Smugmug and Google: The Taste of Failure

For about 2 years now, I’ve tried to get Google to index my 700+ photos on Smugmug (and blogged about it, starting here.). At the start, I had 38 photos indexed. Today, after learning a few things about SEO, creating a blog, and jumping through lots of hoops, I have exactly 10. I can’t convey the taste of failure in print – but this is what it looks like:

Google’s water torture of vanishing pages

My high water mark was about 350 indexed pages for the blog and gallery, a few months ago. That’s been whittled down to 230, of which 220 are from the blog. My posts mostly get indexed, but the photo gallery has been seen fewer times than MothMan.

MothMan gets more exposure than my SmugMug gallery

The ongoing decline in the graph above, seems to be the de-indexing of pages that aren’t getting visits, or whose meaning I don’t understand (like “/tag/…”).

Here’s something interesting, though: of the measly 10 SmugMug URLs that are indexed, none came from the sitemaps that SmugMug generates – they’re all “Indexed, not submitted in sitemap”. And as I said in earlier posts, Google Search Console reports errors and confusion in using those maps. I’ve gone through the loop a couple of times: I submit the map manually, Google sees it and finds hundreds of URLs; later, the status changes to “couldn’t fetch” for the map files; sometime later, those URLs are rejected, and “discovered URLs” goes to zero. Rinse and repeat.

Google just can’t figure it out…

My SmugMug gallery is a subdomain; the blog itself has its own sitemap, generated by a WordPress plugin, and Google uses it just fine. It’s parsed, all the contained URLs are found, and a good number of them end up getting indexed.

SmugMug’s sitemaps might be useless – and even a liability, if Google is getting tangled up trying to process them. But there are other explanations for my low numbers; and Bing turns out to be a good sanity check.

I got interested in Bing because some photographers and artists say it’s used a lot among demographics they like to reach. Bing’s webmaster site is definitely easier to use than Google Analytics and Search Console, so I submitted my site. And although Bing reads all the sitemaps, so far it’s indexed only 30 of my SmugMug gallery pages.

So maybe the sitemap isn’t the problem, and Google just doesn’t like my photos – or more to the point, doesn’t see those pages as sufficiently valuable to index. And Bing probably just wants its results to look like Google’s.

Bottom line, there may not be a way to get Google to index a gallery of photos (yes, they all have descriptions and keywords) unless, somehow, they’re already frequently visited and have plenty of backlinks. Basically, if you supply the egg, Google might give you the chicken. Google is an ad company, a fact which we might expect to skew their decisions on what to recognize as “good” content to show in search results. And Google’s algorithms can’t even tell what’s in an image, let alone whether it’s a good one – so photos aren’t even “content”. Only the ancillary text gets looked at – and it’s tough to create descriptions on 700 photos that long enough to meet SEO guidelines. Google also supposedly rejects lots of similar pages (unless you’re Amazon or another big ad customer) which is, of course, exactly what a gallery is.

I’m thinking about creating my own photo “gallery” pages on my blog site, and directly linking them to posts. For all their talk about SEO, it looks like SmugMug probably can’t do anything to make my work visible.

UPDATE: it’s time to give up.

Leave a comment on this post, and the URL of your site, and you’ll be rewarded with a nice SEO-juicy “dofollow” backlink.

9 Replies to “Smugmug and Google: The Taste of Failure”

  1. Hi, Smugmug is a photo driven site that goes out of its way to stop search engines seeing your photos.

    10 years with this company and i have seen them slowly stop Google crawly most parts of my website. If you check your sites robot text, is disallows crawling of galleries and images. meaning you might as well not bothered uploading photos in the first place. basically mug wants people to share image links only. If you try and get the truth from them which I have so many times, they blame everyone else. Try using lighthouse to gauge SEO and that will flag up many issues. I’ve had a few high quality website developers take a look at my site and they have all said the same things. the site isn’t crawabled.

    If you add images to custom pages in HTML form using embed features the images then get indexed. And for me who has 30k images, placing all those as HTML would be impossible.

    I really don’t know what they are playing at but I,m looking to get away. they are ruining my business.

    1. Hi Katey,
      The question is – where do we go from here? If we want a “fulfillment partner” to sell prints, it gets complicated. SmugMug at least gives us a streamlined upload process.

      1. Hi Jim,

        You very right there, i’ve tried hosting plans with wordpress but no one will take large amounts of images., blue host and all the main types like it would be no use to photographers.

        I tried photoshelter which is similar to smugmug a year ago but that ended with me pulling out, why their designed is able to handle multi subject photography like mine. Their seo and lightbox is top draw, I went with them after they stated they had a new website design coming out which was a lie, in fact they lied to many people why were angry at their poor layout designs, so in the end went back with mug.

        TNH with you, we can’t win. as you state, smugmug like photoshelter use print companies and offer downloads which is easy to set up and offers unlimited uploads.

        About 5 years ago, I would see my images indexed, hundreds of them but now non. I have noticed their sitemap has changed. the important part is this Disallow: /gallery/ in the sitemap.xml. basically google never sees images.

        I’ve been running another HTML embedded image test on one of my custom pages and that image isn’t showing yet, now the tests i ran 3 years ago via HTML images via a custom page, all images were indexed within hours.

        I used to make my own frames and print everything myself using custom pages designed is a deck of cards layout with Paypal but the work was insane but the profits was far better than the print companies.

        sadly smugmug will not tell you the truth, i’ve chased them time and time again, i,ve even asked to get them to change my sites xml file but nope. all they need to do is allow crawling to the gallery. no joke its that simple to fix. Its either to cut bandwidth down or they are very poor at running the seo and google side of things. My google web master flags up loads of issues but again smugmug refuses to take the blame and blames google.

        Now this is very odd, my blogger account, i ran some tests via html images and they index from smugmug.

        Your best bet is to make custom pages with a basic gallery layout not from smugmug and add images as html, with the link pointing to the smugmug lightbox. then unlist the smugmug main galleries from google, it would be a time consuming job.

        I will be testing that soon so i try and let you know.

        1. SmugMug is clearly a dog that won’t hunt; but I think there’s more to it than just the robots.txt. I was contacted by an SEO guy who saw my earlier posts, looked into it and concluded that the way SM constructs pages makes them look like a mass of duplicates to Google. I wrote a post about that:

          Oddly, my success with indexing hasn’t been totally zero. Most of my ‘gallery’ pages are indexed, and they describe my photo subjects, so that’s something. A handful of individual photo pages also seem to be indexed although I’m not even sure they’re stable URLs for the long run.

          SmugMug is a site, and a business, that probably isn’t receiving a lot of investment. We’d definitely benefit from an up-to-date alternative.

          1. I just commented on your link you gave.

            Smugmug has been in trouble finacly a number of years, They bought flickr and made a right mess of that i think.

            The biggest issues with the likes of smugmug and photoshelter, its their baby, they designed it to suit themselves and not keeping up with SEO, their lightbox is a mess.

            Try and take a look at photoshelter lightbox, its as good as getty, works the same as smugmug with print venders, its built around licensing so uses professional IPTC metadata for images, when you add info to images via photoshelter you can download all IPTC with the images, BRILLANT, but the rest of their site is miles worse than smugmugs, you can’t edit the homepage, you can’t display what you do or show multiple subjects. again its based around cliants weddings single subject photography. Their seo has no google issues!!!!!! tho.

            I have a saying for smugmug, You must be a mug to use smugmug hahaha, I feel like one often!!

          2. Flickr couldn’t figure out how to make money in the long run, and maybe SmugMug can’t either. Any online photo site can change the rules, or disappear, so maybe they’re not good long-term investments of large amounts of our time. My plan for the future, I guess, is to keep doing the blog, and link to my gallery in case someone wants a print. I keep the SmugMug gallery just there because it looks good, and in case FAA goes away. Really, what I’d like to see is a better alternative to Fine Art America, because FAA is going all in on big corporate clients like Getty and Conde Nast.

  2. Hi Jim, Hope you are well.

    I lost you ages ago a bit like SmugMug to Google lol.

    A few months ago I had an all-out war with one of the so-called heroes, you know the very so helpful team you can call upon haha, what a laugh, he reckons its everyone’s fault, including Google because smugmug sites are professional, so I quizzed him why does he have another website, well its to help others he says, but I simply replied you can do that on SmugMug with custom pages. he stopped talking to me.

    I sent an email to the main mug support with the facts and as normal they do not reply, so i now play games with them, I sent emails from my other accounts wanting to know what Smugmug has to offer, Hello i,m looking at using your website, what is your seo like. they reply super fast with such BUll and lies its shocking. usually, its the same person who i was arguing with days before, so after some soft talking, I then send them what they said in the other email.

    As SmugMug is a large company and as I see it, they design the website which is out of date, getting to a point where they do not care one bit about its customers. They leave it to a bunch of clowns on a forum to try and fix issues in CSS.

    They now have a major issue coming in 2023 with the new analytics which they haven’t sorted in Google.

    The issues could be sorted by photographers forcing their hands by pulling together, no customers means no business but that will never happen, far too many butt munchers.

    My site in 2918 was getting 30-50k visits per month, I noticed the XML file had changed, and when i did look into it they had disallowed the gallery. no links can be crawled to galleries, i now get about 15 hits a week.

    So if you have a blog, you add images, but run a lighthouse SEO check on the blog you may see links are not crawlable, so google will only see that image and index it (which is good), but will not pull the website along. CRAZY!

    Also, there seem to be no canonical tags used which is a major seo issue because its CDN, so much going on to make it worse.

    One of SmugMug’s workers no longer uses Smugmug, what a laugh yet works for them still.

    As you stated, blogs are the only way. also don’t give up on FAA even tho they are also bad as you have found.

    When people catch on i think SmugMug will start to suffer, look what they have done to Flickr.

    Never let SmugMug in your home, they will wreck everything they touch lol.

    1. Hi Katey,
      I think you know a lot more about SEO than I do! Nothing has changed for my site: individual SmugMug photo pages never get indexed. And I still think that’s because of the way those “pages” are constructed – somehow Google doesn’t see those URLs as pointing to real, permanent pages. I continue to get my blog posts indexed, and the SmugMug “gallery” pages.

      Another thing that hasn’t changed is that my SmugMug sitemaps never really get processed by Google. They’re found, and read without problems, but all the page URLs are stuck in the status of “Discovered – currently not indexed” meaning Google never actually looks at them. Again, I think this is because those URLs are somehow invalid or unstable.

      It’s occurred to me that things might be different if I went with a different SmugMug “theme” or gallery layout; maybe then the individual pages would be less ethereal and more impressive to Google. But I’m not willing to tear up my whole SmugMug site without knowing if it would even make a difference.

      Google Analytics does at least show me occasional hits on those pages, despite the lack of indexing. Presumably, people are finding the “gallery” pages and then looking at some individual photos.

      I downgraded my SmugMug plan to “power” level, which means no print sales through SmugMug. Their UI for ordering prints was pretty bad IMHO, and I only sold a handful over the years.

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