If you are like me, the acronym SEO brings a shudder to your bones. If you are a photographer with a website, you have no doubt received countless emails from sites offering to optimize your site for a fee. In this post, I will tell you the things I did for free or next to nothing that helped push my photography website to page one of organic Google searches. The one thing that I already had working to my advantage is that my website is a non-flash site that was launched almost seven years ago. Though Search Engine Optimization is a very controversial topic, everyone can agree that the best thing anyone can do is post regular, original content. The next step would be pointing traffic to your site from good sources, such as industry blogs. This isn't the end all be all though. I already had more than 600 external sites that were linking back to me (I was able to check this by using Google Webmaster Tools), but none of them really helped me because my site was severely lacking in keywords, meta date, page headings and alt image tags. So my seven year-old, non-flash website was only showing up on page four on some keyword searches and seven or eight on others.
Keep in mind that while optimizing your site will absolutely help you rise in organic searches, the pace will be determined by several factors, including the age of your site. Without further ado, here are the steps that I took in optimizing my website for $350.
1. Get SEOquake for Your Browser
The first step you need to take is to download SEOquake. This is a free plug-in for Chrome and Mozilla that allows you to see websites the way search engines see them. For example, search engines DO NOT like flash-based websites. They DO like alt tags on images, meta keywords and short, succinct descriptions. With this tool, you can also browse what keywords and descriptions your top-ranking competitors are using.
The Page Info tab shows your site ranking throughout the country/world. The Keyword Density tab shows you the words most commonly found on your website. For example, the most used word on my website--combining headings, meta data and keywords--is fashion, followed by photography and then photojournalism. But before I had optimized my site, the word photography wasn't even present. Instead there was a bunch of weird filler text and gibberish.
The Analysis tab gives you an overall summary for how your page tests according to search engine standards. If you are using too many words in your meta data, you get a red "x". If your URL is short and succinct, you get a green check-mark. If it is a decent description, but maybe a bit too short or long, you will get a yellow dash.
Above is a picture of my site report after optimization. Below is a report of one of my competitors, who currently ranks on page four with organic searches. Notice that while they are using good keywords, there are far too many. Search engines often consider these to be spammy sites and will often penalize their overall ranking. Also note that they have poorly titled headings and seven missing alt image tags.
2. Optimize Your Website
Once you have pinpointed the areas of your site that need built up, you need to optimize it. This is easier for some people than others, depending on your tech knowledge as well as the type of website you have. For example, I am by no means a tech guy, but I was able to do some of the optimizing myself. I have a Squarespace website, which has clearly labeled sections for meta data, site description, header titles and code embedding. What they don't have is the ability to enter alt image tags. I have no idea why. So I had to cheat a bit. I had to paste some alt image tags in the coding (even though they don't relate to any particular image on my website) in order to satisfy this area of my optimization. Wordpress does, however, have a spot for alt image tags.
If you are completely lacking in the technical arena, find someone that knows coding and ask them to help optimize your site, according to the SEOquake summary. I paid a guy $100 to do this for all three of my websites--it took him an hour to do it.
3. Identify Your Desired Keywords
While Google AdWords charges an arm and a leg to advertise with them, their tools are free to use. And they are some powerful tools. Once you create an AdWords account, use the "find keyword" tool to discover which local and national keyword combinations are the most popular. It will even tell you how strong the competition is for certain phrases. If your site is a newer one, it may take longer to climb in ranking under certain phrases. It is good to identify keyword combinations that are less competitive, but still relevant to your style of photography. It is extremely important to consider what types of visitors certain keywords bring you. For example, even if your website were to show up as a top-ranking entry with the broad search of "photographers", you would almost certainly find that it's not a paying client using those search terms. A potential client will more likely use a search like "Columbus, Ohio photographers" or "Portrait studio Columbus, Ohio". So these are the search terms where you want top listing.
4. Build External Links to Your Site
Now that you have determined what keyword phrases you want to conquer, you need search engines to see these words from multiple sources, in association with your site. This means link building. If you are already a web-savvy photographer, you may have a number of industry blogs or businesses linking to your site. That's great. It's even better if their link includes some of your desired keywords, as in "Columbus, Ohio Photographer Nick Fancher". But even if you don't have many external sites linking to you, all is not lost.
This next bit of advice is especially controversial. Even though I had plenty of sites linking back to me, I wanted to associate certain rich keywords to my website. I did this by using Freelancer.com. Freelancer.com is a site that lets you post jobs such as "Link Builder Needed for my Photography Website" and reach freelancers from around the world. For my optimization campaign, I decided that I didn't want to spend more than $250 on link building. I set this as the max price in the parameters of my post and waited for the bids to roll in. I then selected the best offer from the highest ranked bidder. I gave them a list of the keywords that I wanted to dominate with, including the more competitive "Columbus, Ohio Photographer" as well as less competitive phrases like "apparel photographer". After I accepted their conditions (for me it meant 200 links from high traffic websites for the quoted price), I transferred my money into Freelancer.com's escrow account. Once the link building was complete, I received a description of the URLs that are now linking back to my site, and I released the funds to the freelancer.
After following these four steps, my site rose to page one within two weeks. Naysayers will say that link building will get you nailed by Google as being spammy activity, but it worked for me. Before using Freelancer.com, I didn't have the word "apparel" anywhere on my site. After my campaign a few weeks ago I am now ranked on page three for national searches with the phrase "apparel photographer". Again, your success rate will vary, depending on the age of your site and the competition surrounding your keywords.
I do want to include a counter argument from FStopper Tam Nguyen. In his words, "buying links is the express lane to being marked as spam on Google. Optimizing your website is good though. Meta tags and auto-generated content like sidebar and meta tags are no longer used to rank/index. Google pays a lot more attention to content nowadays. In fact, if you just throw out keywords without incorporating them in written paragraphs, Google will consider it as spamming. Watching Matt Cutts' videos on GWT could probably help steer readers in the right direction. He talks about link building, content, and the importance of having fresh and original content. I've said it a few times, and I'll say it again: if I were asked to give only one piece of SEO advice, it'd be this: keep creating fresh (meaning frequent and up-to-date) and original (meaning no copy, no repost) content, and Google will take care of the rest. Obviously stuff like post titles and URL and other stuff help too, but it won't be a be-all-and-end-all solution. As for keywords and tags, they can't be auto generated. You have to incorporate keywords IN your content. Not only does Google index links and titles, but they now also index the context around such links and keywords, so you can't take it lightly."