Expert Advice: Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
What we see on the internet is largely determined by what web search engines choose to show us. Be it for the best chili recipes or the best photographers, people frequently start their web browsing journey with a query. Wonderful Machine might be one of the places that professional art buyers search for photographers, but many people simply search Google, Yahoo or Bing. So if you're a photographer and you want those search engines to find your website, you had better optimize it for those search engines.
What is SEO?
A search engine is a simple idea with complex implementation. On the surface, it looks for information on the web that matches your query and returns to you a list of links that match up with that string of words. Kind of like searching a Word document, but only it's the whole internet.
Surprisingly, the complex part is not gathering or reading all that information. The complex part is ranking that information. Of the millions of possible search results for a given query, which ones should the search engine return and in what order? When you type in “best chili recipes,” which one should come up first?
In order to determine this, search engines use sophisticated, proprietary algorithms to calculate how useful a particular web page is likely to be for that visitor. While the details of those algorithms are a closely-guarded trade secret, we have a pretty good idea of their general function and principles. Knowing what search engines pay attention to can help us present our content in a way that allows people to find us. The process of adjusting your site to match up with these algorithms is called search engine optimization, or SEO.
It's worth a word of caution that the process of analyzing and understanding the way that Google or any other search engine works is very much like the joke about blind scientists feeling an elephant - or for the more mathematically minded, it's akin to a hidden Markov model. As such, there are just things that people don't know, and may never know.
So how exactly do search engines rank websites?
First, the search engine needs to read your website. They use programs called “crawlers” to read and catalog, or index, your website.
When the crawler is attempting to understand your website, it's primarily looking at the words on your site and the context in which they appear. If certain words show up repeatedly, it’s a good indication that those words are related to the web page. For example, if your company sells fences (fabulousfences.biz, perhaps) you’ll likely use the word “fence,” “picket,” “chain link,” and so on in a natural context. Natural is key—a spammer looking to attract the fence-buying public might use the same keywords but with less meaningful context. To defend against malicious or manipulative spammers, search engines attempt to differentiate between relevant and irrelevant content and use that in their ranking algorithm.
Search engines also track user behavior in order to judge which sites match up well with a given query. For example, the more users searching for "fences" click on a particular result (fabulousfences.biz, for example), the more time they spend on that site and the more pages they view on that site, the more search engines will judge that fabulousfences.biz is a good match for people searching "fences" and it will rise in the search rankings.
A host of other factors also contributes to this ranking process. Things such as how frequently the site is linked to, how frequently the site is updated, the volume of traffic the site gets, and how well the site displays on mobile devices will also influence your search rankings.
We’re going to primarily focus on keywords in this article since they are both the most widely applicable and easiest to implement.
Putting It Into Practice
While crawlers can read at extraordinary speed, they cannot understand images effectively (though that may be changing). They primarily rely on words to judge the value of a website. For photographers, the question is, if most of your content is images, how can you get enough words on your page to help improve your search ranking?
Keep in mind that the implementation of each of the steps below will vary based on your web host and website template. You’ll be able to find specific instructions through your provider’s help pages, or by calling customer support if you get really stumped.
While our main goal is to get our site to rank as high as possible on the universal search engine results pages (SERPs), an image-heavy site like ours might be better suited to an image search engine, like Google Image Search. You might be surprised at the number of creatives that use Google Image Search when seeking stock imagery, and it’s designed especially to effectively catalog and display our primary content: images.
To accomplish this, we need to give our robots, which can’t parse images, some text to work with.
Fortunately, there is a way to attach text to your images, using what’s called alt text. You’ve probably heard of this already; it’s a way to add text to the code of your web page that describes the image. Search engines are able to read this text, and then use it to catalog your image.
Ideally, alt text will contain a brief, accurate description of the image. Human language is useful here, but not crucial. Make sure you’re accurately describing the image, and don’t use broadly generic words like “photograph,” “portrait,” “scene” or “picture of.” If you have a picture of a crop dusting plane flying low over a field, the alt text should read “crop dusting plane flying low over a field.” For more tips, Google has a useful guide to writing good alt text. Don't worry about plurals or word order - Google is smart enough to deal with these things without your help.
Different web template providers have different ways of adding alt text, and you can almost always do it yourself. Keep an eye out for fields labeled “Description” or “Caption”—these fields frequently connect to the alt field on your template's upload tool. You may need to add your alt text into the IPTC Metadata—IPTC stands for International Press Telecommunications Council, and it refers to the industry standard for metadata on images. Photoshelter pulls text from the IPTC Description field at the time of upload, and you can also add it to images after they are uploaded.
However, adding the alt text to your IPTC data is not necessarily sufficient to get it into your website, and Google will not read embedded image metadata from your EXIF or IPTC data. And if you have a custom-coded website, you'll need to get your alt text into your code manually, using the <img alt=""> attribute.
Similar to keywording your images with alt text, you can improve your image search ranking by naming your images descriptively. So, rather than portfolio–002.jpg, you might use crop-dusting-plane.jpg.
If you use your alt text and image naming successfully, people searching for a specific type of image (for example, crop dusting planes in flight) will see your image and web page in their search results.
If you use a website template like Squarespace or Photoshelter, ALT text can be added to images through the Photoshop File Info pane, shown above. "Description" is the name of the IPTC metadata field that's most often converted into ALT text, although some will use the "Tile" or "Document Title" field as well, so you may want to fill those in as well. Note the descriptive, searchable language describing major elements in the scene that might be relevant to the end user - the plane, the corn field, the weather.
Universal SEO Techniques
Beyond image search, we want to increase our website’s ranking in universal SERPs. There are a few tried-and-true techniques that work for all types of websites that will be just as applicable to us.
Get analyzed: Setup Google Analytics on your website so you can see the effects of your SEO. This should be mandatory for anyone with a website; without it, you won’t be able to figure out if what you’re doing is working at all. You can also sign up for Google’s Search Console to get access to more detailed information.
Do your research: Try to imagine what keywords prospective visitors will use when looking for your website. You’ll want to include those keywords in the optimizations below. Imagine yourself as an art buyer looking for photographers—what search terms would you use? Figure out what kind of keywords your competitors are using, what keywords are most popular for photography businesses in your specialty and area, and pick the one that you think you can compete on. Don’t know which keywords to use? Google is here to help.
Ride the long tail: As tempting as it can be, don't try to compete for headline search terms like “best photographer.” These generic, super-common search terms, called head terms, are going to be nigh-impossible to break into, and the same goes for any other search that returns huge brand names or famous people. It would be a much better use of your time to focus on terms that include unique factors, like your location and specialty, where there’s less competition, which is what's called the "long tail". Not coincidentally, these are also the terms that serious art buyers are going to use—they don’t want someone else’s idea of the so-called “best photographer.” They want to find a list of potential photographers who cover their required specialty and location. This is described as "intention" in the SEO world - the more specific a search term, the more likely a user is to take action on that search term.
Make use of your websites “meta tags”: These tags contain text that isn’t visible to visitors, but can be seen by the search engine’s robots. While its importance in SEO is less than certain, this text will likely be displayed as a description of your site on Google’s SERPs, allowing potential visitors to get a sense of what they're in for. Well-written meta text can go a long way to improving your click-through rate, and in turn, your search result ranking. Keep this concise—no longer than a tweet (140 characters).
Title your pages carefully: Make sure that the title of your website describes who you are and what you do while including your selected keywords. Lead with your primary keywords, and put your name at the end. For a Minnesota food photographer, an example title might be:
Minnesota Food Photographer | Alex Trebec Photography
Above all, keep your site title concise and accurate. Google doesn’t display web page titles beyond about 55 characters.
Wonderful Machine member photographer Adam Murphy has some great title text. Browser tabs will always truncate title text, as you can see, but the full version reads "Adam Murphy Photography | Commercial Photographer | Tulsa Oklahoma." Our own Bill Cramer uses "Philadelphia Environmental Portrait Photographer, Bill Cramer" which is also great. Both contain the name, the photographer's specialty and location.
Maintain a blog and update it frequently: This is a rich source of keywords for search engines, and any SEO benefits your blog provides will be automatically correlated with your main website (provided both exist at the same domain, that is). While writing is not any photographer’s preferred medium for expression, a successful web marketing strategy will require a blog. See more about this in our article about building your web presence, and get some writing tips for creatives who hate writing.
Get a word in edgewise: There are a bunch of hidden places you can squeeze in text. For example, you can use your page titles, gallery titles, link titles/anchor text, page URLs and image file names to get some text into your site. You may or may not have control over some of this information, but if you can control it, make good use of it. Use human-readable syntax, and include keywords when appropriate.
Use your about page effectively: Where you do have the opportunity to have user-readable text, like your about page, make the most of it. Our food photographer in Minnesota might write the following as the first sentence of his about page:
Alex is a food photographer based in Minnesota with three decades of experience working with corporate and agency clients to create advertising photography in Minnesota and throughout the Midwest.
Stay social: As a photographer, you should always be working to cultivate your social media audience. This is invaluable for SEO purposes—while having widely shared Facebook and Twitter posts may or may not directly affect your search results, the visitors that your social media channels drive to your website will help increase your search ranking organically. Even if you bring a social media user to your Facebook page via an ad, any links they click on while on your page are organic. Furthermore, it's not unheard of for creatives to find and hire photographers through Facebook and Instagram. Don't spend all your time on this, but don't ignore it.
Even though it isn’t the most popular platform, don’t ignore Google+. Because of the direct link into the Google mainframe, shares, comments and +1s on Google+ affect your search rankings more quickly and effectively than interactions on other sites.
Just make good stuff: By and far, the most important factor to your website's success is high-quality content. While all the tips and tricks we’re recommending are valuable, they won’t do nearly as much for you as excellent content. Make sure your site is easy to navigate, shows awesome images that are relevant to your specialty, and clearly indicates who you are as a photographer.
Potential Pitfalls, Peril, and Problems
Don’t use Flash. Not only does it make it very difficult for robots (and people with disabilities) to read and navigate your website, it’s outdated, insecure and not supported by modern web browsing devices, including smartphones and Firefox.
Stay fresh: SEO changes as rapidly as the internet, so the techniques that were all the rage in 2013 might be worthless today - or even damaging. As search engines fine-tune their results, they’ll shift from using one metric to another, and to maintain your ranking you’ll need to keep up. Unfortunately, you can’t just optimize once and leave it forever. Revisit the process yearly, if possible.
Wear the white hat: Of course, you’d never do this, because it’s unethical and ineffective. Search engines now penalize sites that implement so-called “black hat” SEO techniques. This means that if you try to stuff a bunch of keywords into your HTML, inaccurately describe your site in your meta or title tags, spam blog comments, hide invisible or tiny text on your site, or any of the other recognized other bad practices, you’ll lose rank in the search engine results pages.
Practice patience: You’re not going to see results right away. This is a four-to-six month process at minimum. But keep an eye on your analytics—if you’re doing it right, you’ll see a slow but steady rise in the number of visitors to your website. Learn more about using Google Analytics from our previous blog post.
Put away your magic wand: None of these techniques, taken alone, is going to dramatically improve your search engine ranking. Consider each a small step in the right direction, cumulatively and progressively leading to better results over time.
Take the broad view: While I’ve focused on keywords and general site optimization, that isn’t the whole picture. There’s a whole world of search marketing techniques beyond this, but correctly implementing the above steps is going to be important to any subsequent marketing strategy.
Consider the above only a brief introduction—there’s a lot more to do, and learn, if you really want to get into it. If you’re interested in diving deep into SEO, you’ve got an internet full of information at your fingertips. Here are some great places to start:
- Photoshelter’s The SEO Guide for Photographers
- Moz.com’s Beginners Guide to SEO Probably the best resource for the uninitiated, with thorough and detailed explanations.
- Search Engine Guide The self-described “small business guide to search marketing.”
- Google’s Webmaster Guidelines Get the goods straight from the horse’s mouth.
- Kissmetrics Blog A blog about analytics, marketing, and SEO.
- The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine Legendary paper by the founders of Google describing how their future search engine might work. Crazy kids.