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Q&A #5: On-site vs off-site SEO, PhotoShelter vs WP, finding sites in your niche

Every month, I’m answering your questions about photography websites, business, marketing, SEO and more.

You can ask me anything. I’ll try to answer within 24 hours, and the most useful questions get featured here on the newsletter too. Need any help with your website? Don’t hesitate to write, I’m all ears.

Thanks to John, Stephanie, Holger, Kathie and Andrew for this month’s topics. Check out my answers below, and jump in with your own thoughts by sending me a message or leaving a comment below.



“Are there 200 SEO things to get right on your site or is that just sales talk?”

Full Question: I want a site that will perform 100% in Googles eyes. I do not want to simply put a cosmetic face on an existing site that has too many SEO errors. I am interested why theses two sites are on the first page of google for the search term Wedding Photography Perth. So once the website is updated can you then help me to also have everything strong with SEO? The lady above said that there were 200 SEO things to get right in your website for it to be really strong. Is that the case or sales talk?

First of all, I think you need to get the right mindset as it relates to Google and SEO in general. I recommend going through my in-depth article on SEO and then this short piece I’ve written as a conclusion.

Besides this, in terms of SEO, there are two kinds of work: on-site and off-site SEO. The on-site work tries to bring the website itself to a perfect state, so Google properly indexes the site and attributes value to its rankings.

Off-site is usually the more long-term strategy that you are responsible for, and usually involved trying to get other sites to link back to your site. So it is important to keep in mind that visits to your site and Google search positions aren’t going to show dramatic changes unless some of your efforts are placed on marketing too. Without that, it is unlikely the site will go straight to the first page of result, and see lots of traffic/sales straight away.

So again, with on-site SEO, when someone does a Google search for your specific type of photographer or service, providing your type of photography matches, you might come up on the first page of search results. This is something all these meta tags and changes are useful for, but it does involve you putting in some good off-site SEO work as well.

The main thing you will want to pay attention to when it comes to driving traffic to your site is backlinks (= links back to your website) and the “anchor text” (the linked text).

If you haven’t embarked on a strategy to create backlinks (e.g. blogging more about your website, getting other people to blog about you, etc), then you won’t have much success with search engines, and therefore, you won’t have many visitors.

You should think of each link as an endorsement of your content. The more links, the more likely the search engines are likely to consider you a credible search result. Read more about backlinks here.

That’s where those competitors you mentioned are probably also doing right, they gathered a lot of backlinks over time to help then rank higher. So this is an important mindset shift: you can work on optimizing everything in the site’s back end, but this is only on-site optimization, it’s only part of the equation.

Even with on-site things absolutely perfect, you’re still not guaranteed to rank above those competitors, because Google is looking at other factors as well:

  • backlinks, like I mentioned
  • site performance (if a site is slow, Google doesn’t want to serve it in results as often)
  • whether the site is mobile-friendly
  • content quality (if Google notices that people reach a page on your site and then quickly leave/bounce, it thinks the content is not good enough and therefore ranks the site lower)

So besides all the SEO work, you still need to promote the site externally (to get links from other sites), to continually work on quality content (so people find it useful/enticing and consume more of it), and to wait – because time is also a reason those competitors rank high, you can’t just overtake them in a week of intense SEO :-)

Hope this helps give you more clarity about everything.



“Can a PhotoShelter website rise to the top of Google search results for competitive keywords?”

Full Question: I was looking into getting a wordpress website, and even though they’re “easy” it’s still quite a learning curve for the unfamiliar. So in the meantime, I’m using a PhotoShelter website and even though they’re not very customizable I think they look good and function very well.
A friend working with SEO has expressed concern about how well I would be able to optimize the PhotoShelter website for google, so my question for you would be if you think a PhotoShelter photography website could ever rise to the top of google search result for something like “city” + photographer?

The short answer is: It’s possible. But highly unlikely and (a lot) more difficult than with WordPress.

First of all, as you might know, SEO is both on-site and off-site. Your “friend working with SEO” likely noticed that the on-site options are a little limited:

  • for pages inside a PhotoShelter BEAM website you can just set the SEO title and meta-description
  • no pretty permalinks in the portfolio area (aka no keywords in page URLs)
  • no image ALT tags there either
  • in the archive area, where SEO tags to get automatically filled with IPTC tags (which is great), site defaults to your user subdomain on, so domain authority gets lost there

I’m sure there are photographer out there who do rank well with just a PhotoShelter BEAM site (depending on their location and the keyword competitiveness there), especially if their off-site SEO work is strong (like having many backlinks).

PhotoShelter does many SEO things right (templates are built with HTML5 so Google can properly index them, mobile friendly design etc.), and I’ve written how they’re a great do-it-yourself solution for some photographers, but there are many SEO limitations too.

However, with WordPress you do have many advantages:

  • you can add text to your homepage (whereas PhotoShelter BEAM templates are more geared towards visually-impressive portfolios)
  • you can build a full-featured blog area (which can end up hugely important for SEO)
  • you have better control over the site performance & image compression

Basically, with WP you can achieve all of the SEO things I mentioned in my SEO guide whereas with PhotoShelter (or other similar platforms like Smugmug or Livebooks) you can’t control them all.

To be able to rank well for a competitive phrase like “[City] photographer” you need to do many things right. The power and flexibility of WordPress give you a better chance.



“Do you recommend having a guestbook on my site?”

Full Question: Would you recommend to have a guestbook on the Homepage? If yes, where should I position the guestbook? In the navigation (first level), in the “blog” or “about” or “contact” (always as second level) or in the footer as a small icon?
If you would put it in the Navigation (first level), in which positions would you put the “guestbook” – maybe before “contact”?

My recommendation is to not put it in the navigation as a first-level menu item, that would be too much.

Putting it in one of the dropdown menus is fine, probably under About. I wouldn’t put it under Contact, that should stay as clear as possible, without dropdowns, to avoid any friction when people want to leave you a message.

As for positioning the guestbook somewhere on the site itself, I’d really reconsider its importance. People don’t use it very often, so maybe it’s not that important.

The homepage is really valuable “real estate”, so only place it there after other important elements (that lead people into the other areas of your site).



“How do we find successful sites relating to our photography genre?”

Full Question: How do we find industry blogs and successful blogs relating to our preferred genre? Not ones that advertise how to use your camera, but ones that are good examples of what other photographers do and how they service their clients in our chosen form of photography?

Most of the times, you just Google them using the appropriate search queries. But I understand that’s not always very straightforward, so here are a few lists to get you started:

As for looking for a specific photography genre, you could try a search for “best [specialty] photography blogs”.

To give you an example, if you do that search for “wildlife”, within the first few results you get good round-up posts like this one: 10 Amazing Nature & Wildlife Photographers That You Should Follow

And here are other sites you can use to discover great photography content on a regular basis (with examples using “wildlife”):

Since the internet is full of mediocre content too, you have to prune these results and get into a comfortable information-diet. It might all be time-consuming and overwhelming at first, but keeping your finger on the pulse of the industry (and your photography niche) is important to growing your business in the long run.



Your turn: ask me anything. I’d love for this to become a valuable “repository” of answers from the entire community of photographers.

You can help with that by getting involved:
1. Ask questions. Send them to me via email or on Twitter (@foreground).
2. Answer questions yourself. If you have anything to add to any of my answers (or can answer from a different perspective), jump right in! I’ll share relevant notes with other photographers so everyone can benefit.

Off-topic or inflammatory comments may be moderated.
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