Building a photography website is paramount and should be considered of the highest priority. Regardless, if you get the majority of your business from word of mouth or other offline [more conventional] means, your clients will undoubtedly end up on your website at some point. Make it something that you are proud to share with them. As wedding photographers, the need for a brick and mortar storefront just isn’t required. We work where the events are, and our clients just don’t wish to be married in a photography studio. This is great for low overhead! But it also means that additional capital and effort must be put into creating the best website possible.
Plenty of different platforms exists to operate your website on. However, we choose WordPress and use it exclusively as the core for all our websites. Think of WordPress like your website’s operating system, similar to OS X or Windows. WordPress is the base that we rely on and this system allows for loads of open source third party plugins that can handle almost any task. In addition to providing plugins, WordPress plays host to loads of photography related themes to get you started fast with the most professional looking site. Oh, and did we mention that WordPress is an open source platform? This is geek speak for free… and who doesn’t love free?
We’ve had experience with three different companies while searching for the perfect fit for our hosting needs. It’s important to realize that whichever hosting company you choose, they will ultimately be the key holders to your online store. If their server goes down, you could spend hours on the phone with their tech support. You are at their mercy in these situations and your sanity does matter on rare occasions when the worst happens. Make sure you really review whichever hosting provider you finally choose so you can make a very informed decision.
Hosting Company Comparison
GoDaddy – If you are getting started and you have a limited budget GoDaddy offers the best and fastest speeds for the lower tiered price points. We recommend that you investigate their offerings. Our experience has been mostly positive, and they do offer very reasonable rates. That being said, they are a behemoth of a company and this has translated to long telephone wait times (20+ minutes) for both billing and technical support. However, the customer care representatives are very friendly and tend to be knowledgable about their products. If you are running a part time studio and aren’t getting a ton of average traffic this is our recommended provider.
Host Gator – If you select Host Gator you have made the wrong decision in our opinion. This was without doubt the worst experience we’ve had working with any vendor. Ever. Our experience was plagued with slow servers, exorbitant pricing and obscene call wait times. If you have HostGator now and describe your website as being sluggish, do yourself a favor and free your site from this company immediately. We made the switch and it has saved us loads of productivity time working on the actual website, our clients have been getting significantly faster load times and our universe is all around a better place to be. WE DON’T RECOMMEND USING HOST GATOR AT ALL. (Sorry about all the yelling. We just wanted to warn you adequately.)
WPEngine – If you have the money and need for absolute reliability, we feel that WPEngine is it. Their engineers do one thing only and they do it extremely well. WordPress. They have built a server farm with an underlying plugin system specifically for WordPress websites that is built for speed and scalability. When we switched from Host Gator to WPEngine we saw a 70% speed improvement with no changes to the actual site at all. WPEngine is the Ferrari you want driving your online presence. And as if being chauffeured around the internet in a race car wasn’t enough, the support team is also amazing! These guys are all based out of Austin, TX and the whole team is knowledgable, easy going and quick to answer the phone, not to mention reliable. We haven’t had a single down moment to date with this hosting provider. We are as happy as can be with WPEngine and recommend them over all others.
In addition to the reporter-like blog posts for each wedding day and engagement shoot, we create posts related to everyday problems that help answer our clients questions. One example is a specific post dedicated to answering questions regarding what your client should wear, location selection, etc for their engagement shoot! These kinds of posts help tell Google what your site is about, while helping the studio run more effectively. Make sure whatever content you choose to publish makes your client and prospective clients happy. If something is received poorly by the audience, it is the webmaster’s responsibility revise or remove the content.
Word Press Themes
Theme Forest – This online marketplace for web developers is a great place to start your website creation. Independent or company driven coders create themes that will plug into an existing WordPress instance. This basically gives your website the look and feel you want. Think of WordPress as the nuts and bolts, and themes as the paint and decorations. Any theme can be modified to work in any genre, however specific themes exist for photographers and offer a great starting point. Generally, all available themes work differently as they are from different creators, but most offer an option to load default content to get started fast. This gives you the ability to simply add your content and text to your site default template. Make sure whatever theme you select has a good rating in the community, has documentation and is updated regularly.
Pro Photo – This has become the defacto plugin for photographers running WordPress sites. Pro Photo’s unique user interface enables starter webmaster’s the ability to take control of their domain and create a very advanced website with limited geek skills. The tools allow you to modify your website in a quick and easy user interface that has also been geared towards the SEO needs of photographers. If you feel like you may be capable of jumping in here, you could save a lot of money over hiring a company to design your website from scratch – it’s worth investigating. Pro Photo does have some very exact requirements that must be met before they will be completely compatible. If you go this route, make sure that all essential requirements are met. ProPhoto also offers YouTube videos to assist in learning their system. Their theme’s look stunning and worth looking into.
Google Speed Insights – Google is boss. Everyone is using Google search and they built a yardstick for us webmasters to use. This yardstick is the Google Speed Insights Tool, and it makes gauging all websites equal and measurable. The first run of this tool might uncover unexpected or unfavorable results. If this is the case focus on the largest offenders first as it will yield the most dramatic gains. You don’t have to earn a perfect score, but you want to try to keep pace with your direct competitors’ speeds. Google offers some detailed information about each error and with some research and effort, most serious errors can be resolved.
GTMetrix – GTMetrix offers yet another way to test your website’s speed. Their tests run similarly to the others, however the data is displayed in a very goal-oriented way. GTMetrix scores your page as a letter grade and then proceeds to list all the issues in order of the most impactful to the least. This data is so incredibly helpful if you don’t know what to look for. We followed through resolving the major issues and saw huge improvements in speed. Having this and other tools makes testing so much more attainable. Simply make a change and retest to your hearts desire. Enough tinkering will make your site very optimized for speed.
Pingdom – This handy tool will display your website in a waterfall view, essentially showing you a timeline representation of how long each part of the website took to load. The longer the wait, the longer the line displayed on the timeline. This helps to visualize a problem with a slow script, a large image loading slowly or any other possible bottleneck in a comprehensive way. In addition to being handy it’s also completely free to use and we suggest running your homepage though it to see where you stand.
We recommend that you create a backup system if you are running a website. WPEngine actually handles our backup system now. However, prior to the switch we used Updraft Plus in conjunction with Dropbox to save our website in it’s entirety with daily regularity. This is a fairly inexpensive way to save all your hard work should something horrible happen to your data. It makes good sense to always have a backup, especially on the day of the crash.
Google Analytics – Google’s pocket analytics is a great application and works much like it does on the website. If you are unfamiliar with Google Analytics, read more about it in our upcoming Photographer’s Guide to SEO. Having metrics that you can analyze with some frequency keeps your finger on the pulse. Google relays information about how many visitors are on the website for a timeframe, the most popular pages, and other critical data. Just like you would be aware of your customers in a physical store, collecting trending data taking place on your virtual store is vital to its success.
Pocket Analytics – This is an aggregator analytics tool; yup that’s a mouthful. If you use multiple services for analyzing data, such a Google Analytics, Clicky, Facebook Insights, or others than this apps merely packages them all together. It’s very useful to be able to have an a la carte system that allows you to select which metrics from which service to display on the page. This holistic view of many services can really help you get a grasp of loads of data types in a single simplified view. We use this application more than any other mobile app for monitoring and gathering website stats on the go!
Vigil – This is a total must have! Essentially the Vigil servers will send a ping (a computer diagnostic tool) packet that can measure how long the data packet took to send and return from your website. It then charts all this information onto a graph that you can carry in your pocket. It runs these tests with a certain frequency (depending on your plan) and tracks your server’s uptime and responses. It’ll also send a push notification alerting the webmaster if the website is down and requires immediate resuscitation. This is the only app we use with a pay option, however it does also have a free version available. If you are serious about your server’s performance we suggest that you investigate the paid options as this tool will also send regular email report overviewing the monthly stats. This data is extremely helpful if you have regular outages to report to your hosting service for reimbursements.