Today, I’m going to talk about some things a lot of folks might not agree with, which really need to be said, about the state of search engine optimization today and how it relates to the professional photographer.
Specifically, I’m very concerned about why so many of you are wasting so much of your valuable time – time you can never get back – chasing after higher search engine rankings with SEO techniques that are questionable at best.
Seriously, wouldn’t you rather invest your time in creating amazing photography for your clients?
Why even bother with SEO, as most people seem to think it should be done, in the first place?
Let’s find out…
Why Chasing Questionable SEO Is A Waste Of Time
Do you waste valuable time on questionable SEO tactics? Many of them don't work, or Google may penalize you if you use them. Here's what to do instead...
Why Care About SEO At All?
You might think the answer is obvious, but it’s a question a lot more photographers should really ask themselves.
If they did, and they stopped to think about their answers, they might see search engine optimization in a different light.
I mean, why do photographers stay awake at night, worrying about how to get their website listed on page one of the search results?
They want more clients, of course.
But what about all the effort of trying to learn SEO, keep up with the constant changes, hunt down keywords, optimize posts, and exchange website links?
Is a lot of that really just time wasted?
Here’s an example, to show you what I mean.
Picture this for a moment:
A newly-engaged young lady, the happy tears from a romantic proposal barely dry on her face, sits in front of her computer with a beaming smile, and thinks to herself, “I’m getting married! Now, we need someone to capture every beautiful moment of that dream day from start to finish!”
On the screen in front of her are those famous 6 letters, arranged neatly in those toy-box colors that we’ve all come to love and hate:
G, O, O, G, L, E…
And, beneath that, an innocent-looking empty search box waits patiently for our bride-to-be to ask the search engine to find just the right person to photograph her wedding.
For her, it feels like the brink of something truly exciting.
For you, if you’re a wedding photographer somewhere in her city, it feels like desperate hope that your listing will be one of the chosen few to appear when she hits enter or clicks the search button, right?
Both of you are locked in a singular moment of anticipation.
Like a cliffhanger.
What will happen?
Will she find the perfect photographer for her wedding day?
Will you get the job you know you deserve?
Or, will a cheaper photographer tempt her over to the dark side with the promise of a shiny CD, beautifully labeled in scribbled handwriting with the best sharpie money can buy?
The answers to those questions rather depend on a lot of things, don’t they?
If we hold the view of SEO that most photographers have, it depends on which photographer managed to pull the most wool over Google’s eyes to land that top spot.
From Google’s perspective, it depends on which photographer did the best job of helping Google to, in turn, help our teary-eyed bride-to-be discover the photographer she really needs.
Sadly, the chances of that happening aren’t good.
In the vast majority of these scenarios, repeated countless times across all the cities in the world, our bride missed out on the chance to connect with the perfect photographer, and ended up instead with someone who was, if she was lucky, just a close match – close, but no cigar, as the saying goes.
The bride lost out.
You, the photographer she should have found, lost out.
Her family and friends all lost out on great memories.
The only one that didn’t lose out was Google – after all, it’s just a machine when you get right down to it.
Google really doesn’t care about any of the emotional fallout, or consequences of making the wrong choice.
Nope, not one bit.
To Google, we’re all nothing more than web addresses – URL’s floating about in some gigantic algorithmic soup, where only those considered the most worthy by a mysterious set of calculations will float to the top.
We’re Not In The 90’s Any More
If this were something like “that 90’s show”, we could talk all day about how search engine optimization tactics, tricks, and tips would have saved the day for both our bride-to-be and you, her perfectly matched photographer.
- Keywords, carefully chosen by you, and placed sprayed strategically on every page of your website…
- Blog posts with those very same keywords appended to every post title – unpalatable to human readers but surely loved by Google…
- More posts with 30 photographs from someone’s wedding or portrait session, but without a single word of text to tell the stories in those images because, let’s face it, pictures are worth a thousand words even in this economy…
- Blocks of text on the home page, populated with the names of every town and city within 50 miles of your studio – a net cast far and wide to improve your chances of catching a good lead…
- Links, bought and paid for on the most popular web directories, all pointing back at you like beacons in the night. No doubt, Google sees those and will reward you with SEO value for such great backlinks…
- Poorly-written articles, thrown together by some SEO firm, strewn across the web’s article directories, all linking back to you (heck, they’re only for SEO purposes, so who cares if they’re badly-written?)…
- Clever blog circuses and link circles purposely designed to show how popular you are engineered to sail, undetected, right past Google’s nose…
All that might have worked like a charm 20 years ago, 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago.
But we don’t live in the 90’s any more, do we?
Things have moved on a bit since then – in fact, Google has moved on a LOT and evolved into some kind of artificial intelligence that even its own creators no longer fully understand.
Perhaps those same creators feel a form of bewilderment similar to what we might see on the faces of parents with teenagers, having created something that turns out quite differently to how they imagined.
Back in the 90’s (and I remember those days with great fondness), being good at some basic SEO tactics was more than enough for any Internet clown to rank their website on the first page of Google.
It was, after all, the golden age of the Internet scammer – that malicious, but smart, breed of marketer who could sell anyone anything because they occupied the first page of Google as if they owned the place.
But then came Google’s unlikely heroes, in the form of two cute animals, the Penguin and the Panda.
They charged in to break up the party, signaling the dawn of a new age of search engine optimization where manipulation is not only outlawed, but policed, and where actual work and effort in content creation are now required to get the job done.
The Amazing Disappearing SEO Tips
So much for the 90’s…
Let’s hop into our time machine, skip the nightmare of the great recession, and head back to the present day.
The world of Google as it is now is not a pretty sight.
People are still fighting like crazy over those first-page slots, but where there used to be ten, there are only seven or eight. Many of the old SEO tricks have stopped working, but lots of people have failed to realize that.
What about you?
Are you still trawling the web in search of those SEO secrets that will magically propel you to page one?
What do you see when you search Google for the very latest in search engine optimization know-how?
It’s all gone a bit weird, hasn’t it?
For example, have you noticed how many of the recent articles about SEO for photographers have become more abstract than practical in nature?
Some of them are so wooly, you could knit a sweater from them.
Whatever happened to the cold hard facts and tips?
If you’ve noticed all this, I promise you’re not imagining things!
In fact, I bet you’ve done at least some kind of search for SEO tips lately, and you probably came away feeling little the wiser as a result, am I right?
Instead of posts filled to the brim with the latest red-hot SEO tactics, tips, or strategies designed to make Google go all goggle-eyed over your photography website, you found a whole bunch of articles that offered good general advice but with no obvious means of putting much of it into actual practice.
Disappointing, I know, but there’s a reason for that!
SEO Might As Well Be Rocket Science
It’s probably fair to say we all want to do better at SEO, and most of the bloggers who write about that stuff still want to be seen as leading experts.
But, as I already mentioned, Google have permanently closed many of the loopholes in their search calculations and they’ve taken a chainsaw to much of the low-hanging fruit where it was easy to get good SEO returns for relatively little effort.
As a result, SEO has become much harder to understand, let alone get done.
To really appreciate all the nuances of search engine optimization, to fully comprehend what’s actually going on in that obscenely-complex beast known as the Google algorithm, requires so much knowledge that it might as well be rocket science or quantum physics.
To compound things even more, there are countless new web pages published on the Internet and indexed by Google every day. This glut of fresh content pushes the level of competition for those precious top spots on page one through the roof.
The world of professional photography is a perfect example.
It’s Crowded At The Top
Unless you have a rock for a roof, you know there are new people swarming into the industry all the time – heaven knows, I hear enough photographers complaining on a regular basis about the flood of new people and how they’re destroying the industry with ridiculously cheap fees, lack of business know-how, and often sub-standard photography.
I’m sure every day sees at least one or two (perhaps more) of these new professional photographers popping up in every city like weeds.
To be fair, many of them are actually quite talented photographers, so they’re not all weeds, but it still feels like an invasion at times.
Of course, we’ve also got people leaving the industry – people who are retiring or just quitting because they’ve had enough and can’t hack the nonsense for even one more day.
But, most of those are not taking their websites down with them when they go.
They just leave them behind like abandoned relics to a bygone age, left to gather dust and clutter up the search results, until they eventually sink to the bottom under the combined weight of the fresher content being piled on top.
With the scales tipped firmly by sheer numbers, new photography websites appear every day, along with the mountains of new content being published by existing photographers, all of it competing for those same few spaces in the Google search results.
It’s like a war zone, with everyone playing by rules that were outlawed years ago!
But, here’s the icing on the cake…
High search rankings don’t necessarily translate into more paying clients.
Just because your website is up there on page one, that doesn’t mean your phone will start ringing like crazy or your email inbox will fill up with enquiries.
Sure, you’ll get some new clients.
But will that really be enough to keep your business going, purely from search visitors alone?
Yet, the battle for page one rages on, regardless!
But there’s a surprise in store for those who go looking for the answers on how to do that.
Welcome To The Machine
The reason why most recent SEO articles are so vague is that search engine optimization has become so abstract in itself that there are no longer any “killer tips” or secrets to guarantee high search result rankings.
It’s as if we’re dealing with an artificial intelligence that ranks pages in ways we just can’t fully grasp any more.
If that sounds like science fiction, it’s really not.
Google have built so-called “deep learning” programs into their algorithm for some time now, giving their system the odd and somewhat creepy ability to identify correlations between seemingly unconnected metrics.
Imagine, for the sake of illustration only, they deduced that your website was preferred by searchers on a Tuesday morning, when it’s not raining, and only after they had eaten pepperoni pizza the night before.
While that’s a ridiculous made-up scenario, such odd correlations actually exist. Google is also getting better at spotting them, which can play havoc with your SEO efforts beyond taking care of the basics.
Don’t Rely On SEO Alone For Business!
But what does all this mean for you, a professional photographer who just wants to be found by more people?
Back in the early days of the Internet, we really needed the search engines.
There was simply no other easy way for people to find you online, other than the occasional directory, and it was a lot easier to get ranked in those days because there was less competition and Google was still a gurgling baby who could be spoon-fed just about anything.
Marketers naturally saw Google and the other search engines as their main source of website visitors.
And, at that time, higher search rankings meant more traffic, and more traffic meant more clients.
But that’s not how it is any more.
Now, there’s a whole universe of visitor sources across the Internet, not to mention the impact that social media has created.
Right now, the search engines are just one out of many possible channels people can use to find you, yet we still behave as if it’s the only way, and we get all worked up over jostling for that limited space at the top.
For example, less than 50% of my traffic to Zenologue comes from organic search results.
The rest of my visitors arrive either directly, from referral links, email, or social media.
And, surprisingly, the people most likely to convert into leads are those from social media, at a rate more than 4 times that from organic search visitors. That means social referrals are far more likely to become a lead than someone coming to me from a Google search.
The key takeaway from this should simply be not to rely on SEO alone for your website traffic.
Yes, SEO is important…
Yes, search engines can still send a lot of visitors…
And, yes, 50% of your traffic is a big chunk.
But it’s not all of it, and it may not be the highest-converting channel you have.
Besides, you can really stop worrying too much about your actual rankings.
Ranking As A Fuzzy Metric
Another characteristic of the modern-day Google search algorithm is that it knows an awful lot more about us than we would like to think it does.
Probably enough to make even the NSA feel inadequate.
And it uses that information to tailor what we see whenever we do a Google search.
Imagine walking into your local friendly coffee shop. It’s 8am, and you’re on your way to work, as per your regular routine.
You step up to the counter, get ready to place your order, but before you can speak the barista says, “Good morning Carol! The usual Wednesday peppermint mocha with an extra shot, and a warm banana muffin?”
Unless you’re in the mood to break your routine, there’s a great chance the barista has hit it spot on, right?
It’s obvious why it happened.
You visit there every weekday at around the same time, so they remember you and take a mental note of your usual order, knowing that people are mostly creatures of habit.
Is your order right for the girl in front of you?
Or the chap behind you?
No, probably not.
But it’s the perfect remedy for you on a cold Wednesday morning as you head to your weekly snore-fest of a team meeting.
Google is getting to be a lot like that barista, and more sophisticated with it.
It knows who you are, where you are, what time of day it is, the websites you’ve visited in the past, who your social connections are and the content they’ve recommended, plus a whole lot more.
That means Google can serve up the perfect page of search results, made just for you.
And if they get it wrong, well guess what? They’ll remember that, too, and use it to modify your results in the future. Before long, it feels as if Google is reading your mind – creepy, right?
In other words, everyone sees a slightly different set of search results these days, the product of a process simply called personalization.
Any idea of a fixed search ranking for your web pages has totally lost its meaning.
It’s become a fuzzy metric that’s harder to pin down than a housefly.
The best we can hope for is to use whatever position our ranking tool gives us as little more than an estimate, give or take a few spots.
If you think you’re ranked number 1 for a keyword, the chances are it’s somewhere on page one, probably near the top, which is okay.
If your ranking tool says number 5, things are a bit less clear. You could be anywhere from number 3 to somewhere on page 2.
It all depends on who is doing the searching, so being too fixated on where your rankings are isn’t as important as it used to be.
Instead, I suggest you focus on the quality of your content, and how well it engages with your audience – those are the kinds of things Google loves to reward these days.
What NOT To Do For SEO
I want to finish up by shining a light on some of the questionable SEO practices I still see photographers wasting their valuable time on, in the hope you can stop doing them and spend more time on more productive marketing, or actually creating photography instead.
- The first one is participating in blog circuses, where a group of photographers agree to share, comment on, and link to each other’s blog posts. This is an old practice that Google can sniff out very quickly because these clusters of links stand out like a sore thumb as being totally unnatural. At best, any links created by the blog circus are ignored. At worst, the websites of the participating photographers are penalized for link manipulation.
- Link exchanges with free directories are a really bad idea, and have been for a long time. However, I still see people submitting their websites for a free listing. The photographer is usually required to place a reciprocal link on their website, pointing back to the directory, usually with some fancy-looking badge, but all it does is cancel out any SEO benefit they might have gotten from the free listing to begin with. Google also sees these as link manipulation.
- Another ongoing practice is buying links from paid directories. Sometimes, those directories operate under the guise of something like a “find a photographer” site, but the reality is, those links are recognized as paid link-farms by Google and can cause your website to be penalized. The one exception to this would be a directory site curated and maintained by real humans, but even those can have limited value.
- Doing SEO on blog posts, instead of on evergreen content, has to be one of the biggest time wasters. It seems photographers are still under the very mistaken belief that SEO is essential on blog posts. But, with only a small pool of good keywords to optimize for, it’s not long before duplication of keywords happens, which can make your SEO worse. Instead, focus your SEO efforts on evergreen content and static pages, and don’t try to optimize for the same keyword phrase on multiple pages.
- Keyword stuffing, especially to identify geographical service areas, is a bad practice I encounter all the time during website reviews. They’re usually seen on the home page, but I’ve also found them on other pages. This is easy to spot as a big block of text near the bottom of the page no person would ever want to read, which lists out every town and city within 50 miles of the studio in the hopes Google will rank your page in those locations. Newsflash! They won’t!
- Finally, engaging in Facebook-page “like” ladders with other photographers is becoming an increasingly annoying problem. People seem to have latched on to the mistaken idea that more page likes increases the search ranking of your Facebook page. Of course, other photographers are an easy source of likes, usually from groups. Not only does this not actually help your SEO at all, it causes problems down the road when Facebook tries to decide who to show your updates to. Since other photographers are not likely to be your ideal clients, a lot of your Facebook post visibility gets wasted on the wrong eyeballs or not shown at all.