Photographers, put these SEO myths to rest in 2019
Learn about the top SEO mistakes photographers are making in 2019 and how to fix them.
If you've been marketing your photography business online for any amount of time, you've probably noticed that SEO seems to change at a breakneck speed. Every year, Google rolls out multiple algorithm updates. In years past it's sometimes meant massive shake ups for SEO marketers. For example in July of 2019, you may have noticed that if you did not migrate to a secure site with HTTPs, Google began displaying a security warning.
All of the changes can feel like a lot to keep up with, especially while running your photography business! And the truth is, maintaining your SEO strategy while making sure that it remains relevant does require commitment. However, it's better to stay informed and make sure you're not wasting effort.
There are a lot of SEO myths that just won't die. They are the undead zombies of the marketing world. When photographers get caught up in these myths they do their businesses a disservice by focusing their efforts in the wrong places. I'll spare you further zombie analogies and will simply say, that's why we have put together a guide to the SEO myths that photographers need to lay to rest. We'll also go over the most important things you should be focusing your SEO strategy on instead.
Myth: SEO is all about Keyword Rankings
Has an SEO company ever emailed you, promising to rank you #1 in Google? I get these solicitation emails on a regular basis and they get sent straight to my spam folder. Once upon a time, ranking for specific keywords was the big focus of SEO. Marketers and business owners would create multiple web pages with content optimized for every variation of a keyword phrase they could think of.
For example, a business might have had multiple similar pages, each one trying to rank for a specific keyword like: Houston wedding, Houston wedding venue, Houston wedding reception, Houston wedding all inclusive. The technique to optimize each page for the keyword was to use the keyword as often as possible in the webpage copy, the title and URL of the page.
You might have come across webpages that are still employing this old keyword density SEO strategy. Their webpage copy might look something like:
Our Houston wedding venue is the highest rated wedding venue in Houston. Our Houston brides give us five stars for best venue to have a wedding in Houston.
This copy is hard to read, because it wasn't written for a person. It was written for a machine. SEO content used to be written this way because Google only understood exact matches for your keyword. So marketers would either create a single page per keyword, or try to create keyword-dense pages with every variation they could think of.
Some marketers went completely overboard with this strategy. They took the "more is better" approach and ended up making multiple pages with copy like this, trying to rank for the same keyword. This ended up creating either duplicate content with pages that displayed almost the exact same website copy, or near duplicate content.
This strategy worked great, until it didn't. Google rolled out an update and began to filter out these duplicate pages. Suddenly websites began to lose traffic, and panic about Google penalties ensued. Now, according to Google, most duplicate content isn't grounds for a penalty. That is, unless its purpose is trying to manipulate search results. So, while the businesses may not have gotten hit with a Google penalty, they did see drops in traffic as search engines filtered out versions of their duplicate pages.
Imagine if your photography business used to have five pages that ranked for Houston wedding photographer, using the old keyword stuffing and duplicate content techniques. If, suddenly, four of those pages were filtered out of the search results, it could have a serious impact on your traffic even if your site hadn't been hit with a penalty!
Now, is all this to say that rankings don't matter in 2019 and beyond? Absolutely not! Appearing towards the top of a search engine results page can give you a higher click through rate. That higher click through rate can, in turn, bring you more traffic for the queries that matter to your business. But gone are the days of keyword stuffing and writing content that is simply about satisfying a Google bot.
Truth: SEO is evolving to become more about User Intent
Over the years, search engines have become more sophisticated. As a result, exact keywords matter less, and user intent matters more. This is because search engines have been employing tools like natural language processing and semantic search. Google now uses something called RankBrain, which finds keyword topics that are related to one another.
What are natural language processing and semantic search?
These are machine learning tools that Google, Bing and other search engines use to understand the meaning behind a word, and then the intent of a query. Natural language processing, like the name implies, is technology that computers use to understand the human's natural language. For example, Apple's Siri and Amazon's Alexa use this kind of technology to recognize speech patterns and try to provide a meaningful and useful response.
Semantic search is similar in that it is also trying to understand language the way a human would. In a search engine, semantic search is used to try to generate the most accurate results possible by understanding the searcher's intent, the context of their query, and the relationships between the words used.
User intent in search
Using these same tools, search engines are also learning about the meaning of the words used on your website. This is why, while keywords and keyword research are still important, our strategies need to evolve. Now that search engines are looking for the page that best answers the searcher's query, we as photographers have to shift our focus from those old strategies and begin to think about what our clients are asking or searching for.
To help you think about the kinds of content you could create, let's first think about the various kinds of search intent.
Informational – The searcher is looking for an answer to a question or to learn more about a topic. Think about queries like "fall family portrait wardrobe ideas" or "how to look good in a photograph."
Navigational – The searcher already knows what website or brand they want to go to. Searches for Facebook, eBay, or even your own website would fall under this kind of search intent.
Transactional – In this kind of query, the searcher is ready to make a purchase and just needs to find the store or product. Queries could include things like "buy Canon 5D MIII" or "iMac coupon code."
Commercial – This type of query is similar to Transactional. But in these cases, the searcher is looking for more information before they are ready to purchase. These kinds of queries might include "wedding photographers near me" or "best family portrait photographers." In these cases, the searcher knows they want the services of a photographer, but is still researching who they want to book.
Ahrefs suggest the following keyword modifiers that can indicate the type of search intent
- Brand Names
- Name of a Product
- Name of a Service
- Attribute of a Product
- [City] type of store (local)
Creating content for search intent
Now that you know the different kinds of search intent, think about the kinds of content that you can create or adapt on your website. When you're ready to create content that meets search intent, it's time to do some research. Start by doing various searches, with different levels of intent, that apply to your business. Make note of the content that comes up and the suggested searches that Google provides at the bottom of the page.
You can also look at how your own website is performing for various searches. If you're using a website analytics tool like Statcounter, you can see the queries visitors are using to find your website. This is also a great way to identify if there are gaps in your content.
While it might be tempting to focus only on the commercial or transactional queries, don't lose sight of the value of informational queries as well! The earlier in the buying cycle you can establish a relationship of trust with a potential client, the more likely they are to want to book with you when they are ready.
Myth: In SEO, content is the only thing that matters!
If you've done any reading on SEO in the past few years, you've probably noticed that the internet is awash with articles claiming, "content is king!" As we've discussed, content is extremely important and should not be neglected. However, there are many other factors that go into your SEO strategy. We'll talk about these a little further on in this article.
One of the biggest issues with this myth around content is that it neglects to illuminate the reason why content matters. Content for the sake of ranking higher in search engine results isn't useful if you don't have user intent in mind. In fact, this myth has a huge overlap with another big SEO myth which is "the more pages I have the better!" The belief was that the more pages a website had, the more traffic it would get. This is another big reason why companies created so much duplicate content in the past.
Truth: Content is one piece in the larger SEO puzzle
Creating content just to have more pages on your website is not a good use of your time. If the quality of your content isn't good, and it isn't focused on the intent of your searcher, it's not going to help you rank. In fact, poorly crafted content could possibly hurt your SEO efforts. Google introduced its Panda algorithm in 2011. According to Moz the purpose of Panda was to "to reward high-quality websites and diminish the presence of low-quality websites in Google's organic search engine results."
The reason for algorithm updates like this is simple. As Google and other search engines have evolved and become more sophisticated, they have focused much more on the user experience. As we've discussed, the main goals of a search engine is to provide the user with the most relevant answer to their query. So, focus on creating content that people can understand and enjoy, and you'll be satisfying the number one goal of creating quality content that will satisfy a search engine's algorithm.
Quality of content
Part of how Google determines the quality of your content is through something called backlinks. Also called in-bound links, these are links from other websites to your content. These backlinks help search engines understand how valuable and relevant your content is to a searcher's query.
So you may have written the most amazing fall family portrait wardrobe guide on the planet. But if Google doesn't see other sites linking to that guide, it's not likely to rank the content when potential clients are looking for wardrobe inspiration for upcoming sessions. Conversely, if your guide has been pinned on Pinterest hundreds of times, and other websites are linking to your guide, this gives search engines a lot of information about how valuable and authoritative your content is.
Myth: User experience isn't essential to SEO
When working on SEO, too many photographers focus all of their effort on their keywords, links, titles, and content. This might seem like the whole scope of an SEO strategy. But as we've discussed, if all of our SEO efforts are focused on search engines and not on people, our strategies can become misguided.
You might have optimized every single page on your site for keywords you want to rank for. You could have creating great content that speaks to the various kinds of search intent. But what if your site is difficult to navigate? You'll likely confuse visitors, who will bounce quickly. Or if your site loads slowly, or isn't mobile friendly, you risk losing visitors as well.
Truth: SEO and user experience are intrinsically connected
The new reality of SEO means that SEO has elements of user experience (UX) rolled in. While some marketers talk of SEO and UX as separate things, they are intrinsically connected in a partnership.
Think about it this way: if every time you did a search on Google you got terrible and irrelevant results, would you continue to use Google? When Google sends you to a webpage in answer to one of your searches, they are essentially endorsing that webpage. So Google and other search engines look at various factors to get a sense for how users perceive a webpage. The more that perception is positive, the search engines will sense it is worth "vouching for." Google provides general webmaster guidelines here.
Moz goes further by stating:
"[User experience] provides an indirect but measurable benefit to a site's external popularity, which the engines can then interpret as a signal of higher quality. Crafting a thoughtful, empathetic UX helps ensure that visitors to your site perceive it positively, encouraging sharing, bookmarking, return visits and inbound links – all signals that trickle down to the search engines and contributes to high rankings."
Factors that affect user experience
There are a number of things that go into creating a good user experience. Page load time, bounce rate, time on page, page views per visit, and how far a person scrolls down the page are all statistics that give you a sense of how users behave on your site. Securing your site with HTTPS and SSL are also important to help encourage visitors trust that their data will be handled properly on your website.
In Statcounter you can get full visibility into your visitor's experience, and track how visitors engage on your site, and which pages are the most popular.
Accessibility and user experience
Web accessibility has become another area of focus for business owners, especially as there have been attempts to create legal enforcement of website accessibility over the years. The intent of accessibility is to accommodate users with motor, visual or audio disabilities. If run your own website through a Lighthouse Audit, you'll see that accessibility is a big factor that Google wants website owners to be testing and improving.
Typical accessibility issues on photographers' sites tend to be:
- Lack of contrast between background and text
- Text that is too small
- Alt-tags that are stuffed with keywords (this is a leftover from those old SEO tactics we talked about)
- A lack of unique page titles
Learn more about other common accessibilities issues in websites here.
While optimizing for accessibility and optimizing for search engines is different, there is some overlap. And when you understand that overlap, you can successfully optimize for both and create a better user experience. According to Moz, here are some examples of where SEO and accessibility can overlap:
- Video transcription
- Image captioning
- Image alt attributes
- Title tags
- Header tags (H1, H2, etc)
- Link anchor text
- On-site sitemaps, table of contents, and/or breadcrumbs
- Content ordering
- Size and color contrast of text
- Semantic HTML
Compare this list with SearchEngine's recommendations for successful UX. Some of their top recommendations are:
- Headings that tell both visitors and search engines what your page is about
- Easy navigation and site structure
- User singles like bounce rate, and how they interact with your page
- The speed of your website
- Your mobile experience
As you can see, there is considerable overlap between SEO, UX and accessibility. This adds weight to the idea that while SEO might have originally begun as an industry to optimize for search engines, our focus today needs to be much more human.
When your site loads slowly, users abandon your site. This sends negative signals to search engines and can hurt your ability to rank. According to Google, "two seconds is the threshold for ecommerce website acceptability." Google has gone on to report that over half of website visits are abandoned if a website takes more than three seconds to load! So your site speed is extremely important to your user's experience. Use Google's PageSpeed Insights tool if you are curious to know how fast your site loads.
When you run an analysis on your website, you might see server-level recommendations. These are likely things you won't be able to change yourself and you should chat with your website host about them. They can either make sever-level changes on your behalf or guide you in the admin section of your site to make the changes yourself.
Sometimes there is nothing your website host can do about your speed. This is usually the case with cheap website hosts, because of how many sites they are hosting on the same server. Sometimes tens of thousands of sites will run from the same server, and your webpage will be slowed down as a result. If this is the case, you might consider upgrading to a better website host.
As we've discussed, Google makes multiple changes every year. And one of the biggest changes of 2019 was going to Mobile First Indexing. This means that Google is crawling your site using a smartphone instead of a desktop computer. In turn this means that Google is indexing and ranking pages based on your mobile website.
So what does this mean for photographers? First, your site needs to be mobile friendly. Run a mobile friendliness test here. If the theme that you're running for your website is not mobile responsive or mobile friendly, then seriously consider a redesign of your site with mobile in mind.
Secondly, make sure that your mobile theme isn't hiding anything on your website to simplify the experience. You can check your website on your smartphone, or use a number of online tools like Mobile Moxie that emulate the mobile experience on different devices.
Myth: You don't need to optimize your images
Though we have hopefully dispelled this myth by talking about images in the context of accessibility and UX, it's worth a deeper dive. Many people think of optimizing images as providing alt text and captions so that search engines can understand the content of a photograph. This is part of the picture. And for a long time, people found that they could neglect even that level of optimization and still rank in search engines.
However, image optimization goes beyond alt text and captions. And for photographers who rely on images to promote their businesses, lack of image optimization can present a big liability. Conversely, when done well, image optimization is a big opportunity.
Truth: Image optimization has a big impact on your site
Have you ever sat, impatiently waiting for a website to load, only to bounce in frustration as the photographs on a page download in increments? This is because large images slow down websites, creating that less-than-optimal user experience. Conversely, image optimization can be one of your biggest site speed and user experience wins.
Image compression and optimization
Images are a great way to keep a user engaged with your website. They help visitors learn more about your photography business, and the longer visitors stay and interact with your site, the better a signal is sent to Google. Time on your website is also known as dwell time, and is a signal that your page provided visitors with a useful answer or solution to their search query.
However, images and other kinds of multimedia can slow down your page's load time. So it's important to compress your images! Using a tool like Photoshop, you can export your images as web-ready jpegs. Or use online tools like Tiny JPG to get lossless compression of your photographs.
Alt text and image keywords
Alternative text, also called "alt tags" or "alt descriptions," is the description that appears in place of an image on a webpage if that image fails to load on a screen. This text is used in screen-reading tools to describe images to visually impaired readers. Alt text is also what allows search engines to understand the content of your images. Many website services allow you to create alt text when you upload your images.
When optimizing your images, give your image a relevant file name to ensure Google knows what the image is about. When processing your images in Lightroom or Photoshop, name your image files something that is indicative of what the photograph is. Don't export images with filenames like IMG123456.jpg. The filename is an opportunity to use valuable keywords and be more visible online! Google also recommends providing descriptive titles and captions for your images, so consider these adding those when relevant to your page copy.
A few last thoughts
Now that we've dispelled some big SEO myths that photographers commonly fall prey to, you're much more SEO savvy. Take this new knowledge and apply it to strategies and tactics on your own website. Remember: keep your customer front and center. As search engines strive to emulate more human language processing, and value the human experience, your insights into your customers will matter all the more!
Don't forget that SEO takes time. It can take several months to begin seeing the results of your work. But that doesn't mean you should give up! Creating quality content for your audience, while keeping an eye to SEO best practices and providing a solid user experience is one of the best ways to bring traffic to your website for years to come!