Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is important for photographers. With the growing number of photographer websites on the internet, it is increasingly difficult for a photographer’s website to be noticed by photo buyers who rely on search results. Good positioning in search engine results translates into revenue. Here in a nutshell are some of the SEO ideas that I have found effective in the 12 years that I have maintained a stock photography website.
Inbound Links and Link Juice. No secret here: to become highly-ranked your website needs inbound links from external websites that themselves are ranked well. It is widely accepted that acquiring inbound links is the singlemost important factor in achieving high search presence (i.e., being found on the first page of search results). The obvious implication is that your website should offer content valuable enough that others will link to it. Suppose Z.COM links to your website A.COM. The more highly Z.COM itself is rated (such as measured by its Google Rank or other metrics), the more “link juice” will flow from Z.COM to A.COM, increasing A.COM’s likelihood of appearing in search results. As your website accumulates inbound links from external sites that have a equal or higher Google Rank than yours, increasing amounts “link juice” flow to your website with the result that your website’s presence in search results increases. The more “juice” you have, the better you will usually do in search results. Link juice is the steriod of the SEO game, and trust me you want a fix. Obtaining link juice is a numbers game, both in terms of the quantity of inbound links, the number of unique websites from which those links originate, and the ranking or “juice” that those sites have themselves. Yahoo, CNN, DMOZ, National Geographic, wire services, Apple and Microsoft are examples of sites which offer a lot of juice in their links. (Wikipedia is a notable exception which I explain later.) Note that while quality content that attracts links to your site is the goal moving forward, the number of inbound links you have today depends a lot on your website’s tenure. The longer your website has been in existence and accessible to the world, the greater the number of honest and juicy inbound links you are likely to have.
The above-mentioned issue of inbound links is so overwhelming in its importance to search engine ranking and SEO that the remaining items can be considered second order. I will mention them anyway. But keep in mind that obtaining good, honest, inbound links with juice must be your priority if you wish to have a highly ranked website that succeeds in being found in search results.
Inbound Link Text. The specific text of an inbound link is important. For instance, suppose you have a web page http://www.mysite.com/bed-bug.html. Suppose two links point to it but with different text: “Click here” and “Information about the Bed Bug”. Which do you think is more likely to cause search engines to rank your bed bug page highly when someone searches for “bed bug info”? That’s right, the second link with meaningful text is the better one. So, when you build links within your own website, make sure that the specific text that makes up the link is composed of relevant keywords for which you wish the target page to be associated. If you care about SEO then your days of making “click here” links are over.
Google Is The Bomb. Face it, Google search is where you want to do well right now. Yahoo, Bing and the others are small time, relative to Google. If you can achieve high rankings in non-Google search engines, it will result in some traffic. But the real money and the big traffic is through Google. Learn how Google works and apply it to your own website.
The URL. The specific URL of your web page is mighty important. Try to construct the URL so that the keywords or topics that it should be associated with are actually part of the URL itself. For example, http://www.mysite.com/bed-bug-information.html is much more helpful to having your bed bug page rank highly for the keywords “information about bed bugs” than is the URL http://www.mysite.com/content_3a-7.html or http://www.mysite.com/page?id=347
Keywords. OK, by now we all know, or have at least heard, that search engines no longer consider keywords in their algorithms. In the old days crafty HTML coders would define way too many keywords in the META NAME=”KEYWORDS”… field, in the hopes of appearing in as many search results as possible. The search engines caught onto this long ago, and at this point it is believed that none of the search engines use keywords in ranking search results. They probably still have some value and I continue to use them, but I don’t hold my breath that they are helping the search engine presence of my site.
Description. The META NAME=”DESCRIPTION”… field is very important. Keep it reasonably short but at the same time make sure to use keyword-rich and reasonably natural language. It is thought that words that appear earliest in the description are most influential as far as indexing and ranking. Consider omitting words that, while perhaps important in a description that would be read in a printed document, are not crucial to your search goals – doing this increases the keyword density and importance of the remaining keywords in the description field.
Headers. In a similar way to the description metadata, header tags H1, H2 and so on also factor into how search engines rank and index a web page. Consider wording headers so they are particularly relevant, dense in meaningful keywords and positioned highly in the HTML source of the page. Note: blog post titles are often defined in H1 or H2 tags, so chose your blog post titles carefully.
Keyword Rich Content. Again, no surprises here. If you wish a page on your website to be considered highly for a given topic or set of keywords, the content (text) of the page should be rich in meaningful keywords for that topic. In other words, keyword density is important. However, going overboard and artificially repeating keywords in text probably works against you. My personal feeling is that Google is able to recognize highly unnatural language constructs, including repeated keywords, and penalizes for it.
Topmost Content Rules. The first 100 words of your page’s content are considered more important than the next 100 words, and so on. In the same way that many web visitors will only read the first few sentences of your blog post, search engines probably only consider a portion of the content at the top, perhaps only a small portion. So, make the first few sentences of your content count!
Ordering of DIVs. Often the appearance of a web page is somewhat independent of the ordering of DIV fields in the HTML. (If you don’t know what DIVs are, don’t worry. If you use modern blogging or template-driven website software, chances are good you have DIVs in your code.) Provided DIVs can be reordered in your HTML code, you should place those DIV fields that matter most earlier in your HTML. For instance, suppose your blog has a DIV with a list of courtesy links to other websites (e.g., a blogroll) as well as a DIV with actual text of your blog post for that day. You should be sure that the DIV composed of links appears last. If you don’t, there is a good chance search engines will consider the links more important than your actual content! Most good blogging software takes care of this for you. But, if you use a custom template for your blog or website, you should check to ensure that DIV fields are ordered so that the ones that are most important for SEO appear first in the HTML.
ALT Text. This one is a biggie for photographers. Important images on your website should have ALT text associated with them. No ifs, ands or buts. Get that ALT text in your IMG tag or you are limiting the potential for the world to find that image in search results. The reason for this is simple. Search engine spiders know an image is on a web page by virtue of the IMG tag. But the spider and its associated indexing algorithms have no direct way of understanding what the image is about. Search engines must infer what the subject of the image is by examining text the precedes and follows the IMG tag. There is, however, one way that you can directly associate keywords with an image: the ALT field in the IMG tag. The ALT field is used to provide information in browsers which are incapable of displaying images, or in which image display is turned off. Granted, there are not many of those browsers any more. But the field holds immense importance for ensuring that your images are indexed and appear in searches such as Google Images. For instance, suppose your bed bug web page displays your superb photo of the rare species Nocturnicus itchius. At a bare minimum, the IMG tag should contain meaningful ALT text such as ALT=”Bed bug photo, Nocturnicus itchius”. Without this tag, search engine spiders will have to guess what the image contains. If the content (the text your visitors are reading) is well written, search engine indexing algorithms may make a correct guess that the image has something to do with a bed bug. But don’t make the search engines guess: spell it out for them by defining ALT text for the image that makes it crystal clear what the image is.
Reasonable Number of Links Per Page. Too many links on one page is ineffective, at least as far as getting search engines to notice them all. It is believed that search engine indexing algorithms discount later links on a page that contains many links, eventually ignoring links beyond the Nth link altogether. What is N? In other words, how many links on a page before there are too many? That’s something only Google can tell us, and they of course won’t. But the general idea is that you should not stuff too many links on a page if you want them to be noticed by search engines. More effective is to have a small number of well-crafted links, the ones you really care about, and save the others for another page somewhere else.
Presence in Web Directories. DMOZ and Yahoo are two of the oldest and most substantial internet directories. Before search became the way we found information on the web (remember AltaVista, the first of the good search engines?), there were directories. Yahoo was the first one I recall, and DMOZ was sort of an oddball directory that eventually became huge and is well organized. Some measures of relevance involved in search engine rankings likely factor in whether a page or website is present in the directories such as DMOZ and Yahoo. Not to mention, the many free “directories” in which you can register and enter your information. Most of these directories provide a link back to your website.
NOFOLLOW Links Do Not Help You. “Nofollow” links are links that contain the NOFOLLOW attribute. Search engines will notice these links but the link will not add to the ranking of the target web site. A notable example of this is Wikipedia. At one time, links from Wikipedia were very important in search engine rankings. Wikipedia is one of the most prominent and highly ranked sites on the web. A simple link from Wikipedia to, say, your bed bug page would go a long way toward increasing the ranking of that bed bug page. However, because of the rash of spam links inserted by crafty webmasters into Wikipedia pages specifically to improve the ranking of their non-Wikipedia web sites, the folks at Wikipedia decided to convert all outbound links to NOFOLLOW. I noticed the effects of this on my own website when my Google rank dropped from a 6 to 5 shortly after this policy change at Wikipedia was implemented — the links in the various Wikipedia sites that pointed to my website suddenly became invisible to the ranking algorithms, lowering the rankings of sites such as mine that were formally benefitting from Wikipedia links. Now, I’d love to tell Wikipedia that all those links pointing to my website are honest and should be left in place without the NOFOLLOW attribute, that I did not put them there myself for my own selfish purposes, blah blah blah, but Wikipedia made their policy change and and as far as they are concerned websites like mine can go pound sand. What would be neat is if the entire internet reciprocated by converting their links to Wikipedia into NOFOLLOW links. By the way, links in Flickr image descriptions and comments are NOFOLLOW as well.
Blog Comment Links Are NOFOLLOW. Many photographers maintain blogs that foster commentary and discussion. These are great, I love them. However, it should be understood that blog software will often convert any links appearing in comments into NOFOLLOW links. This is done in an effort to curb blog comment spam. If your blog allows full-juice comment links (i.e., links without the NOFOLLOW attribute), you can expect to be targeted by blog comment spammers who will try to pepper your blog with comments that simply link back to their own website. So, if you are making an effort to add comments in blogs that link back to your website, you should understand that often those links will not carry any juice since they are NOFOLLOW links. The blog owner usually has control over whether comment links are FOLLOW or NOFOLLOW, and it is my impression that most prefer NOFOLLOW. Note that links in the body of the post are FOLLOW links, and lend juice to the site to which they point. It is usually just the comment links that are castrated by NOFOLLOW.
Tenure of Domain Name Registration. The longer your domain name has been registered, and the longer until it must be renewed, the more substantial your website appears to search engines. Consider a web site that has been in existence for only a few years, and whose domain name registration expires in 3 months. Do you think Google is going to consider that site to be worthy of a high ranking? Not! You can’t do anything about how long your website has been in existence — time will take care of that. But you can make sure that your domain name is registered for 3, 5, even 7 years into the future. Search engine algorithms take both past and future tenure of domain name registration into account.
Web Hosting. If your web hosting service is spotty with frequent downtimes or slow response, it may affect your rankings negatively, especially if there are times that search engine spiders try to crawl your site but cannot reach it. Make sure you are with a solid hosting company. Enough said.
Social Media and Networking. I am not sure where the “social media” forms (Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, photography community websites and forums) will take us as far as SEO and search presence is concerned. Social media seem effective for developing contacts and followers who in turn may link to your website. So in that sense working to achieve social media prominence may indirectly improve the search presence of one’s site by virtue of additional inbound links. However, if generating visibility in search results is the goal, I think social media may be helpful only in a second- or third-order way. Indeed, it may be misleading by giving one the sense that one’s website is being seen and quality traffic is being generated. In my opinion, for the photographer wishing to sell images, the best traffic does not come from other photographers encountered in social media networks but from actual photo buyers. I have yet to generate a single photo sale that I can directly credit to Twitter, Facebook, Flickr or any similar networks. (Mind you, I am not prominent in these networks which may be the reason.) However, I have managed to touch base with a wide variety of talented, inspiring and interesting photographers, so in that sense social media networking has been productive and enjoyable so far. One is smart to stay abreast of the very fluid world of social media and networking; who knows what the playing field will be like in 2-3 years.
Geocoding and Geotagging. Read my past comments about geocoding and geotaggings your photos. Very few photographers currently geotag their photos so I am ahead of the curve in this regard. But not for long: technology is quickly making geotagging sufficiently simple that soon many photographers will be doing it. There are geo-oriented search situations in which geotagged images will appear and non-geotagged images will never be seen.
Link Farms. Don’t do it. In the old days smart-ass webmasters would set up a multitude of worthless websites, all linking to each other or even to a single target website, you know the one: Buyjunk.com. The idea was to fool Google into thinking Buyjunk.com was worthy of a high ranking due to the sheer number of external links (from the other domains in the link farm) that pointed to Buyjunk.com. Google caught on to this simpleton scheme long ago. It is thought that Google penalizes this technique heavily. Especially obvious are link farms in which all the domains are owned by a few owners or are hosted in close proximity to one another, something Google can determine easily by cross referencing domain name registration information, and by comparing IP addresses and traceroute paths.
Cloaking. Don’t do it. Another smart-ass trick some webmasters use is to present one set of content to human visitors but another to search engines. (This is done with server-side scripting and examining the user-agent to determine if the visitor is a human or a search engine crawler.) Search engine algorithms will detect this (by occasionally sending a crawler that looks to your website like a human and comparing the two versions of content that it see) and penalize you for it.
Flash Websites. You guessed it: don’t do it. That is, if you want a given web page to be noticed and well-indexed by Google, don’t make it a Flash page. We’ve all seen them, the beautiful web pages with moving images, slide shows, awesome user controls, etc etc. However, when was the last time you saw one of these pages showing up in Google search results? The only way a web page be effectively indexed and appear in meaningful search results is through the use of text content and tags (all those mentioned above). Flash obscures text. Flash is a visual tool and does not put emphasis on text. Flash web designers will tell you they can make hidden HTML and text code “behind” the Flash presentation. While text “behind” the Flash-presentation is possible, I still have yet to see one of those all-Flash web pages show up highly in a set of Google search results. By the way, a Flash programmer may structure a page to deliver text content to Google and other search engine crawlers but Flash content to human visitors. This is nothing more than cloaking (mentioned above) and will be detected and likely penalized by search engine algorithms. Challenge your Flash designer to point you to an example where a Flash-based website shows up highly in a Google search that matters; I do not think he will be able to. There are some exceptions to this caveat, in which Flash occupies only a portion of the page and is surrounded by textual content and tags that search engine spiders can latch onto and index. But in general, if you really want to have a Flash-based website, it is best to maintain two sites: a Flash-based website for your ego, and a text-based website for Google. You’ll see which one gets the traffic.
Summary: Offer Killer Content and Hope for Juicy Links. The most effective strategy for a photographer to achieve strong presence in search is to offer fantastic photos that others want to link to. Put great images on your site, surrounded by meaningful and interesting text, make sure to use keywords in the right places and in moderate amounts, and be generous in linking to others so that they in turn may decide to link to you. And cross your fingers that Google takes notice.
Resources: I would be remiss if I did not mention the excellent tutorial that Photoshelter offers about SEO techniques for photographers. None of the information is new, but it is assembled in a concise and informative presentation. Also, some months ago I posted remarks about Websitegrader.com, a great resource for finding weaknesses in your website’s overall internet presence.
In my experience, good positioning in search engine results translates into inquiries and revenue. I have reasonably good position in search results. With the exception of my blog, the code on my website is 100% homegrown and hand-written. My blog is a heavily modified version of WordPress; I have made many changes to improve it for SEO purposes and to fit my own preferences. Much of the luck I have had comes from tenure. My website has been on the web since 1997, and my blog since 2005. My website may not be the prettiest but it has proven to be reasonably effective at being crawled, indexed and ranked highly for many of the subjects that I have photographed. By virtue of the way I have designed and maintained my website with SEO in mind, I have some 5000+ unique visitors each day, up to 10,000 a day if one of the subjects I have happens to be in the news and people are searching for photos of it. Some of those visitors are photo buyers. Some of those photo buyers like my image(s) enough to contact me and inquire. And some of those inquiries result in sales. Basically, my marketing plan is to continue adding images to my website, and sit and wait for the phone to ring. Admittedly, I could be more proactive and market my photos in traditional ways: submitting article proposals, contacting editors with story ideas or to inquire about what their editorial calendar holds for the coming year, networking with industry types, joining photography societies or developing a “brand”. However, life for me these days precludes any substantial marketing, so I instead pick the “low-hanging fruit”. In general a client will contact me about an image that he has found on my website, usually via search engine results. Note that this is a “self-selected client”: it is already established that he is interested in my image (or he would not have contacted me). So the only unknown is if we will agree on the fee. Low-hanging fruit indeed, due entirely to an appearance in search results. Note that I have never “exchanged links” with anyone who has approached me with a link exchange proposal, nor have I ever paid for any advertising or paid-link services.
I am pretty sure my search engine presence is organic, honest and based on simple SEO tactics. For example, take the latin name (scientific name) of virtually any subject of mine, add the word “photo” or “photos” to it, and search for it in Google. Chances are good my site will appear on the first page of results, often in the top 3. A few examples: Balaenoptera musculus photo, Megaptera novaeangliae photo, Cardinalis cardinalis photos. Similarly for common names combined with the word photo/photos: sea lion photos, jumping cougar photos, tiger shark photos, photo of Mesa Arch, Vernal Falls photos, and here’s an odd one: list of fish species. Results shift around a bit over time, but today most of those examples show one of my pages appearing first in the results and (today) none is lower than #3. By the way, you will notice Ron Niebrugge‘s and Q.T. Luong‘s websites appearing very highly in those results too. As well, in his recent post Top 10 SEO Tips for Photographers, Jon Cornforth offers some examples of how his SEO work has put him at the top of search results for some of his Alaska photo subjects. This is no surprise, all three of these professional photographers have exceptional images and well-designed web sites. In fact, Q.T. Luong’s site is one of the few photographer sites that receives a Google Rank of 6. (I used to have a 6 but when Wikipedia changed their links to NOFOLLOW I dropped from 6 to 5. Damn you, Internet!)
Keywords: SEO, search engine optimization, photography SEO, website design for photographers.