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With everyone on Facebook or Instagram now do you really need a website any more?
While I believe that there are few absolutes in business, my answer to that question is a resounding yes.
Don’t get me wrong; Facebook, Instagram and other platforms all play an important role in putting your work in front of potential clients.
However, the critical problem with all of these platforms is simple; you don’t own them. Facebook will always do what is best for Facebook, whether that means compressing your photos into pixelated oblivion or ceasing to show them altogether.
They are, after all, in business for themselves and they don’t owe you or I any favors.
In contrast, you always own every byte that is published to your little corner of cyberspace. You decide exactly what you want to publish and how you want to present it; it remains forever accessible to anyone who searches for it.
There is no puppeteer behind the curtain, tweaking algorithms or forcing your work into their corporate-approved template.
Understanding that, now we ask, so what exactly can your website do for you?
Building a Great Website
First and foremost, a great website introduces you to your ideal client. It presents your work and your brand and helps to establish expectations for all that will follow.
Its purpose isn’t to sell any stranger who walks by; it exists to lead the right people to the next step – an inquiry or consultation with yours truly.
A great website is available 24/7, even when you’re not. You can introduce yourself to potential clients at 2pm on a Tuesday afternoon or 2am on a Sunday morning.
It can talk to one, two, or even twenty people at one time. It doesn’t matter where you are or what you’re doing; your website is online, ready to greet anyone who would like to know more.
Tackling exactly what you share and how you share it is a series unto itself, but here’s a very brief list of ideas:
- Think about your ideal client; what’s in it for them? Make sure that your copy forms a connection with them and proactively speaks to their FUD (fears, uncertainties, doubts). Tell them what to expect.
- Set expectations. What is it like to work with you? What unique benefits do you offer? How will things unfold a week, a month, or a year from now in your working relationship together?
- Show, don’t tell. Use testimonials; use vivid pictures of your wall art collections, your albums and anything else you emphasize.
- Get the first date. You’re not asking your reader to marry you; don’t ask them to sign on the dotted line today. Instead, craft a presentation which says, hey, I think we might work well together; let’s get together and talk details.
- Make it really easy to contact you. As a potential client, there is nothing more frustrating than wanting to take the next step and having to hunt for a contact form or phone number.
- Make it mobile friendly. More than one third of all internet traffic is mobile-based and that number rises each year. Don’t assume that potential clients will tolerate usability flaws; a poorly optimized site will cost you money, maybe lots of it.
Next, we’ll talk about how to build your website, but first, a word about hosting, as these two decisions are often closely linked.
Picking a Platform and a Host
First, there are a couple of terms you want to become familiar with. A host (or hosting provider) stores a copy of your website’s files and makes them accessible to anyone who requests your website, via your domain name.
For example, when you type https://www.chrisaram.com into your browser, here is a very simplified explanation of what happens next:
- Your internet service provider will look up the requested domain name (in my case, registered with GoDaddy) and “ask” where to find its server;
- My DNS then relays the request to my hosting company (MediaTemple);
- MediaTemple knows to rout chrisaram.com to my personal VPS (defined below) instance and serve the requested resources (code, images, CSS, etc.) to the user’s browser.
The takeaway is that there is a domain name (in my case, chrisaram.com) which points to a host (in my case, MediaTemple) which stores my website’s files and serves them to internet visitors. (It’s also important to note that you can buy your domain name at any registrar and still host your website somewhere else.)
There are countless hosts and a dizzying array of options, but at the end of the day, they all boil down to a few fundamental choices.
Shared hosting is the most popular option, largely because it’s the least expensive; most shared hosts will allow you to set up shop for around $5-$10/mo.
Servers aren’t cheap; a shared host defrays the cost amongst many users by pooling them together.
The problem with this approach is that many of your “neighbors” may not be well-behaved; there is a constant “battle” for resources (Computer Processing Units, called CPU for short, disk space, Random Access Memory, also called RAM for short, and bandwidth, to name a few) which may result in degraded performance.
Of course, you might also get lucky; maybe your host is well maintained or your virtual neighbors happen to play nicely together for many months or years at a time.
I’ve worked with multiple clients on shared hosts at GoDaddy, for example – some of the sites generally ran smoothly, while others were a regular disaster.
A VPS is the next step up from shared hosting. While it costs more, the performance is generally quite a bit more reliable. Also, because you’re paying the hosting provider more for a VPS, you may also get faster and more skilled support if and when you need help.
Last, a dedicated server offers maximum performance, supporting hundreds of users at once; however, it’s also probably total overkill for any photographer’s website. (Bottom line, you probably don’t have enough visitors to warrant the expense.)
Fully managed hosting offers more reliable performance and ease of use, at the expense of flexibility (in order to keep things running smoothly, most managed hosts restrict what their customers can do). As a photographer, you may not mind these restrictions, but it’s something to be aware of.
Pixpa is a super-easy DIY website builder designed for photographers. Thousands of creative professionals around the world use Pixpa to easily build a professional portfolio website without the need for any coding knowledge.
Pixpa stands out from other such website builders with its focus on simplicity, flexibility and powerful editing features it offers. It’s product offering of DIY website builder, e-commerce and work-flow tools make it easy for photographers to showcase, share and sell their work online. PhotographySpark readers can get a 20% discount on Pixpa with this code – PSPARK20.
My favorite “traditional” host is MediaTemple. I’ve generally had good experiences, both with their product (the hosting) and their support (if and when I had questions or things went wrong).
WordPress is an extraordinarily popular infrastructure. A recent estimate suggests that a quarter of all websites online today use WordPress. It’s powerful, easy-to-use and can be installed on virtually any Linux-based host (most providers offer both Windows and Linux OS). It’s also versatile and fully customizable.
There are thousands of plugins which have been written to extend its core functionality, and you can write code to modify anything or hire someone to do it for you. There are additional frameworks built on top of WordPress like Genesis or a theme from StudioPress.
Recently, Imagely introduced managed WordPress hosting which is tailored specifically to photographers. They offer the best of both worlds; all of the power of the WordPress ecosystem, plus someone else to handle the technical stuff for you!
Earlier, I mentioned that your choice in host and choice in platform are sometimes closely linked. If you love the SquareSpace platform, then you have no choice but to host with SquareSpace.
If, on the other hand, you want to use a WordPress-based site, then you can host just about anywhere. In the end, most platforms are similar. There are a few clear benefits to each and I’d probably encourage you not to sweat the decision too much. You can pick any of the paths described above and build a great website which will serve you well for years to come.
Building Your Website
The actual step-by- step process of assembling your website will vary, but here’s a short list:
Research Domain Names
Recall that your domain name can live separately from your host: for example, I can buy by domain name at GoDaddy but still point it to my website which is hosted at SquareSpace, or anywhere else.
As mentioned earlier, this is the “space” that your files will occupy on a server; your domain name (or more accurately your Domain Name System, also know as DNS) will “point” any visitors to this space to access your website. Some providers like SquareSpace offer a truly free, no-strings-attached trial for you to test-drive things.
Find a Theme
If you’re running WordPress, there are countless options. Scott Wyden Kivowitz just wrote a great post on this very topic.
Analytics tells you where your users arrive from and what they do once they’re on your site. It can help you to gauge the success of your various marketing efforts and understand which pages work well and what can be improved. I recommend Google Analytics; it’s free, powerful, and pretty easy to use.
Use images which are optimized for the web. When printing our images, maximum resolution matters. But online, large image files load exponentially more slowly and Google will penalize you for it.
When exporting your final, web-ready images:
- First, use JPEG. They’re much smaller than PNG with no perceptible loss in quality.
- Next, use moderate compression. I usually find that between 60-80 results in a significant reduction of file size, again with minimal loss in quality.
- Third, size them appropriately. A 60opx photo will load exponentially faster than a 900px wide one.
Side note: No matter how many frenzied debates you might see to the contrary, PPI/DPI is meaningless when displaying images online. It matters when printing, but the only measures which are relevant online are width, height, and compression.
Use keyword-rich but natural sentences to describe your images (so that Google knows what they are). This is a really simple way to be found in Google for highly targeted, less competitive search phrases. I’ve booked clients with this very technique, like when a bride was searching for images of her chosen venue. It is best to name your photos honestly, for example bride-at-nationwide-resort.jpg.
For more about SEO, I loved Photography Spark’s SEO Cookbook.
Put Backup Systems in Place
I cannot overstate this point. Your website is (or will become) a valuable business asset: do not leave years of your online history up to chance. Suppose you’re hacked (it happens) or you inadvertently make a change (it happens) which cripples things; you’ll want to be able to quickly restore from a working backup. Even if your host backs things up regularly (they should), it’s important to maintain your own copy of everything in case they go bankrupt or suffer another unforeseen, irreversible loss.
Here’s a post comparing cloud backup companies.
Another good reason to use WordPress is its ability to configure automated remote backups. Or you can always pay someone like me to do the job for you.
Choose an Email Address
This may be a minor point, but email@example.com looks more credible than firstname.lastname@example.org.
Post Your Sessions
Google prioritizes “freshness”. Not only that, but people like to see new work and besides, it will also signal that you’re a busy, in-demand photographer.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask For Help
As photographers, we preach the value of trusted, professional expertise to our clients. I recommend you think of your website and the people who will help you to host and develop it along the same lines.
Be willing to invest effort in a qualified, professional team who will do great work you can be proud of.
Whether you’re just launching your business or you’ve been at this for many years now, I recommend that you revisit your website once or twice a year. Try to see things with a fresh eye and determine whether or not it reflects your current brand and direction.
I wish you the very best as you set out to build a profitable website which serves you well! Please always feel free to reach out to me directly if there’s any question I can answer or anything else I can do to help!