Professional Photographer Magazine Web Exclusives

Search Engine Optimization: Getting Started

By Ellis Vener

SEO is Search Engine Optimization. After either working long and hard designing, coding, debugging, and selecting images for your website, or spending a lot of money for someone else to do the design and coding work, you want your website to be easily found and that means making sure it ranks high, preferably on the first page, on a search engine’s list for photographers with your specialty in your town and in your region. An effective SEO strategy can be a powerful and cost effective marketing tool as the investments you have to make are merely ones of intellectual capital and time. SEO is only one component of your marketing strategy, of course, and all marketing is about building awareness. The fundamental point of marketing is to let potential clients know you exist and then to show off what you can do. Even if you are the most talented and sensitive photographer within 100 miles, if potential clients can’t find you, how will they know you even exist?

After researching and examining a lot of available SEO expertise, Professional Photographer turned to two photographers who successfully use SEO marketing to consistently rank high in different specialties. J Sandifer of emilie inc., a location wedding photography studio based in Portland, Maine, who is also the wedding development manager at liveBooks, and Jon Cornforth, a nature photographer and teacher. 

liveBooks has a deep pool of general marketing wisdom under the Events and Community tab on the home page menu. There are webinars—both live and archived—live seminar events in different locations, and once you have started building your site, two resource SEO pages complete with easy-to-follow tips for get your site ranking up.

The SEO for Photography Websites toolkit from PhotoShelter also proved to be a valuable reference. PhotoShelter users also have access to an SEO Grader that scans your website and photos, looking at factors that are within your control to improve your SEO, then gives specific recommendations.

As Sandifer points out, there are several components to an SEO strategy. The most important steps are figuring out how your SEO strategy fits into your overall marketing goals, how to implement, and having a way to measure the results. As with any marketing effort you should not expect immediate results, he said SEO is a marathon not a sprint. It may take at least three months before you start to see your efforts bear fruit, so be patient. There is also a constant battle everyone fights when trying to get a higher web search ranking: the search engine companies constantly update the criteria they use when ranking a page.

This stuff can drive you crazy, but there are some consistent basics that make a good foundation for SEO.

For instance, Google rules. According to PC World (“Search Engine Usage Soared in 2009,” Jan. 23, 2010), worldwide there were approximately 131 billion Web searches in December 2009 (22.7 billion in the USA alone), and 87.8 billion of those were made on Google. To update the old saying: those who have the searches make the rules. Google Analytics is one of the best tools you can adopt to start evaluating the Web traffic that comes to your site.


As of late January 2010, Google searches are primarily text based. You must describe your images if you want them to be found. What is important for photographers to know is that, for now, search engines primarily analyze text, not images, and like words for each page. If you’ve created your website using Flash, it is important to note that Google, Bing, Yahoo!, (or iPhones for that matter) and other search engines can’t search a Flash-only site, so it’s important to have a parallel html-coded site. This is a feature of liveBooks created sites and differs from so-called ghost sites.

So what does Google like? Primarily off-page factors like good trusted content, lots of inbound links and relevancy, but also on-page factors like site and page titles, descriptions, and good keywording.

PhotoShelter estimates that 75-percent of the qualities that search engines weigh when ranking sites are off-page factors like inbound links (by far the greatest factor), trust and authority of the domain, and usage data.

Build inbound links by posting useful blog material that may be picked up and linked to. If you are going to blog or write articles, make an effort to be interesting and topically relevant not only to the kind of people who use your services but also to those in related fields. If you are a wedding photographer, this includes event locations, caterers, wedding planners, florists, deejays, and bands that regularly play weddings. Don’t forget to reciprocate with links to their relevant posts.

One overlooked factor in creating trust is longevity. Although he has had an active website since 2001, one thing that Jon Cornforth discovered recently was that by having his domain name set to expire at the end of every annual billing cycle, he was unintentionally hurting his rankings. By registering and paying for several years at once you are telling the search engine algorithms that you intend to be around for a while.

While the off-page factors will take time to develop, there are some things you can do right away by working on the on-page factors: site title, description and keywords—remember search engines like well chosen words—and these are all forms of meta-tagging.


When meta tagging, keep it tight. liveBooks suggests 150-character limit for descriptions (what Google displays when your site comes up in a search). PhotoShelter recommends 70 characters or less for page titles and a 150 characters for descriptions, and Cornforth recommends a 160-character limit. If in doubt keep it within 140 characters.

Conciseness applies to keywords, too. In the infancy of the World Wide Web, more used to be better, but that’s no longer the case. PhotoShelter’s research from 2009 leads them to believe that 50 keywords is a good upper limit. In general, when formulating your list of keywords or keyword phrases, think like a potential customer. What would they be searching for? For example, if you just got engaged, which would you be most likely to search for: “Wedding photographer,” “Wedding Photographers,” or “Wedding Photography”?

As it happens Google has a very useful tool to see which ranks higher, the free Google AdWords Keywording Tool. There are other tools like Wordtracker and Keyword Discovery, but they aren’t free.


Start with the overall description and keywords for your site, but description meta-tags and keywords for each individual page might (depending on Google’s whims) be significant too. According to J Sandifer, if you shot a wedding or reception at a popular location, the names of those places might prove to be very useful in image names or titles. The images’ file names are actually searchable with an effective website, so try changing file names like dcs6435.jpeg to something potentially more useful like laudholmfarmwedding_435.jpeg.

Finally, there is one fundamental to always keep in mind: there is value in who you know and who knows you. Reciprocal linking is like the word-of-mouth recommendation in SEO credibility and is the most powerful form of promoting yourself to the most meaningful audience. As J Sandifer proclaimed, “brides come and go, but the industry will always be there.”