I cracked the holy grail of search rankings and earned a spot on page one on Google for “San Francisco Wedding Photographer“. It came this month, after just over two years of being in business as a photographer in San Francisco. I’ve already reached page one for less competitive searches like “San Francisco Portrait Photographer” and “San Francisco Engagement Photographer” but the wedding photographer spot was locked up by some seriously amazing photographers. I had been stalled on page 3 or 4 for a good 6 months and I figured there was no way I could ever get ahead of the likes of Bambi Cantrell, Alisha and Brook Todd, FC Wong and Ed Pignol (all of whom I idolize for obvious reasons). So I was quite surprised / stunned when I checked my ranking this week and I came up on page one. Not sure how long I will stay there but just being in that crowd for a few days is a big accomplishment for me.
I know that improving search ranking and “find-a-bility” is much discussed among photographers and other small businesses so I thought I would share what I did over the past couple years to achieve these results. I don’t claim to be an SEO expert and I honestly can’t tell you definitively what was the most important thing I did. But I can give you a broad picture of everything that I did do with the hopes that maybe something in my experience will be helpful in your SEO efforts.
In looking back, I see 9 components to my SEO success.
1. Having a Strong Foundation – my business coach calls it the “Chassis” or the foundation that all of your work is built on. Good Chasis – strong potential for results. Bad Chasis, lots of work and little chance of success. Two years ago, I heard Marc Fuller talk about wordpress as a great foundation to create sites that have strong “find-a-bility”. As a combination of luck, good research and a few clear goals, I decided to go with a self-hosted wordpress site. For those wondering, Smugmug (affiliate) hosts my client photos. I used Marc’s Kertez theme as it was one of the original “blog-sites” or a website based entirely on a blogging platform. So from the very beginning my entire site was a blog. Whenever possible I stayed away from flash galleries and that means that most everything on my site is find-able by the various search engines. I know it isn’t the prettiest of things but the chasis of my website is strong and now after two years I have a lot of content that gets sucked up by the search engines. Had I chosen any of the flash based solutions I wouldn’t have achieved my current results no matter how hard I worked.
Don’t expect to create a wordpress blog and race to the top immediately. The sites do take tweaking and modifying to improve your ranking. I found the service at webgrader.com a fairly simple way to identify areas to address. Its not perfect but it was helpful, especially as I started to see improvement. My score started out in the 60’s and is now in the mid-90’s.
2. Consistency – can’t be said enough, if you are going to improve your page rankings you need the fresh and updated content and the best way I found for this is to add new content regularly with blog posts. I averaged a post every week or two and always made sure to include the keywords that I thought were important (more on that below). And had I really been diligent and blogged every week, I think would have been to page one much faster. But we all know that writing intelligently and consistently is no easy task and I was not immune to falling off the blogging wagon. I tried to write after every session and when I did slip for multiple weeks I would jump back in and write three, four or five posts at a time. No way around it – you just have to write. Not all posts have to be brilliant but they do need to happen. One thing that I found incredibly helpful is to create a blog schedule (talked about in Zach and Lara’s ebook Photography Blog Success). My schedule calls for a 4 topic rotation – Weddings, portraits, engagements and other. Rarely does it work out exactly right but the structure really helps me stay consistent.
3. Finding your voice – Just like you need to know and appreciate your own style of photography, you need to understand and appreciate your blogging voice. Knowing that allows you to quickly sit at your computer and create content that is interesting, thoughtful and real. Read my posts about my weddings, engagements or family portrait sessions and you’ll see that I have a very casual and candid tone. I try to be personable and explain what I really like about the client and/or their photographs. That style reflects me in that I’m not afraid to share a detail or two about myself or my clients that shows the uniqueness of the day.
I waste more time and mental energy when I start over thinking what I should say and how I should say it. I get past most of those roadblocks when I just think “how would I tell this to someone”? Obviously my writing isn’t perfect but I’m not looking for perfection. I’m looking for consistency and something that sounds like me. When I push aside those “will they like this” thoughts and trust what I have to say, then the writing flows and I can create a solid blog post within minutes.
4. Good Content – Two parts to good content
Descriptive words (good for search engines) – To me improving your search engine findability is about providing those search engines descriptive content without driving your human readers batty by including keywords in every sentence. My rule is to write as I normally would but slightly more detailed. “I photographed Kate and Steve’s wedding in Marin” becomes “I was the wedding photographer for Kate and Steve’s beautiful wedding at the Marin Center for the Arts in the Marin Headlands (which is just North of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge).” I assume that my readers know nothing about the wedding or portrait location and do my best to describe those areas in detail. I figure that is helpful for the reader while giving more juicy content to the search engines. And I don’t over think “have I mentioned the keywords enough” or sacrificed the tone of the posts to add in more keywords as I found that slowed me down and lead to less consistency.
Informative words (good for readers): I wrote about this in Keys to My Viral Photography Groupon Blog Post. Basic idea is that content is king and you need to write at least a few posts that are truly interesting and informative to people. Sneak Peak posts about weddings, engagements and family sessions are must haves but rarely will they generate link backs over time because honestly they aren’t that interesting to most people beyond the client and their friends and family. For photography, I found that content that helps other photographers grow their business by far gets the most traction, references and link backs. My two posts about using Groupon to help start my business have been referenced more times then almost all of my other posts combined. They are mentioned in forums on a regular basis and referred to by other influential blogs like PhotoShelter and Tiffinbox.
I don’t think you have to be an “super expert” to create informative content. All of my posts have been based entirely on my personal experience. This post came out of the idea of “what have I done well and what would people need to know if they wanted to do this as well?” I recently joined a networking group with the moto of “giver’s gain”. I think that applies perfectly to my seo approach. Had I not shared my experiences with the intention of helping others, there would have been no reason for people to link to my site and I never would have reached page 1 for any result. My suggestion is to figure out what you do well and share how you do it.
5. Links – Well known fact that Google favors sites that people are linking to from other sites. I’ve had three drivers of back links – one has been somewhat successful, one was quite detrimental, and one has been amazing. First the so-so one – this is me going out to other sites and creating my own back link in the form of a comment on a blog or other site. Two main problems with this – takes a long time and you need to make sure that there are no “no-follow” tags. This created a few good links but that process is hard to maintain. I think this is a good way to get started but realize it probably won’t last over time.
*Note from Zach: Almost all comment links are ignored, so your time is best spent on other forms of links. Personally, I comment only where it makes sense for me to add value to the conversation. I always use my name and headshot as the commenter and I link to my about page so people can read more about me as the person making the comment.
The not so good approach is buying back links. Search for back links and you will find many companies offering to create them for you. Sounds like a great idea since I really didn’t like taking the time to create back links myself. I did do this and I really recommend not doing it. I saw a jump when the links started appearing but I also saw a huge drop this winter when Google modified their code to weed out links from the endless supply of link farms favored by these companies. I literally went from page 1 or 2 on many keywords to page too-far-down-too-count. Of course I only had myself to blame so all I could do was freak out, take a deep breath and start over. My thought is that Google is only going to get more effective at finding and penalizing sites that use link farms so I strongly suggest avoiding that rabbit hole.
*Note from Zach: AHA Joey! That does explain why you were dropped from Google for a time after it’s last algorithm update. My strongest advice is to never buy links (I have never paid for one, or any online advertising for that matter).
The last and best way to create back links is by creating strong content. Its pretty simple – create content that is worth reading and people will link to it. Beyond all my sessions, I write about SEO and Daily deals. Those topics are interesting to people and people link to them. As I said in the content section, write about what you do well and the links will come. And as you develop your blogging muscle, try “guest blogging” as that is also a way to generate link-backs from from well respected sites.
This brings up a related point that good content gives you a little freedom to ask for things that will help you. A link like “Joey Chandler is a San Francisco Photographer” is nice. But links like “San Francisco Photographer, Joey Chandler” are much more helpful as they target people searching for a “San Francisco photographer” rather then people that already know my name. As you start to guest blog and get links from other forums, don’t be afraid to ask them to optimize those back-links.
Note from Zach: The first link on a page gives you the credit, so don’t try to add 5 links to your site from the same guest post and make sure the first link uses great text that you want to rank, like Joey has done in this post.
6. Community involvement – In the past couple years, I’ve also done a fair amount of community involvement (not online but the kind where you leave the house and do things with other people). Not a huge amount but I have been consistent: I manage monthly Smugmug User Groups, organize Help Portrait Events in San Francisco, photograph for the San Francisco School Volunteers, and although I’m not doing it this year, for the past two years I rode from SF to LA with the AIDS Lifecycle and created photo galleries for my fellow riders. This is part of my nature so I’m not doing this to get links but it has helped. Basically I think that being involved in your community increases the likelihood that people will know you and your work and point other people towards your site.
7. Keywording – This took me a while to understand but I think I have a good system now. My general belief that the brains at Google (or the next google) are going to get better and better at delivering search results that are closer and closer to how most people think. So I think the best approach to keywording (or the act of putting your keywords in text, file names and alt tags) is mimicking how an average person would respond to the text on your page. If I enter in “San Francisco Photographer”, I don’t what to see a page filled with “Marin Photographer”, “San Jose Photographer” along with a complete list of Bay Area cities followed by “photographer”. I want a page that is specific to my search. I figure the Google brain trust is smart enough to determine that any massively repeated phrases should be disregard so I keep things straight forward and simple. I use descriptive words and add three or four phrases to the Tag section of the post.
For my keywording in images I try to think descriptive. I change all the file names for my images from “San Francisco Wedding – 1.jpg” to something like “Bride tossing her bouquet – Sutro Heights – San Francisco Wedding.jpg”. I make similar changes for the titles and alt tags. I don’t use captions because I don’t like the way they look in my galleries, but if I did I would be descriptive there as well. Basically, I want to tell the search engines exactly what is in that image and where it is. This takes time but I think that returns the best results and makes everyone more happy.
Note from Zach: This is the best advice you can get. Descriptive texts will help you rank for hundreds of minor keywords. I talk about this in my ebooks which helps photographers rank for many many phrases instead of one big one.
8. Tracking – If you don’t track your SEO results, they will not change. From the beginning, I created a spread sheet with the 10 or 12 keywords that I was interested in (San Francisco Wedding Photographer, San Francisco Photographer, San Francisco Portrait Photographer, etc.) and tracked which page I appeared on in google. When I first started, I was on pages in the teens and the twenties. I remember being so excited with I cracked the top 100/page 10 for a few results and I couldn’t believe it when I appeared 1st on google for anything. That search was “San Francisco Child Portraits”. I tracked that information month after month and eventually I went from top 10 pages to top 10 results. I even created challenges for myself – the main one being to get ahead of the various “Friends” fan clubs when searching for “Joey Chandler”. Took me the better part of a year but I eventually got ahead of Joey and Chandler. One tool that is incredibly helpful is Rank Tracker at Seomoz.org. That tells you if you you appear in the first 5 pages on google for any key word search.
Note from Zach: I also recommend the Rank Checker plugin for Firefox browsers.
9. Education – hugely important as there is nothing here in this post that I didn’t learn from other people. Zach Prez and his slew of awesome seo e-books, Marc Fuller, and Bill Nixon at Smart Cabbage all made significant contributions to my success. I found people that I trusted and that I could talk to. Like most things, you need a team.
All of that and a little time moved me to page one of google for some very competitive key words. I know I’m not perfect but I figure if I can have these results then most everyone can improve their rankings. I hope these help you in your efforts and please comment below if you have some thing to say.