New Brunswick Photographer/Filmmaker/Journalist/Educator/Author

The SEO Shell Game

SEO – Search Engine Optimization. Or, perhaps Search Engine Oblivion.

Grab some snacks, put on your comfy pants, we’re gonna be here for a while.

The idea of having our websites at the top of search results is a good one. We want to be seen. Particularly for photographers offering commercial services, the ability to be found by prospective clients is important.

What follows is one photographer’s experience navigating the random, nonsensical, frustrating, comical, bleep-show that is SEO. As in many things, the old saying applies: Your mileage may vary.

Takeaways

  • SEO is pretty much a random, throw shit at the wall and see what sticks exercise
  • Paying for SEO advice is a waste of time and money
  • There is no such thing as an SEO expert (according to this expert non-expert)
  • There are things about SEO that you won’t be able to control
  • You can/will drive yourself to distraction if you obsess over your search ranking and try to micromanage it

Background

In the summer of 2020; yes, mid-pandemic, I moved from Ontario, Canada to New Brunswick, Canada. My site had been online for over a decade and, in Ontario, I had decent, if not great, search rank results. Occasionally first page, usually second page. I did many of the things you’re supposed to do, but didn’t spend a lot of time on the SEO process. Still, most of my business came from people contacting me having found my site in search rather than my outbound marketing efforts.

When I moved to New Brunswick I needed, obviously, to make some changes to my site. I updated my location and site tagline/description information. After a couple months my site still wasn’t showing up in search results for the keyword strings that mattered to me.

My site is built on WordPress. It’s a terrific platform and relatively easy to use. There are many plugins that help make some tasks easier for end users who aren’t coders, including for SEO. I had been using a plugin called Yoast SEO. When I first installed it several years ago it was easy to use, the interface was simple and it seemed to work. Ease of use and a simple user interface are two of my main criteria for a plugin. Over time it had become much more complex, more difficult to use and not at all intuitive.

To help with my search rank results in my new home, I began to look for another SEO plugin. Installed several. All were very complex with mostly ugly interfaces. Build by coders for coders would be a good way to describe them. Finally I settled on SEO Press. It’s simple, does the basics of what I want simply and effectively and has a clean, simple UI.

When I was working to see how my site ranked in search locally, I was coming up with other photographers who don’t do architecture photography at all, or who dabble in it along with doing other things. As far as I know, I’m the only photographer in New Brunswick whose primary area of concentration is architecture. It seemed odd that my site wouldn’t be ranking higher for searches specifically targeting architecture photography. It also seemed odd that a photographer from neighbouring Nova Scotia was ranking higher in search than I was for searches that were very local.

The Work

I had decided that I’d invest some money in a so-called SEO expert, a consultant. I wanted to know what others were doing that ranked them higher than what I was doing. Doing a bit of Googling I found some (ahem) consultants who I thought might be able to help. The request was simple and direct: I wanted them to spend an hour, to two, with me to help my make changes to the back end of my site that might help me improve my search results. I contacted 10. Eight of those never returned my calls. A ninth, despite their website saying they did SEO consulting, told me they don’t do SEO consulting. The 10th organised an intro phone discussion, we talked for about 20 minutes, then I never heard from him again.

Issue 1: So-called SEO consultants aren’t interested in short term arrangements. They want longer term, ongoing contracts to produce content so that you come to rely on them and extend the contracts.

Why: Because they know that the very idea of an SEO “expert” is false. There really is no such thing. They need those longer term contracts to keep bringing income in, otherwise their actual worth would be about 10 minutes.

It was clear I would be left to my own devices. In the end, that’s just fine; for the reasons noted above and below.

Go Your Own Way

Around the same time I was starting to look more seriously at my website search rank, the good folks at PhotoShelter put out one of their guides titled SEO for Photographers. I downloaded it and had a look. It gives some good information but there’s a lot that’s missing.

What’s missing? For the most part what’s missing is that the entire exercise of SEO is, pretty much, random. Yep, that’s right. It’s largely a crapshoot.

There’s a company called SEMRush that offers some free tools for tracking things SEO-related. They also have a paid service – don’t. I signed up for their free products. At the same time – and this is a good thing to do – I got my site registered to use the Google Search Console to help with SEO tracking.

You can see below that Google is ranking my site for 877 different keywords. I don’t care about 99% of those. And probably you shouldn’t either for your site.

The SEO Shell Game, RF-Photography

SEMRush allows you to set up a campaign to track keywords and you can track up to 10 in the free service. I set up eight. I can access updated reports each day to see what changed and where I rank for each of the eight keyword strings.

Google Search Console allows you to see what pages people are visiting on your site, what search terms people have used to find your site and how many keywords Google is ranking your site for.

Issue 2: What you want Google (and other search engines) to track your site for isn’t necessarily what Google will track your site for. The Google bots ‘decide’ what keywords to rank your site for. You may not have a lot of control over the result.

More below.

This issue of Google ‘deciding’ what keywords your site will rank for comes from a combination of what searches people do using what keywords and what keywords it scrapes from having its bots run through the back halls of your site. If someone searches for, on, say, ‘profane photographer’ and you have the words profane and photographer somewhere in your site content, your site may well rank for that search string.

Profane photographer may well be what you are, but it may not be what you want people to find you for. This is why we go through the process of adding keywords in tools like SEO Press. This is supposed to help refine what you get ranked for and help you get ranked higher for the things you want.

In search there’s a concept called Cannibalization. What’s that? Very simply, it’s you eating yourself. Metaphorically, not literally. If you have the same keywords on multiple pages, the search bots don’t know which page you want to rank higher and, supposedly, it punishes both by moving them both down the rankings. That’s bad.

Initially I had the eight keyword strings I wanted to rank for on two pages. As I looked at the SEMRush results, I saw that I had cannibalization issues. What did I do? I split the keyword strings, putting four on one page and four on another. Problem solved, right? Heh heh. If it were only that easy.

To their credit, SEMRush has been very responsive to my inquiries even though I’m only a free user. Yes, they try to push their paid products onto me, but I just ignore those messages. The company told me that it took 30 days for all the keywords their clients want to be tracked for to be analysed. OK, so it should take, at most, about 30 days for my cannibalisation issues to be resolved. Right?

After 30 days I was still seeing cannibalisation, according to the SEMRush reports. I wrote to them asking ‘Wud up?’ I sent screenshots to show that I had split the keywords onto two separate pages. The SEMRush rep came back and said that I did have cannibalisation and sent me the screen grab below. In particular, I was perplexed that my Street Photography page was showing up in search results even though it contained none of the keyword strings I was tracking. None of those keywords was input into the SEO Press plugin and none of them appeared in the content of the page.

The SEO Shell Game, RF-Photography

The search string is at the top in the red box. The words that, allegedly, correspond to that search string on my Street Photography page are highlighted in yellow. What’s happening here? What’s happening is that those are in the tagline and meta description for the entire website. Those snippets appear on virtually every page of the site. If it’s the case that this is what’s causing the cannibalisation, nearly every page of my site should be showing as cannibalised. But it’s not, as the screencap below shows.

The SEO Shell Game, RF-Photography

The very things you’re supposed to do to improve your search rank – have location data, a targeted tagline and meta description – is causing cannibalisation which impairs your search rank. The Great Google doth giveth with one hand and taketh away with the other.

Want more of this comically frustrating nonsense that is SEO?

The very next day the cannibalisation report showed there was none.

The SEO Shell Game, RF-Photography

More? You want more? The very next day…. yep, I’m eating myself again.

The SEO Shell Game, RF-Photography

Here’s the kicker: Nothing changed on my website. No new content was added. No changes were made to the tagline, or meta description. No changes were made to the keyword strings. Nothing changed. This is how random and uncontrollable your search rank results, and your SEO work can be.

This is a good time to bring up another aspect of SEO and the construction of website and web pages. This is relates specifically to WordPress, but may be applicable on other platforms, too.

SEOPress helps you with your SEO in other ways. When you create a page, or write a post, there are a number of variables it scores your content on, the goal being to try to make sure it doesn’t run afoul of the search bots and the resultant search rank decisions that are made.

One of the variables as you can see in the screen cap below is Headings. This article has a big red dot. But, you have headings, Fisher, you may be saying. Yes, I do. But! Headings aren’t just headings. There are different types of headings. In WordPress there are H1, H2, H3… headings. This article fails because I don’t have an H1 heading. All mine are H2.

If I change one of my headings to H1, it will go from red to orange because none of my target keywords is in the heading. These are not things to be overly concerned about. This is the nth minutiae of SEO. Or, the 7th circle of SEO Hell, whichever you prefer. Because, you know, Satan invented SEO.

The SEO Shell Game, RF-Photography

Beyond Your Control

The number of different variables that are supposed to impact your ranking in search is mind-boggling. Some are so minimal as to not be worth spending time on. Some are pretty much out of your control.

Backlinks are links from sites outside your own that point back to your site. Participate in a photography forum and have posted content from your site? That’s a backlink. Done a guest post on someone’s blog with a link back to yours? Thanks a backlink. Backlinks are generally good. The Google (and other search engines) takes into account the relevance of the backlink (as determined by Google in its sole discretion). Those it considers more relevant and more authoritative push your rank higher. Those it doesn’t drop your rank down. Sometimes you can’t control this. If someone on russiahacker.ru links to content on your site, The Google is likely to consider that a toxic link. Problem? It’s not likely you’re going to to sign up for russiahacker.ru and ask them to remove the link. Chances are if you do, you’ll be getting a not-so-polite request to pony up some cryptocurrency to prevent them from releasing your browsing history somewhere you wouldn’t want it released.

What else can’t you control? Well, recall the cannibalisation issue above.

Anything else? Sure. You can’t control what others do with their sites. In the screen grab below, you can see in the yellow highlighted area that the first three photographers have the same eight keywords on their sites. The first two above me don’t do architecture photography. How do they have the same keywords? They’re likely doing keyword spamming, or keyword stuffing. Using keywords that aren’t relevant to what they actually do in order to rank in search for anything and to try to put their sites always at the top of search results. Why? Because over 80% of people click the first link in a search result. Keyword spamming is supposed to be bad and search engine algorithms are supposed to punish sites that do it by dropping their rank. If the A(un)I can’t tell that’s what’s going on though, they can still rank high and you can’t control that.

The SEO Shell Game, RF-Photography

Want more wacky randomness? OK, sure!

Your site may rank for content that (a) isn’t publicly visible and/or (b) doesn’t exist on your site any longer. WTF?!?! I know!

The page highlighted in yellow below doesn’t exist on my site and hasn’t for months. It redirects to my homepage. It is still indexed in Google and will be for who knows how long. The Google thinks it contains keywords, so it shows up in search rank.

The SEO Shell Game, RF-Photography

On the day that I, apparently, had no cannibalisation issues, the page highlighted below showed up as having dropped 85 spots. The day before it had been in the top 15. That page is not a public page on my website.

The SEO Shell Game, RF-Photography

More? Recall above I said I split my eight keyword strings onto two different pages. One is my homepage and the other is the page with my portfolio of client work on it. That page has never shown up in the tracking results as a page that The Google has decided should rank.

EDIT: A few hours after publishing, the daily update from SEMRush was available. For the first time it showed my client portfolio page. The data indicates it has a single keyword of the eight. Actually it has four. What’s happening is The Google is picking up the Frankentag from the location, site tagline and meta description rather than the keywords I input via SEOPres. In other words, why bother? It’s also showing that my homepage has six of the keywords. It has four. The Google is picking up the Frankentag plus something else wild and mysterious.

EDIT: The day after my client portfolio page finally showed in the SEMRush tracking, it was, once again, not showing up. Google is a capricious creature.

The SEO Shell Game, RF-Photography

Issue #3: Different tools will give you conflicting information.

There are a number of faux pas that can knock your search rank down a few pegs (or many pegs). One is having what search engines programmers consider to be errors on your site. No website is ever going to be perfect. Even if it is today, tomorrow something could change in the background and cause an error.

There are tools that can help you track errors, find and fix them. The problem is, the tools can give conflicting information.

One of the free options with SEMRush is the ability to perform a site audit. This process scrapes through up to 100 pages of a website and looks for problems. Results of an audit on my site show I have 14 errors.

The SEO Shell Game, RF-Photography

But…. you knew there was but coming, right? The information from Google Search Console tells me that there are no pages with errors. WTAF?!?!

The SEO Shell Game, RF-Photography

How are you supposed to decipher whether these supposed errors are something to be concerned about when you get conflicting information?

In my case, seven of the 14 shown in the SEMRush analysis are for pages with slow load speed. How fast a website, or a page on a website loads and is viewable/scrollable for a user is a component of search rank. Very slow speeds will knock your rank down. Faster speeds will improve your search rank. That’s the company line, anyway.

Here’s the thing. There are a lot of variables that can impact load speed. The speed of the viewer’s Internet connection. The speed of your hosting company’s servers. Both of those things can change with time. We all know there are times when we try to surf the web and everything seems slow. That’s out of your control.

Another aspect of load speed is what is being loaded. A simple text page will load much more quickly than a page with image, or video content. For photographers, with content-rich websites, load speeds are likely to be slower. When I drill down on the pages that have slow load speed (and by the by, the SEMRush page with that detail took about 30 seconds to load <eye-rolling emoji>) all are pages that have large numbers of pictures. Of course those are going to load more slowly. You can control this to some degree. Make sure you upload image files to your site that are smaller (no more than 1920 px on the long edge) and use reasonable compression (e.g., 80% quality level in Photoshop, or Lightroom). Another thing you can do is use more efficient file formats (e.g., JPEG2000 vs standard JPEG) that are supposed to compress more without a loss of quality.

Again, obsessing over this stuff and trying to fix every extremely minor issue when one crops up would lead you to spending all your time managing your website rather than trying to actually conduct business.

How Soon Can You Expect Results?

Issue #4: Search rankings are not static. The rankings can and will change daily. What’s good today may be dog poop tomorrow. Literally. I’ve had a page show as ranking high one day, drop over 90 places the next and be ranking high again the third day.

That’s the $20 question, isn’t it? Partially it will depend on what your goals are. Do you want to be #1 for all the keywords that are relevant to you? If so, I’d say good luck.

My goal is to try to be on the first page with all the keywords that are relevant to me. The higher, the better, of course. Above the fold is most ideal. If I can get the occasional #1, that’s great.

My search objective is quite local. I don’t care if someone in the Upper Mountains of Lower Slobovia can find me. No one there is going to hire me to photograph their recently constructed building, or bridge. Trying to refine your targets and goals will help focus your SEO efforts and should result in better search results.

The Photoshelter guide mentioned earlier suggests 6 months to a full year before you can expect to see a meaningful difference. That’s a long time eating Kraft Dinner.

Updating tagline, location and meta-description of my site didn’t do anything for me. It wasn’t until I started using a better SEO plugin and targeting my keywords properly that my search rank started to improve. I began to see improvement in about a week. After about 30 days my search rank is pretty close to where I’d like it to be. There are some caveats in that. First, I live in a fairly small market. Second, I haven’t got much competition in the market.

That’s another point to mention. Search engines try to return local results first. That makes sense. You don’t care about a photographer in the Lower Mountains of Upper Slobovia (Greater Slobovia split in the late ’80s) if you live in the foothills of Alberta. If the search engine can’t find websites with your specific search term in your area, it will show you other websites that may be similar. That’s also something you can’t control and why so many websites for photographers who don’t do architecture photography show up for my important keywords.

The screen captures below show where my site ranks for the eight keywords I’m tracking.

The SEO Shell Game, RF-Photography
The SEO Shell Game, RF-Photography

I’ve had as many as three of the eight in the top three and as few as none. I’ve had as many as seven in the top 10. I’m on the first page for most. That’s pretty decent and I’m reasonably happy. Recently I’ve been regularly having one of my keywords in the top position, which is terrific. If I were in a more highly competitive market I’d like to have better results. For this market, it’s OK.

The last thing to keep in mind is that you can drive yourself coco puffs coocoo trying to micromanage this process given how random much of it is. It’s really not something you want to be obsessing over every day. When first starting, track changes a few times over the course of a month, or two. If things aren’t going the way you want, adjust. There’s a business management cycle philosophy called PDCA. Plan, Do, Check, Action. Plan what you want to do. Implement the plan. Check progress. Take corrective action as needed. It seems to fit here, too.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the shit show that is Search Engine Optimisation. Proceed at your own risk.