Zenfolio vs SmugMug – SEO

online search and seoSo how does Zenfolio stack-up against SmugMug in terms of SEO? Well, based on my experience not very well, but read on…

(UPDATE: This post was written prior to the release of “New SmugMug” in July 2013. For a more updated SEO comparison, visit the post “New” SmugMug – 6 Months Later).

What Is SEO?
SEO is short for Search Engine Optimization. It’s a search marketing technique used to improve rankings on the search engine results page after doing a search on Google, Bing, etc.. The higher a page or site ranks, the more search traffic (and sales) it will receive. SEO is a proven way to improve those rankings.

Why is SEO Important for Photography Sites?
Search and SEO are extremely important when it comes to online photography galleries because they’re the channels that most people use to find photographs of specific subjects, locations, people, themes, etc.

Certainly there are many photographs shared via social networks, but most of these are family photos or non-commercial. The commercial market for photography can be mostly found online thru searchable stock photography sites, or via the world wide web using a Google or Bing search.

The advantage with having visibility via Google or Bing is that your work will be seen by a much wider audience, including those outside your social networks.

The switch from SmugMug to Zenfolio
In Oct 2012 I switched from SmugMug to Zenfolio. I’ve already written a couple of posts about the differences I found with both photo hosting solutions (see http://blog.chipjonesphotography.com/commentary/zenfolio-vs-smugmug/)

[NOTE: This review was published before the release of SmugMug’s new page design tool which was launched on July 30, 2013]

At the time I wrote those articles, I really had no idea what the impact would be in terms of my search rankings when I switched hosting solutions. I decided to wait to document this because it takes time for things to settle when moving a site.

Impact on SEO When Moving From SmugMug to Zenfolio
One difference became very apparent in the four months since I moved my web site. What I’ve found with Zenfolio is that far fewer search phrases are driving traffic to my web site than with SmugMug. The primary reason for this is that SmugMug simply does a better job at providing an open environment for the search engines to crawl web sites.

What does this mean to photographers? Well basically if Google or Bing can’t easily locate all of the content on your web site (via hyperlinks, etc.), they are less likely to find and include all of those photographs, categories, titles, locations, etc. in their search index. If it’s not in the search index, your photographs and content won’t show up in the search results page.

When my web site was hosted on SmugMug, Google Webmaster tools reported that they had located about 250 primary keyword phrases that were driving traffic to my website. In addition, they had located and indexed several thousand linked elements on my site. These links pointed to different sizes of each photograph, categories, subcategories, keyword tags, etc.. It was a pretty impressive as to how many links they (Google) had found when my site was on SmugMug.

After I moved my site to Zenfolio though, that number dropped dramatically. Today that number sits at a total of 6 indexed keyword phrases and about 75 urls. No wonder I have less search traffic!

Zenfolio SEO Recommendations
It’s amazing that my search rankings aren’t better because Zenfolio provides an extensive list of to-do’s and tips when it comes to SEO. My hat is really off to them for providing this amount of information because most of it includes very good SEO best practices. By the way, this  information can be seen at http://help.zenfolio.com/customer/portal/articles/407777-search-engine-tools-and-tips-for-seo.

The harsh reality is that even after I followed their SEO suggestions, I found their recommendations haven’t produced the same search ranking results that I had on SmugMug. Ironically, I’m still using many of the same photographs, keyword tags, etc. that I had on my SmugMug site.

I was curious to see how other Zenfolio sites were ranking. I searched and found a few top ranking personal sites, and then did a little detective work to see if I could gain some insight into why they were ranking well. What I found was that these sites hadn’t even implemented most of the SEO recommendations made by Zenfolio. In essence they were ranking well in spite of not doing the recommended SEO work.

NOTE: This post describes my experiences in terms of implementing SEO on my Zenfolio site. You may find that you have a different results when it comes to your own Zenfolio hosted web site.

What’s the Issue With Zenfolio’s SEO
I wish I had a great answer for why my Zenfolio site has not generated more search traffic than my SmugMug site. Part of the challenge in answering this is that Google doesn’t really provide much detail about how they rank web sites. They do this because they don’t want people to know how their ranking system works.

What this means is that as a full time SEO practitioner, one learns that certain assumptions need to be made and then tested over time. I’ve been doing SEO for about ten years now, and I can tell you that I’ve tested my fair share of assumptions. I’ve had successes and failures, but I’ve always learned from my mistakes.

That aside, I believe the main reason my web site is not ranking better has to do with the way the underlying web code is implemented at Zenfolio. Their use of embedded links and images within code objects, use of Open Graph, limited XML sitemap and other factors are impacting the indexing all of my photographs, descriptions, and keyword tags.

Even if I had a perfectly optimized Zenfolio site according to any best practices, I still wouldn’t be able to rank all that much better because of these challenges. One really large difference that should be pointed out is that Zenfolio does not generate a sitemap of links pointing to my images, SmugMug does.

Certainly others with hosting plans at Zenfolio may not be having these same issues. I’m merely saying that my SEO experience tells me that my web site is not ranking as well as it could because of underlying issues with the code on Zenfolio. I feel that these are having a negative impact on my ability to rank better on the search engine results page.

Obviously SEO isn’t the only marketing channel for photographers, and this may not be an important consideration for you. I’ve seen many successful photographers get their digital work out in front of the public via social media. But for my marketing purposes, I consider SEO an important marketing tool and this is one reason why I am so focused on it.

For now I remain on Zenfolio. I’ve outlined and described my personal experiences with Zenfolio, with the desire to provide additional insight when considering a photography hosting plan. Personally I would suggest doing the free trial and going month-to-month before locking into a longer commitment. You may have better success than I have, and I hope you do!

If you have additional insight or experiences with Zenfolio SEO, I’d appreciate hearing about it in the comment section below. If you find this information helpful and you’d like to sign-up for a SmugMug account, please use my referral link. You’ll receive a discount on your membership and I’ll get a small referral fee. It would be greatly appreciated. The link is:

Chip Jones

Chip Jones is a Photographer / Digital Artist from Edina, Minnesota. He specializes in Photography and Digital Fine Art for Commercial and Residential Interiors.

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