As a professional photographer, your most important marketing tool is your Web site. That’s a given, really. For me, my Web site represents two to six assignments a month, on average, and that is a substantial amount of money — so I pay careful attention to where I rank on the search engines. Here’s some advice on what to do when your position in Google or another search engine drops.
When your ranking drops, 90 percent of the time it’s because of a search engine changing its methodology for ranking sites. They are doing this because they believe it is in the best interests of their users. Some people refer to this as moving the goal posts; others refer to it as a “Google slap.” And it just happened to a number of photographers recently.
Over at Photo.net , users are reporting that people with BluDomain Web sites have lost search engine positions in the last month. Some liveBooks clients also have experienced this. This problem is not related to either of these companies specifically, because I have spoken to over a dozen photographers in the last week that don’t have BluDomain, liveBooks, or Clickbooq sites — and they too have experienced a drop in their positions.
This is a global issue, and not related to any one service provider. Some who reported having a problem last month are now back where they were. For others, the wait and the concern continues.
I Got Banned — What Happened?
Here are some things to look at when your search engine position drops — or you disappear completely. First, let’s check to see if you’ve been banned. Go to Google, Yahoo! and MSN and enter your Web address to see if it’s there. If it’s not, there are a number of possible reasons:
1. Server downtime. Many inexpensive web hosting companies have significant downtime . If your host was down during a Googlebot visit, that’s probably part of the problem. Answer: Get a new provider.
2. Mirror sites. If you have mirrored your site, it may be that the search engines are seeing duplicate content on other domains, and favoring that site instead. Duplicate sites are also cause for concern about spamming.
3. Tricks. Don’t be an idiot and do white text on a white background. That trick is so 1999. All the search engines know that, and every other trick you can think of. Don’t do black hat  or even grey hat tricks.
4. Inbound links. Trading links with someone is considered a grey hat trick. Google knows what you’re up to. You need inbound links without a return link. While you might think you can get around this by doing circular links , they have caught on to that too. Avoid participating in, or becoming, a link farm ; too many outbound links on one page is a link farm, and search engines like to ban them.
What to Do When Your Ranking Drops
If you haven’t been banned, perhaps you are concerned about your ranking dropping. That happens. Get used to it. When you ease up on your SEO efforts, it’s like stopping doing your mailings to prospective clients. Don’t rest on your Page 1 laurels. Keep at it. It should be what you do in the evenings during commercial breaks of your favorite TV shows, or when you’re waiting for a client to call you back.
Google, for example, has a “sandbox ” where they put sites that are less than six months old. Google wants you to earn your way out of the box. During this time, Google is looking to see if other sites are linking to you.
Let’s talk for a minute now about inbound links. Since Google is the big dog, we’ll use them. Inbound links come and they go. They also are relevant one day, and less so the next. For example, let’s say that a search engine considered the John Smith Web site a white hat site, and he had a link to you. Then, for some reason, his site dropped in ranking, possibly because of grey hat tactics, or perhaps because he was seen as a link farm (pages become suspect after there are about 20 links or so on a single page). If his site rating drops, so too (potentially) does the value of that link to you. Guilt by association.
To check out who has inbound links to you, search “+www.yoursite.com”, and also search “link:www.yoursite.com”. Both give you insights into how Google sees you. Of most importance is the “+” search. That’s called a “character search”, and those are often links of significantly less value than the ones that return under the “link:” search.
Does your Web site have a site map? Site maps are very helpful for the search engine spiders. Rob Haggart over at www.APhotoEditor.com  (who has a companion site, APhotoFolio.com , where he talks about his commitment to SEO (SEO Of Our Websites ) gives you a great deal of excellent information. So too does liveBooks (Search Marketing  ).
I also want to encourage you to check out San Diego photographer Robert Benson’s blog, where he compares the main Web site providers — Photographer template websites compared . Google has a Web site Optimizer, and this link (Website Optimizer Activates Pruning, Modifies Reports, and More ) talks all about it.
One of my regular reads is Search Engine Watch , and they have a great piece titled “Ready to Finally Try SEO? ” that is well worth a read. Another piece on Search Engine Watch is “Experts – au Natural ” about organic search results.
It’s Not Easy for Google, Either
Google’s Scott Huffman posted a piece on the Official Google Blog about two weeks ago (Search evaluation at Google ) describing the challenges of what search engines do. He writes in part:
Evaluating search is difficult for several reasons.
First, understanding what a user really wants when they type a query — the query’s “intent” — can be very difficult. For highly navigational queries like [ebay] or [orbitz], we can guess that most users want to navigate to the respective sites. But how about [olympics]? Does the user want news, medal counts from the recent Beijing games, the IOC’s homepage, historical information about the games, … ? This same exact question, of course, is faced by our ranking and search UI teams. Evaluation is the other side of that coin. Second, comparing the quality of search engines (whether Google versus our competitors, Google versus Google a month ago, or Google versus Google plus the “letter T” hack) is never black and white. It’s essentially impossible to make a change that is 100% positive in all situations; with any algorithmic change you make to search, many searches will get better and some will get worse. Third, there are several dimensions to “good” results. Traditional search evaluation has focused on the relevance of the results, and of course that is our highest priority as well. But today’s search-engine users expect more than just relevance. Are the results fresh and timely? Are they from authoritative sources? Are they comprehensive? Are they free of spam? Are their titles and snippets descriptive enough? Do they include additional UI elements a user might find helpful for the query (maps, images, query suggestions, etc.)? Our evaluations attempt to cover each of these dimensions where appropriate. Fourth, evaluating Google search quality requires covering an enormous breadth. We cover over a hundred locales (country/language pairs) with in-depth evaluation. Beyond locales, we support search quality teams working on many different kinds of queries and features. For example, we explicitly measure the quality of Google’s spelling suggestions, universal search results, image and video searches, related query suggestions, stock oneboxes, and many, many more.
Bottom line: it’s not easy for them, either.
Understanding SEO takes time and effort. If you do it right, it will be one of the most profitable things you can do to grow your business. But if you ignore it or rest on your laurels, you do so at your own peril.
[tags]photography business, SEO [/tags]