Over the past month or so I’ve been catching up on a lot of old to-do items, including a year’s worth of site maintenance that I kept putting off until I switched ISP’s, which, oddly enough, I kept putting off until a couple of months ago. Anyway, while researching something or other I ran across a truly useful article on the subject of search engine optimization (SEO), which had the refreshing candor to acknowledge that SEO advocates speak gibberish:
As you sit down with your new SEO consultant it starts out well, but soon he says “We’ll need to implement a good 301 redirect plan so that you don’t lose organic rankings and traffic.” Then he says something about title tags, which you’ve heard of although you’re not quite sure exactly what they are or what they do, or why it’s important to update them as your consultant is recommending, although it all sounds good. Then he starts using other jargon like “indexing,” “link equity,” and “canonicalization,” and with every word you feel your grasp on reality slipping and the need to take a nap.
The entire piece contains an excellent glossary of terms that come up again and again in SEO articles. Unfortunately, the very fact that SEO is such an enigma confuses the question of how sole-proprietors — including particularly independent artists and authors — might best make use of SEO without themselves becoming confused or lapsing into gibberish.
So here’s the truth about SEO if you’re an artist. For the most part SEO is not something you need to be concerned about. Whatever time you might put into SEO, or whatever time you might convert into money in order to pay someone else to worry about SEO, can usually be more profitably spent creating whatever it is that you create.
Understanding SEO and the Arts
Over the years I’ve monkeyed around with a number of WordPress SEO plugins, including All In One and Yoast. From time to time I tried to learn how to optimize their settings, and from time to time I turned the plugins off to see if performance faltered. In all the time I spent trying to make use of any SEO plugin I never once detected a real benefit either globally or in terms of individual blog posts.
While it’s easy enough to install a WordPress plugin, when it comes to SEO that’s all you’re doing until you configure the features — until you optimize it. Which means that taking advantage of SEO, even in simplified form, still requires that you know how to conjure the voodoo you didn’t want to learn or pay for in the first place. In short, no matter what anyone tells you, there are no shortcuts to SEO.
If you’re in a hyper-competitive market with thin margins you may not have any choice, but that doesn’t describe the commercial reality of most artists. A much better way to approach SEO in the arts is to take a step back and look at the big picture. What you want is for people to find you and your work, and as such you can make a few basic assumptions about who those people are. Some people will know nothing about you — not your name, not the title of anything you’ve created, nothing. You literally will not exist in their mind when they sit down and start entering keywords into a search engine. Others, however, will know something about you — maybe your name, or part of it, or the title of something you created, or the medium you favor.
If you were selling generic retail products on the web — DVD’s, pipe wrenches, clothing, or any third-party product on sale through other retailers — then fighting for both types of consumers would make sense, but that’s not what you’re doing. Whether you’re a writer or a painter or a photographer, you’re not selling what everyone else is selling, even if you’re working in a trendy genre or over-exposed market niche. (Or, if you are selling what someone else is selling, you’re eventually going to end up in court, at which point SEO will be the furthest thing from your mind.)
As an original artist what you are trying to do is connect with people who might appreciate and perhaps want to purchase what you’ve created, and that’s an entirely different question that competing to sell the most widgets or gadgets. With regard to potential customers who know nothing about you, then, while there is always the possibility that someone might come across your work blindly, say by searching for ‘new writers’ or ‘gothic fantasy artists’ or ‘trendy photographers not yet corrupted by hipsters’, that likelihood is extremely small. Which means you can stop worrying about trying to attract attention to yourself through conventional search-engine optimization.
Paradoxically, almost all of the people who will use a search engine to find you will already know something about you. How is that possible? Well, some of them will have had a real-world interaction and know your name or location. Others will have heard of you via a third-party recommendation. Still others will know of you because they ran across you by pure chance, but not in a way that you could consistently anticipate or exploit with SEO. (For example, maybe you participated in a real-world exhibit or art fair, or the online equivalent, or you maintain a presence on a social network, and that association brought you to someone’s attention.) Whether someone types your full name into a search box or clicks on a random image — a drawing, a painting, a book cover, a photograph — which leads back to you, the vast majority of individuals who end up considering you and your work will do so not because of SEO but because something you did as an artist caused them to take note.
Ninety Percent of SEO is You
If you are an author or an artist of any kind, your name and your medium(s) of expression are enough for almost anyone to find you on the first page of search hits. Yes, it may take a few weeks or months for your online presence to achieve that ranking, and it helps if your name is unique, but when it comes to identifying individual writers or painters or graphic artists, the world is not overrun with people doing those things, let alone people with your name. It may seem as if everyone is an artist when you visit some of the larger craft websites or do a generic search, but compared with the internet as a whole the total number of people competing for search-engine visibility who have your name and create art is a few at most, and most likely zero.
The single biggest SEO decision you can make as an artist is simply to establish your own web presence, preferably on a site that you own yourself. You can call it a platform, you can call it anything you want, but you should put a little thought into it and plan to keep it over the long haul. Even if you stop writing or painting for five years, or ten, keep that site online. You don’t have to post regularly or even every month if you don’t want to, and you don’t have to spend a lot of money, but in order to make it easy for search engines to find you — to link to you and rank you — you need to have your own site.
Even if you appear elsewhere on the web, do not rely on your publisher, a gallery or anyone else to be the locus of information about you and your work. All relationships change and many relationships run their course, but unless you have a break with reality or drop dead you’re still going to be you. So stake out a virtual space, occupy it, and tend it as circumstances dictate and you see fit. (In the long run you’re better off NOT treating your website as a channel unless you’re the irrepressible high-energy type and always have something you want to share, because the content vacuum even on a small site can suck the life out of you if you feel obligated to entertain. Better is to post only as needed, either for your own well-being or to keep visitors informed about your work.)
Treat your online presence like a storefront, avoid posting craziness if you can, and over a relatively short amount of time your site will work its way up the search rankings based on only your name and craft. Whether your site URL has a distinctive name like Ditchwalk or includes your name doesn’t matter, as long as your name is linked to the content on those pages. For example, if you search for ‘Mark Barrett writer’, a book I wrote is the first hit, and on that page is a link back to this site; the third hit is the Ditchwalk homepage; and the fourth hit is the About page. Alternatively, if you can’t remember my name, but Ditchwalk comes to mind, that keyword returns this site as the first hit.
Either way, that’s your SEO right there, and all it took was a website and a little time.
— Mark Barrett