A Photographer’s Guide to Search Engine Optimization
By Bob Coates, Successful-photographer.com
In the old days, 7-12 years ago, you could build a Web site and people would find it because there weren’t that many sites on the World Wide Web. When I launched my first site in 1996 there was immediate response. Within days I fulfilled a job from Norway—never met the people, just e-mail contact and a certified check.
I had no optimization, nothing special to help people find my site. This definitely doesn’t happen the same way today. Oh my, has that changed. Just having a Web site isn’t enough. You need to make sure the search engines recognize your site for what it is.
Do a search for the word photographer and your search engine will return about 27,400,000 results. Be a little more specific and search for wedding photographer: 1,440,000 results, better but still a mighty big list. Even narrowing the search to Sedona wedding photographer yields 264,000 results. Realistically, if your Web site is beyond the third page of results, or even the second, your potential clients won’t see it.
How to help your chances: SEO—Search Engine Optimization
Why do you need to know how it works? If you have an idea of what will help with SEO, you and your webmaster can make your site more viable to the search engines. If your webmaster isn’t versed in SEO, you should find one who is.
Search engines want to provide a targeted, relevant list of sites that closely fit the search term. Though I’m not a real tech-head myself, I’ll give you the short explanation of how search engines decide which sites move to the top of the search results heap. Search engines read text, and most engines analyze the text using a set of mathematical equations that considers how many times a word or phrase is used on a Web site, among other things.
In their early form, search engines simply looked for a word or phrase, and if it was repeated many times in a site it was assumed that the information on the site would be relevant to the search. Webmasters soon caught on to the criteria and tricked the search engines by inserting words in the same color text as the background to fool the search engines. The search engines saw the text, but the site viewer didn't. For example, the words photographer, photography and images would be imbedded in the site thousands of times to gain the best search engine position for those terms. The search engines got hip to that trick and started blacklisting any site that tried to use that technique to gain position in the rankings. In the engines’ quest to deliver the proper results for a particular search term, they now employ more complex analysis with stricter criteria. More important, they change the rules all the time so that it’s harder for a webmaster to skew the results. That said, there are some basic things that need to be on your site in order to even have a chance at being near the top of the search engine rankings.
Optimize your site for good search engine positioning
Each page of your Web site should be optimized for one to three search terms. You don’t want to have every phrase in the world having to do with photography on your site. You should optimize different pages on your site for different keyword phrases. The more specific and targeted you are the better. Therefore, when you design your site, include a navigation bar that appears on each page so you can always access every other page on your site. That way there are no dead ends. If someone happens to access your site from a page other than your home page, they can still get around.
Picking the terms to optimize on your site
You’re not likely to ever get the top slot for the generic terms like photographer or portrait photographer or wedding photographer. You have a chance for more targeted terms like Your Town wedding photographer, etc. It will be tougher in large cities or high-population areas than in smaller towns.
To see who has the top positions for your targeted search terms you need to do some searching yourself. You also need to see how they have structured their HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language) text and keywords to attain that position. This article will give you the basics of how to recognize what HTML means to help you decide how to better structure your site and keyword phrases. Start with research.
Go to four or five of the top search engines like Google, MSN, Ask, and Lycos and search on terms your potential clients would be likely to search for. Look at the results of the top three sites on each search engine. Go to each of these sites and in your browser go to View > View Source. This will enable you to see the site's code and the techniques used to position them at the top. Remember that this is an art as well as a science, and a site’s longevity can contribute to a higher ranking.
Hints for understanding HTML code
It’s easier to understand than you might think. Let’s set up a vocabulary, some definitions and how to use them while working to optimize your site.
To start, it helps to know what not to look at as you read the code. The < symbol starts information of any sort. /> Ends information. There are common bits of code that you’ll frequently see: td means table data, tr means table row, img src means image source. The information you are concerned with is normally found in quotation marks. After a while it gets pretty easy to not see the code and just pick out the information that is helpful to you. For more understanding of HTML, check out introduction to HTML at http://www.w3schools.com/html/html_intro.asp or do a search for other learning sites.
Head. <Head> This is the top of the Web site code that issues instructions to the Web browsers so your site looks the way it was designed to. This information is not viewable by the casual viewer. You might see something like this to start:
<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-transitional.dtd">
This is put in by your programmer or added by software like Dreamweaver or Front Page. You don’t need to worry about it.
Inside the Head you will find …
Meta Tags. Meta Tags are specific bits of instruction and messages you send to the search engines about your site. Meta Tags include, but are not limited to Title, Keywords, Description, and Robots
Title. The text found at the top of the browser window. This should not be your business name on the top of every page of your Web site. If people know the name of your business, they search for that specifically; it’s the searchers who don’t know it that you’re optimizing for. It is a good idea to optimize one of your Web pages for your name and your businesses name. A good title reflects the keyword phrases you are optimizing individual pages for.
Not so good title: <title>Bob Coates Photography</title>.
Better title: <title>Arizona wedding photographer Sedona photography</title>
This reflects four keyword phrases: Arizona wedding photographer, wedding photographer, Arizona wedding and Sedona photography. You should try to complete the title with no more than 65 characters.
Keywords. These are the words or phrases you tell the search engines are “key” to this page on your site. Try to phrase these exactly as you think a searcher would to find your services. A good set of keyword phrases for the terms we’re working on would be <meta name="keywords" content="arizona wedding photographer,sedona wedding photography,arizona wedding">. Keyword phrases are separated by a comma and don't need a space between different phrases. Two to three keyword phrases per Web page are plenty. You can cover other phrases on other pages. The more targeted everything is to minimal phrases, the higher up you move because all of the information found on the page is more relevant to the search term entered.
Description. The description meta tag is used by search engines to tell people what is on your site. When you do a search, this is the text that appears on the results page listings. This text is used by the search engines, but is also readable by consumers. Here’s an example. <meta name= "description" content="Arizona wedding photography by Sedona Photographer captures your wedding memories in a fun, friendly and unobtrusive way. View sample wedding photography images.">. The Description should be no more than 25 words, or approximately 265 characters, because that is all the search engines will show. If you don’t have this meta tag in place, the search engine will show the first 25 words it finds on your site whether they make sense or not.
Robots. Robots are used by the search engines to crawl around the Web to gather information about your site. Robots can be called to come visit your site, but you only want to do this if you are updating your site on a regular basis. <meta name="revisit-after" content="60 days"> tells the robots to come crawl the site every 60 days. <meta name="robots" content="all"> tells the Robots to look at and index the entire site.
After the Head comes the Body of your site. This is the area of your code that describes where everything goes on your Web page, including text and images. Unfortunately for photographers, search engines use text to determine positioning. As image-makers we like to have our photos speak for themselves. As I look around the Web I find many photography sites that have very little text, and this is not good for moving up in the rankings. You need text that is keyword phrase rich. This means that as you write your text for selling your clients, you need to keep the search engines in mind.
Sprinkle your keyword phrases into your message. Be careful not to repeat keywords and keyword phrases too often as this will signal the search engines that you are trying to skew the results in your favor. Though that's exactly what you’re trying to do, you need to be subtle about it or the search engines will banish your site for spamming them. The term here is keyword density. Keyword density should run approximately four to six percent of your text, meaning that for every 100 words there should be four to six keyword phrases.
The Body of your site can contain other types of tags called Alt tags and Comment tags. Alt tags are alternative text if the image were not to be viewed. Sometimes this text is visible to the viewer if the viewer’s cursor hovers over an image. While search engines don’t look at images, we can use a technique to let the search engine know that an image is relevant to the search term by using the Alt tag to reinforce our keyword phrases. <img src="images2/quote/wedding.gif" width=243 height=108 alt="Wedding photographer">. This breaks down as <image source equals "image name and type", width equals 243 pixels, height equals 108 pixels, Alternative text to the image equals "wedding photographer"/>.
Comments tags look like this <!-- wedding photography,wedding photographer-->. Programmers who work with another Web designer use this type of tag to leave messages for each other or to themselves about the code and are not visible to the casual viewer. The search engines read them, and therefore we can add some keyword info in these.
A few more things to consider
A word about Flash Web sites. They can be gorgeous and showcase your work beautifully, but they don’t receive as good search engine positioning as a standard HTML site. This is because there is very little text used in building a flash site. If you are serious about getting good search engine positioning and really want Flash for your site, think about having an HTML site along with your Flash site or have the Flash imagery imbedded into your site rather than being a standalone.
Having links to and from relevant sites is also helpful. Share links with Web sites and businesses that closely match the content of your site. Just having links to other sites for the sake of having links is not very helpful. Make sure the content is geared to the same audience for best results.
Blogging (posting a Web log, or blog) will help with your search positioning and marketing in several ways if it is done properly. You can start a blog for free by going to Blogger.com, or pay a minimal fee at a Web hosting and design company like Squarespace that caters to photographers. Search engines like to see that new content is being posted to the site on a regular basis. A blog helps satisfy that criteria. As you write your posts, make sure that your text is rich with keyword phrases without overdoing it. Add photographs to your posts and add the Alt tags to your photos.
Here’s where blogging helps with your direct marketing. Writing is very personal and reveals your personality (if you feel your personality is weak, then make it the personality of the studio). Share stories of your photo shoots. Relate client testimonials in the text instead of having information coming only from your perspective. For example, some good text might read,
“It was wonderful doing the Smiths’ family portrait in Sedona. Working with their three dogs and the horse was quite a challenge! We had so much fun getting the whole ‘family’ to look in one direction at one time! When Mrs. Smith saw the portraits for the first time she started to cry tears of happiness. She said, ‘You’ve captured my family’s portrait in way I never thought possible. Thank you so much.’ Mr. Smith joined in by saying that he thought the whole photographic experience was going to be a pain in the you know what, but he was surprised that he had such a fun time. Initially, the Smiths were going to get a small size portrait but after seeing the finished images they decided to purchase a framed print for over their sofa.”
As soon as you post this to the Web, send an e-mail to your client(s) and suggest that they share the link with other friends and family. The result is more traffic to your Web site with new potential clients viewing your work. Search engines like to see more traffic to your site—bonus!
The blog’s value increases as you lace a subtle sales message into the copy you write to tell those emotional stories, which generates sales opportunities from site visitors. If you’re a good creative writer, this can blossom into a viral form of marketing, especially with seniors. Seniors will tell all their friends and generate lots of targeted traffic to your site. If you do weddings, in addition to posting directly about your clients, you can write about the vendors you work with, extolling their virtues and how great their service is. You can add links to their sites and suggest that they link back to your blog so their clients can see the testimonial you’ve written about them.
Paid search engine positioning
If you want to be sure to appear in a search result, there are some guaranteed ways to do it, like buying search terms or using pay-per-click services. You can also hire SEO companies. Just type “paid seo” into your favorite search engine for a list of Web sites for this information. Be careful when you hire for things like this. You might want to tie their compensation to specific results achieved.
Please use this article as a primer for search engine optimization. The playing field and rules change constantly. There are entire Web sites and books devoted to this subject and obviously more detailed ideas from people who are in the trenches working on this every day. The ideas outlined are the bare minimum that you should be doing or asking your Webmaster to implement on your site.
Bob Coates is the founder and editor of Successful Photographer Newsletter.
If you are looking for more marketing and business information to help you make money with your photography business be sure to check out www.successful-photographer.com and the monthly Successful Photographer Newsletter.