Alex Vita is a web designer and developer specializing in photography websites, which he has built for more than 250 photographers. Here, he outlines the core search engine optimization (SEO) ideas that photographers should be aware of now. His biggest piece of advice for getting your website seen these days: Worry less about search engines, and more about the experience users have when they visit your website.
With more than 200 signals said to affect search engine rankings, photographers have always considered SEO an overly technical task. But this isn’t true anymore. Google’s algorithms have matured a lot in recent years, and while some on-site SEO aspects are still technical, modern SEO has become synonymous with creating a great user experience for your website’s visitors.
1. Merge multiple sites into one (with exceptions)
If you have multiple specialties spread out over separate websites, you’re probably finding it difficult to manage them all and to focus your marketing and SEO efforts.
A good solution is to try to keep everything under the same roof, especially if they’re closely related niches. Ideally, use a single domain with all your various sections in sub-folders (not sub-domains). That simplifies your SEO work, and makes everything easier to build and manage.
But it’s a compromise that you need to accept. Sometimes, trying to promote divergent styles of photography (with completely different target customers) might only confuse visitors and “dilute” the SEO signals.
2. Make sure your site is mobile-friendly
Many photographers are now getting more than half of their traffic from mobile devices, so you can no longer risk alienating those visitors by forcing them to pinch and zoom on an outdated site. And let’s not even talk about Flash.
Having a responsive website is standard practice these days, with all the site content and images adapting to any screen size, leading to a good user experience. Google will reward that with a “mobile-friendly” label in search results.
3. Optimize your website for new visitors
Before delving into more technical SEO aspects, it’s important to focus on the site structure and layout. First-time visitors, who often have very short attention spans, represent the majority of your traffic.
Simplifying your navigation menu and homepage content are keys to helping new visitors quickly scan the site and find what they’re looking for.
Overwhelming them with too many options in a crowded header will often make them leave (“high bounce rate”) or return to the search results (“short dwell time”). Also, remove or fix any other common annoyances: splash screens, auto-playing music, font sizes or line heights that are too small, broken links and functionality, or slow load times (over 5 seconds for the first page load).
4. Define your page titles and meta descriptions
The bread-and-butter of on-site SEO is to define titles and meta descriptions for your site’s pages and posts. Almost any website platform/content management system (CMS) should allow you to edit these.
Besides describing the site to search engines and specifying what’s being used in social media sharing snippets, titles and descriptions serve a grander purpose. You are trying to convince people, with honesty, to click on your site in search results (which, in turn, becomes a huge SEO signal).
So spend some time defining titles and meta descriptions for each page, without forcing any keywords. Just try to accurately describe the content using natural language, as if you were explaining it to a friend. Bonus points for making all the descriptions unique and avoiding boilerplate page titles.
5. Work on other on-site SEO aspects
Trying to repeat a single phrase (like “location specialty photographer”) throughout your site, in an effort to rank higher for it, is no longer as effective as it once was.
Instead, using natural keywords in your website copy (and in the publicly visible image metadata) is a more sustainable SEO practice. To do that, be less repetitive and get more specific about your image captions (style, subject, location, color, type of print), and use synonyms and variations more freely.
On-site SEO is also about working on your site’s structure (internal linking, pretty permalinks), accessibility (image ALT tags) and readability (great typography, using heading tags and lists appropriately). And don’t blog only for SEO purposes: The goal is to give visitors engaging and fresh content to make them want to come back.
6. Try to add some text to the homepage
You probably want to convey your craft as a photographer by displaying large, impressive images on your homepage. But Google can’t “understand” your photos (yet!).
SEO metadata and image ALT tags do help, but both visitors and search engines would find some paragraphs of text and call-to-action buttons incredibly useful, making it clear to them what the site is all about.
7. Get more links back to your site
Off-site SEO is mainly about getting other sites to link back to you (with good “anchor texts”— the text that appears highlighted in a hypertext —if possible), acting as important “votes of confidence” for search engines.
You should try to embark on a long-term strategy to create such backlinks:
• Update any online profiles that you control (social media, memberships, forums, communities)
• Contact sites that you’re associated with (vendors, contests, groups, events)
• Reach out to friends, past clients and industry connections
• Create share-worthy content over time to gain organic links, and make it easy for people to spread your content using social sharing buttons.
Aside from the sheer number of links you get, what also matters is the linking sites’ relevancy (whether, for example, the linking site covers the same topics you do) and their authority (links from popular sites obviously have more weight).
8. Set up Google Search Console
If you were to use one single SEO tool, it would be Google’s Search Console (formerly called Webmaster Tools). While it doesn’t directly influence rankings, it provides insightful tools and reports about your site’s SEO health.
You can monitor the number of indexed pages, submit a sitemap to Google, get suggestions for fixing SEO tags, identify any crawling errors, and much more. An interesting report is “Search Queries,” showing you what people are searching for on Google when reaching your site, and what your most popular content is.
9. Write for humans, not for Google
A common obsession for photographers is to create content for Google, to get to those elusive top ranking spots. But writing for search engines usually leads to filler content and a “fake” tone. Your target audience is not Google.
Instead, care about what actual people are reading on your site. Give them useful and meaningful content, written in your natural voice.
10. Be mindful of the user experience on your site
These days, Google looks a whole lot more at various user satisfaction signals. So SEO is no longer something you can master with tags and keywords.
Sure, you need to work on various technical SEO best-practices, so Google can properly index and “understand” your site. But always prioritize the user-experience aspects:
• Improve site performance
• Have a modern and inviting design
• Have a crystal-clear navigation menu
• Remove shallow content, distracting product promos and affiliate ads.
• Double-check the layout and functionality on popular browsers (at least the latest version of Chrome, Safari, Firefox and Internet Explorer) and devices (iPhone, iPad, Android).
Any dodgy SEO tactics that you might have heard of are bound to fail at some point. Google is continually improving its algorithms to try to push quality content above the noise. SEO is no longer focused on “keyword stuffing” but on providing a good browsing experience to your target audience (with a clear, honest and mobile-friendly website).
Making your visitors happy is the best way to make search engines happy.