”). If site A has 15,000 relevant
images, and site B has 50 of them, who do you think will be identified
as most relevant by search engines ? I am not saying that all images should be on a
single page. A nested structure is the most natural and gives many options.
when you use very specific keywords for an image (“Raspberry cultivation in Watsonville”) there
will be very little competition, so that you have a good chance of
coming on top, but also very few searches. Yet all those searches can
add up to a decent traffic number if you can satisfy a large number of
different ones, which you can do if you have a large number of images.
This phenomenon is similar to the “Long Tail” described in the book by
Chris Anderson “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling
Less of More” as the retailing strategy – applied by amazon.com and
netflix – of selling a large number of
unique items with relatively small quantities sold of each. Because of
a change in the indispensable Google
Analytics interface, I haven’t figured it out yet how to pull out
similar statistics, so I’ll illustrate this point with numbers from
- top 10 keywords account for 13,891 (4% of visits)
- top 100 keywords account for 36,363 (12% of visits)
- top 1,000 keywords account for 86,912 (28% of visits)
- top 5,000 keywords account for 135,700 (45% of visits)
- keywords 5,000-133,000 account for 165,000 (55% of visits)
Trust and incoming links
The other important factor in high traffic numbers is
trust. Factors that contribute to trust are the time your domain has
been on the internet, as well as possibly its expiration
date. However, these are insignificant compared to incoming links –
although it could be argued that receiving links is a byproduct of
long tenure on the internet.
The breakthrough of Google was to
make use of the link structure of the Web to calculate a quality
ranking for each web page. The
original research paper co-authored by Sergey Brin and Larry Page (shorter version) is an excellent
read if you want a good understanding of that algorithm. Nowadays, all search engines use that idea:
the more websites link to your website, the most popular and therefore
the most trustworthy it must be.
Not all links are equal:
the only ones that help are genuine links from important
sites. Links from
authoritative sites count more than links from obscure sites.
The main metric used to assess the importance of a web page
is Google PageRank (PR), a number between 0 and 10, named after Larry Page. The scale is
exponential, so a link from a PR 5 site is worth maybe 10 links
links from a PR 4 site and 100 links from a PR 3 site.
terragalleria.com has a PR 6. You can examine the PR of a given page
using a number of PageRank checker websites, although by far
the most convenient is to install the Google
toolbar if your browser supports it. You can also check the site
popularity with tools such as Alexa.
What also distinguises links is the text. Ideally, it should be matched to your keywords, but
in general you do not have much control, since you are not creating
the link. Take advantage of the few instances when you can control it,
such as links from your other websites, family, friends, and associates.
Obtaining links on other sites is getting harder. The web
used to be more open, unfortunately abuses from link spammers are
rampant: my blog receives about 400 spam comments daily. Those
spammers have ruined it for everyone, forcing every site owner to
control more tightly external links. In
general, the links that come with contributions/signatures on blog comments or
forum posts are automatically tagged as “nofollow” by the site
software. All links from the Wikipedia (which have been cleaned-up considerably), Flickr, and even Linkedin (!)
are now “nofollow”. This makes them secondary for SEO purposes as they are not
followed by search engine spiders, and do not transmit any PR.
The exception to all those sites that provide only “nofollow” links
would be directories sites, starting from general directories such as Yahoo and dmoz, down to photography and local
business directories. The main limitation is that pages on a directory site
have tons of links, resulting in the dilution of the value of your
link. A webpage page has a fixed PR to pass. If it links to 100 sites,
then each of those sites receive only 1/100 of the PR. The same
problem, dilution, reduces the usefulness of links from social media
sites, maybe unless you manage to get a “viral” propagation.
A strategy that I see more and more is to offer content (such as guest blogs,
feature articles) in exchange for a link. Such content is often
produced by cheaply paid writers.
I receive such requests, as well as link exchanges requests daily.
But why should someone link to an irrelevant website of inferior PR ?
The problem with some of those strategies is that you are trying to
mess with the ultimate organic mechanism of the internet, creating
links that are not genuine. Google
explicitly warns against artificial linking. They do not indicate trust, but rather
manipulation. The widely used practice of “exchanging links” is actually
detrimental, especially if the other site is irrelevant, or even worse,
part of a “bad neighborhood” such as a link farm. I don’t think you
are going to create a link farm, or a network of false blogs, but
maybe that’s what the “SEO expert” you are hiring may do. Needless to
say, this would very risky to you.
If real people are linking to your site, it is because they had a great
time there, and think it is worth showing to others.
Instead of trying to create incoming links yourself, it is preferable to create awesome content, that make people
want to link to you. It can often be easier to attract
attention by writing about a
photography-related subject such as a technique, gear review, business tips,
esthetic considerations – opinionated and controversial topics seem to
work well – than by posting photographs. There’s nothing wrong
with that, as it indirectly helps you find an audience for
your art. However, as a photographer, your ultimate goal should be to
create superlative photographs, lots of them, that are good enough to make people
want to link to you. So it comes down again to great work: the best you can do to improve your SEO is to go
out and photograph.
Other great articles on SEO for photographers
There is a great deal of material on the web about SEO for photographers.
The authors below have demonstrated that they can not
only write, but are also outstanding webmasters who have achieved great SEO results for themselves or their clients. In particular, the two first entries are good examples of personal photography website that generate business for their owners.
- Dan Heller’s
book chapter on Web-based photography business: includes remarks
on design and SEO from a pioneer, travel photographer, photography business consultant, and creator of the most
extensive personal photography website.
Colla’s SEO tips: great collection of ideas from a nature and marine photographer with a website which is a
model of organization.
Photographers SEO pyramid
3): excellent and concise guide from promising photo hosting
company Photodeck whose founder JF Maion has a personal experience
with SEO on a personal photography site.
cookbook for photographers from the leading photo hosting
company PhotoShelter, well researched, like the rest of their
growing collections of guides.
Any questions after reading all this material ? Just ask away, as this entry is my Christmas gift to the (pro) photo community.