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.

33 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.

      1. Hi Jim,
        Now I’m not the type to slip silently into the night so have been fighting SmugMug for 7 days straight.

        For 6 days, I’m told it is my fault like every other photographer who has no images showing. It is odd how every hero comes up with the same owners, its SEO, but I got there in the end yesterday!!

        Drum rollllllll “But as I mentioned – your images may not be visible on Google’s Image Search, because we protect your photos.”

        From Tom one of the heroes, Now he did say there may be a bug in their system, but I’ve had enough of paying for the invisible photo site so went to cancel my payment but couldn’t, my card is locked in WORRYING.

        For URLs in smugmug, if you use smugmug standard, that is the only gallery style that creates a separate URL for images, the rest just use the gallery as a URL. but you need to add the filenames in from a softwear-based system like LR.

        Yep, same issues as my google console, discovered but not indexed, took a closer look and most or the keywords with the hack disallow but oddly I can’t find the gallery disallow hack in the robot text tester in google.

        I personally think Smugmug is a shambles of a company, their lightbox is rubish, and their sites are so slow that google testing shows it as 15 on the test score, we are going to get done for that in page speed.

        No, you are right, changing themes will not make any difference, galleries are blocked as Tom sort of stated. Your blog shows the images up in search right? like mine I bet. how dare they blame people for poor SEO, well I am bad at it now because I lost interest in spending hours after i started to notice issues with smugmug.

        If you place a title of one of your images brb

  3. I’m back,

    Lovely birds by the way, place one of your titles in search “Male Red-winged Blackbird on cattails” second page for your fine art USA site, no image showing the same as smugmug, fine art has issues as we said before.

    Now for smugmug that bird isn’t there at all, not even the url!!

    I saw your name on another forum and laughed as you were complaining about smugmug, so you are on forums and have put your site in your pfoiles as normal. I don’t do anything like that and both of us are in the same sinking boat, ohh lord steerage passengers onboard the titanic, we re doomed lol.

    goes to show placing your website in doesn’t do anything with SmugMug.

    My site ranks avg 33 and in the last 28 days 33 clicks, I used to get 30-50k per month!!! I used to watch the live tracking and it would be most of the day people looking but nothing now.

    How odd is this, your text for you bird, same one as above “The male Red-winged Blackbird is often seen with his feathers in agressive disarray as he issues his spring cal. But he’s actually quite handsome when not preoccupied with territorial defence.”
    ranks second on the page in google. no images but this is why.

    your cached page how google sees it

    acording to google it needs to knkw what to crawl, but i can’t find any image allow or disalow in the robot text file

    this is google To remove all the images on your site from our index, place the following robots.txt file in your server root:

    User-agent: Googlebot-Image
    Disallow: /
    To remove all files of a specific file type (for example, to include .jpg but not .gif images), you’d use the following robots.txt entry:

    User-agent: Googlebot-Image
    Disallow: /*.gif$

    its almost like SmugMug hasn’t added that section at all!!!

    By the way, your SEO with your wording is miles better than mine but we both have the same issues.

    1. Jim, did one more test

      Take a look at a google cache of one of my galleries, note, there are 2 images showing. one is HTML and the other is a smugmug content image block but both are showing, so should be indexed.

      The moon shot is visible in the page source code, yet the content block image is hidden. so something is so wrong with smugmug.

      1. I doubt I’ll ever understand what’s going on here. After all this time, Google has indexed 15 URLs from my SM stiemap, out of about 800 images. A handful are actual individual images, and at least some of those URLs work, so they must be somewhat stable. But I suspect what’s happening is that my small set of indexed pages is changing over time. The great majority of my SM pages end up as “Discovered, currently not indexed” meaning they haven’t been crawled yet – and that number never changes. Maybe Google crawls a few, indexes a few, revisits the site later and decides the indexed URLs are no longer valid, removes them, and indexes a couple new ones. The choice of which photos are indexed seems totally random – they’re just odd shots out of the past….

    2. Yes, that seems to reinforce my conclusion: the problem with SmugMug is that your photo pages aren’t really “pages”. Interesting that Google might nevertheless index one of these URLs which then becomes an invalid result in a search.

      1. Well, Jim,

        After months of testing different things, I have sort of found a fault in the SmugMug system.

        4 test pages, gallery and 3 custom pages with images. one is indexing the images even though the url doesn’t show as its new, i placed the text from the image in search and low and behold they showed up.

        I think with indexing, if your subject has loads of urls from others if its not doing well it will fail, none of us are going to match big sites. you need hits and a dam good bounce rate.

        the images you have indexed, you need to check if they are the feature gallery image you set in from the setting for the gallery. that image is visible to google!!. also, the gallery header image you have can be seen.

        A simple test is the 3 dots next to your URL of any URL, click that then cached, and you will see what google can see. image-wise anyway seems to be a big thing.

        Every other test was a 100% failure.

        I used the same images so to prove its not SEO, some of the images have no info at all and still got indexed!!!!!!!

        It looks to me if there is a fault with smugmug or they have missed the content block out from blocking.

        I used gettys website as a rule which is similar to smugmug.

        I,m going to do a blog on how to overcome smugmugs issues but have told them i will work with them to get this sorted.

        If they do and you start seeing improvements, think that kate stood her ground and sorted it. I,m like a jack Russell, I never let go lol.

        1. It seems my indexed images aren’t the ones featured in the SM galleries. You are nothing if not persistent, and I hope you do that blog post so I can link to it. Maybe SM would actually respond, who knows?

  4. I suffer from very bad dyslexia, yes I love it for its artistic ability but hate it for that never give in attitude and when I know I,m right I’m even worse lol.

    6 years ago, I found 2 faults with smugmug and they fixed them. I think its because I just see something and go seek it out.

    The last tests took 24 hours for google to show the page or not.

    AS it stands, one test shines above all others and works like SmugMug used to work.

    The RSS feed test works but the images are odd and look terrible site.

    I needed to compleat these tests fully before the blog will be done but SmugMug has said they are looking into a possible bug, They may want more info from me.

    I have no skills in coding, can do it just but it is my spidey senses for fault finding what is very good. I wish I could work for them, the site would be way different.

    Does sm ever contact you via their forum?

    I should be able to start that blog tomorrow, it’s so easy and noticeable that SmugMug will wakeup when word gets outs

    1. I’ve been on SM’s forum but no one there can address the real SEO issues. I don’t think any actual SM employees participate any more.

      I see that my SM “plan” just auto-renewed so I’m in for another year [sigh]. It would obviously be great if they could improve site visibility!

      1. Yes, you have noticed the amount of very annoyed photographers all saying the same thing. It’s like sm is blind to the problems or just doesn’t care.

        Same here my account needs stuck as TBH, there are no sites at all for photographers.

        The last test came in last night, hope you can see these links.

        Cached link for my indexing for image test 3

        A smugmug gallery cache

        a test page with RSS feed, it did work kind of but no displays empty!!!

        How you can see them, is as simple as this, google can only crawl and index what it can see, and a blank page means a lot in seo. humans see a page from URL they click on, but google sees a page that’s empty of images no one gets to see a photo-driven website, just words lol.

        I will start that blog today. it’s easy to fix these issues but sadly if you have hundreds of galleries it will take time.

  5. Sorry, I thought it was playing up.

    All you do with SmugMug is turn it into a custom page website like WordPress one, which could actually say a real website, anything you see in the google cache next to a URL (the 3 dots bit) is what search engines can see and crawl, also the SEO seems to work much better.

    But as normal when indexing new stuff it will take a few months to level out, the pages still need the hits so on to rank but at least the images will be seen if someone is looking at images.

  6. Jim,
    It may be a good idea to remove the link you placed to your blog, I’ve closed my smugmug site down along with the blog site. the test pages stopped working which had a strange effect on my blog site. I worked it out, the photos will only display for s short time after smugmug generates a crawl, which used to be on the 19th of each month.

    Smugmug has single handed destroyed my photography business so I decided to retire for now.

    Sm asked me who was i leaving so i didn’t hold back that’s for sure.


      1. Ok cool,

        Photography died as a business when stock sites started ripping photographers off but i have to say its photographers themselves who have ruined photography by giving images away and then you have those phones.

        There is one other way which i am doing. a wordpress site, using google images as storage and use a gallery that shares to google, that allows unlimited uploads without killing the host plan.

        £33 for wordpress, £88 for the gallery for lifetime which is miles cheaper than smugmug, ohh for google cloud you get 15 gb free but i will go for the £3 odd a month storage which is 200 gb.

        the site loads super fast unlike sm which takes ages.

        Its much slowly to build the site but seo is far better. I will offer personal sales via the old fashioned way

  7. Thought I would give you an update.

    No longer on smugmug but still researching, They use AWS 3 amazon cloud storage. That can cost a lot of money via get requests so on. its basically a storage where you don’t pull stuff that much otherwise the cost will be high.

    SM changed from another storage company to AWS in a cost cutting drive which will be when we all noticed the change.

    You can set up an API so you can share galleries so on to wordpress via the likes of photonic galleries which is a free wordpress plugin. sm used to allow 500 galleries and now is down to 100, so if you have a folder with 150 galleries, 100 will only be shown.

    There is a time limit of 5 minutes which i have not worked out how that works via a token.

    So how i see it, the more images you put on another website the more it costs sm.

    In a nutshell, why you do not see images on google is due to get request which could run in the thousands per day which would cost sm many thousands per month, you are talking for a medium sized one website owner upwards of $1500-$3500 per month and can be miles more. so sm who is photo driven would cost far more.

    They are lying about photo protection its all down to them cutting their costs at the expensive of photographers business falling to bits.

    That may be the reason why those tests i did stopped working and why they only generate a crawl once a month (19th of each month i think), they do not want your images online otherwise they will have to pay a hell of a lot of money.

    Even the api will not work because the token limit will be reached causing the images to disappear until it refreshes the next day.

    i tried wordpress using AWS3 i put just 20 images on my site and it cost 6 sence = 45P in uk money, so 20k images sounds scary to me and thats without people hitting the site. more hits the more it costs.

  8. Very interesting and it all makes sense. Seems you have penetrated the mystery at the heart of SM’s business model: To reduce those costly page accesses by Google, so they aren’t giving us real “pages”. Exactly the opposite of what we want and what we thought we were paying for.

    Maybe we should get Elon Musk to buy SmugMug, raise our subscription price, and start giving us real web sites.

  9. Yea if you look it makes a lot of sense. when using the robots text that limits crawling so galleries are no indexed, only the url and a feature image.

    Hers one

    and heres the main one

    Then think about what we have spoken about before, sm is only for client based, thats a perfect way for sm to cut even more costs.

    Sadly, this is across the board I think, I used google cloud storage, they limit the time your photos can be on wordpress. so if you are sorting images they will suddenly go dead until the next day, the token has ran out. aws3 is the same with their amazon photos. why they keep them private use only i gather.

    I haven’t got the skills to work out cloud storage as that 45p for 20 photos did me in.

    I was using wordpress, with aws3, and was looking into media cloud which can pull and save images to the cloud via wordpress. it works but the cost is scary or i have made a mistake.

    If you know someone whos into asw3 there is a way to do a website. endless images, i can help in hat i did but its the cost park i have no idea about.

    When using media cloud, you can use nextgen galleries which is the only plugin that works the same as sm with download and print sales.

    Pitty you could chat with Musk, knowing him he would do something. he seems that type.

    I,ve retired for now until i find out about aws3 costs, too scary

    1. I used Amazon S3 w-a-a-y back in the day, when it was new. Now it owns half the world. Nice that SmugMug was able to reduce their cost by 40%, unfortunately they reduced the value of their service by at least that amount.

      1. TBH i thought cloud storage was cheap, but i don’t think it is unless you have a static website.

        yeah lol cost cutting, 40% sm, 60% on photographers wages.

        Its the reason why they are set up as a client only site, everything about sm points to that. their how to videos points to that.

        Also I hear sm has made a mess of flickr.

        SM is like a F5 tornado, everything they touch is obliterated!

        1. Cloud providers Alphabet (Google) and Amazon are both seeing declining revenue from other sources (ads, retail) so I expect cloud storage prices will only go up.

          What is SM’s real revenue source? I’m thinking professional wedding and event photography. And that has to be declining too. So SM will only look for more ways to cut costs, and may raise prices as well.

  10. I used to have several thousand photos on Flickr and they were literally all over Google. I’d never heard of SEO back then, I’d simply add a title and a few tags and a couple of weeks later they were showing up in searches. I was getting emails on an almost daily basis from people wanting to use/buy them. I also had lots of problems with theft (no watermarks).

    So I decided to switch to Smugmug because of the ecommerce and watermark protection. Took all my photos down from Flickr and uploaded them to Smugmug using the same titles and tags. And then nothing. My images all literally disappeared from Google. Started studiying SEO and tried my best but it was all pointless. After 6 months I gave up.

    Flickr obviously has excellent SEO and they’re doing something right. If they had a watermark feature and the ability to use ecommerce they would be the perfect solution.

    I guess upload your images to Flickr (with watermarks already attached) and in the description link them to your Smugmug page. So people would find them via Flickr and then cross to Smugmug to buy them.

    1. I have 800+ images, so uploading them somewhere new – and adding a link to each one – is a major undertaking. And of course there’s no guarantee that Flickr doesn’t change its “business model” next week and through us all under the bus…

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