smugmug SEO

Using SmugMug and Photoshelter As Your Main Site

Continuing our series on websites for photographers I wanted to discuss some SEO considerations for those that are using Photoshelter and SmugMug.  In fact what we’ll be discussing here is actually relevant to a few other services as well so even if you aren’t using one of these two, it’s going to be worthwhile reading it as it’ll add some more foundation to your knowledge of SEO and how it can be used to further your photo business.

Photoshelter and SmugMug are two services that can be used to either create a photo portfolio site, or to add more functionality to an existing one.  SmugMug will allow you to sell prints of your work and Photoshelter takes things a step further and allows you to effectively set up a stock agency and license image downloads as well as print sales.  Out of the box the services will give you a subdomain on their servers which means that my sites might look something like this:


Whilst this out-of-the-box functionality is a useful way to get up and running quickly, it doesn’t look professional and it won’t give you the chance to have a personalized e-mail.  There’s better ways to set this up and I would urge you to do it as soon as you first start your Photoshelter or SmugMug account.

To understand why I’m urging you to do it right away we must understand a little about how Google treats domains and SEO in general.  It’s always beneficial to rank highly in Google because so many people browse the internet these days by starting with a Google search.  When someone enters a search term, the vast majority of people click the link at the top of the results, a smaller number click the second link in the list and a much smaller number click the third.  In fact as you move down the list there’s an almost exponential decrease in the likelihood of the link being clicked, to the point where any results off the front page are nearly worthless.  In the competitive photography industry the majority of people don’t appreciate the power that a little SEO knowledge can give you.  The mere fact that you’ve already read this far into this post means that you have the jump on almost everyone!

So we know that SEO is important and can lead to new clients looking for services in your niche, but how does Google determine the positioning of your site in the results?  The fact is that the answer to this question could fill a whole book but there’s one particular element of their algorithms that we’ll be focusing (pun only slightly intended) on in this article; backlinks. A backlink is simply a link to your website from somewhere else on the internet.  Google’s entire business model revolves around generating more searches and for people to keep returning to use Google they are on a quest to deliver the best search results they can.  In Google’s eyes, a website with more backlinks has more authority and is therefore a better search result.  If hundreds of people link to your website you’ll get lots of extra Google juice because they see that other people must like your site so it must be good and useful.  There’s another element to the backlinks algorithm that we should understand, though it’s less relevant to today’s Photoshelter/SmugMug topic and this is the backlink authority.  What was the authority of the site that linked to your site?  If you get your friend Bob to link to your site from his personal blog, this will carry much less weight in Google’s algorithm than say if DPReview or Petapixel linked to your site (the two largest photography sites on the internet).

This is the basic foundation for the potential problems we’ll discuss in the article but one more thing we need to understand is subdomains.

A subdomain is a prefix to a domain name so in the examples above, is a subdomain of  What is hugely important to understand though is that in Google’s eyes a subdomain is treated entirely separately of the domain name.  This means that should I start the above website example, I start with zero backlinks to my site and zero authority in the eyes of Google, even though many thousands of people link to  Likewise, is entirely different to and this is why I urge you to not start your website using the default subdomains because it means that if you launch a new website using or but then later switch the site over so that it runs on , you’ll be resetting all of your hard work in SEO terms.  None of the backlinks and authority you’ve built up for would carry over to your new site because Google sees them as totally separate!

So that we are clear, a subfolder is a different thing.  A subfolder is in the form  This very blog post is a subfolder of Shutter Muse :  Google DOES treat subfolders as part of the root domain so any backlinks to this blog post DO count towards the authority of

A subdomain=

A subfolder=


You start a wedding photography portfolio website for Vancouver and my site is at  Over the course of a couple of years I have built up a good reputation and used SEO good practice to get my website showing on Google’s front page when someone does a search for “Vancouver wedding photography”.  This is great, many brides-to-be are searching for this and it’s leading to new clients and new leads!  SEO is awesome and has helped me book thousands of dollars in new jobs 🙂  Now you decide to polish up your business a bit to that you can simply point people to instead (something that’s easy to do with both SmugMug and Photoshelter) and now you can also use the e-mail address [email protected] instead of [email protected] or potentially even worse……. [email protected]

You make the changes and all of a sudden people stop calling and they stop e-mailing you, you’re back to square one.  Google looks for but it’s no longer there so it moves on to other sites and puts one of your competitors into the slot on the front page that you once occupied.  That’s funny Google thinks……. there’s a site on page 23 of the Google results that’s called, that sounds familiar……. but it’s not the same.

Do not let this happen to you!

As I mentioned, both SmugMug and Photoshelter make it very easy to set your site up so that it’s on its own domain and not a subdomain of their sites.  It’s called adding a CNAME and Photoshelter’s instructions on how to do it can be found HERE whilst SmugMug’s can be found HERE.  If you have trouble, as a paying customer to the services both support teams will be happy to aid you.  In order to have your site on your own domain you will first have to register your own domain and I would recommend using Hover, don’t use GoDaddy…. you’ll regret it I promise you.  Hover is much simpler to use and adding the CNAME to your domain with them is a breeze.

So this is the first big consideration to think about when talking SEO and Photoshelter or SmugMug.  I really hope that people out there don’t set up the default subdomains with the intention of leaving them like that forever, I hope people can see the added professionalism that your own domain gives you and the cost is under $15/year. A complete no-brainer.

Using SmugMug Or Photoshelter As An Add-On To Your Current Site

There’s some situations where you might want to have your website on another platform such as WordPress but still use Photoshelter or SmugMug to sell prints or offer a searchable archive of your images.  Blogging about your work is a highly effective way to generate business leads and is featured heavily in my popular article 50 Powerful Ways To Drive More Traffic To Your Photo Site.  The problem is that Photoshelter and SmugMug don’t have native blogging capabilities built into them so this is probably the main reason you might potentially run your main site on WordPress.  Another potential reason is that there are many thousands of potential WordPress designs but just a handful available for Photoshelter’s Beam platform and “The New SmugMug”.  This leads to a lot of websites that look very similar.  I can tell the instant I land on someone’s site if they are using Photoshelter or SmugMug simply because their site looks similar to many other sites; that’s not a good thing if you’re looking to stand out from the crowd.  Using WordPress as the base of the site gives you much more customization and access to the amazing power of WordPress plugins with which you can do so many awesome things.  In one of these circumstances you might set up your Photoshelter account on a subdomain of your own site, so if you have you might point Photoshelter to and SmugMug to thereby maintaining some consistency in your online branding.  In fact this is exactly how I have my personal portfolio set up.

SmugMug Gallery
SmugMug Gallery

I can feel a BUT coming on…

At first glance this seems like it might be a great solution, albeit a little more work that simply using the built in websites offered by Photoshelter or SmugMug.  The problem is again you’re running into this subdomain issue.  Say you work hard on and you get hundreds of links back to your site by doing interviews on photography websites, guest tutorials on photo blogs and following all 50 of the ways I have given you to drive traffic to your site.  When you set up a Photoshelter account on , that archive site is seen as a totally different site in Google’s eyes and receives none of the benefits of your hard-fought SEO juice you’re gathered for

The Photoshelter Problem

The problem here is that very few people are ever going to link directly to your archive site so it’s going to be very difficult to build the authority of anything that you have there. Now in this case is still there and will catch much of the search traffic for your chosen site name terms but it’s not going to do a good job of displaying your archive images and galleries in search results. In fact it gets even worse because even if you set up the subdomain , Photoshelter only serves up the gallery index pages on this subdomain and when you click on a specific gallery or image you’ll find you end up back on (sample gallery:

This means that in fact your website is spread out over three domains!


Talk about diluting your Google juice!  In a few places I have seem Photoshelter customers wonder why their photos and galleries do not display in search results and ultimately I believe that using subdomains is the biggest reason for this.


You run a sports photography business and you call your site “Joe Bloggs – Vancouver Sports Photography” and your domain is  Your main site is a WordPress site which has a portfolio slideshow and a blog where you write about your current assignments.  You decide to set up a Photoshelter stock portal to help sell sports photos immediately after the events you’ve shot so you set this up and using the instructions you point it to In the menu of your wordpress site you add a button that says ‘Image Archive’ and when people click this they are taken to your archive which has many large galleries full of hundreds of images, all meticulously tagged with descriptions and correct metadata.

Over time you build many links to to using the techniques I’ve underlined here which has helped you to boost your search ranking and now when someone Googles ‘Vancouver Sports Photography’ your site comes up on the first page results.

Now a magazine or a newspaper is looking for images of a specific hockey player from the Vancouver Canucks from a game last week, they go to Google and they looks for “Roberto Luongo Canucks Vs Calgary Flames”.  You have literally hundreds of images of Roberto Luongo in your archive, all of them with full descriptions and a gallery with a title from last weeks game, yet none of your images, or your gallery appear in the searcher’s results, not even when they switch to ‘Image Search” view in Google.

The reason is, as you’ve probably gathered by now, that all your images in the archive are hosted on a subdomain which has few, if any, backlinks.  Take my own site for example, I have many hundreds of backlinks to but just a handful to and even less to  I’ll often be searching for something on the internet and find my own website and images come up in the search results but ONLY from  I can’t honestly remember one time when one of my archive galleries or photos has come up in a search.

So What Should I Do About This?

When it comes to adding a stock portal to your site I do think Photoshelter is the best option and unfortunately there’s nothing you can do about the fact that their galleries and images are still linked to a subdomain on their own domain.  SmugMug does a better job of handling galleries since when you set a SmugMug site up on a CNAME the gallery still appears as part of your own site so you the URL of a gallery would be whereas with Photoshelter you end up with

You’ve seen the gallery example from my Photoshelter site linked above, for a SmugMug site check out my friend Mark Gvazdinskas’ site at and a gallery example would be :

As you can see, with SmugMug his gallery still remains on his own domain and it looks a hell of a lot neater.  If you are just looking to sell prints and not license stock images it’s a definite win for SmugMug.

If you’re using Photoshelter though here’s what I believe to be the best way to handle things purely looking at it from an SEO point of view.  Use a WordPress website as your front end with a WordPress blog, then use Photoshelter as your archive and set it up as  You’re just going to have to accept that your galleries and images aren’t going to be found through native search very often BUT here’s the trick….. write a blog post every time you add a new gallery to your archive.  This blog post will reside on your domain say and since this is on your main domain, the one that will benefit from all your hard SEO work, this blog post stands a great chance of appearing in search results so long as you follow best SEO practices when creating the post.


We’ll continue with the sports photography example here.  You go and shoot the latest Canucks hockey game Vs Edmonton Oilers.  After the game you upload all your images to your Photoshelter archive at and e-mail all your past clients to let them know they can log in to the archive and grab the latest shots.  Then you go to your blog on and you write a blog post called “New Images From The Canucks Vs. Oilers Hockey – 3/2/2014”.  In that blog post you include a few photos embedded from your Photoshelter archive using the Photoshelter WordPress plugin and you make sure to mention important players names in the article and even give a brief synopsis of the game with important information like the score, or any other info that people might be searching in Google for, like a specific player getting injured or involved in a fight.

Now when a magazine or paper goes to Google and searches for something about the game you have a much better chance that they will find your blog post because this is on your main domain that carries all the authority in Google’s eyes.  When they find the blog post in the search results you’ve already told them in the post title that you have “New Images…” so they will click to the blog post where you’ll present them with a link to the real archive gallery.

There’s one final way that you could do things and that would be to run either Photoshelter or SmugMug on the main domain and then install your wordpress blog on a subdomain like  For a SmugMug site this isn’t a bad idea at all since the gallery structure of SmugMug’s site is quite useable and so makes using their built-in sites more useable.  I’d say for SmugMug it’s really six of one and half a dozen of another when it comes to deciding whether to have either:

a) (the SmugMug site) & (the WordPress blog)


b) (the WordPress blog) & (the SmugMug site)

With Photoshelter though I still think that it’s better to run a WordPress site as the front end at and then add Photoshelter as a subdomain at

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