How to Rank a Photography Website and be BFF with Google

Be BFF with GoogleThink about the person that refers you the most business. I bet he or she feels like a BFF – best friend forever. How valuable is that relationship? How much attention or special care do you provide that person? When you start treating Google (or any search engine) as a person and a relationship, you’ll start to benefit from an entity that loves to refer you to its millions of friends.

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Google is my BFF because it refers thousands of qualified business leads to my website. The power of this relationship transforms a business. Just ask Jill, my photographer friend who went from brand new business to the top family photographer in her city within 3 months. She ranks #1 for every related phrase in her niche. She literally ran out of phrases to rank! As a result, she doesn’t spend any money on marketing. No wasted time and effort in yellow pages, event booths, or banner ads. She charges what she deserves, is picky about her clientele and locations, and still has a waiting list. Yes, Google is her BFF.

If you enjoy this post, consider picking up the Photographers SEO Book or hire me for a 2 hour consulting call.

Google’s Personal Ad

If Google completed a personal ad, it might look something like this:

Seeking webpages specific to the phrase typed into search. I like popular pages with rock-solid references, full of HTML text.

For a webpage to be an eligible bachelor, it must pass the first criteria of search – the content very closely relates to the phrase searched by the user. Jill accomplishes this by creating a homepage about family photography in her city, and related (but unique) pages about baby, child, and newborn photography. When a user searches for one of these topics, Google considers the most suitable page for a potential rank.

Chances are, hundreds of pages will match to each search query. Of hundreds of results, Google orders their ranks based on popularity. In Facebook or Twitter, popularity can easily be seen by the quantity of references (lots of friends) or quality of references (you’re friends with the President). Similarly, Google measures popularity by references, where each reference is a link to you from another website. The sites with the most quality links rank first due to their Google popularity.

Jill ranks well because she has many pages about the specific topics her clients will search, and she has links from 40 different domain names. Let’s dig into finding what your clients search, creating a page about each phrase, and getting other sites to link to you.

Keyword Research

Finding the best phrases to rank is called keyword research. Jill knew instinctively to rank for family photography in her city, because a location + niche + “photographer” phrase is the best choice for most businesses just starting SEO. However, broad phrases are difficult to rank since so many businesses optimize for the same ones. You should certainly optimize for broad phrases as a long term strategy, but it will take time to get enough links to make your site the most popular. Target the long-tail in the meantime. Long-tail refers to a huge volume of searches done on extremely niche phrases.

I estimate only 15% of people searching for a family photographer will type “family photographer.” The majority type a longer, more specific phrase such as “best natural-light family portrait sessions in California” Less users search that phrase, but it’s easier to rank and converts more clients because the user is ready to purchase. Keyword research finds these alternatives.

Google’s Keyword Tool provides a friendly way to discover related phrases and actual volume of searches done on each phrase. Simply type a phrase like “family photographer” to find similar phrases.

Tag Crowd generates key phrase ideas. Jill enters her URL (or a well-ranked competitor) to get the following:

Tag Crowd keyword ideas for photographers

Put relevant keywords from these tools into a four column table.

Locations Adjectives Niches Nouns
California natural-light family pictures
Best portrait sessions

Mix and match keywords from the list to create fabulous long-tail phrases like “best natural family portrait sessions in California.”

A page on that topic could rank for a variety of searches:

  • California family portrait sessions
  • Natural family portraits in California
  • Portrait information for the best natural California photographer
  • etc

That’s a lot of different rank possibilities! The next step creates a page centered on the phrase.

Optimize a page

On-page optimization is the easiest part of SEO. You’ve identified a phrase and need to create/update a page to be exactly about that topic. Jill already had a blog post documenting one of her natural family portrait sessions, she just needs to update a few things to make sure Google knows her post is about that phrase. If you don’t have an existing page that related to your newly found keyword combination, save it in a list until your next project that’s a good fit.

Every webpage has only one title and one URL that describe exactly what the page will be about. The title appears at the very, very top of the browser window, and more importantly as the clickable link of a search result. Do a Google search for and you’ll see a list of all your webpage titles. Keywords here are the most important factor in ranking well. The other items you see on the search page are the URL, and page summary called the meta description. Keywords in the description don’t change your rank, but they do convince a user to click on your link.

Jill changes her blog post with new information

  • Title: Best natural portrait session for a California family
  • URL:
  • Meta description: View stunning portrait photos from California. Jill beautifully captures families with over 5 years experience.

Outstanding! Before, Google thought it was a post about “Zach & Amber Photos” but now has a much better understanding of the page, and users will be much more inclined to click through.

Last she adds more text to the page, using a minimum of 300 words. Google assumes that a searcher wants a page with substance – more than just a few words of text. Easy ways to add to word count include adding lots of description about the session, photo captions, a testimonial, and links to related galleries. After all, when the page ranks well it will be the first (and maybe the only) page seen so you need to convince the potential client to hire you or look at more photos.

That’s it! No need to stuff keywords into the page. Google knows by the title and URL the true nature of the page.

Optimize Images

Gogle can’t see images like humans. It relies on a few contextual factors to understand an image: alternate text, captions, and filenames.

Alternate text is a short sentence that summarizes the image in HTML code. Your website system may have a field for image name or alt text that puts your description into the code for Google’s benefit. Accurately describe each image with specific keywords and by nature you will include a lot of related keywords that can help you rank. Jill updates her alt texts using the image settings field in WordPress:

  • 3 young children pose for portrait on mom and dad’s lap by the ocean
  • Beautiful photo of family wearing white collared shirts and khaki pants

You could easily trick a search engine by writing alt text that has nothing to do with the image. Google gains more information about the image by the filename (children-on-lap-by-ocean.jpg) and caption.

Keywords in these image fields carry extra weight, and are worth completing, but I would not go back and optimize every image on my site. Focus on important pages where you can optimize both the text and the images of that page.

Link your way to BFF

Remember the importance of links in the match-making game. Link popularity accounts for more than half of your ability to rank. Jill built just 3-4 links a week to reach her current popularity and that was enough to rank first for everything. Your link count depends greatly on the competitiveness of your niche, location, and keyword list.

Submitting her business to website directories helped, but Google knows these are self-generated and not due to Jill’s website popularity. Better was the contribution to different community forums in her city and industry (photography). Her profile page within the community shows her URL (a link) and her signature carries a link every time she makes a post. Forums can be helpful and quick.

The most beneficial links were embedded in the middle of a paragraph on a popular page of another website (like a blog post that starts on a site’s homepage). But why would another site want to link to Jill from the middle of their blog post or article? She wrote articles and offered them to photography sites to post (like 7 Ways to Take a Portrait), did interviews about her experiences with photography, gave testimonials to partners (that they featured on their sites), and gave photos to local businesses for use on their websites (with link attribution of course).

Each link points to a different page of her site, telling Google that many of her pages are popular (not just the homepage). The text within each link varies slightly and all of them use words she would like to rank for. For example, one link said “best local family photos” pointing to her homepage, and another had “natural California portraits” and linked to her blog post.

When Google reads the link, it understands the page it will find under that link is about family photos… and not something generic like Jill or Click Here. The text of the link tells what the website is popular for!

Recap of Search Engine Optimization

Now you know the not-so-secrets of ranking well.

  • SEO can provide hundreds of new potential clients who are searching for specific phrases relating to your business
  • Develop keyword phrases using keyword research tools
  • Create a page about each phrase so Google can match your site with clients searching those topics
  • Use keywords from your phrase in the webpage title and URL and make sure the page has 300 words or more of text. Write an enticing meta description for each page encouraging searchers to click your result.
  • Optimize images with keyword-rich alt text, filenames, and captions
  • Contribute to other websites with articles, images, testimonials, and interviews to get a link and build your Google popularity

I truly hope you enjoyed these basic strategies on search. Comment below about the tips that worked best for you, or new ones that I didn’t cover.

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If you enjoy this post, consider picking up the Photographers SEO Book or hire me for a 2 hour consulting call.


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  1. says

    Hi Zach
    I just received your new “Photography Web Marketing Guide” and I am working to make changes at my website; I am on SmugMug and, reading about your Remove Clutter section, I was wondering if all that stuff in Galleries view like ThumbsUp, Share, Slideshow etc can be considered as clutter; to me it seems quite distracting from looking at pictures, but on the other hand the common talk on SmugMug community is that they help to make pictures popular. I’d like to know what you think about this.

    • says

      I agree with you. All of these features will be under-used by your audience and would rather focus their attention on the picture/caption and related material or contacting you. I always prefer to promote what I think is best (what I want users to see) rather than whatever they rated to be good.

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