For a few reasons, one of my favorite disciplines in digital marketing is SEO. A little self-education in SEO can go a long way, for one. When done well, SEO can help reduce the amount of money you spend on other areas of marketing, like pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, Facebook Ads, and so on. When I work with photographers, one of the common misconceptions is that SEO is primarily about keywords.
Keywords are an important part of SEO, but they are far from being the biggest component to effective SEO. I think a lot of photographers want to learn more about the practice of SEO, but are overwhelmed by all of the technical jargon. This post is the first in a series I’m calling “SEO Basics for Photographers,” in which I’ll walk you through learning SEO, but with a photography focus. Hopefully being able to see how it works for your business will make SEO a little more valuable and lot easier to tackle.
The Infinite Value of Keyword Research and the Keyword Mistakes Most Photographers Make
Keyword research is one of the best things you can do for your photography business. By diving into keyword research, you will learn which terms and phrases you should be targeting in your SEO, but you can also learn a wealth of information about your customers in the process. You don’t just want people to visit your website, you want the right kind of people to visit your website. It’s better to have 1000 people per month who are highly likely to book with you, than it is to have 10,000 people who might not be the right fit. Keyword research provides business intelligence that can help you make better decisions about what products you’re offering, when to put a certain type of session up for promotion, and what part of your business brings in your ideal clients.
Most the mistakes that photographers make with their keywords are:
- Aiming to rank for keywords that are too general and broad (“wedding photography,” “senior portraits”)
- Keywords with too much competition, so it’s fighting an uphill battle
- Keywords with a search volume that is too low
- Trying to rank for just one keyword at a time, and not going after multiple themes or keywords
Understanding Where Keywords “Fit” in the SEO Landscape
When it comes to SEO, there are two major areas into which the technical factors fit: on-page SEO, and off-page SEO. On-page SEO factors are things like having properly optimized images, the content on your page, how you link to other parts of your website, and yes, what keywords are used.
One of my favorite industry resources for the latest in SEO news and education is Moz. Every two years, they collaborate with a handful of data partners and survey over 150 search engine marketing professionals to study what factors of SEO impact rankings. The full 2015 Ranking Factors study is available to peruse, but the piece I think most photographers need to know is that they continue to see lower correlations between on-page keyword use and search rankings.
Does that mean that keyword use is no longer important? Absolutely not. Instead, I would just understand that while keywords are still a part of your overall SEO plan, they need to be a specific and planful part of your bigger SEO strategy.
Branded Keywords: What They Are and Why You Should Already Rank for Them
Sometimes photographers will tell me things like, “Well, I already rank high in Google, so I really don’t need help with my SEO.” That could be true, but usually what I see is that they rank well for branded keyword terms. Branded keywords are the terms you should be ranking well for. They’re the terms that include things like your name, your photography business name, your website URL – essentially anything that has your name or your business name in it. Simply by virtue of having a site with that name, a URL with that name, and being connected to you, it should be performing reasonably well when someone searches for you and your business by name. (If it’s not, then you have much bigger things to worry about.)
Non-Branded Keywords: This is Where SEO for Photographers Gets Interesting
Where SEO can be challenging for photographers is ranking for the non-branded keywords. These are the search terms that people use to hopefully find a business like yours. For example:
- Wedding photographers Atlanta
- Destination wedding photographers
- Senior photos photographers
- photographers Mississippi
They’re generic and in some categories, deeply competitive. All of the competition depends on where you are and the market saturation in your specific location, too. Over the years, Google has become smarter and has started to serve up search results based on where the user is searching. As I live in Atlanta, if I Google “Wedding Photography” as a general term, I am served up wedding photography results that are specific to me in Atlanta. In this example, you can see that there are 76 million search results for this broad term, but the entire first page is filled with information local to me.
The first half of the entire search page has results on the map, from wedding photographers who have claimed and mapped their business with Google, as well as some image results.
Then you can see at the bottom that it isn’t just wedding photographers that are competing for those non-branded search terms, it’s other sites, too, like The Knot and WeddingWire and so on.
Non-branded keyword terms are the most difficult to improve upon, but there are a couple of strategies that can make it a little bit less daunting. It’s important to also understand that SEO is not a silver bullet or something that happens overnight. Effective SEO work is something that is built up over time, as part of an ongoing effort. Like anything else related to marketing and building your business, what you do with it today affects your business a month from today, six months from today, a year from today, and so on. Especially true with SEO, the smallest tweaks and adjustments can have a major impact.
Short-tail and Long-tail Keywords: The Difference Maker for Photographers and Keywords
In addition to branded and non-branded categories, keywords can also be put into the categories of “short-tail” and “long-tail” keywords. As the names imply, these categories are about the length of the search query used to find a specific page. The short-tail keywords tend to be the more general and broad terms that are already saturated with results. They’re difficult to rank well for if you do not rank well for them already (note: difficult, not impossible!).
Long-tail keywords are where you can make a big difference in your business. The more specific the keyword phrase, the better, as long as their is search volume (the number of searches for that term) is reasonable. It would be great if we could always deal with keywords that were searched 5,000 times a day, or even 250-300 times a day. Realistically, though, those popular search terms make up less than 30% of the searches performed anyway. The rest of the 70% of searches are in this long-tail category. These are the millions of search terms that might only happen a handful of times per day, but when put together as a whole, make up the majority of the world’s searches.
Another way to think about the value of long-tail keywords is the quality of the search traffic it brings to your site. If I’m part of a couple looking for “photojournalist wedding photographer Atlanta,” I know exactly what kind of wedding photography I’m looking for.
As a photographer, I don’t need to be the perfect fit for every single inquiry. In our community groups we often talk about how frustrating it is when someone isn’t the right client – wanting to change your editing style, wanting constant discounts, etc. Long-tail keywords that are specific in what they want, help those more ideal clients find you.
The example at the left demonstrates that while the local results (map) prevail, because I searched something so specific, there are far fewer results to display than with my general query.
Another point to note here, is that the number one result, doesn’t use my exact phrase word-for-word. This is important because I see a lot of photographers “keyword stuffing” in their blogs or in the copy on their site. That tactic worked in the 90s and early 2000s, but it’s an outdated and old technique that’s no longer of value. You can see from this example that Google discerned just fine from Renee Brock’s title tags and site that when I was looking for “photojournalist wedding photographer Atlanta,” that she would be a good result for the query. When it comes to keywords in general, the best rule of thumb is to write for the user, not for the search engine. I’ve said it before, but it’s always worth repeating – anything that creates a better user experience is usually what makes for better SEO.
Keyword Research Tools
One of the best tools to use is also free: Google Keyword Planner. This tool is designed for use with Google Adwords, the paid platform, but you don’t have to pay anything to research your own organic keywords (just create an account). For the
to filpurpose of this post, I’ll stick with the Atlanta wedding photography example. So I’ve set the location to United States –> Atlanta. I used a longer-tail keyword, “photojournalistic wedding photography.”
The list on the bottom half of the page shows some other terms related to the query, as well as the average monthly searches (how many times it is used to perform a search). It also shows the “competition” score. That pertains to the competition for advertising on that specific keyword, and doesn’t really have anything to do with our work. That said, it does provide an indication of how difficult it could be to try to rank for that term organically.
Now that we have this data, the next step is to filter it so we can glean what keywords might be most useful for our business. So click on “Average Monthly Searches” and choose if you’d like it to sort from high-to-low. I prefer to look at the highest searched terms as I scroll down for two reasons:
- It confirms that general keywords I might have been interested are too saturated; I can cross them off the list
- There are usually some surprise keywords in there that clients of ours might use, but we, as photographers might not. For example, the terms “wedding images” and “wedding pictures” are used a lot in search, even though we might refer to them as “photos.”
I like to go after search terms that have a minimum of 100 searches per month (3 per day), but usually I start around the 500 search per month marker. I try to pick about 10-20 keywords that meet that criteria and have low or medium competition. You can still jot down some with a high level of competition, just use your judgment.
What to Do With Keywords Once You Have Them
Once you have your list of keywords, the next step is implementing them into your work. Again, I cannot stress the importance of erring on the side of the user. Don’t just start writing blog posts with a whole list of keywords sprinkled throughout. Consider what kind of posts a potential client might find helpful based on the keyword.
Let’s use an example from the list above – wedding photography ideas – and incorporate it into a content strategy.
Blog Post Ideas:
- Wedding Photography Ideas That Never Go Out of Style – a blog post showcasing classic wedding photography or shot list ideas that couples might want to consider.
- 10 Wedding Photography Ideas You’ll Want at Your Own Wedding – here’s a chance to highlight your own work, and link out to other photographers in different parts of the country. After you blog it and link to their site, send them an email to let them know you featured them in your post. Hopefully they’ll share your blog post on their socials and/or link back to you on their site at some point.
- Creative Ideas for Your Wedding Photography – Maybe this is a post for other wedding photographers! Give them some creative solutions to common challenges (posing burnout, timeline management, etc).
Don’t just write one blog post. Rather, think of 5-10 ideas around each keyword and deliberately write them out over the course of 6-12 months. I don’t usually recommend posting around the same keyword every week for a month, because it’s boring for the user/reader. Sprinkle it out over time, rotating between the 10-or-so keywords for which you would really like to rank.
Once you’ve blogged, make sure you’re sharing those posts on the social channels. For every blog post I write, I schedule out 30-40 tweets per month (yes, you read that right!) of each post. I also schedule the post around five times over three months on Facebook, and I “pin” the post on Pinterest. On the note of Pinterest, for a keyword like “Wedding Photography Ideas,” it makes a lot of sense to create a board around the keyword. Pin your ideas, images, and posts to them when it makes sense. If people search for it on Google, they search for it in social channels, too. Not to mention that social media sites are crawled and indexed in search, which means that you could potentially have your own website rank for the keyword term, as well as your Twitter account, Facebook Page, and a Pinterest board.
You may want to create a gallery of photos on your site around a keyword phrase. It doesn’t have to live as it’s own page in the menu, but think about how nice it would be if you’re a potential bride or groom who searched “wedding photography ideas” and you came upon an entire slideshow of images from a photographer in your about just that ?
Keyword Research: Some Final Words
As I mentioned in the start of this post, on-page keywords are not the biggest search ranking factor, but they are important. You don’t need to revamp your entire business model around keywords by any means. However, it’s handy to have a list of terms available that you can use in your regular efforts. Once you get into the habit of being keyword-minded, it becomes a second-nature part of your workflow. Over time, it is one of those little details that can inch you ahead of the rest.