Web Site Advice For New Professionals
Nine tips to help new photographers create a professional online presence
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Mike Cavroc is a wildlife and nature photographer based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Though his photographic passions run primarily to road trips to photograph predatory animals and the Teton mountains, its his status as a PhotoShelter Certified Consultant that led our paths to cross. Mike also designs and builds web sites for photographers, and as such he's the perfect guy to ask for help when you're setting up your web site. If you're looking to establish a professional web presence, listen to what Mr. Cavroc has to say about the do's and don'ts of professional photographer web sites.
1. First off, make sure you have a web site. I know photographers who manage to somehow stay in business without any web presence at all. These folks are fighting an uphill battle, and Cavroc says not only is a web site essential today, it's only going to become more important as we live more and more of our lives online. "Without a well-functioning web site," he says, "you're not only missing out on plenty of business and exposure, but you're also missing a great opportunity to interact with and update potential fans."
2. Forget the bells and whistles. The best sites load quickly and communicate clearly—and they are indexable by search engines to improve customers' ability to find you. That means the once-popular Flash-based web site is no longer the photographer's best friend. "The unfortunate truth," Cavroc says, "is that your average visitor, no matter how much they want to see your work, isn't going to wait for a pretty Flash presentation to load. If it doesn't work easily and quickly, people will leave within seconds. The average person's attention span on the Internet is very short and if your web site doesn't cooperate with that, they'll find someone else's that does. Flash web sites, at least in photography, should be considered a thing of the past."
3. Develop a message. Some photographers err on the side of too many photographs, while others don't have enough in their online portfolio. The trick, Cavroc says, is to find just the right amount. If you show too much variety, your work will appear to lack focus. While too little signals that you don't have enough experience. "If you feel passionate about one genre more than another, it's time to start showing it. Put all your energy there and create a presence that presents that. If there's a category you're a bit less passionate about but is still bringing in money, don't display it as prominently. For example, if nature and wildlife excites you but you're still dependent on architectural assignments for some income, create a primarily nature photography web site with one architecture gallery at the end showcasing your very best architectural work."
4. You don't need to be a web programmer to have a legit web presence, you don't need a big budget and you don't need to settle for a sharing site alone. While social media outlets such as Flickr and 500px are great, they're no substitute for a truly personal web site and portfolio—which you can order ready-made and fully customizable from many vendors online. "In terms of an actual web site and portfolio," Cavroc says, "PhotoShelter, Zenfolio and SmugMug seem to be the big three, with PhotoShelter getting my personal recommendation. They've grown considerably over the years, with a plethora of options and customizations available, and they continue to upgrade and evolve. In addition, they have themes ready to go, all the ecommerce built-in and are rolling out significant upgrades to the system throughout the year. Another option is to build your own web site using something like a WordPress install on a self-hosted site. I started out doing something similar, but in time I realized that with all the other options already in place somewhere else, that would allow me to spend more time shooting and less time managing the back-end of my site."
5. Keep it simple. Photographers are visual creatures, but sometimes we can get caught up in overly minimalist designs, or clever elements that actually interfere with the user experience. So when in doubt, make your site easy, uncluttered and clear. And don't try to reinvent the wheel. "It's most important that the design doesn't overpower the images," Cavroc says. "Let the photography speak for itself. Any page should be accessible within three clicks. Nobody wants to go back to the home page to start all over to try and find a specific image. Contact information should be visible on every page. Consider installing an e-commerce option, as a person's interest in buying lessens with each click they have to make to figure out how to get in touch with you. And without ecommerce, you miss out on a number of potential sales from searches and other referrers."
6. Don't use music. Not only is it often a copyright violation, it's just a bad karma. Nobody wants to hear your music when they're browsing at their computer. "If I hear music on a web site," Cavroc says, "the first thing I do is hit the back button—and I've seen many people say the same thing. Often I have my own music already playing. Another pet peeve is to talk about yourself in the third person. Unless you're working with more than one person or in a team environment, or you're one of the biggest names in photography and have the awards and publications to prove it, use the first person when discussing yourself."
7. Do your homework. Google Analytics makes it possible to know almost everything about who visits your site, how they get there, and how long they stay. "Adding a small snippet of code will allow you to see browsing habits, referring web sites, search terms, and much more," Cavroc says. "If you have any kind of marketing campaign or sale, it's a great way to monitor what's working and what's not. You can also coordinate this with social media efforts to see where your largest audience is coming from and how they interact with your web site. The best part is it's free."
8. Blog about it. Whatever it may be about, blogging helps build a robust presence online—which is something search engines and searchers alike are really fond of. "A blog isn't required for your web site," Cavroc says, "just like a good lens isn't required for your camera. If you want to get the most out of your web presence, it's a really good idea to have a blog and to use it regularly. You don't have to be a great writer, nor do you need to update every day. You simply need to post interesting content, which can often be the story behind a photo or an entire shoot. Just a few of the benefits to a blog far outweigh the disadvantages. It gives people a way to keep up with and interact with you, it provides more potential content to go viral and bring you more exposure, and it gives Google and other search engines new content, telling them that your site isn't stagnant—which will improve your rankings."
9. Get social. Your web site isn't a one-stop online shop the way it used to be. Today's professionals understand that they need a robust online presence that includes a web site and many other footprints via social media outlets. Facebook, Twitter, Google+… They're all valuable ways of growing your web brand and reaching out to paying customers. "A Facebook Page, never your personal profile, is a really good thing to complement your web site," Cavroc says. "Lots of potential customers are never actively searching for something to buy. They are, however, checking their Facebook feeds frequently. If they see a friend post something of yours (or more preferably, something you post), then they might have enough interest to 'Like' your page. Once they do that, they're a potential customer. Updating your Facebook Page regularly will keep them engaged and interested. A Facebook Page is also more likely to show up in search results. And if people have to request to be friends with a business, then it's likely to deter some people since their support for you essentially needs to be approved. If you have a gallery or studio, you can also set it up so that people can "Check in" when they arrive, allowing for even more exposure. In simple terms, a Facebook Page is meant for a business, and your personal profile is meant for you and your friends. There are, of course, more social networks that offer more possibilities, but trying to keep track of too many can become overwhelming and feel like too much work. When it feels that way it's time to step back and check Google Analytics to see which ones are bringing you the most traffic and which ones you really enjoy keeping up with. Don't make more work out of it than it should be."
To see more of Mike Cavroc's work, and to learn more about how he can help you improve your own web site, visit www.freeroamingphotography.com.