Dan Heller's Photography Business Blog Industry analysis from www.danheller.com

The photography world -- the business, the culture, the art, the politics, the technology.

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Sunday, January 23, 2011

The perils of taking advice from pros

I got an email today that seems to be representative of a common thread I'm seeing. I included excerpts from the original sender and my responses:

In Chapter 7 you note that in 2000 you increased your image library, and had a big spike in traffic (2000 visitors/month). If you don't mind me asking, approximately how many images did you have online entering 2000?

I have no idea. And though I appreciate the motivation for your question, the milestone comparisons are inapplicable. The major reason my success back in 2000 was that there was virtually no appreciable photo content online. Anyone that put photos online did well. Most pro photographers were still shooting film, and the time and cost of getting that media scanned and online was a major barrier for photo imaging growth. While digital cameras were around, their resolution and image quality were too low to have much commercial value till 2003 (Canon's EOS 1Ds was the first camera that could produce an acceptable professional image quality for commercial production.)

So, whatever size my archive was, or photo quality, it was easier to succeed. So, don't look at my past as having any relevancy to today's market.

I tried to advise pro photographers to do this back then, but most were adamant that it would cause more harm to have images "stolen", and that film-based stock photo agencies were still the only viable distribution channel. It was this heated argument that propagated my postings (and my website) to other websites, which resulted in my getting so many links, which translated into traffic, which helped elevate my site rankings, which translated into sales.

(Ok, I'll admit it: I probably also had a lot of worthwhile photos to buy.)

A big part of my strategy is blogging on my image creation and some of the places I have visited where images were taken. I'm trying to be as search engine friendly and optimized as I possibly can, per your suggestions.

My suggestion is not to be "search-engine friendly", per se. It's to rank highly in search results. The two are not the same, and you don't achieve high rankings by having search engines merely find you and index you accurately. (That's being "friendly".)

Ranking highly in search engines requires other sites to link to your site. The value of those links are assessed by the ranking of those sites, which affect your ranking. Search engines are aware of people attempting to game the system through "link exchanges". Accordingly, you can reduce your own rankings if you try to agree with other sites to link to each other as a way of increasing each of your link counts. Those sites rank poorly, and so will yours, if you do link exchanges.

So the question is, who do you want to link to you?

Writing articles on "image creation" and "the places you've been" will attract mostly other photographers. And they don't buy photos. While it is certainly desirable to have highly-ranked photo-centric websites link to you, this is a very narrow market, and not one that will boost your overall rankings that ultimately attract image buyers.

If you're going to invest time into blogging, you want NON-PHOTOGRAPHY sites to link to you. How do you do that? By blogging about subjects that probably have less to do with photography as the other subject.

My advice has always been to be an expert in something other than photography. Write about that and cross-post your articles to discussion forums or other formats to attract new and different audiences. If they regard your knowledge and opinions as valuable, they will link to you, talk about you, and regard you as credible. This is what will raise your site's ranking.

Do I follow my own advice? Well, not as much as I should. Yes, my site has a lot content about photography (business and techniques), and yes, I rank highly for that. But again, I did this back in the 1990s and early 2000s, when such things mattered. It doesn't matter that much anymore. I would not be successful today by repeating the same steps I did back then, so don't emulate me just because I capitalized on what was at one time a successful technique.

More recently, I have a great deal of non-photography content as well -- mostly in the form of photos, of course. But here's where I've dropped the ball. I don't spend nearly the kind of time talking about non-photo subjects as I should. I am in the fortunate position where I don't really have to. And that's the part that doesn't translate to other, emerging photographers.

This leads to another point I've made often in the past: don't emulate other pros. What they do NOW, or have done IN THE PAST, often has no bearing on their current success, or yours. Most of them are unaware of this, and erroneously believe they have advice that emerging photographers should adopt.

See this blog post about asking pros for advice. Though it's about pricing, the concept is the same: pro photographers' opinions or experiences are not universal and cannot necessarily be expected to apply to anyone else--especially those still trying to build their careers or a presence.

There's also this related post: this one is about the perils of being a photographer's assistant, or having existing pros be "mentors." Most pros today were successful at a time where their experiences no longer apply today. Having their advice can be fraught with as much poor advice as useful, and emerging photographers cannot discern between the two.

My best advice for emerging photographers in this day and age is not to look at photographers at all -- look at general online business development. There are many texts and periodicals that deal with building business models that are more universal, and can better translate to a photography business than what narrowly-experienced pros can offer.

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