Sitemaps: Finding Your Photos Online

Sitemaps: Finding Your Photos Online


If you’ve ever considered buying a house or apartment, you’re already familiar with a floor plan. The floor plan gives you an accurate layout of the property, and gives you an easy way to identify the important stuff in the design.

When it comes to websites, sitemaps serve a similar function. When search engines crawl your website, they can be confronted with a multitude of different designs and content (e.g. think of vs. vs. your own website). And the linkages of one page to another aren’t necessarily obvious or SEO-friendly. Therefore, having a sitemap gives a search engine a map to the important content.

To Google, a sitemap is a specific type of document written in a markup language called XML. Here’s an entry from the PhotoShelter sitemap:




Pretty simple, right? In addition to indicating the location of the page (in this case, our product tour), the sitemap can also specify a priority (from 0 to 1.0) and a change frequency.

How do sitemaps affect SEO?
The short answer is that sitemaps don’t affect SEO. Sitemaps have no real influence on the optimization of your pages. Having your entire website listed in a sitemap won’t necessarily yield any more indexed pages. What it does affect is the “discoverability” of your website.

As an extreme example, let’s say you have a thousand web pages on your site, but none of them are linked to one another. When Google visits your website homepage, the only page that it can “discover” is your homepage because nothing else is linked. But if you had a sitemap pointing to all 1,000 pages, then those pages, too, could be crawled and potentially indexed.

The difference between crawling and indexing
The difference between crawling and indexing is the difference between sitemaps and SEO. A sitemap will allow a search engine to crawl your entire site because the sitemap reveals the location of every page. But what actually gets indexed is a function of SEO factors like page titles and backlinks.

In other words, if you don’t have good SEO, a sitemap isn’t going to increase the number of indexed content. Conversely, if you have good SEO but poor discoverability, a sitemap could dramatically increase the number of indexed content.

Image Sitemaps
Earlier this year, Google unveiled an extension to the sitemap specification which allowed images to be included. Here’s an entry of an image:



Easter Island is one of the most remotely inhabited places on earth. Known for it’s massive statues (called Moai) which represent ancestors, Easter Island’s native population almost went extinct during a Moai building boom that occurred in the 19th century.



If done properly, the image sitemap gives the direct location of an image along with the IPTC Description, which is great for SEO purposes. The inclusion of keywords gives context to the image and gives Google indexable text.

It might seem like a photography website would be easy to traverse, but in fact, there are a few things that work against it. SEO best practices include the text links, whereas many photography websites will have thumbnails with no text. This can prevent Google from crawling the deeper pages which contain your images. For this reason, a sitemap can be very beneficial.

PhotoShelter creates sitemaps for you
There are a number of tools that you can use to generate a sitemap, but in truth, if you’re constantly uploading new images and creating new pages of content, you really need an automated solution. Fortunately, PhotoShelter automatically creates and submits a sitemap (of pages and images) for you.

I have thousands of images in my sitemap, but only 4 of them are indexed. Why does PhotoShelter suck?
Chill, my man. We’ve been discussing SEO on this blog for a long time now, and if there’s one concept that you need to understand about SEO, it’s this. You must build backlinks to your website to have good SEO.

If you have thousands of images in your sitemap, but only a very low percentage are indexed, I can guarantee that you aren’t doing a good job of creating backlinks.

What’s a backlink?
 It’s a link to your website.

How do I get a backlink?
Well, you could create links to your website from a blog. Or if you have compelling content, then other people might link to you as well. Each time someone links to your website, it’s like a “vote of confidence” or an endorsement for your site. You want lots of links from as many good websites as possible.

For example, Paul Williams runs Funkystock, and specializes in food and travel stock photography. Paul regularly blogs about specific food topics and travel destinations, and within each article he creates many links to individual web pages containing his stock photos.  This article on chocolate & cacao stock photography is a perfect example, with many individual backlinks within.  Even on his blog “homepage” Paul uses the area commonly reserved for a blogroll to list out dozens of links to his food & travel image galleries, using great anchor text for each. (Hey look, Paul just picked up a few more backlinks while you were busy reading this.)
So I just make a blog, and link to my homepage?
A link from your blog to your homepage is better than nothing, but as you try to improve your SEO, you’re going to want to do a few things:

  • Link to specific content within your website, not just your homepage
  • Use good anchor text
  • Get other people to link to you

If you are the only person linking to your website, it’s not going to get you very far. But if a thousand people link to your website, your SEO will be dramatically improved, and the number of indexed pages will also go up.

Why does improved SEO result in more indexed pages?
Because the more links you have, the more likely that your content is “good” – i.e. interesting and applicable to a larger audience. Think of a site like WebMD. Lots of websites link to WebMD because it is a definitive source for medical information. Google’s algorithm then says, let’s index more content so that more of their good webpages show up in our searches.

Once a sitemap is uploaded, how quickly can I expect results?
PhotoShelter creates a fresh sitemap for you every Saturday. Then it probably takes Google 1-3 days to come by and download the sitemap and crawl your website. It’s not uncommon to see fluctuations in the number of indexed pages in the first few weeks (and so don’t punish yourself by looking at your statistics daily). After a month, the number of indexed content is probably a good indication of where you’re at with Google. From there, you should start building backlinks continually.

How can I tell how many pages and images are indexed?
The simplest way is to go to Google and enter the following into the search box:

site:[your photoshelter URL]

For example:

You can do the same thing on Google Images:

John Lander has about 2,300 pages and about 200 images indexed. We discussed John’s SEO strategy a few months ago. 

So let the automated sitemaps help with your website discoverability, but help yourself by continually building backlinks.

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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 2 comments for this article
  1. Delane Rouse at 6:03 pm

    Great info…but let me ask a question. Since most of my clients don’t have websites…what’s the best way for me to obtain a backlink? Should I blog about my shoots on my website and link my individual photoshelter galleries like this: or specific images like this: Does my question make sense? I’m not sure how deep to link or which is better

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