Ranking highly in Google search results is critical for any business. Most searchers never look past the first page and in the competitive world of commercial photography, where sometimes it seems like all it takes to become a “professional” is owning a camera and a having website, getting positioned near the top of the list is critical. You can go about accomplishing this in two ways: you can pay for it or you can attempt to achieve it organically. The former simply requires deep pockets and an Adwords account. The latter is done through diligent search engine optimization, or SEO.
Search engine optimization involves tailoring your website based on Google’s preferences so that the search giant will rank your website higher and serve it earlier when a search for pertinent keywords is performed. We asked Detroit-based corporate photographer and SEO expert Blake Discher, for his advice on search engine optimization for working photographers. He shared eight insights that will help get your site ranked higher right now.
Do you wonder why Google is the focus of most SEO discussion? The fact is, according to NetMarketShare.com, the search giant is responsible for 81% of all desktop search traffic and a whopping 97% of all mobile searches. If you can rank high with Google, you’ll put your website in front of the vast majority of searchers.
SEO starts with branding. If you haven’t yet figured out what differentiates you from your competition, now is a good time. That will help you determine which keyword phrases—the terms people type into a search engine in order to find a photographer who does what you do—for which you want to optimize your website.
“The best keyword research,” Discher says, “is to ask clients and friends how they think people would search for you. And when the phone does ring, ask callers how they heard about you. And if they say they found you on Google, dig a little bit deeper and say I’m working with my SEO guy and I would love to know what phrase you typed in to find me. That’s the easiest keyword research tool there is, that question. And then you type into Google ‘Detroit Corporate Photographer,’ for instance, and at the bottom of the page it shows you searches that are related to that term. The cool thing is those are searches people have done at the same time or close to when they searched Detroit Corporate Photographer. So those are very valid other keyword phrases that you should consider.”
When it comes to choosing keywords, focus. Broad terms are practically useless. “Photographer,” “New York Photographer” and “Wedding Photographer” aren’t going to bring in a lot of calls.
“The degree to which you need refined body copy depends on how competitive your market is,” Discher says. “In other words, if you type in Detroit Photographers, you’re going to get Thumbtack, and all these other ones that come up there. But people generally refine that so they’re going to have three-word search phrases, or more. That’s what in our business is referred to as a ‘long-tail keyword phrases.’ Most of your volume is going to be Detroit Corporate Photographer, but there are others. Detroit Manufacturing Photographer, for instance, or other refinements that narrow it down even more.”
What you do should be in your keyword phrase. Your name should not.
“There’s no need to have your name in there unless you’re a rock star,” Discher says. “Nobody’s looking for Blake Discher, they’re looking for a Detroit corporate photographer. If they want Annie Leibovitz they’re going to search her name. Not for me. The key is you want your keyword phrases to as closely match the search phrases that people are searching.”
Text is critical for a website because it literally tells Google about the contents of the site. Text is how you fill your site with pertinent keywords. The challenge for many photographers is that we want our pictures to do the talking. But for SEO, that’s a really bad idea.
“Therein lies the conflict that we as visual artists have,” Discher says, “with body copy on the page. If there’s one simple piece of advice that I could give photographers, it would be to get some copy, some human readable copy, on the homepage of their site. These days Google is giving a lot of weight to the home page, which is the result of these one-page sites. That’s when you click on the “about” section, for instance, and it scrolls to the bottom part of that page which contains the about section. Because of these scrolling sites, Google puts a lot of weight on the homepage now.”
How much text, and the density of keywords on the page, are important factors to consider.
“The oldest saying in SEO is ‘content is king,’” Discher says, “and so what they’re looking for now is 1,000 words to 1,500 words on a page. They want content-rich sites. They say if there’s a lot of content on a page then it’s going to be a great user experience. You can truly put body copy anywhere you want to on the page, it doesn’t really matter where it is. You can put it at the very bottom of the page, you can incorporate it into images, you can do it with captions… You just want to put your keyword phrase into that caption. A picture isn’t just, ‘The lighthouse on Point Pelee Island.’ Instead it’s, ‘The lighthouse on Point Pelee Island as seen through the lens of Detroit photographer Blake Discher.’”
While taking advantage of natural opportunities to utilize keywords is one thing, overfilling the site with the same phrases over and over is actually going to harm your search ranking. Google calls this overoptimization.
“There’s a word of caution there,” Discher says. “With their update of about a year ago, Google really started to clamp down on overoptimized pages. They’re getting to the point where they say, ‘this guy is attempting to game the system because he’s using that phrase too much.’ That’s referred to as keyword density; the percentage of the keyword phrase to the rest of the words on the page. It used to be if it was ridiculous, they would slap you, but now it’s like ‘guys, we know you’re gaming the system, don’t overoptimize.’ There are many sites that fell victim to that and started to drop for our clients. We went in and—it was the strangest thing in the world—we de-optimized pages and they started to climb in the rankings.”
One more thing to consider when it comes to text and body copy, Discher says, is the platform upon which you build your website. Some template services that are popular with photographers may claim to be SEO friendly but in fact without the ability to populate the homepage with body copy, they simply will not rank highly with Google. That’s why Discher suggests one particular platform above all others.
“Use the ideal platform to allow you to get text onto the site,” he says, “like Wordpress. There are many templates out there, everything from Wix to Photoshelter to A Photo Folio, and some of those let you put body copy on the home page, but some of them don’t. Put the text on the homepage, because Google is weighting the home page heavily, and make sure you write for real people and don’t overoptimize. If that keyword density is too much you’ll get dinged.”
Google believes that recently updated websites are more relevant. Old news is rarely of interest, so this makes sense. And think of the advantage that photographers have in this area: we produce content on a daily basis. Simply add that content to your website and, voila, Google is happy.
Sure, adding pictures to your portfolio counts as updating, but so do any changes to the content of the page. One of the easiest ways to add content is to connect a website with popular social media platforms, like Instagram.
“If your site hasn’t been updated in six months or a year,” Discher says, “if you’re not getting new content on that homepage, your rankings are going to suffer. A real easy thing that we photographers can do is put our Instagram feed in the home page, right there in the footer of the homepage. You can do a photo a day, update it right from your iPhone and you’ve got fresh content every day. Google rewards that.”
“Any change is good,” he adds, “absolutely. It’s one of the reasons that wedding photographers have always done well on Google. On their homepages, they’re showing a picture of Bob and Betsy who just got married. And then there’s a little blurb about it: ‘We just photographed Bob and Betsy’s great wedding, it was fun shooting their wedding here in Boise, Idaho.’ Well, you’ve got wedding, photographing and Boise, Idaho. You’ve got your keyword phrase there and that body copy never goes out of style.”
Though Google tweaks its algorithm every once in a while, there are a few search optimizations that seem sure to never disappear. Things like alt tags and dead links are at the top of that list.
“The other obvious thing,” Discher says, “don’t have dead links on your page. Dead links and images that don’t have alt tags. Google is getting more and more sophisticated at knowing what images are all about because of the copy surrounding them, but still the alt tag for Google image search is huge. The meta description tag, interestingly enough, which used to be very important for SEO, now has zero weight. But what it does have huge weight for is conversions. It’s how you can control how the 160 characters that Google uses to describes your page that appears underneath the links. From a purely SEO standpoint, it has no weight, but from a conversion standpoint, when I’m looking at the first page and reading what these things are all about, that description is what people are going to read to decide, ‘am I or am I not going to like this guy’s site?’”
Speaking of fresh content, there’s nothing fresher and more useful than writing a blog. The blog is an opportunity to directly add keyword-rich text to your site, and it also adds fresh content and incoming links. Links to and from pertinent content are good, no matter where the blog is hosted. Social media can be helpful for adding links as well.
“Blogging is really good,” Discher says, “because you’re going to write your blog in such a way that you’re naturally going to sprinkle some of your keyword phrases into your posts. You also need to have links on your site and one of the easiest ways to do that is with a blog. As you write your blog, somewhere in you’re going to link back to your homepage. Google counts that because incoming links are huge.”
“Google is also looking at social media signals,” he adds. “It’s important to be on LinkedIn or Facebook with a business page. A social media presence is big. There are signals out there.”
If you don’t love to write, or aren’t particularly good at it, you can get around that with blogging about behind-the-scenes of your photo shoots. Simply task an assistant with snapping photos and write a few descriptive captions and you’re in business. Discher’s SEO firm, Go-SEO, helped a photographer who wanted better search rankings but absolutely despised the idea of blogging.
“We had a guy in New York,” Discher says, “and I ratcheted down his expectations because he’s in the most competitive market. He loathed writing. I said ‘Why don’t we make case studies. Let’s do three or four case studies about how you succeeded and how you approached a project. It’s going to give you some credibility with new clients because they’re going to see some of their competitors’ names, and it’s not going to be a blog post because it’s just you talking stream of conscience. You don’t have to be a fancy writer, just give me 500 words about what you did for this client.’ He put those case studies up and the incoming links in those case studies are links to his homepage, and they’re a huge boost for his rankings. We managed to get him on page one for something like ten of those 12 phrases, which is an amazing success story.”
You know the words that appear up there in the browser tab of a web page? Your browser knows what to put there because of title tags in the page’s metadata. In the old days people would simply use the same title tag on every page in their site, but that’s a terrible plan for letting Google know that there’s unique content on every page. Keep it page-specific.
“You don’t want the same title page across your entire site,” Discher says. “There are a couple of template sites where you put in your title tag and it repeats the title tag across every page of your site. Google wants to truly know what every page is about. So if you’re optimizing your site for ten keyword phrases, and you have five pages, spread those keyword phrases over the title tags.”
Don’t duplicate content across the site either. Google hates that.
“Avoiding duplicate content is important and has always been,” Discher adds. “Don’t have the same footer text on every page in your site if that footer text is your SEO body copy. In other words, it shouldn’t repeat. The worst place you can put that SEO body copy—those 600 to 1000 words that you’re going to write—the worst place you can put that is in a footer that appears on every page. Because then it’s duplicate content across the entire site. Using unique title tags never goes out of style.”
If, like many photographers, you’re shooting video too, there’s very good news: video helps SEO. Google sees video as exceptionally useful, rich content, so it’s weighted heavily in search rankings. Google also owns YouTube. That combination should tell you everything you need to know about the importance of putting videos on your site and using YouTube to do it. On your video’s YouTube page, be sure to use pertinent keywords in the description of the video, as well as links to your site. And take advantage of captioning to associate text directly with your video.
“Google owns YouTube,” Discher explains, “so you’re going to want to put your video up on YouTube for sure, and you want to have keyword tags in your descriptions. It’s not just a video of an ‘auto manufacturing plant at Ford,’ it’s ‘a Detroit corporate photographer’s video of auto manufacturing at Ford.’”
Discher recommends that you also embed the video on your website, which counts as adding content. It’s a two-for-one proposition with YouTube video.
“Definitely embed the video on your site,” he says. “The more content the better. Google loves content-rich sites. You don’t want to get into this thing where you’re so ascetic that you just have a couple of pictures up and say ‘don’t call me because I’m an artist.’ It doesn’t work that way.”
Because mobile search is huge and growing by the day, websites that respond well to mobile devices are highly valued. This “responsive design,” which rearranges a website based on the size of the device on which it is viewed, is valued highly because Google knows mobile users will be able to interact well with the page. If your site doesn’t look good or work well on a smart phone, Google has little incentive to rank it very high.
“Just make sure it works well on mobile in general,” Discher says. “Responsive design is huge. About 60% of all searches are done on a mobile device these days. Google has warned everybody in the SEO business that non-responsive sites were going to get penalized.”
“The responsive thing,” he adds, “ia about more than just redrawing the site well. The other things to pay attention to are tap targets. In other words, your menu items have to be spaced wide enough so when they’re displayed on a tiny smartphone, that a person’s fingers can discern between your portfolio for corporate and for portraits. Also, page load speed has become hugely important. For photographers, that means it’s more important than ever that the images that you’re putting up there are properly optimized. Even though images need to be 2000 pixels wide for every possible viewing device, they need to be limited to 150kb, max. The images are generally the ‘heaviest’ items on a page. You can put your URL into Google responsive test or PageSpeed Insights, and it will grade your site and tell you what you can do to improve it. If you think, ‘let me put up a JPEG at quality level 12, no that’s going to kill you from an SEO standpoint. You want to turn on the preview in Photoshop and take that slider down slowly. In many cases it’s level 9 or 8, depending on the images.”
Once you’ve implemented some changes with the goal of optimizing your site, Discher suggests taking a step back and ensuring the website works well for human users, while checking your results using feedback from family and friends as well as a bit of technology.
“Take somebody,” he says, “who has never seen the site, put them in front of your computer and let them see the new site and then watch them navigate around. See how intuitive your navigation is. Because you’ve been watching that site develop for months; something might be weird in the navigation hat you’ve just become accustomed to. User interface and navigation tends to be huge.”
“Then there’s Rankchecker,” Discher adds. “If you sit down and just start searching all your keyword phrases, sooner or later Google will lock you out. You’re just repeating searches from the same IP. We use Rankchecker. It’s a plugin for Firefox and you put in all your keyword phrases and tell it to run. It spaces out your inquiries and gives you your rank on Yahoo and Google all on one little spreadsheet. There are similar tools for Chrome as well.”
Blake Discher is a Detroit corporate photographer who also runs Go-SEO, a business dedicated to helping other businesses improve their search engine optimization. Find them online at go-seo.com.
About the author:
William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.