Every creative professional wanting to enhance their online presence should consider Search Engine Optimization (SEO) as part of their digital marketing strategy. SEO is the practice of setting up a website or web page so that it is more likely to appear among the top search results on search engines. SEO for artists must also take into account site-specific search engines on platforms like Behance, 500px, or Artreprenuer that creative types use to show-off their artistic creations and designs. The goal of a search engine is to discover available web pages, taking note of key data and metrics, from content and quality to the number of page views and popularity, and then adding the data to a search index where it can be analyzed and ranked as a solution to certain user searches.
When a user initiates an online search, the search engine uses the indexed data to build a set of web pages that can answer the searcher’s question, reporting back in the form of search results. Determining which of the 4.6 billion web pages answer each of the 3.5 million search questions asked every minute, is incredibly complex. The goal of SEO is to optimize web pages so that they have a greater chance of being ranked for specific search terms. As a creative, you must also consider the ranking of your work on platforms where you may be showing your creative work. Unlike your own website where you have control over every aspect of the content and back-end structure, control over another site’s publicly displayed web pages is limited. Unfortunately, your pages need to rank very high for them to be seen. Numerous studies have shown that 90% of searchers will not view search results past the first few results pages. If a searcher doesn’t find what he or she needs quickly, they will try a new search. To be discovered so you can sell your work, get a job, or just gain more fans, you’ll need SEO to achieve that goal.
What is Search Engine Optimization?
Large public search engines, like Google, or smaller site-specific search engines like you might find on Instagram work the same way, although the data captured and algorithms used to calculate ranking will differ wildly. When we talk about SEO on public search engines, we are almost always talking about Google, since it has almost 90% of all search traffic on the entire web. There are about 1 billion websites and approximately 4.6 billion web pages. To index all the information on all of these pages, Google sends out software robots (sometimes called crawlers, spiders, or bots) to crawl each publicly accessible website on a specific schedule based on various parameters, such as site popularity, number of new pages over time, and content uniqueness.
Bots cannot understand web page content in the same way that a human can, but they are getting smarter at evaluating the web page’s quality and relevance for ranking when calculating SEO. When a bot crawls a webpage, it selectively captures information it deems important for the search engine to evaluate the page, such as identifiable text-like titles, the length and reading level of the content, the number of pages on the site, the age of the site, its site structure and ease of use. If the bot doesn’t understand something, it won’t capture it, so the easier we can make it for the bot to understand the page, the better chance for it to rank. Unfortunately, what a bot wants to see and how it interprets the data is generally proprietary and not shared by the search companies. Google algorithms, for example, are incredibly sophisticated and somewhat difficult to reverse-engineer. However, with thousands of SEO experts constantly testing, we know quite a lot.
Developing a list of targeted keywords (or search terms) is the most important SEO exercise. Through targeted keywords, you can increase search rankings and drive traffic to your site or artwork pages in a cost-effective way by targeting only those keywords that will generate the right kind of traffic. If you are selling your art online, generating 10,000 views from people that aren’t potential buyers is not an effective SEO strategy.
When choosing keywords, consider what a potential customer might use as a search term to find your site or your work, but also think about how much competition there might also be for that keyword. If a search term is very broad, it may have lots of potential searchers, but may also be so competitive that you cannot compete against large sites. A more specific keyword phrase would have fewer overall searchers, but also less competition, and hopefully a greater potential for targeting the right customers. For example, let’s say you are a wedding photographer in Austin, Texas. If someone were to search for “Wedding Photographer” your site wouldn’t show up anywhere close to the top of the search results because you would be competing against wedding photographer sites all over the country, many that have been developing SEO for a long time. Plus, 99% of those searchers are probably not your customers as they are not located in Austin. So instead, you can make your keywords more specific, such as “Wedding Photographer in Austin.” Austin is a big city so that may still be too competitive, so you might choose “Affordable Wedding Photographer in Austin.” The key is to find a set of keywords that are specific enough for you to rank, but not so specific that nobody would actually search on those keywords.
Start your keywords search by brainstorming a list of 30 or more phrases that exemplify what your site or web page is about, and then think of any additional terms that you can add to those phrases to gain additional specificity. Then, group the terms so you have groups of similar terms. Look at the results of your terms in Google to get a better idea of the types of results and number of competitive results on the first three or four pages to discover which terms are most likely to rank. To make the process easier and more effective, you should consider using online keyword analyzers. The Google Keyword Planner, which is part of Google Adwords, is free and highly recommended although there is a bit of a learning curve. Another excellent tool, although not free, is the Keyword Explorer by Moz. Moz.com is an excellent resource for learning SEO best practices with an abundance of free resources, including a Beginner’s Guide to SEO, which includes a chapter dedicated to keyword research. Another excellent site for SEO resources is Neil Patel’s blog, which includes video tutorials. Once you have decided on a set of keywords for your website or pages that contain your artwork, the hard part is out of the way.
A word of warning regarding keywords: don’t overdo it. The search engine wants to discover and rank quality content that makes sense and answers the user’s question. Bots can identify when a site is trying to push keywords at the expense of good content. Quality content is more important than any keyword. Adding keywords in ways that don’t seem natural or too often is known as “keyword stuffing” and could get your page demoted rather than promoted. Use keywords intelligently; guide the bot, but don’t hit it over the head.
On-page refers to both the content and HTML source code of a page, as opposed to off-page SEO, which refers to external factors outside of your site, such as the number of sites linking to your content and the quality of those websites. Let’s look at some key on-page SEO items.
Your domain name (URL) is a high factor for ranking. Using a domain name that includes your keywords can, therefore, be an easy way to improve your rank for that keyword group. Traditionally, people like to use their personal name or company name as their domain but when people do not yet know who you are and nobody is searching for you, using your name as a domain can be a waste. Your URL is the first thing a bot will see, so why not make it a keyword phrase?
Admittedly, the problem with a keyword type domain name can be its often-unwieldy length. On the other hand, good domain names are hard to find because so many of them are owned by mega domain name companies, unused, yet being sold at extremely high prices. Longer domain names are more likely to be available. AffordableAustinWeddingPhotographer.com is a mouthful but available.
One way to get the benefit of a shorter domain and a keyword domain is to use a secondary domain name that redirects to your keyword domain name, also known as a 301 redirect. The redirected URL won’t be indexed, but it does give you the option of having a more user-friendly URL while still taking advantage of a keyword URL.
For example, say our Austin wedding photographer’s name is Steve Bourne. He can buy a URL like stevebourne.com and redirect it to AffordableAustinWeddingPhotographer.com. He can set up his email as [email protected], using stevebourne.com as the domain on his business cards or verbally to potential clients. From an SEO perspective though, the bot will only index your main URL. You can also use this technique on sites that allow custom URLs for your profiles, like LinkedIn or Facebook, or for your artwork and portfolios, like on our parent site, Orangenius.
Website and Page Description
Your website will have a hidden section where you can describe your site. It won’t be seen by viewers but it will be seen by the bots. It will also show up underneath your site title in search results so that searchers will know what the site is about. Your keywords are descriptive of your business, so there is no reason not to use one of them as part of a site’s description. Every page will also have a description, also known as an excerpt, which can be tailored to the content of that page. Just like the site description, you can create a description containing the specific keywords you have chosen for that page. If you leave it blank, Google will capture the first 70 characters of the main text content as the page description, so it is better that you decide what it should say rather than Google.
Site Title and Tagline
You should brand your art business, whether you are a company or a solo artist. You never know the direction your business may take over time, so having a brand name that transcends all is always a good idea. Steve Bourne Photography may be unknown now, but in 10 years it could be a household name around Austin. Whatever your brand name, remember that it is also a keyword whose value may change over time. You still want people to find you by searching for your company or personal name. The website title is a branding opportunity so don’t waste it as a descriptive keyword unless, of course, the company brand name is also descriptive. In addition, the bot expects your site title to reflect your brand name rather than another keyword. If your site has a section for a subtitle or tagline, you can use the main keyword there. Title: “Steve Bourne.” Subtitle: “The Most Affordable Wedding Photography in Austin TX.”
Individual webpages should have at least some keywords that are different than the overall site, focused specifically on the content of that page. This is especially true for online platforms where you only control a specific page. Consider using keywords as part of your page title. This may be difficult for artwork pages though, since the page title may also be the title of the artwork. In that case, don’t use a keyword title. Again, you do not need to use keywords everywhere, only where they make sense. There are always other areas on the page where you can add content keywords.
Bots cannot see images, although search engines like Google also have image-bots that can recognize images to some extent. However, what it recognizes may not be related to your chosen keywords. For example, let’s say Steve Bourne is shooting a wedding at a horse ranch. He takes a photo of the happy couple in front of several horses. The Google image bot might be able to recognize some things about the picture, like that there are two people, it includes horses, there is a field, or maybe a barn in the background, but it probably won’t know it is a wedding photo.
Online platforms search is not likely to have image recognition technology, or at least anything as sophisticated as Google. So, it’s important to provide the search engine with information about the image, including keywords. This information is generally added into the metadata that is embedded in the image, however, be aware that some platforms or image manipulation software will strip away the metadata. Use Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Bridge to add metadata information quickly and easily. You can also set up templates so you can add metadata to multiple images all at once before uploading them to a site. Additionally, if your site is built on WordPress, after upload, you will be able to add info for description, captions, and the alt image tag. Alt tags are second only to the title in information that helps the bot understand the image content. It is not a description but an alternate title. However, since you already have a title, you can strengthen the message by using keywords in your alt tag. Also, screen readers will use the image title and alt tag to help blind and visually impaired individuals recognize an image.
Content Quality and Length
Wherever you add content to a website, it should always be well written. The quality of the content is very important to SEO. Be sure that your writing is grammatically correct and there are no spelling errors. The more that your content is unique and adds value, the more likely it will be ranked. If you plagiarize, even a few sentences, the Bot will know and could demote your article for duplicate content. You can’t skimp on quality. If you are not focusing on the quality of your writing, you are wasting your time. Bots analyze content quality, looking for reading level and expected words based upon the topic of the writing. If you want some help evaluating your writing, you can use an online grammar checker, like Grammarly.
Content-length also plays an important role in SEO. There must be enough content for the bot to understand what the page or site is about. The appropriate length varies depending upon the page type. If you are writing a blog post, then longer articles will generally do better than short ones. According to Entrepreneur Magazine, “Numerous studies have documented that page one rankings are often in the 2,000+ word length and higher. Based on SEMRush data, a company founded and bootstrapped by computer engineering genius, Oleg Shchegolev, Backlinko discovered that the average first-page search article was 1,890 words.” Obviously, you are not going to write 2,000 words to describe each artwork but you should describe your work with sufficient detail. You can also tell the story behind the work: why you made it, what it means, and what it took to bring it to life. Of course, the story should include your keyword phrases, if possible. If you are describing work you have posted to large platforms, you can generally get away with fewer words since these sites have greater SEO authority. Factors such as the number of pages and links to the site will be much higher than your own website, so pages will rank higher if they are indexed by public search engines. However, you still must provide enough information for the bot to understand what is on the page.
So, to recap On-Page SEO tactics, First, identify the keywords with the highest searches and lowest competition; choose a keyword-based and corporate domain, setting up a re-direct for maximum effectiveness; title each individual web page with specific keywords, and use metadata and alt image tags to embed your keywords into each image. Throughout this process, keep keyword best practices – like keyword stuffing or length of content – top of mind.
Should I Blog?
There are many neglected and abandoned websites out there, so search engines are constantly checking to see how often a website is updated. The Bots are also looking for well-written, unique content. Publishing a blog is a very logical and natural way to provide compelling content and ensure that your site is regularly updated. New artwork with descriptions will also be helpful, in this regard, but with blog posts, you can write more targeted content with greater depth that will rank higher than shorter, image-based content.
There are also several SEO factors that are more easily achieved through blogging than posting artwork. One is “time on-site.” The longer people stay on your site, the greater the perceived value of the site overall. The same goes for the number of backlinks, meaning the number of sites that have linked to your site, such as citing your articles, like we have done several times in this article. So, if you have the time, sharing your knowledge can be helpful for your brand and your SEO. A new blog post even every couple of weeks will encourage the bots to check out your site regularly.
If you do decide to blog, be sure to break your content up into sections using section titles or images and video. Section titles organize the article making it easier to read. Images related specifically to the content being discussed can also make an article easier to read. To make it easier for the bots, use heading tags rather than just bold, italics or underlines. Bots understand that heading tags describe the content of that section. Heading 1 or H1 tags are generally used for the page title, while H2 and H3 should be used for the section or subsection titles. Use keywords in your headings, if possible. How do you add heading tags? Every site platform is a bit different but in WordPress, for example, you can find the heading tags on the main menu in the post or page editor. It’s a pulldown field that shows the default; “paragraph.”
Clearly, mobile is huge. In recent algorithm updates, Google has emphasized the importance of a site working properly on mobile for it to be ranked; if your site doesn’t load properly on mobile (also known as “responsive”) then you’re not going to rank well. Many personal site platforms, such as Squarespace or Wix, should have design themes that are responsive and up-to-date. You will have no control of the mobile experience on portfolio platforms like Flickr or Coroflot, but it wouldn’t hurt to make sure that they are doing it right before you add your work. However, if you are using a web builder platform like WordPress and are using third-party themes, not all of them may work properly on mobile. WordPress is open-source, so there isn’t the same quality control as corporate-controlled platforms. To ensure that you’ve chosen a fully working responsive theme, use a tool like Responsinator to see what the theme looks like on various mobile devices.
Be thorough, though, in your analysis. Responsive problems are often small and not easy to catch at first glance. Look for issues in the placement of titles, icons, or images to ensure they aren’t overlapping or missing. Check to see that any video content plays, that all the links on a page are working, that every button clicks, and that nothing you see on the desktop version has disappeared on mobile. Finally, if you are using popup ads on your site, be careful. Google updated its algorithm early this year, where sites employing intrusive mobile popups can be demoted. The full impact of this update is still unknown as it seems to be slowly ratcheting up, but before you use popups, make sure that they are the right kind of popups.
SEO is a big topic that has spawned an entire industry. We have only touched the tip of the iceberg but since the vast majority of creatives do not employ these basic techniques on their own sites or other art-based platforms, following these SEO strategies can help you rank higher and provide a greater opportunity to be discovered. While SEO may seem daunting, it’s not that difficult once you get the hang of it. SEO is very logical and once you know how it works, you will naturally create content that is SEO friendly. For now, though, before you upload your artwork to the web, think about what people might search to find it. Then consider how the content would look from the bot’s point of view; whether it will understand the content, find it unique, and that the page will be the answer to someone’s search.
What are your SEO tips for artists? Have you noticed more traffic as a result of implementing SEO strategies?
As a photographer and Patent Attorney with a background in marketing, Steve has a unique perspective on art, law, and business. He is currently serving as the Chief Product Officer at Artrepreneur. You can find his photography at artrepreneur.com or through Fremin Gallery in NYC.