In my recent post “The Trouble with Online Photography Portfolios ,” I argued that too many photographers’ Web sites focus on gee-whiz design tricks at the expense of coherent organization and easy navigation. This can make it difficult for an art director to hire a photographer based on a search of online portfolios.
The post inspired quite a few e-mails from photographers seeking further guidance. Here are a few of the most common questions and my responses.
Do you prefer Flash or HTML Web sites?
From an art director’s point of view, I really don’t have a preference. For every poorly designed site I have seen constructed in Flash, I could show you an equally bad HTML site. And for every great HTML site, I could point you to an equally superb Flash site.
My primary concern as a visitor to your site is usability. I want to be able to access your portfolio and contact information as quickly and easily as possible. So, for example, if your site takes a long time to load, I am probably going to move on to another site if I am pressed for time. While one might associate long load times with extravagant Flash introductions, sites that are simple, elegant and well-organized can be constructed in either Flash or HTML.
That being said, there are reasons other than usability to favor HTML over Flash — most importantly, SEO.
Is search-engine optimization (SEO) really that important?
Yes. I, for one, use Web search to find photographers for assignments, and I’m far from alone.
If a potential commissioner can’t find you online, or you turn up on page 999 of a Google search, much of the hard work you’ve put into your site is for nothing. Just as you shouldn’t focus on aesthetics over usability, neither should you give short shrift to SEO.
That’s why many photographers are choosing HTML over Flash. Even if your Flash site is great from a design and usability standpoint, it may face challenges from an SEO perspective, because Google’s Web crawlers can’t “see” Flash animation as easily as they can index HTML content. The difference is not as great as it used to be, now that Google is indexing textual content held within SWF files and extracting the URLs embedded in Flash sites. But HTML sites still have an SEO advantage.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t build a Flash site, or that you shouldn’t build a site that has Flash elements. But consider Web design as a three-legged stool, with aesthetics, usability and SEO representing the legs. Never let a designer bully you into focusing on aesthetics at the expense of the other two factors.
Also bear in mind that Google Image Search is becoming more important for photographers, as John Lawlor  has highlighted in his posts for Black Star Rising. This is changing the way people find your Web site — and is also changing how smart photographers are marketing their work.
As a photography client, I use text search and image search in different ways. If I were looking to commission a portrait photographer in New York, for example, I might Google the keywords “photographer, portrait, new york.”
On the other hand, if I were searching for a stock portrait of Hollywood star Charlize Theron for a magazine cover, I would start by trying the big stock agency sites. But if I couldn’t quite find what I was looking for on those sites, my next step would be to do an image search on Google to see what pops up. If just the right image appears in the results, I would then contact the photographer to see if he or she is willing to license the image.
By designing your site with SEO in mind, including image search, you are not only increasing the likelihood that a potential client will find you, you are greatly improving your chances of selling work directly from your site.
I don’t really need Google Analytics on my site, do I?
That’s like a magazine editor saying, “We don’t really need circulation data, do we?” Of course you do!
How else will you know if your Web site is doing its job if you don’t track usage? Google Analytics tells you almost everything you need to know about the visitors to your site — their geographic locations, how long they spend on your site, which pages they view, how often they visit, how they found you, and so forth. No matter how good your online presence is, you can always use Google Analytics to make it better.
You might think your site is a sturdy three-legged stool, but until you look at usage, you can’t know that. For example, maybe a high percentage of visitors leaves without exploring your site beyond the home page. This could suggest that the “usability” leg of your stool is wobbly. Or perhaps the only people who visit your site are those who have specifically typed your URL into their browsers. This would indicate that your SEO leg is nonexistent.
How often should I update my site?
It doesn’t have to be daily, or even weekly. But you should update your site as often as you reasonably can.
Let me put it this way. If I get a phone call from a photographer whose portfolio I saw three months ago, and he or she says, “Wayne, I have some new work I’d like to show you,” I almost certainly will make time to meet with them. But if the photographer wants to meet and doesn’t have anything new to show me, I will probably politely tell them, “Sorry, I’m too busy.”
It works the same way online. If you don’t add content, such as new images or blog posts, on a regular basis, those clients and potential clients who stop in occasionally to check out your site will simply drift away.