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 not totally giving up, but 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: 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.

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