Professional Photographer Magazine Web Exclusives

The liveBooks Process: A Total Website Revamp, Part I

Professional Photographer asked Ellis Vener to work with liveBooks to create a fresh redesign of his website and to report on the process and the results. This report covers the process from concept to design and going live. The next report will cover search engine optimization.

By Ellis Vener

Though it was still generating work and lots of inquiries from potential clients, I hadn't updated my website in any meaningful way since it was launched in January 2002. Since then a lot of things have changed: I moved from Houston to Atlanta, and I had lots of new work I wanted to showcase.

One of the hardest parts of designing or redesigning a website is figuring out exactly what you want. I knew what I didn't want in my website this time: a format and structure that required someone versed in website authoring software to make changes. I wanted flexibility and expandability.

Rebuilding a website from scratch is a huge investment in time and usually a significant amount of money as well. LiveBooks is a well established and highly respected company that specializes in designing and building websites for pro photographers with the features we need most, like easy gallery editing, automated metadata upload, visitor tracking and keywording for search engines. LiveBooks packages are priced with non-recurring, one-time fees plus a $90 annual hosting fee. The Basic plan starts at $800, the Select package is $1,700 and the Unlimited package is $3,200. Each package is organized to come with a certain level of design services and features and storage space.

The design services from liveBooks are the most easily demonstrated benefit. Visual acumen in photography does not translate into skill at Web design.

This was the opening page of my old website. Viewed today, it screams "I haven't bothered to update my website since 2002." That's not exactly the message you want to sent to potential clients.

Below is the page that liveBooks helped me design to make a much more positive first impression. 

Image ©Ellis Vener

It's elegant and professional, shows a single image to full advantage, and has easy-to-find links to the most critical  information a client would be interested in: galleries showing additional work, a client list showing other businesses that value my work, and a contact page.

The process to get from Before to After involved a lot of thought, planning, and consulting.

Before I had this opportunity to try liveBooks, my first thought had been to follow Kirk Tuck's example and use Apple's iWeb '08 to build the new site. But Kirk has years of experience in marketing and his wife is a talented designer.

I needed to start from scratch. I even considered taking some design courses and learning how to use web authoring software, then I started hearing about liveBooks. Websites they've created get high praise from the people who matter—people who use websites to find photographers.

Beyond the appeal of having someone else handle the design and coding, liveBooks also offers to implement search engine optimization (SEO) strategies. SEO helps the right clients (and more of them) find you when they're doing an Internet search.

The groundwork began with many decisions I needed to make. What kind of people did I want to attract and how did I want to reach them? I had to figure out what my unique selling points as a commercial photographer are. I had to think about branding. I have done a lot of really fine award-winning photography, but it isn't just in one area. There is editorial and reportage work, architectural work, industrial work, and there are the private portrait commissions.

Once I had a grasp on the message and what professional face I wanted to present with my site, it was time to start working on design.

You really have to give the design and support people at liveBooks a lot of credit. Because I am reviewing their service, I took the “I am a complete and impatient idiot who needs a lot of help because I can’t be bothered with the video tutorials or reading instructions” position in setting up my site. They have been extremely patient with me at every step of the way and fast to respond with clear, sensible answers and to implementing multiple design change requests, including some backtracking.

Since I starting the site approval process I must have changed my mind at least a dozen times about details large and small, and the designers have been quick to figure out what I was talking about and how to make those changes. Being a client for a graphic design/ advertising/ marketing /branding campaign has instilled in me a new respect for what talented designers and marketers do and how that adds real value to your brand by letting your client know your level of taste and professionalism.

As for the time spent, getting my site live was roughly comparable to the time I spent on getting my original site up. The best liveBooks package costs less than I paid to have my first site created and hosted.

And unlike my old site, the new site is very easily updated.

Figure 1

To learn how to update and keep your site fresh, I highly recommend using liveBooks tutorials in both written and online video forms (Figure 1). It will help you avoid the “I am a complete impatient idiot” step. There are 10 short videos on subjects ranging from resizing images to setting up an online shopping cart. If you have further questions, then contact support. They are, as I said before, very responsive and normally got back to me via e-mail within 48 hours or less.

Figure 2

When you are ready to go live the process starts at the Go Live Overview  (Figure 2). Once you have gone through the steps for setting up the Domain Registrar name registration and e-mail setup processes, click on the “submit your go live request” button and fill out the form (Figure 3) and you're done. On a Wednesday afternoon I sent my “go live” request to liveBooks and by early the following Friday the new site had taken the place of the old.

Figure 3

What do you do if you already have a site hosted somewhere else? Before going live, I first had to work out the logistics of how to deal with the company that has been hosting my old site. My URL registration is maintained by a third company because I bought my URL long before I actually had a website. Switching hosts for involved getting online with Dotster and changing the domain servers per liveBooks instructions so that they now point to the liveBooks-created site. I also needed to change my e-mail configuration for both incoming and outgoing e-mail. All of this is covered in liveBooks’ excellent tutorials.

I could have avoided all of that technical housecleaning by using a new URL for the new site, but I've invested a lot of money and time in a new logo and graphic design, not to mention several years of establishing as the primary URL for my brand. Throwing that away would make as much sense as Dr. Pepper changing its name to Dr. Pepper, PhD.

After the new site went live I sent the URL to friends who are magazine photo editors, graphic designers, or who do marketing or advertising work for the type of clients I want to work for. I asked them for their feedback. They were kind enough to spend some time telling me what they liked and disliked about the design, the navigation, and, just as important, the photo selection. It is difficult to see our work the way others do. It's easy to become emotionally attached to a photo for the circumstances that surrounded its making—something that has nothing to do with the quality of the photo itself. Finding people whose judgment you trust and who will speak honestly about your work is an important part of the process. You still need to retain your authorial voice, but listening to what others have to say about the work can make a difference. 

There are more changes yet to come in the design of my site: a revised client page for instance. The current one is a placeholder based on out of date information from my old site. Figure 4 shows the initial design.  I want to work on the contact page (Figure 5) as well.

Figure 4

Figure 5

Still, I am very happy with everything so far. The process has been relatively painless (a lot less painless than trying to learn HTML coding, Flash, Dreamweaver, typography and graphic design), if long, and now that the site is live and looking so good it has been a real confidence booster in going forward with other marketing efforts. 

The next step will be search engine optimization (SEO).

Below are views of my website gallery and navigation in its previous state and the new incarnation. With the new page, the viewer moves their cursor to the right hand side of the page and a thumbnail selection of the rest of the images appears. The pop-up selection also scrolls up or down to show the complete gallery contents.