What to Know About SEO

January 2021
telescope photo by Christoph Malin
Is there anybody out there? Photo by Christoph Malin.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a very broad term that covers basically everything involved with the process of getting website pages to rank well in search engines’ organic (natural, non-paid) search results. SEO involves the technical aspect of building the website code properly (my job), the publishing aspect of entering good content and keywords (your job), and the marketing aspect of actively promoting your website (also your job). In this post I will talk about all three aspects of SEO in a practical sense and will answer some common questions about it.

How do search engines work?

Search engines use special algorithms to crawl your website, analyze the content, and rank your pages relative to every other website on the web. These algorithms are secret, and therefore SEO in general is somewhat of a voodoo science. There are some things we do know though:

"Content is King". Getting good search rankings depends not only on optimized website code, but mainly on good content itself. Having a highly search engine optimized website is a solid foundation to start from, but that in and of itself is only the first step and it won’t guarantee high search rankings. Search engines care most about the content itself, as they should.

• There is no way to trick the search engines with sneaky SEO tactics (things like loading pages up with hidden keywords, filler content text, excess link swapping, etc). In fact this is dangerous because your website can actually be penalized if the search engines detect such shady SEO practices. In the early years of the web this might have worked, but search engines have evolved and don’t tolerate that stuff anymore. As a rule of thumb, what is useful and looks useful to human viewers will be seen as useful to Google. But what looks spammy to humans will probably also look spammy to Google.

• Your website content and code are still not the only ingredients considered by the search engines. They also look at the other websites that link to your site and how relevant they are to your content. And they consider how much traffic your pages are getting, under the assumption that if your page is getting high traffic it must have good content. These are but a few examples of external variables that can affect your page rankings.

• Considering all this, it should be no surprise that getting good search rankings takes time. The only way to guarantee immediate high rankings is to PAY for sponsored links, through expensive programs like Google Ads, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. Organic rankings take time to develop – months or even years.

• It’s generally easier to rank well for more specific search terms. Unless you have a common name like “Mike Smith”, your site should show up fairly quickly near the top of the results when people search your name. On the other hand, you’ll probably never show up in very general single search terms like “photography”, because in that case you’re competing with millions of relevant sites, many of which have already established far higher page rankings.

Search Engine Optimized Code

WideRange Galleries websites are VERY search engine friendly. Coding for SEO is a high priority for me, and I keep myself informed and up to date with the latest in SEO best coding practices. Here are a few examples of technical SEO features that are incorporated into the WideRange Galleries websites:

• All pages get their own meta titles and descriptions. This means that when your pages show up in the search engine results, each page link is displayed with its own relevant title and descriptive paragraph.

• All pages get their own custom URLs using a system of URL rewriting, leading to clean, concise, legible, and relevant page addresses.

• Images get alternate (alt) text and title tags, to inform the search engines what the images are about.

• Galleries and photo pages use canonical meta tags to prevent duplicate content indexing and to inform the search engines of priority pages (for example galleries with multiple pages get ranked under the first page).

Sitemaps are generated to give the search engines a comprehensive, easily indexed list of all pages and photos.

• In general our sites are fast loading, conform to internet best practices, and score well in performance metrics including Google's "Core Web Vitals".

Search Engine Optimized Content

As I mentioned earlier, having a highly search-engine-friendly website is only the first step – the solid foundation, if you will. The most important aspect of SEO is the content itself, and that is in your hands. The WideRange Galleries admin control panel gives you all the tools you need to optimize your pages as far as content goes – you can enter keywords, captions, page descriptions, and custom URLs. Here are some tips on how to optimize your content:

Text is the key: Text is like food for search engine spiders; it’s easily digestible content. You need to enter relevant, descriptive text wherever possible throughout the website.

Photo Captions: Always write captions for your photos. Remember that search engines can’t “see” images like humans can (although Google’s AI is getting there)! So even if it’s clear to you that your photo is a photo of say, golden aspens in Colorado, the search engine doesn’t necessarily know that; it can only read and index the text that’s on the page. So, at the very least you should write a caption like “Golden aspens in Colorado”. Better yet, write longer captions that tell people more about the image, perhaps expounding on topics such as the experience behind the shot or more information about the subjects or locations in the photo.

Gallery Paragraphs: In addition to writing captions for your photos, you should also write intro paragraphs for your galleries. Write a paragraph or two for each gallery talking about what that gallery is about. Include relevant keywords and topics in this text.

Blog Articles and Journals: One of the hugest opportunites for adding lots of relevant content is to start a blog and add lots of articles, photo journals, and/or trip reports there. Articles are a very powerful SEO tool because they are often useful to people in that they serve a purpose of answering a question, explaining how to do something, or providing interesting information. Google tends to reward usefulness. Photo journals and trip reports are also a great way to weave in more relevant content and build traffic since your viewers will enjoy reading about your experiences and the places you photograph.

Keywords: You might be surprised to learn that meta keywords (keywords embedded as a meta tag in the header) aren't actually that important for SEO; in fact Google has stated that they completely ignore meta keyword tags. Nevertheless, photo keywords are used in other parts of the site, such as with image alt tags in some cases. So we still include photo keywords in our system.

That said, it is important to try to include relevant keywords within the text you write throughout the site. Special important places to place keywords would be in various titles (like Gallery, Page, or Photo titles, or H1 or H2 headers within the text) and in the page meta titles and descriptions.

Avoid keyword stuffing! If you go overboard with cramming a ton of keywords and keyword variations in every single spot, Google may actually punish your rankings. You should keep it natural and legible - if you think a person reading your site might consider there to be an excess of keywords, then Google probably will too.

Image Filenames: It's best to give your images legible, descriptive filenames, which can help with image search results. Instead of an image filename like “IMG_4235.jpg”, use a more legible name like “golden-aspens-in-colorado.jpg”.

Cross Linking: Whenever possible when you’re writing text on your site and you write a location or keyword, turn that into a link that goes to the most relevant gallery or search page on your site. For example on my photography website I have a "San Juan Mountains" gallery. Whenever I write a new blog post from the San Juans and I write the words "San Juan Mountains" I turn that into a link to the San Juan Mountains gallery. Or if I write something about my prints, I will link the word "prints" to my Prints Information page. These are called cross-links (because they link to other pages across your site) and they reinforce the interconnected web of your pages as well as the priority of your pages as search engine spiders crawl through your site to index the various pages.

Note that you shouldn't go overboard with cross linking. Keep it reasonable and useful; for example one particular cross link per page is probably enough (like with my example above, I would only link the first mention of "San Juan Mountains" in the text).

Update your site often. I know this isn’t always possible, but it’s definitely beneficial to update your site on a regular basis with new photos and blog posts. This will keep your viewers coming back for more, and the search engines will see that your site is active. It is also a good motivation to keep getting out there with your camera! An integrated blog is a great way to do this; it provides a more informal means of regularly posting your latest photos, thoughts, articles, or whatever it may be, along with the interactive commenting from viewers.

The niche factor: One last strategy to consider, which I touched on above, is that as far as the web and search engines are concerned, specificity trumps generality. If you have a niche collection of highly specific photos, mostly relevant to the same topic, chances are your website will perform better in search engines than if you have a general collection of photos ranging over a broad spectrum of subjects. Of course this may not be something you can or want to change, in which case don’t worry about it.

I’ll give you an example of my own photography website: www.MountainPhotography.com. As you can tell if you visit that site, I am all about mountain photography – it’s what I’m passionate about and that’s what the bulk of my photo collection is about. That puts me at a natural advantage when it comes to search engines, because I have so much relevant content on the site! Not only that, but my photos are captioned as specific places with location names, not just general photos from who-knows-where. So not only is my content highly focussed, but it’s also specific in terms of location names which people might search for.

SEO Performance in Action
My own photo website ranks #1 in organic Google search results for "mountain photography" and related terms.

Marketing your Website

One fairly common misconception is that once you build a website, the traffic will just come streaming in immediately. Unfortunately in most cases that is not true. Just like any business venture, you’ve got to put in some proactive effort with your website as well.

You can start by including your website link in your email signatures and on your business cards. If you participate in a photography forum, put your website link in your signature there too. When you post in those forums, encourage people to follow a link for more photos on your website.

Whether you like it or not, social media is huge and almost a necessity for promotional awareness these days when many people spend the majority of their internet time there. So start a Facebook page (and/or Instagram or whatever), put a link to it on your website, and post new photos there along with a link back to your website where possible. People who like your photos will share them on their pages, and on and on. With a bit of proactive encouragement you can drive followers to go visit your site.

You can add a newsletter signup form on your website and send off periodic email blasts to keep your viewers coming back to your site and to inform them of sales and other marketing promotions. It takes time to compile a substantial email subscriber list, but it is a highly effective marketing tool which targets the people who are expressly interested in your work.

One really great way to boost your website’s search rankings is by publishing articles on other relevant highly trafficked websites, and include your website link on that article page. From an SEO perspective it can pay off bigtime to invest some time into writing some articles relevant to your photographic area of expertise, then reaching out to popular photography websites or blogs to see if they will publish them (many such blogs are constantly looking for more good content to publish anyways).

These are the obvious initial online marketing techniques. I’ll stop there but the point is that you do need to proactively put your website “out there” and invite people to come visit. This is especially important for new websites, which can really benefit from an initial “push” of marketing to get a starting flow of traffic.

What about hiring an SEO Consultant?

I don't know about you but I am bombarded by daily spam emails from SEO "experts" promising me guaranteed top search results. This is all spam and pure b.s. Even the most reputable established SEO consultant companies have little to offer WideRange Galleries clients.

Remember that your WideRange Galleries website is already VERY highly search engine optimized. As the WideRange Galleries developer I am already aware of important SEO issues, I have already optimized the technical aspects of our websites, and I am regularly working on new features to keep our websites up to date with the latest SEO best practices. So, essentially you have already hired an SEO expert when you hired me to build your site.

When you hire an SEO consultant, what they will do is run some automated diagnostic tests which spit out a report of technical website SEO minutiae. First off, these reports are basically the same as numerous free online diagnostic tools available. Secondly, and most importantly, chances are there's nothing in these reports that I am not already aware of. So, while technical SEO consulting services could be beneficial for someone with a crappy website that has lots of room for improvement, this is not the case for WideRange Galleries websites.

Another service that SEO consultants might offer is to help you optimize your text content or to even write content for you. I can already help review your content and offer suggestions for improvement, so there's little reason to hire someone else for this unless you have money to burn to hire someone else to do hands-on data entry for you instead of doing it yourself. As for providing pre-written relevant articles to post on your site, there are two major problems I've seen with this strategy: First, articles like this tend to be very generic, superficial, and impersonal - certainly not something you'd be proud to feature on your website. Secondly, it's not sustainable. Perhaps you pay a consultant a big chunk of money and they provide a dozen "relevant" articles for you to post. Then what? That's going to provide a short-lived boost at best. The only surefire strategy for building a sustainable content flow is to dig in and write your own content and articles, offering your own views and insights.

One other service these SEO consultants might offer is some kind of external traffic flow guarantee. Here we are entering murky water; these services could range from legitimate article/link placement in partner media outlets, to harmful spammy techniques including email spam, link farms (you know those spammy looking pages that you sometimes see when you type in a wrong website address?), or fake robot hit machines that artificially inflates your traffic numbers. Spammy traffic boosting techniques like this could easily cause more harm than good if Google has caught on to their schemes and penalizes your site ranking. And even if they do in fact increase your traffic, chances are that it will be random traffic, not good relevant traffic (people who are actually interested and might buy something).

So, I do not recommend hiring any SEO consultants, which - to be blunt - are superfluous and largely a waste of money for WideRange Galleries clients. If you have extra money to spend in hopes of improving your website traffic and sales, you would be much better served by hiring a website marketing expert instead, who could help you craft effective external marketing, advertising, and promotional campaigns.

Bottom Line - The Basics of Good SEO

If you are already a WideRange Galleries client, you already have a highly search engine optimized website. You have the solid foundation.

So, the most important thing you can do is to write good text content on your site, including image captions, gallery paragraphs, and relevant articles and pages. Secondly, make sure that your titles, descriptions, and keywords for the various galleries, photos, and pages are concise and highly relevant to the content of that page.

Remember, do not go overboard with excess keywords, or excess keyword links, or any spammy techniques like that. Try to think of the search engines as actual humans – what is clear and understandable by humans will likely be clear and understandable to the search engines. Conversely, what is obviously recognized as spammy baiting by human viewers will likely also be seen (and penalized) as spammy baiting by search engines.

The other important thing is to try to regularly update your website with new content then actively promote it, whether through social media, online photography forums, or other means online or offline.

I hope this article has helped give you a basic understanding of good SEO practices. While it is beneficial to follow these guidelines, it is important to realize that beyond these basic steps, most of the control over your website’s search engine rankings is simply out of your hands, so don’t lose sleep over this stuff! Just post the best content you can, promote it, and let the rest run its course.

Posted in Knowledge Base and tagged SEO.

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