Valuable SEO Lessons Learned from Photographer Websites

Valuable SEO Lessons Learned from Photographer Websites

Trying to keep on the top of search engine rankings is a full time job in itself. It’s estimated that Google makes changes to their algorithm more than 500 times per year. Many of these changes are small, but some are significant. Given that effective SEO is a critical component to photographers’ marketing strategies, but most people simply don’t have the time to keep up, we’ve made this a priority.

PhotoShelter  just completed a 6-month process that started with the services of a third party SEO consulting firm’s analysis and ended with a long list of SEO improvements. A lot has changed in the past few years, so as we set out to update all photographer websites, we learned a lot in the process.

Here’s a list of what we learned, the changes we made, and the impact these changes are already having.

1. <H1> tags: Use with intention

“H1” tags within the html code of a page can help search engines like Google understand the most important content on a page. It is good practice to use this tag to highlight the single most important text (heading) on a page. If there is more than one H1 tag present, it could cause Google to do extra work trying to figure out which one is the most important.

H1 tags also help with accessibility, and the use of them has been correlated with higher SEO rankings. Also keep in mind that these tags are a good way to highlight important keywords. Use them wisely and insert the terms that people will most likely be searching for.

After a deep-dive review of all PhotoShelter website templates, we discovered that some had multiple instances. We removed those duplicates. In image pages, the H1 tag is populated with the “Title” IPTC field in the image metadata. If that is empty, then the “headline” field is used instead.

2. Page Titles: They matter

This is what appears in Google as the large clickable text headline at the top of the search engine result. These carry a lot of weight because they are also valuable keywords. Since these are so important, we wanted to make sure that you have control over what appears in this space.

The titles for all image pages in a PhotoShelter website use the “Headline” IPTC field. Whatever is entered in that spot will appear as the large clickable text in search results within Google. If the headline ITPC field is empty, the file name will be used instead.

We highly encourage PhotoShelter members to enter a short descriptive title in the headline field for all of their images. Best practice is to keep these under 60 characters so that they display well within Google in all types of devices. Be mindful that these will also be considered keywords, so choose wisely.

As a helpful guide to writing a successful title tag, imagine the tag is a keyword-rich ad promoting the image. Since this will show up as the large clickable text in the search result, it should be compelling and informative enough that someone wants to click on it.

3. Image Alt Tags: Helping search engines learn

The primary function of image alt tags is to provide accessible web design. It helps to describe images to people who cannot see them, and is also used in the event that the image doesn’t load.

But they also help to teach search engines what an image is all about. This is often overlooked and left blank, which is a poor web design practice.

We made some changes in PhotoShelter so that all website templates generate image alt tags in the same way. They now cascade based on what IPTC information is available within the image file. The order is: caption; headline; and title.

4. Page Loading: The Need for Speed

How quickly a page loads (page speed) is important to Google, and it has a direct impact on your SEO rank. Always remember that Google is constantly trying to give their users the best possible experience. Sending people to slow-loading pages does not  produce a great user experience, so Google will avoid them.

Although use of javascript within a web page can create desirable user experiences, they can also slow down page loads. So, we optimized the javascript in pages to improve loading times. We also now present a minimized javascript version of the page to the Google crawler bot. That page is pre-rendered so the bot can immediately see and index the text and images within the page. We paid special attention to the mobile version of the pages because of Google’s mobile-first ranking benefits.

The quicker a page loads, the more of your pages Google can index during their visit to your site.

We’ve been tracking the results of this change. The number of pages discovered, and then crawled, has more than doubled.

5. Custom Pages: Titles and Descriptions

Each page within a website should have its own unique title and description. One common mistake people make is keeping them all the same. For example, the name of the photographer only. In our audit of all PhotoShelter websites we verified that each page title and description was unique, but we found some repetition with Custom Pages.

This issue was resolved, and now all Custom Pages will always have their own unique page title and meta descriptions, which is controlled within the website builder.

6. Google’s Image License Metadata Program: We are ready

PhotoShelter members have been nervous about their images showing up in Google Images. To many, it felt like it was just an easy way for people to steal their images. But now with the announcement of the new Google Image License Metadata program (currently in beta), our members have been overwhelmingly optimistic.

If an image is available for licensing, a “Licenseable” badge will appear with the image thumbnail in Google Images, and take a user directly to a page where a license can be purchased. This is great news for independent photographers, so we spent the past two months making sure that PhotoShelter is ready for it. In fact, we outdid ourselves on this one.

There are 2 ways to signal to Google that an image is licensable: Structured data within the HTML page that displays the image (following a format from, or specific IPTC metadata fields inserted into the image file itself. Either one of these will work, but we are supporting both.

Google prefers the structured data approach, so we’re supporting that. But we think that the embedded IPTC information needs to be there too. This way, an image can remain licensable, with a link back to your site, even if it was taken from your site and used elsewhere on the internet.

But, that’s not all. We went over and beyond by inserting the structured data into the image file itself as well (not just within the page.) Our goal in all of this was to be the best way for a photographer to make the most of the new opportunity from Google.

The 2 IPTC metadata fields that Google is looking for are the “Web Statement of Rights” and “Licensor URL”, and both of them are now available within the photographer admin area.

If you have a large number of images that need this new data added, you can batch process them gallery-by-gallery inside of PhotoShelter, or you can contact our Technical Support team and they can add the information to every image in your account at one time.

7. SEO Labels: Making it clear which fields matter

If you are feeling overwhelmed with the work needed to keep your SEO in great shape, you’re not alone. There’s a lot to consider. That’s why we made it easier by inserting little “SEO” graphics next to all of the fields inside that really matter. When you log into the photographer area of your account, you will see these in the “IPTC metadata” area of your Image Browser, as well as  the gallery and collection description fields.

To support the new Google Image Licensor program, we also added these SEO graphics to the “Web Statement of Rights” and “Licensor URL” IPTC fields. If you want to license any image, we recommend that you make sure these fields are populated. (They are at the bottom.)

8. Duplicate Content: A single domain is best

It is often said that duplicate content, which is content that appears the same in several locations (URLs), comes with a penalty from Google. We have not found this to be the case. There are many ways for content to be duplicated, most of them out of the control of the user. So, Google has learned to work around this. However, having duplicated content can still negatively impact your SEO.

Some examples of how content can be duplicated include “http:” and “https:” versions of the same page and slight variations in the URL of a website for a given page.

The problem is that Google will index all of these pages and then will have to choose which one is the “real” version. Inbound links going to multiple pages instead of just one will also dilute page rank for them all. So, one is better.

We found duplicate content happening within PhotoShelter for people who used their own custom domain names (CNAME) because the URL was always available in addition to the custom domain. 

To resolve this, we’ve added a redirect so that if someone enters your site using the domain name URL, it will immediately redirect to the custom domain name instead (for all pages except the archive and the shopping cart). This will help reduce “duplicate content” issues with Google.

We are currently working on the network architecture support needed so that the shopping cart and archive pages can also be supported in the same way. The goal is that if a member enters a custom domain into PhotoShelter, that name will be present on all content pages across their site.

9. Sitemaps: Your powerful SEO friend

We’ve seen dramatic improvements in SEO for websites who have submitted their sitemaps using the Google Search Console. Why wait around for Google to find your content when you can just tell them exactly where it is? Our internal testing shows that submitting a PhotoShelter sitemap results in near immediate indexing of web pages and images.

The benefits to this are many, including giving you the ability to see how your pages are being crawled and indexed over time.

We have created an excellent resource on the Google Search Console that will guide you through the process.  

Search engine rankings are a complicated, and often cloaked science, but we are confident that by taking the time to make these changes our members will see some significant improvements in their web presence. 

Recently, I sat down with our Senior Technical Support Specialist Jelan Coley to discuss SEO best practices for photographers, recent insights and how to boost your SEO with PhotoShelter.

Watch to learn about: 

  • Five things you can do to improve your SEO today
  • IPTC metadata and keywording tips 
  • What to prioritize and how some SEO practices work better than others
  • PhotoShelter’s recent improvements to ensure our members appear in search results, including the Google Image License Metadata program (currently in beta)

Our team has also been working hard to provide our members with a first-rate set of SEO support articles and resources. Head to our Support Center to learn more. Any questions, let us know.

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This article was written by

PhotoShelter co-founder and GM

There are 20 comments for this article
  1. Ian Murray at 8:57 am

    Thanks Grover. Very pleased to read this update. I am very happy with Photoshelter overall so hate to seem like I am always complaining but I want to make some constructive points. I have had ongoing problems with falling SEO. The advice I have had back from Photoshelter has always tried hard to be helpful but on reflection it might have been better to have been told ‘we don’t know’ a little more. Often, the first reaction has felt like I am being sent off to do something as though the fault is with me. But SEO has been falling and it used to be good and I’ve done nothing much different. That has been the puzzle. I was advised to switch from Classic to Custom and then a lot later told that actually this might be a reason for SEO dropping as there is no text on the page. I expect that a lot of Photoshelter users are like me and they really rely on you guys to know about this sort of stuff and to find answers for us. I’ve felt, and still do feel with all the celebration about new branding and so on that, you need to stay humble and tuned in to the actual problems that users are experiencing. I’m very pleased that you are on the case and am hoping for things to turn up now. Also a big thanks for populating the new Google metadata fields for me. I have submitted Site maps and Google has found all my pages – over 60k of them. The bad news is that it has only indexed about 2-3k pages. There is something about my Photoshleter pages that the most don’t like and don’t think needs to be indexed. Fingers crossed that your experts are going to sort this out for us. Thanks, Ian Murray

    • Grover Sanschagrin Author at 12:22 pm

      Hi Ian. The changes we’ve made are the result of doing a really deep dive investigation on our system and all of the web pages we are serving. When it comes to SEO, I don’t think anyone is truly an expert. It’s a moving target and we’re just trying to keep up.

      That being said, submitting your sitemap to Google is a great idea. We’ve seen people get great results that way. But, that’s just one part of the SEO puzzle. Our goal is to make sure that your content can be seen and then successfully crawled by Google. The recent updates we’ve made, and all the verification testing we’ve done shows that we succeeded at this.

      Text on the page is absolutely critical. If there’s no text anywhere, then Google won’t know what to do with it. That is true anywhere on the internet. If those SEO metadata fields are filled out, then you’re giving Google the text it needs to work with.

      The rest of the SEO equation is out of our hands. Links pointing back to your website and/or images are still the biggest factor in determining where you will rank. If your images are are associated with highly competitive keywords, then you’ll have a more difficult time getting ranked highly than if you have very specific of niche keywords. It’s a popularity game, and Google is still relying on links back to help them figure it out.

      With all of this being said, we are continuing to monitor SEO results and will constantly tweak and improve this over time. The updates we’ve made over the past few months are just the start.

  2. Dan Donovan at 9:40 am

    This is fantastic news. I came back to PhotoShelter in March due to all of the hard work you have been doing to update the service. So glad to see the SEO work move ahead and looking forward to the updated templates!

  3. Doug Strickland at 11:00 am

    Thanks for all the hard work you’re doing. I have a question about Google’s licensor/metadata program. Do the links in the “Web Statement of Rights” and “Licensor URL” each need to be distinct, or can they both link to the same page on your web site if that page explains that the images are protected by copyright and how they might be licensed?

    • Grover Sanschagrin Author at 12:10 pm

      They can (and should) be the same. I am writing another blog post that goes into detail about the program, and will get into some best practices. Its scheduled for next week.

      • Homer Sykes at 5:11 pm

        When you do Grover, it would be very helpful for people like me who need things explained VERY VERY clearly and slowly, may be an illustration , showing examples etc etc.

        Many thanks Homer Sykes.

    • Dwayne Deziel at 1:49 pm

      Ok I appreciate the article and some of the points but let’s clear up a few things.

      Sitemap or no sitemap Google will crawl and index your site. Yes having a sitemap helps the crawler navigate but it would have always crawled your site and indexed it no matter what.

      Photographers often have trouble with SEO because of content. Your content are pictures and what you can provide in a picture will always pale in comparison to actual content. Plus the alt ext or title you give pictures more than likely is not gonna meet the search intent of the user.

      Google released BERT in 2019. BERT is trained to answer questions, along other things. You want to improve your SEO? Go into search console and then performance. Change the date range to one year. Next to the date bubble click the + sign and choose query. Next put a ? In the field and then hit enter. All those questions you probably are seeing are people that had questions and need answers.

      Create a page for each service you offer that answers those questions. DO NOT ADD FLUFF. Answer the question in the first sentence or two. Make it sound natural. Do not write for search engines, if you want to write for search engines add structured data to your pages.

      Get familiar with entities. Look at how photography relates to other topics. Google’s knowledge graph has a very important topic layer. You notice how on YouTube or an image search there are now capsules with related topics? Google likes topics.

      Don’t keyword stuff.

      Internal link your pages. Don’t over do it though. When internal linking to other pages try to use a synonym or other related word on the page you are linking from.

  4. Homer Sykes at 5:11 pm

    When you do Grover, it would be very helpful for people like me who need things explained VERY VERY clearly and slowly, may be an illustration , showing examples etc etc.

    Many thanks Homer Sykes.

  5. Daryl Hunter at 6:41 pm

    Great info and thinks for the effort. On the same subject, on my gallery pages I have written what could be a short article, for instance, the Grizzly gallery has information about grizzlies to give google more info for spidering. Now, I have been shortening them because photoshelter defaults descriptions to the top of the gallery page subtracting from presentation. I would think and hope to see the default go below gallery thumbnails instead. That though may be template specific, it is though ugly. The search engine would be the only thing interested if I understand correctly.

  6. Lydia Carriere at 1:20 am

    I’m already at the top of search engines so I don’t need the new SEO feature…with the changes, clicking on an image takes you to a separate page with image data that is interrupting the flow of the user experience. How do I turn off this image data page showing up? It is a complete distraction to the original design of the site when viewing on my iPad. I have not tried on my desktop or iPhone yet. Thanks for any assistance on this issue.

  7. Katey Jane Andrews at 6:20 pm

    It’s ok stating about H1 tags and titles, but it no longer works with Google; it’s quality content, keywording places in paragraphs and a whole lot more.

    Your site as it is now is badly dated, and in fact, for someone like me who has a wide range of subject matter, your site fails badly.

    The homepage layouts are the worse I have seen and I,m sure a beginner could do better. I had to code my old SmugMug site to bring it up to the level I want, but your site allows nothing. You can even remove some of the useless links.

    For buyers, a cart icon should be visible. A search box should be visible. A home icon should be visible (not everyone knows to click on the sites name main to locate the homepage).

    Adjustable links should be used.

    I have never seen a website with no homepage until now where you cannot add any text, and that’s just plain crazy.

  8. Joquim at 2:53 pm

    Great tips here for both newbie and veterans. SEO is getting complex with each passing day. The harder the links to get, the more it is powerful. And looks like those easy to get links are not working anymore. Above all, it is the content that matter.

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