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.

Site Feed

Subscribe to
Posts [Atom]

My Photo
Location: Santa Cruz, California, United States
My Books on the
Photography Business

Monday, February 14, 2011

Search Engine Optimization and The Long Tail

I was inspired by an entertaining article I read in today's New York Times titled, The Dirty Little Secrets of Search, detailing the rise and fall of JC Penney's Google rankings. Turns out, JC Penney's SEO consulting firm allegedly bought a huge number of paid links on websites, most of which aren't actual sites at all, but domain names purchased solely for the purpose of placing links to PC Penney. Google takes this very seriously, and has been known to eliminate sites completely.

The rationale for this approach is, as most people know by now, that your ranking is governed most largely by the number of other sites that link to yours. Unfortunately, what many people still don't know is that gaming the system doesn't work. (Link exchanges are a sure way to lower the ranking of both sites that link to each other. That's why JC Penney's SEO firm just created sites that had one-way links.) While it'd be nice to have organic linking, where people simply "talk about you" (and provide a link) on many websites on the net, that's not so easy to do and takes a lot of time.

In this day and age, if you're going to succeed as a stock photographer, you have no choice but to figure this out. This strategy begins with two questions: 1) which keywords or phrases do you want to rank highly for, and 2) how do you seed yourself around the net?

The answer to the second question begins with the first: find the right keywords.

Here is where most photographers (and agencies) get it wrong: they shoot for keywords like, "stock photography," and other industry trade terms. But this doesn't work so well. Google's Traffic Estimator shows terms like "stock photography" yields only about 90,000 global monthly searches. Sites that rank highly for only a few keywords or phrases never do well, even for popular search terms. Instead, reach for many search terms -- as many as possible.

My site (danheller.com) ranks in the top five positions on 751 search terms, and 1205 search terms rank in the top 10 on Google Search results, according to Google's Webmaster Tools. But I'm not actually trying to rank highly for any given search term at all. That would be futile. Odd as it may sound, I rank #1 for "stock photography business," but I swear I didn't try to. Of course not, because that search term doesn't generate enough traffic to warrant investing any special time or effort. That's the point. This is the "long tail" approach to keyword indexing: it's about breadth, not depth. I don't get that much traffic to any single page. By ranking highly in such a vast number of terms, it's the aggregate that matters.

All this starts with simply being indexed. That is, search engines have to know what words and phrases you have before it can rank them. Choosing the right words is one thing, but you also need Google to trust your keywords. In other words, trust you. Unlike standard text on a page, which Google is good at, photos are different. An algorithm doesn't know what's inside a photo -- it has to look at other characteristics to determine its content, such as surrounding text, the name of the page it's on, and of course, its metadata. In particular, the "keywords" tags embedded in the IPTC header of the image file.

Once again, here's where most photographers and agencies get it wrong: they "pollute" their keyword lists with dozens, if not hundreds, of phrases and expressions, hoping the target image will come up as a search result for any one of them. But Google will actually penalize people try to game the system with "black hat" approaches, like using repetition (singulars and plurals together), lots of synonyms, intended misspellings (by seeing both the misspelled and correctly spelled words together), and tons of generic terms (such as "photo", "image", "photography," etc).

Products like Cradoc's Keyword Harvester and A2Z Keywording each suffer from (and perpetuate) this problem. The main reason is because they are trying to anticipate what a searcher might look for. This is not only impossible, but the mere attempt reduces your credibility index in the eyes of almost all search engines.

Almost all? Which search engines does it actually work for? One of the people responsible for this policy told me "microstock agencies is where our customers submit their photos, and those search engines are not that smart. So, we have to be thorough."

True enough, but this raises two issues. First, despite the fact that microstock websites are popular among amateur photographers and a growing population of desperate pros, looking to pick up the pennies from as many sources as possible, the vast majority of those looking to license images don't go to stock agencies. They go to main search engines.

Second, even among the brain-dead search technology employed by stock agencies (except for Getty's whose search technology is quite good), proper keywording techniques still perform quite well at those places. The reason is that people searching for images don't go about it in the diligent, thoughtful way that photographers think they do. People do not search using conceptual terms that those who sell keywording products would lead you to believe.

Keywording properly is really boring, and far less time-intensive than people make it out to be: just the basic "facts" about the photo can be described in a handful of terms. The search engine will do the hard part. Granted, this is a bit simplified, because it doesn't address issues like word definition ambiguity, synonyms, and so on. But this isn't done by humans anyway; it needs to be handled by the search engine's heuristic engine. True, stock agencies don't have them, but again, the trade off is whether to achieve "good enough" with the less-frequently used stock agency or the "proper" method advocated by the search engines.

This is why the "proper" method achieves the best of both worlds: you will be indexed properly and given higher "credibility" with public search engines like Google, and you won't be penalized by the microstock agencies even though images might only use a handful of keywords, rather than dozens or a hundred.

The next question is how to get all those coveted links from other sites to direct traffic your way. This technique is not easy; it requires work. You need to write a lot, post to discussion forums, socialize and network, be on the "inside" with industry people, and above all, talk about what you know. And here's the real hidden secret, I'm not talking about photography. The discussion forums, industry people and the topics you talk about are best when it's something other than photography because it's highly likely that you're an expert at something other than photography.

Of course, if you are well-informed about photography and are regarded as a leader in the field, then go for it. But if you are, then you're probably not reading this... at least, not with the goal of improving your photography business. I am better known for my business analysis, which happens to be in the photography field, than I am for my photography as an art form. That I sell lots of images (prints and licenses) is not a byproduct of my artistic skills. It's the byproduct of having published so much about the business of photography.

The more you engage in discussions online and offer useful, insightful and meaningful commentary, the more people will link to you. Offer to write for magazines. Try even writing a book or two. Sure, it's an investment of time. What'd you expect? That it'd be easy?

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , ,