Today's guest post is by Chris Cummins, a Kansas City photographer and owner of Glow Imagery. His passion is creating images that reveal the personalities, expressions and character of his subjects in beautiful images that become family heirlooms for his clients.
We can all accept that a better website means a better business. But what is a better website?
As a professional photographer specializing in weddings and portraits my definition of a better website is how well it answers a simple two-part question: Are the right people finding my website? Also, is the website doing its best to persuade as many of the right people as possible to contact me?
The website’s job is not to be the prettiest, get the design awards or get me the most compliments. Nor is its job to make the sale, that’s my job. I just want it to appeal to and persuade a specific kind of person enough to make them want to raise their hand and ask for more information. It’s a conversation starter, that’s all.
What works best to do that? The ideas are virtually unlimited and the questions are even more. For example. Is it best to put a short bio on your splash page? Does an automatically starting video of you talking about your art appeal to your visitors more than a beautiful slideshow gallery of images? Do written testimonials encourage your visitors to email or call you more? Do you want to require them to give you their phone number in your contact forms or is it better not to ask for that information? The challenges and unknowns are endless.
The trouble is what we want people to do on our website and what they actually are doing when visiting our website are so often two different things. So many of our assumptions are often wrong and we don’t even know it when it comes to our websites.
Whether you accept it or not, a business website has the task of herding cats. People get distracted, they don't think like us, they don't respond the same as us, their values are different, their means of experiencing your website can be very different (smartphones, some old version of Internet Explorer or the latest Chrome browser), simply put they are not us.
Accurate thinking is so critical to your success. Gut feelings, hunches and the simple desire to chase the herd are not good substitutes for making a better photography website. But how do you know the answer to these ongoing questions? Fortunately we can eliminate a lot of guesswork by using a variety of free and low-cost tools.
Many of the tools listed here track visitors and visitor behavior to your website, one even allows you to hear the opinions of visitors to your website. How cool is that?
Warning: This article assumes some working knowledge of how to get to the guts of your website code. Most of the tools described here require some basic familiarity with your website code in order to drop in chunks of special code that will install the ability to track your visitors.
Most people know about Google Analytics, but most photographers don't have a clue how to use the information. What the heck is bounce rate anyway? If you aren't using Google Analytics or some other equivalent form of tracking code then you haven't put any serious thought into your photography's web presence. Period. It’s time to change that.
To get started all you need to do is sign up for a GA account through google. Usually your gmail account information is sufficient. From there, google has tutorials that will walk you through how to set things up. Most portfolio website designs have some manner of copying and pasting the code into your web pages. Setting up a new checking account is harder.
With this information you can find out which parts of your website are performing well and which are performing poorly (i.e. lots of exits, poor time on page.) You can also track what online and offline marketing efforts are building your visit numbers through the traffic sources
Don't be thrown by the depth of information and complexity GA provides. It can be overwhelming the amount data it shows you so keep it simple at first. Get it set up and start tinkering with the data reports after a few weeks. Start off my just tracking basic visitors stats. Look at the “Traffic Sources” information to determine where most of your visitors are coming from. From there, just start tinkering a little bit at a time. Since its introduction in the mid 2000's Google Analytics has grown into an application just as complex as Photoshop but you don’t need all that to use it to help your web marketing.
It is a richly layered ocean of data about your website and what visitors are doing on it. Do you what to know how much time Android users are spending on your web page devoted to sleeping beagles? Google analytics will tell you. But don't let that complexity scare you.
Ratings: scale of 1 to 10
Cost: 10 (it’s free, what more do you want?)
Ease of set up: 7 (Google has a neat little verification function which will check to see if you have it set up properly)
Ease of use: 6 (The information is very detailed and little overwhelming, focus on basics and tinker with all those extra data points when you have the time and inclination.)
What do you do with this tool’s information? It tells you who, what, when, where and how of your website visitors. Track the overall visits and dig into the data to see what kind of affect your marketing efforts, both offline and online, are having on the web traffic to your site. Check and see what pages are experiencing high number of exits or a short time on page. Set up goals to track what pages contributed to the most completed goals (hint: those pages are doing their job) and see which ones are losing your visitors (time to fix those.)
We just started using this one. But we like it… a lot. Crazy Egg seems to know where Google Analytics struggles. Crazy Egg is made for photographers and other visual thinkers. Rather than pile on tons of data into your lap it shows a visual representation of what visitors are doing. It takes your visitor data and tells you where people are clicking on your site and which areas on a site page could use improvement through a series of visual tools. These visual tools show a copy of your web pages with a map overlay of where people clicked. It shows scrollmaps that have heated zones over the page to see where people's eyes have spent the most time on.
For visual people like us photographers, it is a very pleasant experience to look at a photograph of our website’s pages with blurbs of color representing hot zones where people are clicking. It just makes sense!
The set up is remarkably simple. Copy and paste the code into the page's code you want to track. If you can do Google Analytics you'll see that Crazy Egg is as easy. (If you are using a WordPress set-up, even better. There's a plug-in which allows you to enter the code once and every page on your wordpress platform has the code. Easy.)
I am not aware if most portfolio websites are equipped to take such a code, I know my Clickbooq site does not.
The only downside to this software is that it isn't free. But it is very affordable and includes a free 30-day trial. Their basic plan is nine bucks per month (billed annually at $108.) This gives you up to 10 pages to track and 10,000 visitors per month.
Why do you need this? The burden of expertise is a big risk and you are the expert. As someone who eats, breathes and sleeps photography portfolios, very often what you think looks great and makes perfect sense to you website presentations of photography makes no sense to the average person. Crazy Egg is among my faves because it is like sitting in a focus group of hundreds of users and observing what they do with your website. It can be humbling.
Ratings: scale of 1 to 10
Cost: 6 (it is free for 30 days, nine bucks a month afterwards for a basic plan but it is an excellent investment.)
Ease of Setup: 8 (may have some issues with the website portfolio template places that are popular out there.)
East of Use: 10 (it's fun and very simple to learn how to use)
What do you do with this information? Look at several important pages on your website and ask yourself, “what is it I want my visitors to do on this page?” and Crazy Egg will show you in a really visual way what your visitors actually are doing. This will help you to quickly identify any distractions or poorly designed features that may be interfering with that goal.
3) All-in-One SEO Pack (wordpress users only)
This is a champion of a little plug-in you can download for free. Activate this guy and give your on-page search engine optimization efforts a major boost in the arm. If you are not familiar with the virtues of search engine optimization, that subject is a huge discussion unto itself. But for now you can start here.
I'll just say this, SEO has been the single closest thing to a marketing magic bullet for my photography business. It beats the holy moly out of just about everything else I have tried. As a photographer, SEO can't be your only marketing effort but it is an essential piece in this day and age.
A well known trait to winning SEO is using the right titles and descriptions for pages and blog posts. You can do this through the regular title feature on WordPress but also through the plug-in’s interface. This helps you optimize for keywords and phrases you know your target market may be searching for.
The only downside is it for the WordPress platform and can only be used with wordpress content.
Ratings: scale of 1 to 10
Cost: 10 (it's free)
Ease of Set up: 8 (your basic WordPress plugin installation procedure will do.)
Ease of Use: 10 (every time you publish a page or blog post it is there for you to enhance the search-engine presence of your content.)
What do you do with this tool? Your blog is a tremendous opportunity to create attractive and interesting content that will earn you links and points with the search engines. This plug-in adds a little extra power to all those posts by helping you mix up some of the big items search engines use to evaluate where to rank your website when someone types in a search.
4) WordPress SEO by Yoast (wordpress users only)
It's not often you have a plug-in that educates its users as well as it provides an actual immediate benefit. I've begun to prefer this plug-in over the All-in-One SEO pack simply because it makes the dark science of SEO easier for just about everyone. Using both is a good plan.
Once you download and activate this plug-in, each post and page you write will have a handy snippet preview in the plug-in’s window that shows what your post will look like as a Google listing. It also helps you identify a focused keyword for your content and keeps a checklist of where your keyword is in the most SEO-smart places (i.e. Page URL, Content, title, etc.)
You can also click on a tab that does a page analysis which features lots of excellent helpful tips, warnings and kudos about your post. Absorb this information while working on your blog or website and you are way ahead of your competition in a short period of time.
Ratings: scale of 1 to 10
Cost: 10 (it's free)
Ease of Set up: 8
Ease of Use: 10
What do you do with this tool? This tool helps analyze your posts and page content to see what you can do to improve its potential to be ranked highly by search engines. More importantly, it educates you about the important set of habits you need to be forming when using the web to help your business grow. Kick ass SEO is about good habits repeated over and over.
Rather than all kinds of code, data and scrollmaps, sometimes you just need to have real people use your website and provide you real feedback. I'm not talking about a group of photographers on some forum, either (don’t do that… please.) Photographers deal with photography on the web all the time and have that burden of expertise. What does a mom with three kids think when she sees your website? If your website's intended audience is the general public it really helps to get a reality check on a regular basis, enter Feedback Army.
For 20 bucks you can submit your website to a group of reviewers in which you can receive 10 responses. You will have the opportunity ask specific questions about your page and what it does, Feedback Army provides some useful tips for what to ask. Ask both general questions and specific questions.
Unlike Crazy Egg or Google Analytics you are hearing the impressions of real people about your website. A word of caution: they can be brutally honest so submit your site prepared for a frank list of what you haven't quite done right. While they can be tough they are almost always helpful.
Once in a while a reviewer doesn't seem to care and isn't helpful with their review, you can reject their review in favor of someone who seems to have taken some time to offer genuine help. All reviewers are from English speaking countries, too.
The surprising part of this services how fast the reviews are. I had ten reviews completed for me in just two hours. That's instant feedback.
The web gurus call it a usability test. I call it a reality check.
Ratings: scale of 1 to 10
Cost: 5 (It's $20 for 10 reviews of your website,the most expensive option on here, but still worth the occasional investment)
Ease of Set up: 9 (it took two minutes to submit my site)
Ease of Use: 9 (simple, simple, simple and the feedback is very fast)
What can you do with this tool’s information? Hear from real people their impressions and thoughts about the experience of viewing your website. This takes the guesswork out of what may be wrong or not helping you on your website. A word of caution: have a thick skin because the reviewers can be tough.
The very top performing websites out there like Amazon, Apple and Zappos are aggressive and constant testers of their web pages. They are always putting new ideas out there and testing them versus the old methods to determine which is better. Little guys like us can do it too. This is where Google Website Optimizer comes into play.
With GWO you can improve the effectiveness of your website by testing if changes to your website content are more effective in getting conversions. You choose what to test and which pages you want to examine.
Which is better? To have a large video autostart on your homepage or have a small video that visitors can click on if they want to watch? Is it better to have a contact form that requires visitors to submit their phone number or not? Use Google Website Optimizer to create two versions of the same page and it will send a portion of your site traffic to each version to help you determine which one your users respond to best. GWO provides reports and recommendations on which version you should use.
You can do A/B tests or multivariate testing. For photographers, I recommend sticking to an A/B test which is a classic marketing testing strategy. An A/B test means you have two versions of a specific page that have the same goal. To determine which version is better, you subject both versions to experimentation simultaneously. In the end, you measure which version was more successful and select that version for real-world use.
The GWO reports are straightforward and not overloaded with information like Google Analytics sometimes is. Installing the code on your website is no more or less difficult than a lot of the other tools listed here. Google has a very easy to use verification test for the pages you are looking at testing with GWO.
The only downside is the tests do take time. You do need to get a wealth of visits to be able to make reliable conclusions from the data in a short period of time.
Ratings: scale of 1 to 10
Cost: 10 (it’s free)
Ease of set up: 8
Ease of use: 9 (straightforward reports, no extra bells or whistles needed)
What can you do with this tool’s information? Test the crap out of your ideas, designs, galleries, images and quickly discover what is getting the job done and what may need tweaking and what needs to be put in the recycle bin.
How do these tools benefit you as a photographer? One big reason is virtually no other photographers are using them. In this business, if you aren’t doing what everyone else is doing, you’re doing something right.
The other big reason: you're working your tail off to get people to visit your site but you are very likely losing prospective clients and buyers after they go to your website because something isn't pulling them towards the specific thing you want them to do. Sometimes it is a big issue across the whole site that is hemorrhaging away your hard won visitors, it may be a very small issue that can be fixed in seconds.
You don’t know until you can get useful data to make informed decisions. Otherwise … it’s just a guess and your assumptions.
Which of these tools do you already use? Which ones were new to you? Discuss below!