Is Your Web Designer Full of Crap?

Is Your Web Designer Full of Crap?

Back in the 90s, when website design was still a novelty, we used to hire designers based on who could make our websites the prettiest. There were so few websites and digital photography didn’t exist yet, so getting a photography website together always created a lot of buzz. But times have changed, and grabbing someone’s attention to view your photos is much harder. The Internet has evolved significantly, and websites need to reflect that changing reality.

It’s still commonplace to see threads on various photography websites asking “who should I use to design my website?” And unfortunately, it’s still common for photographers to spend $10,000 or more to get a “unique” design, or on the flipside, to go totally budget with a $50 solution thinking that all solutions are the same.

Julian Wainwright’s PhotoShelter-powered photography website

We’ve often found that there is a major disconnect between a designer’s vision, and the realities of what the audience wants.

But let’s step back for a moment and discuss the goal of a photography website.

A photography website used to be a digital brochure. It used to be the digital version of the portfolio books that we lugged around. But that time has passed. The rise of Google (and the other search engines) combined with the rapidity of information exchange through mechanisms like blogs and other social media sites, means that your website represents much more than just a place to electronically store your photos. So what’s the goal of a photography website? I assure you that it’s not just to show people images.

Your website design isn’t just for people who visit it. The fundamental construction of the website can help attract visitors even if they don’t know who you are.

You’re probably asking what this has to do with the taupe color and typeface that your designer picked out for you. A website designer who only concerns him/herself with the appearance of the website is like hiring a house painter to design and build your home in a hurricane zone. Can they do it? Sure, they can build you something, but it wont’ be fundamentally sound, and it won’t help you accomplish your goals.

You might be satisfied to drive traffic to your website through traditional marketing techniques alone (e.g. post cards), but you would be missing out on the free lead generation that the Internet can help provide. The goal of your website shouldn’t be limited to display of your images. This, of course, is important. But a website can do so much more by attracting people that don’t even know you exist.

The fact of the matter is that many photography websites, whether they are aware of it or not, get 30-50% of their traffic from search engines. You might think that your website visitors know your URL and are typing it in to their browser, but this flies in the face of evidence.

I still don’t follow you. My name comes up first in Google.
If you search for your name in Google, and your website comes up first, you’re missing the point. If someone already knows your name, then they probably know how to find you. But the well-designed website can attract people who don’t even know you.

Let’s say you’re a wedding and events photographer in New York. Tons of photographers fall into that category, but only 10 show up on the first google search results page for “wedding photographer New York.” When people want to find something that they may not know much about, they go to Google. So you need to be optimized for the terms that they are going to search for. Get it?

How SEO Savvy is your designer?
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a technique that helps your photography website rank higher in searches on Google and other major search engines. The better your ranking for specific keywords, the more likely that you are to drive traffic to your website, which leads to more potential new business.

For example, I use a personal trainer because I’m too lazy to go exercise on my own. My trainers, Darryl and Anne Marie, have a website, and when I saw it, I realized there was a lot of opportunity to make simple improvements. Here is what their homepage looked like before.


A big splash image, which is nice, but all the stuff I want to know if buried. Also, the page title (which is the  most important on-page SEO factor) just had their name. So I suggested that they:

–    Alter the page title to be descriptive
–    Put some text on the homepage that explained what they did
–    Insert a “meta” description into the homepage.

Being that they are sole proprietors of a small business, it’s unlikely that the average person knows who they are. But if I’m looking for a personal trainer in TriBeCa (the neighborhood where I live), then I’m apt to type in “tribeca personal trainer” into Google.

With the old website, they appeared on page 5 of the search engine results page (SERP), where no one would realistically find them. Here’s what the website looks like after we made some basic changes.


Within about a week, Google reindexed the page, and now they appear on the 1st page in the 6th position for “tribeca personal trainer”. And then just last week, Darryl told me that they just signed up a new client that found them on Google while searching for “tribeca personal trainer.” Minor changes made a huge difference in their search results placement, which led to additional revenue.

So that’s real life proof that SEO can reap real benefits when integrated with website design. The other obvious item that should be pointed out, is that I shouldn’t have to search for how to contact a business. Why put contact information on a contact page? Why not put it on the homepage? But I digress.

SEO factors are precisely what a savvy designer needs to be aware of before they build a website. In fact, it’s arguable that in this day an age, a designer without knowledge of SEO is not doing their job. In reviewing their past work, use the following checklist to determine their SEO awareness.

–    Does every page in the website have a different page title?
–    Does every page have a unique URL (many Flash-websites have a single, shared URL for every page)
–    Do the names of the galleries appear in the URL?
–    Do captions and keywords appear as text (not graphics) on the pages?
–    When you view the source code of the page, do you see a <meta name=”description”>?
–    Does a description of the photographer’s work and services appear on the homepage?
–    Does the website include an about page with text? (Many Flash-based sites use an image)
–    Do images have an ALT tag which tells Google what is depicted in the image?
–    Have they installed Google Analytics into the website?
–    Have they registered a “sitemap” with Google Webmaster?

The same questions can be posed to your website software provider. So many photography website vendors focus purely on the presentation of images, but they are missing half of the marketing game.

You can learn a lot more about SEO by checking out our SEO Toolkit for photography websites.

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter. He co-hosts the “I Love Photography” podcast on iTunes.

There are 17 comments for this article
  1. Erik Dungan at 1:24 pm

    There’s some good, basic SEO info here. Why exactly is it “unfortunate” that photographers spend on both the high and low ends of the website spectrum. Do tell us, what is the “fortunate” price range? Would love to see more information on SEO for Flash here. Like it or not, a good amount of photography websites are done in Flash (possibly a majority) and its a solid medium for presenting portfolios. There are definitely ways to optimize Flash-based websites–to not mention those would be doing everyone a disservice.

  2. Allen Murabayashi at 1:36 pm

    @erik: you are a consummate grammarian! my poor grammar aside, the unfortunate part is when you spend money on a website, and you do not get your money’s worth — whether it’s $99/year or $20k. as far as flash goes, the *only* way to definitively get indexed is to have a shadowed HTML site. period. yes, i know there are articles about how google has started to index flash, but 1) they aren’t looking at images afaik, 2) since many flash websites don’t have unique URL capability, there’s no way to push someone to a specific page. sites like livebooks create a shadowed HTML site, so if you like that type of presentation, i think it’s a great solution. but i think photographers are sometimes too swayed by the “look” of a website vs. its functionality. i hate advocating a technology solution because in the end, the technology platform is moot if it accomplishes the intended goals. but on the issue of flash, there are limitations from the SEO perspective, and that is what photographers should be aware of — particularly because some vendors make claims about their SEO that simply aren’t true.

  3. Erik Dungan at 3:11 pm

    @Allen If you pay $99 for a website, then I’d argue you “are” getting your money’s worth 🙂 Flash sites can be indexed by having the Flash embedded using javascript and providing alternate content in the div tag that is replaced. For example, in the Julian Wainwright portfolio you linked to, the Flash slideshow is loaded into a div tag with the ID of “gallerySlideshow1”. That div (which is currently empty) could contain image tags (with alt descriptions) of all the pictures from the slideshow. The same goes for Flash that has text in it. This is similar to a shadow HTML site but slightly different. Plus, considering that most decent sites are database/CMS driven, implementing either of these solution is (or should be) fairly trivial. I’m definitely not asking you to “advocate” using Flash (my apologies if I came off that way). Rather, I’m saying _because_ so many photographers already use Flash, a comprehensive SEO tutorial/article/toolkit should at least contain a cursory overview of best practices for Flash sites. It would be akin to an article on “backup software” that only covered Mac applications and not Windows (or vice-versa). Again, my apologies if I came off as defensive. I think this is a good article with plenty of worthwhile information.

  4. Allen Murabayashi at 3:16 pm

    @erik, when i used “advocate” i was talking about me, not you! photographers should use the best tools possible. you’ve imparted some great information, and i think that’s fantastic. since there isn’t complete transparency in the way that search engines create their algorithms (and rightfully so to prevent gaming), i think sharing knowledge is the only way to give independent photographers a chance. perhaps we can include more information about flash in a 2nd version of the toolkit.

  5. AJ at 11:28 pm

    Great info. on SEO, but your example rather proves the opposite point too, that using an SEO guru without any design skills might not be the best thing for your site either. I mean, what’s with the ugly bright white font (Times New Roman?) all over that pretty blue sky? I see it’s sans serif on their live site (thankfully!), but how about a bit of subtlety (maybe some transprency) and attention to layout?

  6. Rita at 1:23 pm

    If you pay to have your site designed, it’s best to look for a well-rounded, knowledgeable designer who can give you the best of both worlds: awesome design and SEO. They do exist – I’m one of them. 🙂 There’s a lot of debate on static v. dynamic pages. I tend to lean more towards the static pages because they *can* be found by the search engines, and you can drill down each page to its specific intent in both your keywords and description (although some webmasters tend to get lazy about this part, or fail to do it altogether). Don’t get me wrong, I love dynamic sites, but if you’re looking to dominate your field, I’d say stick with the static pages, or create a non-Flash version of your site.

  7. farfromfearless at 7:55 pm

    A good web designer should not only be technically competent and creative, but also a good listener. Simply hearing that a client (a photographer in this case) wants a portfolio/website doesn’t always mean flash — unfortunately, that is the first thing that most designers latch onto (and it’s not always their fault). A good web-based portfolio is a balancing act of presentation and function; there’s plenty of talk here about SEO, but that is only one aspect that needs to be considered when building a solid portfolio. Some of those aspects might be: 1. Accessibility 2. User Experience 3. Content — this is the big one that escapes most folks. If you’re a photographer looking for a website/portfolio, make sure you take time to research your designers — and for god’s sake: spend the cash on a good one. You DO get what you pay for in this industry, consider that even one commissioned piece can often pay for the investment, the ROI is considerable. We’re not all cut from the same cloth.

  8. still at 4:31 am

    I definitely agree that SEO should be one of the first boxes in need of ticking when doing web design. What is the point to spend upward to a thousand on a swish website and then have no traffic. Google is still unable to properly index text in embedded in Flash so a simple, effective website with a clear conversion and good copy is all you need.

  9. anon at 4:51 pm

    What happened to goals??? All business don’t have the same goals or reach their final goals in the same way.

  10. Allen Murabayashi at 4:54 pm

    @anon: all business have the same goal of producing revenues — ideally more revenues over time. a website that doesn’t direct a user towards wanting to hire a photographer or license/purchase a photograph is useless imo.

  11. anon at 1:15 pm

    @Allen Murabayashi – “a website that doesn’t direct a user towards wanting to hire a photographer or license/purchase a photograph is useless imo” Thank you for the response. Your opinion tends to support your “photoshelter” business, no? Selling goods & services to photographers seems to be where the growth is in the “photography” industry today (less so in creating imagery), so I’m not surprised by your response. The details aren’t black and white. There are real differences in business plans/goals between different photographers/business. The way a business achieves these goals (to similar end results) are different. How one communicates, can vary greatly based on any number of real world considerations. You yourself don’t make a living solely from the creation and sales of your images. I’m beginning to feel, less and less image makers are able to make a good living – receive a healthy ROI solely from the creation and licensing of their own images. Sure it happens, it’s possible. But more often for the vast majority the living is just getting by or earning a little extra cash to support the photography habit/hobby – with very poor ROI. Why are there so many photographers selling goods and services to other photographers if the marketplace is healthy? Like those ads – “I’ll show you how to make $5 million dollars in your spare time”. (LOL – What a good samaritan). Let’s say a person is really serious about creating a strong functional business. They are going to invest 20-30 years of their life, tens of thousands of dollars each year, long days and nights, many years of struggle…. How do you think a wise business person/teacher/sage would direct them? Would he/she suggest the survival and prosperity of the business is dependent on wishful thinking: enough buyers will “find” their products/services through online searches? Will enough business come from this alone to gamble the most vital part of one’s life, along with hundreds of thousands of dollars cumulatively? Would enough sales be made through this (SEO) alone to provide not just a living but a healthy living for a family with savings for retirement, education for the children, health care, parental care, etc? What is the ROI for that time and capital? IMO – relying on SEO alone is not a feasible plan for a Professional Imagemaker. A pro plans to receive a healthy ROI over the years. SEO alone is too passive, like throwing a line out – waiting and hoping something will bite. It might provide enough sales to just scrape by if it is done well, the images are quality, and the imagemaker is good with people. SEO may also allow the hobbiest (and pro) to get a carrot every now and then – but is this a good livelihood? (In fact I’ve seen those carrots may string along a person with a bad business plan/execution for 20 years. Now they are 20 years older and all they know is photography). However the class of Professional Imagemakers that are able to do well (as outlined) is a rare group. Far more DIRECT effort is required. Relying on SEO alone is a loosing proposition for most imagemakers. How many major ad campaigns, or major editorial commissions are acquired through SEO alone? As far as stock sales the competition is pretty rough. The market is completely flooded with images. At a dollar a pop how big a budget is required to composite final art for media from 20 separate images? SEO may work very well for some businesses (especially those with high volume low ticket), but the individual imagemaker works in a different marketplace. Different scale of economy. So now here is where the paths separate. Many business have a subjective aspect to the goods and services they provide. When there is a choice to be made based on pure parity the lowest price will almost always get the sale (in photography that price is often below the cost of doing business). The way to add value to your existing products is to build your brand identity. The way to communicate in this environment will be different than that of a shop trying to compete based on price alone. The drivers of both Saturn and Mercedes have an end goal of getting to their destination safely – but the journey is different. How many of the service providers represented by A+C, BA, SM, etc. (including the agencies themselves) rely on SEO to access the projects they require to earn a good living? This class may have the goal of “producing revenues — ideally more revenues over time” but they approach it in a different manner than you present. How many -potential- regular clients are unknowns to a professional? Unknown ad agencies? Unknown design firms? Unknown magazines? I’m sure there are a few, but do they have the budget and repeat business to provide regular business (ROI)? If they do have regular business with budgets – they will not remain unknown for long. Coming back to your trainer’s website. I feel it looked far better before junking it up with the text. Altering the page title and adding metadata is great – it may bring in a client or two. (Most importantly that client or two could provide real WOM buzz). However the “new” version communicates: cheap, hungry, poor aesthetics. I perceive this as a lesser “user experience”. (btw – If a person is serious about training and can’t take the extra 3 minutes to click on links and glean info, how are they going to set up a training regime and follow it daily for months or longer? The truth is, it will take more than a trainer putting a person through the motions to live a healthy life. You get back what you put in). People with discretionary funds often look for a high quality user experience. (Personally I have had a membership at a “nicer” health club in Los Angeles for years. I could get a similar workout at a 24hr fitness for 80% less – but the “experience” is not of the same quality). Why do people buy more expensive Apple products?

  12. Allen Murabayashi at 2:32 pm

    @anon: thanks for clarifying your position. i wasn’t sure whether you were a crackpot or serious with the one-line, anonymous comment, but clearly you have thought about this. first, i don’t consider SEO to be a panacea, not do i consider it to be the sole marketing technique that a photographer should employ. in our webinars, we stress that a balanced marketing strategy will incorporate both outbound and inbound marketing techniques — so absolutely, direct contact continues to be important (and particularly for certain types of photography). i *definitely* don’t think that the professional photography market is healthy. as you point out, too much competition. too many microstock sites. too many cut photo budgets. one could also plausibly argue that the most successful photographers are those that have great retouchers. but that doesn’t discount the need for relevant marketing strategies. does SEO work for a high-end commercial photographer? probably not, at least not in terms of generating their traditional types of business. (although one could argue that typing in “jennifer aniston gq photographer” should yield michael thompson’s website), but it could generate traffic that lead to more non-traditional things like book sales or workshop signups. an event photographer, by contrast, *must* use SEO — not as an add-on to the marketing strategy, but as a cornerstone. the average couple simply doesn’t know wedding photographers. they are likely to get referrals from friends, but they are probably just as likely to type in “wedding photographer new york” in google too. photoshelter can’t fix the industry. but we can try to educate. we can partner with people like cradoc (fotoquote) to bring what we consider to be the best information and best practices to a larger audience and let them know their photos are worth something. we can bring marketing techniques that help photographers stand out more. and that’s what we are trying to do by pushing content out to the community for free. as far as the trainer is concerned. i know from the analytics, that the majority of the traffic that hits the homepage goes to the “about” page. so you’re right that people are going to want to poke around. but your high taste isn’t necessarily shared by a person trying to find a trainer. why do people watch american idol instead of going to the orchestra? why do people watch “desperate housewives” rather than “arrested development”? i love great photography. i want to promote great photography, but we have to also be cognizant of the fact that the mechanisms to pull people into our website have to be appealing enough to the masses to be successful. SEO is great because combined with analytics, it gives us *real* information about the effectiveness of our marketing. we can use similar combinations with our other marketing activities, but that’s another topic….

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