Why Does SEO Even Matter?
SEO is a business-critical activity that can increase the frequency and quantity of customers who find you versus a competitor. The brief summary of your web page that displays in search engine results acts as a free "ad." How you, the author, code it determines the nature of its content and how well that "ad" can be found. The difference in being listed in the top 10 search results, on page 1, versus several pages back for a search query can mean the difference between profitability and obscurity.
Businesses of all shapes and sizes ultimately find themselves starting on an even playing field navigating SEO best practices to top one another. In the photography industry, several portfolio website services offer solutions that integrate some elements of SEO, but to ultimately best your competition, you can’t beat the freedom of optimizing the code of your own hand-built web page. Not everyone has the expertise or time to do this, but understanding the basics of SEO will allow you to better evaluate online portfolio services to determine which provides the better solution if you decide to go that route.
SEO Best Practices
The ultimate best practice for SEO is to write content for people and not search engines. Still, understanding what search engines like or look for is important. There are numerous search engines, but the reigning king is Google, which as of January 2013 holds a market share (U.S. market) of 67% followed by Bing at 16%, Yahoo at 12%, Ask at 3% and AOL at 2%. (See www.comscore.com/Insights/Press_Releases/2013/2/comScore_Releases_January_2013_U.S._Search_Engine_Rankings). Most approaches to SEO are universal, no matter the search engine. Seeing that Google holds such a large market share, their clout generally influences how their competitors function and most people optimize their website for search.
Optimization for search has two distinct facets: on-page and off-page SEO. On-page SEO focuses on refining components of code and content on the web page/website you’re optimizing. Off-page SEO focuses on steps to drive others to interact with your web page/website. While one can achieve short-term benefits from on-page SEO, SEO, in general, is a long-term endeavor that requires a great deal of dedication and consistency. While SEO sounds menacing to the uninitiated, the steps to implement improvements are quite simple.
If you have a handle on the following questions, you’ll have an easier time with SEO and your business endeavors, in general.
What is your brand? Brand, as defined by Ashley Friedlein, "is the sum total of how someone perceives a particular organization. Branding is about shaping that perception." If you’re not thinking about or shaping how your brand is to be perceived by your customers, they may not be getting the full story or, worse yet, getting the wrong story. Your SEO efforts will only be as good as your ability to encapsulate who you are and what you’re about. Who is your target audience? Identifying who your ideal customers are will help you hone your messaging to something that’s more easily encapsulated for SEO.
How will people convert to a lead or sale once they find you? Once you’ve captured the attention of someone, know the flow that person will take to complete a transaction. Where possible, make that flow known in your content to maximize conversion to a sale.
What elements of your content are most important to be found? If you know what elements of your content you want found first, you’ll be able to better format and organize your content. This will help your viewers and search engines alike, minimizing the effort to find important information.
Where will you focus your efforts? Unlike 10 years ago, there’s no shortage of places to self-publish. Know where you’ll be focusing your self-publishing efforts (website, social media, blogging, etc.) to hone your SEO efforts and messaging.
When do you expect people will find your content? Understand and set your expectations as to when others will find your content via search engines. Content that doesn’t overtly date itself may stay relevant longer and stay at the top of search results. If you can create content that’s of immediate relevance and importance, and has lasting power, you’ll get more from your efforts.
Think Big Picture
How does SEO manifest itself for an individual managing his or her business website? These five steps break down SEO into its simplest form as a business practice.
1. Assess & Identify Keywords. Identify the keyword(s) and/or phrase that you want to be the core focus of your page/site. The keyword(s) and/or phrase you identify should then be included in all SEO-relevant areas (see the Think Code section). You then can further optimize the phrasing or wording by comparing search statistics in Google Trends (www.google.com/trends) or Google Adwords Keyword Tool (adwords.google.com/o/KeywordTool).
2. Optimize Your Code. Several "on-page factors," aspects of your web page that influence search engine rankings, are both important to know and address. If you’re starting a website from scratch, you’ll want to formulate a plan around addressing as many as you can, whereas if you’re adjusting an existing site, you can make incremental improvements to help your site and sanity.
3. Pursue Backlinks. Strive for people to link back to your site to help search engines understand your pages’ relevance and importance. As it relates to Google, such a tactic will help your PageRank, a numerical weighting of importance of your website based on the number of other websites and their respective PageRank linking to your page/site. The more incoming links to your page/site, the more votes of importance Google counts in their calculations.
4. Update Frequently. Strive to make regular updates to your page by updating content, adding new images, writing blog posts, etc. Site activity is one of many on-page factors search engines look for when indexing websites. A best practice is to make updates when it makes sense versus trying to artificially create something from nothing. If your website looks alive versus abandoned, search engine spiders will return with greater frequency and, more importantly, your viewers will, too.
5. Reevaluate. Regularly look to see how your website/page is performing and, as necessary, make adjustments to your keywords, backlink efforts and/or frequency of updates.
With over 200 variables going into search algorithms, optimization of code might seem impossible. Luckily, these 200 variables have different weighting, and those that should be at the top of your list to attend to are below.
Title Tag. Every page shou
ld have a title tag filled out containing the keyword(s) and/or phrases identified as central to its focus, both for SEO and general readability. In everyday browsing, the title tag is displayed at the top of the browser window for each site you visit. Given the high visibility of the page title to readers, it should be readable to people, not just cryptic keywords lumped together for search engines.
Header Tag. Header tags, of which there are 6—H1, H2, H3, H4, H5 and H6—are HTML formatting tags. The largest of all the H tags, H1 tags display formatted text and are interpreted as placing the greatest emphasis or importance on copy. H1 tags, used sparingly, are often employed to format copy headings or titles, and are ideal to include keyword(s) and/or phrases. Note that H1 tags shouldn’t be used excessively, as search engine spiders also account for their abuse.
Meta Description. Often limited to 155 characters, Meta Description tags are used to display snippets summarizing the purpose or content of your web page. It’s recommended that web page/site authors carefully craft the content found within this tag to optimally draw visitors to your website. Forgoing to specify content in this tag will result in search engines guessing what to best display.
Keywords/Phrases In Your Copy. The copy of your web page should be relevant and accurate to your subject, but it also should contain your targeted keyword(s) and phrase(s). A word of warning: Don’t go too overboard in repeating your keyword(s) and phrase(s) excessively, a practice known as "keyword stuffing," as doing so can negatively impact your standings in search engine results.
Alt Attributes. Alt attributes serve two purposes: 1) provide alternative information to readers about an image in the event it doesn’t display; and 2) inform search engines what the image is about. Photographers should consistently populate alt attributes for each image to get the most out of their SEO efforts. Since images can’t be read by Google’s search engine spiders, directly relaying the content of the images via alt attributes is critical.
Filenames For Images. Descriptive filenames for images and other types of files have an impact on SEO results. An image titled "2013-golden-gate-bridge.jpg" or an HTML page titled "golden-gate-travel-photos.html" will provide more meaningful information to search engines than "2013ggb.jpg" or "ggb.html." If the name of your files share important keywords associated with your copy, you may benefit all the more.
URL File Structure. As with filenames containing descriptive information, subdirectory names and URL structures can help with SEO. A subdirectory titled "travel photography" versus "pages" will help convey greater meaning to readers and search engines alike:
mydomain.com/travel-photography/golden-gate-views.html versus mydomain.com/pages/golden-gate-views.html.
Anchor Text. Simply put, anchor text is the descriptive text used to display where a link will take a user. "Click here," "here" and "link" are nondescriptive link anchor text. Anchor text such as "California Travel Destinations" or "California Travel Photography" will help better inform readers and search engines of the significance of these links and their content.
Avoid Flash. Flash websites, while great for presentation, aren’t recommend when optimizing a page/site for SEO. There are workarounds, such as using a sniffer script to redirect search engine spiders to a non-Flash html page. Even still, this technique can create more headaches than it’s worth given there are ample new technologies such as jQuery to create a similar interactive display without the SEO pains.
Social Widgets & Social Signals. What you and your social network like, share and read may be more of an influence to SEO in the future, and for this reason, it’s recommended to include social media share buttons on your web page/site. Increasingly, social signals are now being used in personalized search results and are sure to have their weighting increased over time in search overall.
Beyond the nuts and bolts of on-page factors impacting SEO, there are other off-site factors that also can help. Many of these off-site factors revolve around the development and dissemination of content of value. The greater the value to your readers, the more likely they are to share your content, introducing it to others. Now that social media is ubiquitous online, it’s incredibly important to focus heavily on value and make it easy for readers to inform their networks of your content and its location. To do this, it helps to have accounts on many of the biggest social-media sites (for example, Facebook, Twitter and Google+). Even if you’re not an active user of these networks, having an account with a completed user profile gives you a means to have a virtual "business card" for people to find you and communicate with you in a manner of your choosing. The side benefit of this is that you create a new link back to your website, helping you create more overall backlinks. Having these accounts also can help you broadcast your content to larger audiences who may not currently know of you or your work’s online location. Infusing these communities with your work can spur sharing and help build up social-signal rankings that may someday influence SEO. Other opportunities exist with video, as well. YouTube, if compared to all search engines, would rank #2 right behind Google itself. Creating video vignettes or image slideshows in video format, and providing links to your website in the description can help both with linkbacks and social signals.
The playing field for SEO is constantly evolving. Once your website has been tuned up, it’s important to keep track of SEO trends and take advantage of new features and opportunities as they arise.
Jim Goldstein is a professional outdoor and travel photographer, and the VP of Marketing at BorrowLenses.com. Follow him on his blog (JMGGalleries.com/blog), Twitter (@jimgoldstein), Facebook (www.facebook.com/jmggalleries) and Google+ plus.google.com/+JimGoldstein).
Common SEO Terms and Definitions
| SEO. Search engine optimization is the practice of optimizing web pages and websites so they appear in search results.
SERP. A search engine results page is the listing of web pages displayed by a search engine upon submission of a keyword query.
Backlink. A link (hyperlink) pointing from another website
PageRank. An exclusive Google algorithm used to calculate the relative importance of web pages across the Internet.
Web Crawler/Spider. A computer program with the purpose of browsing the web in order to discover new links and pages on the behalf of search engines.
Anchor Text. The clickable text of a link found on a web page.
Search Index. A collection of web page data gathered by search engines for fast and accurate retrieval.
Sitemap. An organized list of pages on a specific website accessible to web crawlers and/or users.
Robot.text. A text file stored at the root of a website domain to inform search crawlers/spiders about the structure of the site and which areas of the site are permitted to index.
Metatags. Tags placed inside the HEAD section of your HTML code that provide search engines information about the content of your page (ex., title, description, etc.).
BlackHat SEO. The use of overly aggressive tactics, breaking search engine rules, that focus on search engines alone and not human readers.
WhiteHat SEO. The use of tactics, in line with search engine rules and policies, that focus on human readers and not just search engines alone.