Performancing Metrics

Weighing User Experience vs. SEO in Site Design

As a photographer who runs a stock photo agency, I often find myself helping other photographers understand web design basics and search engine optimization (SEO). While I believe SEO is important, I will contend that it  should take a back seat to your user experience.

This article is aimed at photographers, yet it applies to any genre of website which desires high traffic, and high rankings in Google. Once you take care of SEO basics (your images are properly tagged, headings are used, keywords are part of your text, etc), the bulk of your effort should go toward creating an excellent user experience.

Think Like Google

For obvious reasons Google is not going to divulge its ranking factors to the public. For that matter, it is widely known that Google updates its ranking factors every few days. Most of these changes are likely minor, but continuous minor changes soon add up to a major change. Sometimes I think people who have used mathematics and regression to zero in these factors are going about things about as intelligently as people who buy stocks based on what went up a few days ago.

When I am designing a website, I put myself in the position of a Google programmer. What factors do I think should weigh heavily in my ranking algorithm as evidence of a website’s significance? What can be gamed? How can I stop it?

Keyword Density and Frequency

One cardinal rule of SEO which I commonly break has to do with keyword density and frequency. If I am trying to rank for a phrase like “cool photographs” it is strongly recommended that I use this exact phrase, and variations of this phrase throughout my page text.

There are two major problems with this strategy. The first is, it can be gamed. Easily. Just mentioning a phrase on a webpage does not mean you are an important source for that phrase, and Google surely knows this. Secondly, repeated mentions come off as “spammy” to site visitors, thus hurting the user experience.

Keyword Rich Links

What about external links to my webpage using the text “cool photographs?” Without question these are important, and research suggests these links should be diverse. They should come from various high profile websites, and use different text rather than potentially spamming one phrase. For instance another website might link to my page using the text “ultra cool images.”

However, this too can be gamed, though not nearly as easily as text on our own pages. It is already rumored Google is interested in negating the effectiveness of guest blogging, a common method of link building. I can write a blog post for you and link back to myself in the byline with “cool photographs.” But this is not a reliable testimony on the part of your website that I am indeed a great source of “cool photographs.” Hence the need for Google to reconsider the weight of these link building efforts.

User Experience

The ultimate measure of a website’s significance is how people use it, and whether they like it enough to return to it. If visitors quickly bounce away from your website, or visit once and never return, Google can use that as an indication that your website isn’t that great no matter how many people link to it. If on the other hand visitors hang out for a long time and visit multiple pages, this is solid proof that you are offering something useful to your visitors.

Anyone who uses Google Analytics knows this information is readily available to Google. Not only should you be looking at your analytics and thinking of ways to improve your metrics, you should also expect that Google is ingesting the data as part of their ranking algorithm.

What Makes a Great User Experience?

There are many ways to create a great user experience. But for a photography website, I believe there are several factors which are especially important.

  1. Excellent Photography. This should be a given. Your entry page should contain a sampling of your very best photographs. The goal is to get your visitors engaged. Great photographs will encourage visitors to view more pages.
  2. Engaging Content. Well written text is arguably just as important as your photography. Don’t just put up a portfolio. Write about it. And don’t just write about it for SEO purposes. Write because you have something engaging to share. Did you just finish a photo shoot at Yosemite?  Combine your photos into an article. Tell us about the methods you used in your photography. Do you have recommendations for people visiting Yosemite? Did you meet Yogi Bear? What other interesting things happened on your trip?
  3. Intelligent Structure. Your content should link together in an organized, thoughtful way. Think like one of your visitors. A visitor looking at a page of your Yosemite shoot might be interested in your photo page of Olympic National Park, so offer a link to it. If a visitor is reading an article or looking at a photo, is there any similar content on your website that you can recommend?
  4. Integrated Shopping Cart. If you have an e-commerce photography website, it is imperative you offer an integrated shopping cart. An interested buyer should be able to easily evaluate the photo on your website, and make the purchase immediately if interested.
  5. Contact Information. If a web visitor has a question about purchasing a photo, or finding a certain photo, you should be easy to contact. A contact form is a great idea. But so too is a phone number if you can handle the calls. Having a physical address listed is also important. People need to know you are a real person, and trustworthy.


Hopefully you have not come to the conclusion that search engine optimization is unimportant, or a passing fad. It’s important. I just don’t think you should be designing a webpage with your desire to rank for keywords outweighing your desire to create an excellent user experience.

Unlike virtually all ranking factors, it is very difficult to game a great user experience. Because of this, I believe the current Google ranking algorithm utilizes site user metrics as part of its ranking factors. Further, I believe future algorithms will continue to use these metrics, and possibly weigh them more heavily.

Take care of your SEO basics, then focus on creating a great user experience. The success will surely follow.

Daniel Padavona is the founder of Warmpicture Royalty-Free Photos. Daniel is an advocate for fair pay and fair commissions for photographers, and commonly helps photographers diversify away from traditional stock agencies and establish their own web presence.

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  1. Jamie Northrup ) says: 2/28/2012

    If you write and build your website for the readers, you are setting yourself up for long term success, like you said Google is always tweaking their algorithm, and their end game is to bring the most valuable and relevant results to the top, so aim for that, be relevant, make people want to read more and share you stuff naturally and you will be rewarded in the end.


    • Rosemary Jayne ) says: 2/29/2012

      I definitely agree with you James. I commented on another blog who was talking about SEO yesterday and I mentioned that my readers come first, and then a distant second is Google, because there’s no point getting a ton of people to your page only for it to be unreadable or useless to them.


      • Dan Padavona ) says: 3/2/2012

        Thank you Jamie and Rosemary. I think Google is going to constantly evolve, and a few SEO techniques may not be as effective in the future as they once were. But I think one thing we can depend on is that a good user experience will always be rewarded in some way. At the very least, our customers will reward us.

        And I agree re: site load time. I use the Site Speed function frequently.


  2. Rosemary Jayne ) says: 2/29/2012

    The other thing to think about is your site load time. This adds/subtracts to your user’s experience (who wants to wait for a page to load) and Google ranks it too.

    I really like the point about the best photos on the front page. While I’m not a professional photographer and I don’t blog about photography pretty much everyone loves a great picture. You’ve made me decide to go and take photos for my blog whenever possible. Thanks!


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  4. paypalbingo ) says: 3/11/2012

    SEO is su much better. If nobody sees your site – who cares for the design??