In nearly every industry, the web has enabled a cadre of internet-famous individuals, who on the merits of their marketing prowess have gained massive followings without necessarily acquiring the skills that has traditionally defined an “expert.” At the surface, the phenomena seems entirely meritocratic – use hard work to circumvent the traditional gatekeepers, thereby building an audience that one can then monetize. But the insidious by-product is a “fake news” quality to the content. Should we believe and/or value the information?
One of the more polarizing figures in the photo industry is street photographer and workshop instructor Eric Kim, whose website frequently appears as the #1 result when searching “street photography” (search result position can vary by who is executing the search, so experts often refer to the average position which can be gleaned through Google Search Console).
While other photographers have spent time building up followers on Instagram, Kim has focused on creating massive amounts of blog content for the simple reason that the web is arguably a better mechanism for discovery and “intent.” Instagram’s discovery mechanism uses keywords, hashtags and network associations to uncover other images and accounts that you might like – but the user’s intention is usually just to find similar content. By contrast, the web offers users to act upon more specific “intent.” A user can go from broad intent (e.g. “Nikon D810”) to more specific intent (e.g. “Nikon D810 vs Canon 5D”) that leads to conversion (e.g. the purchase of a camera). For Kim, this means using his high position in search results to introduce himself as an expert in street photography, which can can potentially lead to a user shelling out thousands of dollars to attend his workshop.
To “win” at search, websites need good Search Engine Optimization (SEO) – the practice of creating content then building links, social activity and domain strength so that a given page comes up higher in search results. Kim exploits a few well-known techniques to build a large ground-covering of content, including:
- Click-bait headlines
- Use of listicles
- Controversial topics & a quirky writing style that cause his content (all open-sourced) to be reposted by sites like DPReview, PetaPixel, Flipboard, etc – which helps him build inbound links, strengthening his SEO.
Kim’s content is prolific and well-positioned. Here’s a list of search terms and their search result position:
- street photography: #1
- street photographer: #7
- Street photography workshop: #4
- Joseph Koudelka: #4
- Bruce Davidson: #5
- Bruce Gilden: #6
- Martin Parr: #5
- Alex Webb: #5
- David Alan Harvey: #6
- Henri Cartier-Bresson: #5
- Elon musk photography: #1
Now imagine you have an interest in photography, and come across a piece on Bruce Gilden. You search for “Bruce Gilden” and see Kim’s “5 Lessons Bruce Gilden Has Taught Me About Photography.”
In Google’s “People also search for” box, you click on “Martin Parr,” and you see Kim’s “10 Things Martin Parr Can Teach You About Photography.” As you move down the rabbit hole of street photography, you keep coming across Kim’s content which leads you to believe that he is an expert in street photography.
From the viewpoint of building a business around photography, the answer is irrelevant. Whether you like him or not, he has been as successful as any of his internet-famous photography peers, and is doing what he set out to do, namely make a living through photography (that his income comes from teaching might concern you, but it certainly doesn’t bother Kim). More photographers should be building textual content (i.e. blogging) on their websites.
The fallacy of his SEO conquest is that he is, by his own admission, “not the best photographer out there.” Although well-read and erudite, his writing skills are mediocre – partially because he never edits his work – relying on a stream-of-consciousness style that allows him to be prolific, but not insightful. Thus the way he represents photography is not that of either a professional photographer, nor a thoughtful critic of photography. He is playing the SEO game with great success, and building resentment from a large part of the community – both professional and amateur – who view him as a charlatan.
Kim mostly participates in the “long tail” of SEO, building content against niche topics. He isn’t trying to rank for terms like “Canon DSLR,” instead writing about content within the street photography realm. An analysis of his most popular post reveals 1100 backlinks – that is, 1100 links from other sites reference his content. It is a relatively large, but not insurmountable number of backlinks, which means that the next Eric Kim could be around the corner if he/she committed to creating regular content. Why not a photographer like Andre D. Wagner, Issui Enomoto, or Che’ Ahmad Azhar?
As more professional photographers diversify their revenue streams away from strict picture taking, they ought to take a cue from people like Kim. They might never respect his photography, but they could learn from his marketing acumen. In the world of SEO, content is king, and for better or worse, Kim rules the streets.