SmugMug: Where Photography Goes To Hide

I’ve been trying for a long time to get my SmugMug gallery indexed by Google. And I’ve concluded that on SmugMug, photos have less visibility than the Loch Ness monster on a dark night.

Left: photo of Nessie ———- Right: my photos on SmugMug

I’ve detailed my struggle in a series of posts starting here. In a nutshell, after creating a domain, blogging, back-linking, and waiting a couple of years, my blog is doing fine. But out of 750 photos, the number indexed by Google is in single digits. Those photos all have titles, descriptions, keywords, Alt tags… it made no difference. This dog won’t hunt.

And SmugMug doesn’t care. Why? Because SmugMug is really aimed at photographers who shoot events, like weddings and sports. You don’t go home after your wedding and search Google for the photos; your photographer gave you the URL of a private gallery on SmugMug where you can see them and order the 8x10s for Aunt Pearl.

But if you’re an “art” photographer, you want people that you don’t know to find your photos on Google by searching for the keywords you entered, or the text in your titles and descriptions. With SmugMug that’s not likely to happen, because Google will never even index those photo pages.

And now I have a better idea of why, thanks to a very helpful email I received from Dahlian Lamy. Dahlian – better known as “Dale” – is a co-principle of iBeFound Digital Marketing, an SEO and web marketing consultancy in New Zealand (with which I have no connection).

Dale came across one of my posts while doing some research for a client. He got interested in my ongoing indexing struggle, looked into it, and told me some interesting things. I’ll just quote him directly.

What Dale Told Me:

“… I took a look at your photo website and noticed some things that could account for some of your Google indexing issues.

“For example, here’s one of your pages that has been indexed by Google: https://gallery.jimhphoto.com/Hawaii/

“If you view the source code of that website, you’ll see the following…
<title>Hawaii – jim hughes</title>
<meta name=”description” content=”Hawaii, on Maui and the Big Island. Hawaii is a world of photo opportunities which I could spend a lot of time exploiting.  There’s geology, botany, biology and history – and, of course the big blue Pacific and all that it contains.    Prints of all my photos are available here“/>

“Now, click on any photo on your Hawaii page and view the source of that page. You’ll see that the Title Tag and Meta Description are exactly the same for each photo even though the URL is different.

“Example, the Hawaii Waterfall photo’s URL is https://gallery.jimhphoto.com/Hawaii/i-CQWZtxM/A but it has the same title tag and description as the main Hawaii page.

“So, as far as Google is concerned, all those photo URLs are just duplicates of the main Hawaii page and therefore does not need to be indexed.

“Another thing to note is that your photo images don’t have description names. For example, can you tell what photo this is without opening the link in a web browser:
https://photos.smugmug.com/photos/i-CQWZtxM/0/X3/i-CQWZtxM-X3.jpg

“Instead, it should look something like:
https://photos.smugmug.com/photos/hawaii-waterfall.jpg

“Interestingly, if you do the following site search in Google, you’ll see that not a single image on SmugMug’s photo website has been indexed by Google.
site:photos.smugmug.com

“This says the problem is not your images, rather it’s with SmugMug’s photo storage platform. And, you are not alone with this SmugMug issue. I examined a few other websites powered by SmugMug and can see the same issues there.”

My Takeaway

Dale gave me a great sanity check. I’d already noticed that SmugMug’s URLs for my photos were pretty bogus looking; and I’m not sure they’re even stable, so linking to them is risky. I thought I’d done all the right stuff in terms of titles, descriptions and keywords, but I didn’t realize the importance of the literal URLs. Dale’s insight also explained why my top level gallery pages had been indexed, but not the individual photos. Basically, SmugMug generates pseudo-pages so indistinguishable that my gallery looks to Google like a house of mirrors in a carnival.

A SmugMug photo gallery, as seen by Google

And it’s not just me – no one else seems to be getting indexed at SmugMug either.

What will I do now? I don’t know yet, but I can see that SmugMug is an SEO black hole. I’m looking into other galleries and plugins, and that will be the subject of a future post.

UPDATE: the final word?

If you have thoughts or ideas on this issue, please leave a comment. If it includes a link to your own photo site, you get a nice SEO-boosting ‘dofollow’ backlink.

22 Replies to “SmugMug: Where Photography Goes To Hide”

  1. Hey,
    I just saw this post of yours, and I see it as a problem I guess.
    All the photos appear to google exactly the same as the whole gallery !!!

    I’m not a programmer, and I don’t even know of anyone, but I was wondering, what about adding to the page (each page) an “HTML block element” with script or CSS that would override the Title from gallery to the caption of the photo? That might work, if it’s technically possible.
    What Dou You think?

    I check code:
    I dont kno, why is here:
    meta name=”description” content=”Wildlife, beautiful sceneries and pure nature landscapes from Costa Rica. Royalty-free stock photo.”/

    Few lines up is this:
    meta name=”twitter:description” content=”Plumed green basilisk (Basiliscus plumifrons), sitting on branch protruding from water, rainy tropical weather with raindrops in water. Refugio de Vida Silvestre Cano Negro, Costa Rica wildlife .”/

    Why for twitter is description from photo, but for google crawler is decription for all gallery?

    https://www.artushfoto.eu/

    1. Hi ArtushFoto,

      The bottom line for me is that SEO is part of what we thought we’d get from SmugMug. And it seems like we’re not getting it, and no one at SmugMug cares.

      Could we solve this problem on our own? I don’t know enough about SEO or CSS, what might be overridable, or how Google sees it. I don’t even know to what extent we can add HTML or CSS to SmugMug pages.

      Maybe someone else will come in here with a comment that sheds more light on the problem.

  2. Hi again Jim,

    You are 100% right, its for weddings and business that deal with clients directly and for us well you have said it all. You are like me, art and documentary and rely more on organic discovery, oddly all my sales have been from organic search but in smugmugs eyes the universe knows who katey jane photography is. i think you can describe smugmug as deluded. They even think everyone should know what icons do, yet many people I ask who have bought from me doesn’t know.

    Anyway I have done very similar checks to Dale but i,m not at his level, i,m just a person trying to find out why smugmug doesn’t work.

    Cut a long story very short, heres one of your galleries https://gallery.jimhphoto.com/Minneapolis-photography/ what I want you to do is click on the 3 dots to the right of the link, there you will find cached, click that and all will be reviled. you will find no images, but your galleries header will be there.

    I made a custom page gallery last night, https://www.kateyjanephotography.co.uk/Agriculture-photography-by-Katey-Jane-photography now if you do the same, find the url in google and hit the cached, you will find the images are there. But the images are added in HTML , you can link to smugmug lightbox. This is testing and i’m waiting to see if any of those images will show, all have file names, titles so on.

    I want to try and add some features to the gallery but i,m no expert on coding, I take free ones and play around until they work.

    Duplicate urls as you state are not indexed but there’s nothing we can do about it.

    May be the only way and ohh boy this would take years would be to make custom pages (basically in a blog style) with a html and css gallery with in depth text I think the first 25 lines plays a key role in SEO, don’t bother with the meta description. unlist all smugmug galleries as they are no good. In the html galleries link to the lightbox.

    I now wish I just did weddings lol, they have it easy!!!!

    As for their so called hero support, i think they have been brainwashed by smugmug, I think they put new staff through many tests, and whipped into shape until they comply haha.

    https://www.kateyjanephotography.co.uk/

    1. Katey,
      An interesting approach: basically building your own site that “wraps” your SmugMug pages. But when you have hundreds or thousands of images – well I guess that’s opportunity for someone to develop a software product that automates the building of this sort of site: a “meta” SmumgMug.

      I’m a small-time photographer. Almost all the sales I make are on FineArtAmerica.com, through their internal search I suppose. The blog, and Smugmug site, started out as a hedge against a future in which FAA goes away, or changes their business into something I can’t work with. At this point I’ve given up on SmugMug and and more interested in the blog.

      1. Well Jim, not too sure what to say.

        Been testing all day with the home made gallery. inside one of smugmugs galleries. SHOCK HORROR yet more problems. Years ago smugmug used to add the alt tags direct from the image titles, by mistake I happened to see my images alt tags were missing. when I looked not one alt tag to be seen.

        No alt tags means nothing for google and there’s no way to fix them via smugmug at all. no matter what you do.

        Now to add alt tags you need to add images via HTML only, that is shocking!!!

        Next tests is the gallery I showed you. via custom page, that is where i noticed the missing alt tags noooooooooo all that work, all those years for nothing, thanks smugmug i love you guy NOT!

        That paged indexed within an hour but no images but they won’t without the tags which i have to add.

        The other test gallery via a mug gallery, the gallery isn’t caching at all, nothing to be seen coming up as 404 not found.

        As you say the amount of work would take years for me, I know i add make the galleries in under 2 hours but it seems for nothing.

        I was on finnart many years ago almost 10 years now, left after their seo was terrible. people where moaning like mad so i left was finding it impossible due to being from the UK.

        I’m to a point where its putting me off, photography doesn’t seem to suit the internet, with nothing out there that suits what i do.. It seems crazy to have a photo website with over 30k images and non are visible and no one dare say anything to smugmug, i have tried and have had a lot of trouble from smugmug and their fans. you can’t beat them but i,m not joining them either.

        Look at that guy who added paypal to smugmugs descriptions aaron i think, that worked well, yet people where chased by smugmug heros to remove them . At least you enjoy your blogs,

        Its very hard to enjoy something that’s fighting you all the time.

        1. Sigh. Like you I thought the ALT tags were added by SM, from my descriptions. Why am I not even surprised to find out that they’re not? It’s hopeless.

          I suspect Fine Art America doesn’t want us to be found as individual artists/photographers so they probably do nothing about SEO of individual pages – although their forum admin is always saying that most sales come from Google. And their internal search results have deteriorated to the point that I’m unlikely to be found that way, either.

          The bottom line is that none of these online businesses have our interests at heart. It’s ironic because the web started out as the mother of all opportunities for photographers – and today it’s all but impossible to get seen without paying for ads.

          1. Jim,

            You are one of the only people I know who has told the truth regarding photography on the internet, I have been saying for many years there’s a real problem, I am sort of on that smugmug forum and have made it clear there’s a problem but all I receive is hate so i really do not fit in.

            Fine art is crazy just like smugmug, you never see a persons work, or accounts, it’s almost like individual artist who try and sell organic via search results are extinct. Its a shame, I see your images and i’m sure if more saw them you would make a living from it. I’m dead the same and rely on search finding my work, I don’t post out much because I do find photography too clicky.

            Anyway, the testing is going ok.

            If you google this Agrifac condor crop sprayer tractor
            iI hope you will see my link, its on the first page but may be different elsewhere, you will notice an image next to the url, meaning google is seeing the image. In between the url and image are 3 dots, click on them and you will see the cache, click on the cache, it will show you whats been cached. you will see I hope the gallery I made but not smugmugs!!!!

            As for alt tags within my homemade gallery they are working.

            I,m hoping this will override smugmug meta. so far when I use some of the keywords from the alt tags google is picking the images up.

            If you want to try a gallery I send you the code, it isn’t as hard as it sounds. you can test via a custom page or gallery.

            Whats really important is have a good description. some text for the galleries other than the meta description, this helps google understand what the pages is about.. I think in photography too many rely on the images which as you have seen are worse than than invisible man. Google, now days is looking for quality content with a lot of text. why blogs work so well.

            I,m trying different kinds of galleries for certain types for photos, some like my churches have a lot of architecture info which will work well but doesn’t in smugmugs galleries.

            Keep in contact Jim, I will try and break smugmugs barriers.

  3. Well Jim hows this for crazy smugmug and I knew I was right in that they once used the alt tags this is an image direct from my gallery, this image is old and stumbled on it just now as i,m making more homemade galleries.

    I can’t believe that, i have to find out why this one image has the alt included.

    Any ideas because i,m all at sea lol.

  4. Ohh lord above ohh why ohh why smugmug..

    I just found why no alts are being generated, you have to place titles in smugmug only, I used to use lightroom and then photoshelter to add IPTC data but smugmug doesn’t see that somehow, OMG all those years wasted inputting data, I used to spend upwards of 16 hours per day doing data via lightroom. the air is blue right now!!!!!

    1. I’m way behind on this stuff. I can use “inspect” in the browser and look at the HTML, but the structure of these pages (if they actually qualify as “pages”) is way too complex for me to unravel. I think I’m looking at a “page” for a photo, but in the page source I find numerous tags for jpgs. Some have ALT tags, but I’m soon looking at other photos. I think it’s like that SEO guy told me – these aren’t individual image pages, we’re always looking at a “gallery” that changes its appearance based on mouse actions in the browser. I don’t get it.

      One thing I do know is that SmugMug totally does not care about “art” or “stock” photographers or their SEO dreams. SmugMug is aimed at event photographers, who do things like weddings. They want the photographer to send customers to the site to buy prints. Those customers won’t need Google to find photos of their weddings.

      1. Its like going round and around with smugmug. Only smugmugs default gallery layout used to use individual url extensions for images but this is where they have changed too, they now use a set of numbers, they now similar to other photo websites i have checked out.

        Biggest problem with photography, its gallery driven, it would be fine if the seo worked lol but made way worse by the likes of smugmug.

        I,m a total beginner with coding, been doing it for about 6 years but its so complex i struggle but what i do is search for what i want, like the masonry gallery, they often found for free, i then change the CSS to suit me, its long winded but fun tbh. but smugmug uses a different form of web site building according to a developer.

        What smugmug have done is basically shut down bots from crawling everything apart from the homepage, metadata sections, custom pages, folders, text blocks when I run seo checkers, they can’t check galleries, coming back as 404 even with my homemade galleries added within smugmug.

        I contacted smugmug and was to the point, wanting control over my sites robot text, want to know they haven’t changed, want to know why they lie. I want the truth and explanation and they haven’t replied.

        I stated they for event photographers and not for art so on where people rely on organic searching but I expect nothing from them.

        The test gallery has indexed, showing its images and is on the first page. I added my own meta content, keyword html along with performance wording used but people who search that hats in that gallery. so it looks if its combing the 2 together, I have heard about not using meta if you have good text but i think it may be far better in the case of smugmug because they seo is at 0.

        1. I’ve given up on “gallery” sites – even if I found one that seemed to work well, they might change it the next month.

          What I try to do now is blog about my photo subjects and hope the posts get found by people interested in those subjects. But it’s unlikely I’ll sell many prints that way, because those people were probably looking for information, not wall art.

          At least with my blog site, some corporate manager can’t pull the SEO rug out from under me on a whim.

          When someone goes to Fine Art America, it’s because they’re looking for something to put on a wall. But their internal search has become a chaotic mess.

          So, my hope for the future isn’t a better “gallery” site but a better POD, with a good internal search.

          1. Too right there, you may find people who follow you may want to buy sometimes I do that via my youtube channel and i sell more via that because they see some photos via the links. Again if you think about it, sales are lost by us because the images are invisible to organic search.

            People will know what certain things are for like fine art so on.

            Not being funny, if you or i was a well known person in photography, getting in mags, so on, you know the bigwigs who seems to take odd things and get tons of prase. when you are like that it wouldn’t matter if the images on the website was invisible or not. I have seen this in many different things, when a person’s name if well known its like auto fame and the cash rolls in.

            I’m a loner in life and photography, I hate joining groups so on because it’s just not me. It’s just way too clicky and very odd sometimes. In fact i go out my way to avoid photography related things. the camera is just a tool to me.

            There are more sites coming out but I do not trust any of them like you.

            It would be great if hosting companies took unlisted uploads, could have a cool wordpress site then.

    1. Yes I thought about that once. There are plugins for the purpose, but the only cloud storage I have is OneDrive, and the plugins don’t work with it. I’d have to move everything to another cloud. But the idea has merit.

      1. Been looking all day tbh, amazon s3 looks so comlex I would have no idea how to set it up.

        so its like this, wordpress.org site.
        Bluehost they have a CDN
        but if not bluehost cdn then cloudflare
        Next gen galleries, they offer simlay to smugmug, downloads and prints.
        Not offload media but media cloud press which as unlimited and using the cloud.

        Can’t work out the prices tho. may have to be a millionaire lol.

  5. Well Jim there is a way round smugmugs invisible images.

    Make a folder if you have multiple galleries for certain subject matter. don’t send it for indexing but leave public visible.

    Next make custom pages, like this https://www.kateyjanephotography.co.uk/Agricultural-manufacturers-list-katey-jane-photography/Case-IH-agriculture-photography

    Use a free responsive simple gallery that can be found online.

    Copy and paste embedded html of the images in the image share from your chosen gallery.

    when finished, unlist the smugmug gallery from google and when you have finished the folder, you can place the smugmug links on your website with the folder link. when doing so, when google crawls those pages it will bring up images.

    I don’t use smugmug meta descriptions but a coded one in the content of the page text.

    Google is indexing both url, meta and images, even with an images next to the url.

    Take that smugmug, i,m better than them haha but doesn’t take much lol.

    I great tip i have is to use the use page source, you can see the code and if it’s working you will see the links you have added to the gallery. this means google can see the whole page.

    If you do the same in a smugmug gallery you will never see the links.

    1. OMG that sounds complicated. I’ll have to take a look at this after a big cup of coffee early in the day.

  6. Hi Jim,

    My testing is complete. , results in, smugmug is even worse than you may think.

    firstly, titles in smugmug doesn’t work in images, even alt tagged ones a waste of time, Now for people visiting a site can offer info, that’s about it tbh. Keywords are only for smugmug search box and according to smugmug google uses them but they do not.

    My homemade galleries custom pages work but a very strange thing has been happening, Google as pulled an image next to the url which never as happened, i just checked the link and text in the google listing, it matches the title and caption. its so odd because smugmug blocks crawling of those images and the image used isn’t the headline image, your guess is as good as mine here.

    the smugmug gallery test with my gallery above seemed to make google pick the wrong images so was a fail.

    I started to run some tests using my blogger site with goggles basic domain, again using my gallery below each blog post with text, alt tags so on. when i do a search it pulls the url with matching text from the alt tags a placed in my gallery images. this has worked miles better than smugmug but I may know why, blogger loads in under 2 seconds with 50 images, plus text, smugmug sites takes ages to load, upto 19 seconds and google hates that.

    Your blogs could have gallerys below like this https://kateyjanephotography.blogspot.com/2022/05/british-steam-trains-and-stations-black.html this is a full advertsing gallery, what i would do for smugmug, pointing to smugmug with rich text, text is important.

    This is a normal blog post with advertising images for sale so it cross promotes in google. https://kateyjanephotography.blogspot.com/2021/06/the-power-and-beauty-of-mute-swans.html

    I make sure people know they are being redirected to the main site.

    I just don’t get why google indexes a smugmug invisible images infact google has indexed 5 of the massey photos which is a first. years ago i had about 5000 odd images indexed but nothing now apart from smugmugs homepage html images i coded in. Whats very odd, google can’t crawl the gallery images, google states disallow.

    I did hear from smugmug and this may shock you, so smugmug is ruining peoples business over this

    i Your robots file is actually correct, as it is blocking the bots, not actually Google from crawling your site. So we are good there. At this time, there is not a way for an individual to edit a SmugMug Robots file. This is done to prevent a ton of spam from hitting sites.

    so smugmug is blocking bots because of spam!!!!!!!!!! in the comments it can’t be the contact area because out details are there fr all to see anyway, i get hit all the time with spam via emails, i just delete,

    Shocking hey

    1. Your homemade ‘gallery’ pages are actually good enough – if they get indexed – but it’s a lot of work.

      I’ve given up on getting individual photos indexed at SmugMug and instead I’ll just put more description and keywords into the ‘gallery’ pages as those seem to get indexed.

      I’ve read that Google doesn’t even really care about robots.txt files, they just go ahead and read the pages anyway – that might be true, but who knows.

      You might try Bing’s search console, it gives you more information. In my case, Bing claims to have indexed about 60 galleries AND photos on SmugMug. But when I test-load one of the supposedly indexed photos, all I get is the gallery page. I guess that’s because those page URLs weren’t stable over time -there’s nothing there anymore.

  7. Thanks, it is taken a few weeks to smooth out the operation of doing pages and blogs, can do 4 per day, but what slows me down is my typos, I and spelling are not the best of friends lol.

    I didn’t know about Google and robot texts, I will look into that.

    TBH, Jim, I feel image-based sites like SmugMug, and photoshelter are becoming a thing of the past, its based more on quality content, words and images seems to be the right balance, My blogger site is about 3 year old but stone forgot about it, so doing some coding on that and doing my own galleries as you have seen which is getting pulled by google. Now the speed of the blog posts is miles better than smugmug so that’s going against smugmug due to their slow loading speed.

    I stopped using meta descriptions a while ago, using detailed text H1 or H2 which is showing up far better than meta in smugmug. One test i did do with SmugMug the other week which showed major issues with smugmug, Google isn’t using the meta in some of the galleries and pages, no matter what i do.

    Have you noticed a fault with smugmug? most of my images had titles placed in via LR but the titles are not working in smugmug, saying about 0-15 images per gallery, I asked my mate who uses a different system to me, and he noticed the titles one day and wasn’t there the next. If you complain to SmugMug they Blaine everything other than their system, the customer is always right doesn’t apply to smugmug!

    As for bing, I’m having trouble getting on their system, they won’t send to my doctor’s address because i live in a motorhome and not a house.

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