By Douglas Gritz
Photographer, Denver, Colorado
I had an earlier career as a graphic designer and layout artist for newspapers, books, and print and web materials. Now I have a career as a professional photographer and when it comes to my photography website you can bet look and presentation are important to me. Like it or not, people do judge a book by its cover, so the visual impact and user interface of your website says a lot about your professionalism and experience.
A critical component of every photography website is, of course, the photography. There are a plethora of options available for displaying photography portfolios. When I set out to redesign my photo website a few years ago, I spent considerable time sorting through and evaluating many of them and finally settled on NextGen Photography Gallery, produced by Imagely. I liked NextGen because it offered the most control over the presentation and had one of the the simplest and cleanest presentation options, which is surprisingly hard to find. Three years later, it still stands out above the rest.
Except now I have found one problem, a critical one at that.
In the photography industry, SEO (search engine optimization) and where your website ranks in a Google search is everything. There are many techniques for gaining more recognition from Google. One of those is including “alt tags” with each of your images.
Alt tags are a device left over from the days when most of us where connecting to the Internet via dial-up modems. The small bandwith of those modems often prevented many images from displaying on websites. In their place would be an alt tag, or a description of what the image was. This way you could still get the information the image provided without getting the image itself.
Today, Google algorithms can’t “see” photographs (at least not yet) so it relies on alt tags to index your photographs. Because of this, alt tags have become a key device for adding keywords to your site. Not only that, but Google will penalize your website ranking if you do not include alt tags. As you can see, including alt tags with your website photography is crucial.
So when I first set up my photography portfolio galleries using NextGen Gallery, such as this one for headshot photography, I made sure to fill out the box in its user interface next to each photograph labeled “title/alt.” I completed that and thought all was well.
Until this week.
“Yoast” is a popular WordPress SEO tool and one I have employed for a long time. It does a great job analyzing each of your webpages for important SEO traits such as keyword density, sentence complexity, and, yes, alt tags. For some reason on each of my photography portfolio pages it has always told me “the images on this page are missing alt attributes.” This would seem to suggest that Google was not seeing the alt tags associated with my photography. This week I decided to investigate further.
I first turned to the NextGen website, where I found an announcement from earlier this year that they had included integration with the Yoast plugin with their latest version release. That was several months and versions ago, yet I am still seeing the same problem. I emailed them to inquire further.
Meanwhile, I located this alt tag analyzing tool to double check what Google was seeing. The results were shocking and disappointing and confirmed my fears: The tool showed that NONE of my photographs, such as those in my event photography gallery, where showing up. Forget about the alt tag, this tool is showing that in the eyes of Google there no evidence that there are images on my pages at all.
I began looking into other photography portfolio gallery solutions and found the same issue with FooGallery, another popular plugin. Another, Evira Gallery did seem to show alt tags. Great, except that it causes a conflict with NextGen Gallery and I have no interest in redoing all of my galleries and trying to wrangle a new plugin to do what I need it to do.
I got an email back from NextGen Gallery. Their response: “We are not familiar enough with Yoast SEO to provide direct support for that plugin. What is the support team for Yoast SEO saying about this issue?” This was confusing since they made an announcement about including integration with Yoast just a few months ago. Second, regardless of Yoast, my alt tags are not showing up!
Since I wasn’t going to get much help from NextGen support, I continued doing more testing on my own. My next thought was perhaps certain gallery presentation options block Google from seeing alt tags. As I have it, my galleries are presented in a slideshow form. I changed one of my galleries to thumbnails instead, put the URL in the alt tag analyzer and waited for the results.
Boom! Alt tags! Finally. It would appear that the NextGen’s slideshow format (and perhaps others) are not compatible with alt tags. But why? I’m not a coder so I couldn’t hazard a guess. If you have a thought, please let me know.
Otherwise, this discovery is frustrating and disappointing. At the very least, NextGen should be up front about which gallery options are compatible with proper display of alt tags. Given the multiple articles they include on their website on how to optimize your photography galleries for SEO, they are clearly aware that alt tags are an integral part of displaying photography on the web and something their customers will assume is included in their product.
Where does that leave us with NextGen? For me, as a picky designer, I’m going to continue to use the slideshow format, which I prefer to other plugin presentation options. But I have had to implement a band-aid approach to the alt tag issue, which is duplicating all the images in my photography galleries and creating a WordPress gallery, in which Google has no trouble seeing the alt tags, at the bottom of each page. It’s the cleanest solution I can think of until I find an answer to why alt tags are not compatible with the slideshow format or find a superior plugin to NextGen that has overcome that obstacle.