The concept of “SEO for photographers” gets thrown around a lot as a marketing buzzword, and often incorrectly. If you’re a photographer who relies on your website to showcase your portfolio and attract clients, then you need to understand how Search Engine Optimization works, because it can mean a huge deal for growing your photography brand, and for your bottom line. Still, many small business owners seem vexed by SEO and how it works.
On a fundamental level, SEO is how your website communicates to a search engine that you exist and that your content is a good answer to the query the user is typing into the engine’s search bar. Keywords and phrases are like little beacons of light calling search engines and searchers to your shore. More basically, it’s how Google knows to turn up your website — and not yours competitor’s — first when someone goes looking for you or someone like you.
So how do you make search engines work for you?
As both a photographer and a professional online marketer, this is a subject that I know a good deal about. Over the years I have been diligently and successfully growing SEO traffic to my own photography site, jkatzphoto.com, and to major photography brands like CreativeLive. I have seen first-hand how developing a successful SEO for photographers strategy can lead to real revenue. After years of research, trial and error, and learning from the leaders in the industry, I now understand how this all works, and I have had significant success in putting all of these ideas into practice.
SEO for photographers can, at times, be a frustrating discipline when first starting out; it takes a long time to see results, and it’s difficult to know where to focus your efforts. But when you get that first keyword ranking on the first page, and you start getting quality, targeted organic traffic to your website – it is incredible rewarding. Then it isn’t too long before the leads, contacts, and sales start coming in.
So here are the top things you need to know about SEO for photography, and gaining organic traffic to your site in order to grow your exposure and revenue.
SEO is complicated
There is a lot of misinformation out there on SEO, but almost none so bad as on a lot of photography blogs and forums that I have seen over the years. Most of these people don’t really understand SEO and how it works; they make comments about keywords and meta tags within a photo, and try to tell you that by simply adding keywords in your meta tags, you can have them appear on the first page in Google Image Search. Sorry, it doesn’t work like that.
The Google ranking algorithm is an exceedingly complex evaluation of the trillions of webpages that exist on the internet. Their goal, is to surface the best possible content for people who are asking a question in the Google search bar. They want to retain the trust of their users, and so they work very hard to evaluate each webpage, and determine if it is the best answer to that searcher’s question.
This means that the list of factors that you have to consider in order to get your content to rank, is long and varied (see the chart below for an idea). You have to think about the structure of your site, and ensure that all the technical elements are search engine-friendly. You have to think about the content on a specific page, and make sure that it is well optimized for a target keyword. Finally, you have to perform a number of different “off-page” SEO factors to signal to the search engines that this page is an authority on the subject.
It can be a lot to think through, but I promise once you get the hang of it, it’s very doable.
Be very clear about your goals
What are you trying to accomplish with your SEO strategy? Is to gain more exposure for your photos? To sell prints? To make money with affiliate marketing? Maybe you’re trying to get leads or have clients contact you for services (like wedding, portrait, or commercial photography).
Whatever your goals, it is important that you be very clear about them upfront when thinking through an SEO for photographer’s strategy. This is a lesson I have learned the hard way, when I first started jkatzphoto.com, I wasn’t clear about what I was hoping to achieve. I just wanted traffic, and I assumed that traffic alone was the solution for how to make money with photography
Well, after a period of time, I actually started to get some traffic to my blog. But I wasn’t making any money or gaining many followers. It look me a long time, but I finally figured out why: It’s because of a crucial component of SEO, called keyword intent.
Keyword intent is basically what the searcher is hoping to achieve when they perform a search. For example, someone searching for, “beginner photography tips” is likely just looking for information. However someone searching for “best price for neutral density filters,” is likely a lot closer to making a purchasing decision. Similarly, “beautiful forest photos” is a keyword that will serve to gain exposure for your photography.
When targeting keywords that you are hoping to rank for, understanding the keyword intent is crucial to knowing what kind of traffic you will be sending to your site. When you do it right, the keyword intent will align with your goals. Whether your goal is generating affiliate revenue, print sales, booking clients, or simply gaining exposure, they key is to make sure that the keyword intent that you are focusing on aligns with those goals.
The next four tips relate specifically to the critical component of keyword research:
Look for the low hanging fruit
Go for the keywords no one is paying attention to. As a photographer, you likely offer a range of services, so if you can write blogs, create pages, and run ads to the target keywords that no one else is competing for, you’ll probably get more traction. A low competition keyword phrase with 170 searches a month, an admittedly low number, is still 170 people looking for that service or information.
Cast a wide net
Usually, people have to see you several times before they make a purchase. Why should they buy from you or hire you if they don’t know or trust you? How do you solve for this question? Don’t hesitate to think big and try keywords for people who are searching for information adjacent to the ones you offer. For example: optimized blogging about regional wedding venues, something you, as a photographer, know a lot about, is one way to get your name in front of a couple before they are even looking for a photographer. That way, when the prospective clients do type “local wedding photographers” into Google, they’ll see a name they’ve already seen before, and you’ll benefit from that subtle, but important top-of-mind effect.
Think like a client, not a photographer
Portrait is a word photographers use, it isn’t a word your clients use. Someone looking for family portraits is much more likely to use a search akin to “family photography.” Of course, the exact phrase you’ll want to target will be determined by your region, but the real point is to get inside the head of your target audience, and use the same words they use, not the pros in the field.
Don’t pick a fight you can’t win
Every photographer has some competition, and it is very likely that in your market there are already other photographers using Google’s keyword planner to compete for traffic from highly-searched phrases. So it is crucial that you don’t go out and pick the biggest baddest keyword, even thought it’s tempting. If the traffic is high, but the competition is too (something a keyword planning tool can help you suss out), move on to another target.
SEO is an ever-evolving discipline
Search Engine Optimization has evolved massively in the past few decades. Ever since online marketers first realized the business value of showing up first in a search result page, there have been those trying to do everything in their power to force their website towards the top. This is understandable, as there is a lot of money to be made. Almost immediately though, Google and the other major search engines began working on ways to mitigate the possibility of website owners manipulating the search rankings.
What this means? The days of “black-hat” link-building tactics are basically over. There are very few short cuts that you could do that Google would not be able to detect. Therefore the role of an SEO over the years has shifted into more of an acceptable practice of optimizing content (by making it very easy for Google to read, for example), instead of trying to force ranking improvements. What goes into this, and what works, can change rapidly every year as Google releases new algorithm updates.
As someone who has studied SEO for photographers for years, I am constantly learning, adjusting, and re-tweaking my practices to maximize results as the search engines themselves adapt and evolve over time. Your options for things that you can do to improve your website’s rankings are extensive and exhausting, but don’t let the tidal wave of potential tasks overwhelm you. Develop a strategy, create a schedule for rolling it out, and commit to it.
There are a LOT of ranking factors
Contrary to some things you might read out there, there is no one magic bullet that can “skyrocket your rankings right to the top” of Google search results. SEO is a complicated endeavor, where there are hundreds of little things that you can do to try and improve your rankings. The trick is knowing where to spend your time, and what tasks to prioritize.
I have found this MOZ graphic to be very helpful in explaining the various ranking factors that are considered in Google’s algorithm.
Some of these things you can impact more easily, some are out of your control. The key to success is that you spend your time working towards building up all of these ranking factors together. As I said, there is no one piece that will drive success, you have to understand how they all work together.
It takes a long-ass time
SEO can be frustrating at times, because it takes a very long time to see the results of your work. It is very likely that effort you put in now may not yield results for 3, 6, or even 12 months.
What does this mean? It means that you have to be patient. You may create a stellar piece of content, perfectly optimized to rank for a targeted keyword. You may even get a couple of strong links from other websites pointing to your site, and get a bunch of shares on social media. But you won’t see ranking improvements overnight, it just doesn’t work that way. The internet is a big place, and it takes the search engine crawlers a long time to index, evaluate, and process every piece of content, link, and social signal.
This is ok, as long as you are thinking strategically about growing your photo brand and your photo business, then you can know with confidence that the work you are doing now will pay off down the road. Stick with it, and be patient. It’s worth it.
Be specific (“niche down” and go after the long-tail)
When it comes to keywords that you are going after, I have found that it is much more valuable to go after very targeted, specific keyword options. Even though they will likely yield less total traffic, the people who search for long-tail keywords are more likely to be interested in what you have to offer.
This works particularly well for location-specific imagery. For example, almost all of my contacts for commissioned photos found me because they searched for “San Francisco landscape photographer,” instead of just “landscape photographer.” Get it? Even though the former has much less search volume, because I am able to present images and content that matches that keyword very specifically, those people are more likely to contact me.
In the world of SEO, long-form written content is king
As photographers, we deal in mostly visual mediums. Our websites have galleries that are full of images, and the way that we design our websites is primarily with user experience in mind. We are thinking about how to display our work in the most compelling, visually appealing way possible. However, this presents an inherent challenge for photographers seeking to improve their SEO.
To understand why this is the case, you really have to understand how search engines read the internet to begin with. Google can’t see images, they can’t play videos and understand their content, and they can’t read interactive content. They read semantic text, and they are very good at it. The more text they are able to read, the better they understand what your page is about. The Google crawler has become exceedingly impressive at being able to read content, and actually know what it is about. They employ a lot of linguists and language experts to ensure that their crawler reads and understands semantic content the way that humans do.
SEO for photographers is a tough, painfully slow, and technically-intensive process to master. However the potential payoff is huge. Growing your presence on the web as a photographer can lead to serious financial success, and can enable you to establish yourself and grow your photography brand.
It has taken me personally a long time to really get the hang of SEO in order to grow my photography business, but on a regular basis I am now able to attract clients and customers and grow my brand recognition, all from my presence on the web.