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How Bad SEO Is Ruining Good Artists

I’ve been doing this job of making art and teaching others how to do it too for over 5 years, and during that time countless creatives have sent me their print-on-demand shops and licensing portfolios along with the question, “What is wrong with my art?”.  These creatives are often on the brink of giving up art for good because they can’t seem to make sales or secure licensing contracts leading them to believe that their art is just plain terrible.

They are usually surprised when I tell them that no, your work isn’t pure trash like you’ve convinced yourself it is, but that no one could possibly find your art considering how bad your SEO is.

The next questions is usually, “What in the world is SEO?”.  Going through this same back-and-forth with so many artists over the years has made me realize that there is a big gap between making good art and selling it to customers, and that gap is called SEO (Search Engine Optimization). 

It isn’t taught in art or design school, it isn’t in most in person or online art classes, and it isn’t something artists want to chat about around the water cooler (except me of course, so feel free to chat SEO with me if we run into eachother at a water cooler!).

So what is SEO anyway?

It sounds so complicated and fancy at first glance (search engine optimization) but it’s simple in practice:  Every image on the internet has a bunch of words around it (the titles, descriptions, image file name, etc.) that help humans find it.  Even if you can’t see those words, they’re hidden inside the code, so that search engines know what is on the page.

So if I go to Spoonflower and search “dog with hot chocolate” I can find all the designs that contain both dogs and hot chocolate (and will probably also see a lot of designs with only one or the other).  So when we “optimize” for search, we include things in our designs that are easy to write about, and then make sure those words are showing up on the pages where that art lives. 

Take this desert art print for example.  If you were looking for something like this, what would you write in the search bar? It could be a combination of some of these words:

  • desert
  • cactus
  • jackrabbit
  • skull
  • desert motel signs
  • boho desert
  • aloe plant
  • coyote
  • cowboy boots
  • lizards
  • desert sky
  • snakes
  • desert scene

We could go on, but I think you get the point!  The key to getting found online is to make sure that the art you make has a list like this to go along with it and that you put those words all over the page in every way you can. 

So now that you know what SEO is, how do you…you know…do it?  I want to tell you three SEO essentials that I think every artist and designer who wants to sell their work online needs to know, so that you can start showing up at the top of search, wherever you want to show you work!

SEO First, Art Later

Before you even start sketching it’s a good idea to think to yourself, “how will someone find this?”.

Can you make a list of words related to the theme you want to cover?  Can you write a paragraph about it?  If it’s a simple floral print, it might be a little difficult to find in a sea of other florals, so save your simple florals for blenders or complimentary designs in a series rather than making them the “star of the show”.

The key here is to remember that someone is going to have to type words into a search bar to find your art, so if you don’t know what they will type, they probably won’t either.

Think Like a Buyer

It’s time to get out of your own head for a while and start thinking about how your buyer writes.  What words would they type to find your work?  When you start with those words as we talked about above, you can make art that is sure to match those words so your viewers will be happily buying or licensing your art instead of feeling frustrated at a sea of irrelevant search results.

For example, here is one of my best selling fonts on Creative Market.  Why does it perform so much better than my other ones?  It has great SEO and here is why: 

  • First of all, not a lot of people have made Art Nouveau fonts on Creative Market so I’ve covered a search term that isn’t over-saturated. (i.e. the niche isn’t fully covered)
  • Secondly, the art directly matches the search term “art nouveau”.  So anyone who types this will be happy with what they’ve found.  (note that it isn’t enough to just be found, you need to be found with the right search terms, so we shouldn’t just type Mickey Mouse on everything to get more eyeballs on it”)
  • Because so many buyers have searched this term, found my font and purchased it, the search algorithms have decided that I should be the first person in search on Creative Market.  So being correct about your SEO terms is just as important as having them!
I made this font using the process in my class on Hand Lettered Fonts. Click this to see the class!

AI Is Your Friend

I know that when I say AI to an artist these days their eyes start glowing with a firery rage, but hear me out, because AI can be your virtual assistant that you don’t pay a dime if you use it right.  Here is how I use it:

  • Go to your favorite AI tool (I like ChatGPT)
  • Tell it EXACTLY what you need help with, for example “Make me a list of search terms related to a desert themed pattern collection and make the list huge and specific so I can use them as drawing prompts too.”
  • The tool gives you a huge list of ideas around your theme so you don’t have to wonder what to draw!  Creative block averted!

The way I see it, we have two ways to deal with AI.  We can give up on making art and assume that computers will do it all moving forward because we are now obsolete.  OR we can use AI as a tool to speed up our process and take a lot of the guesswork and hesitation out of our processes.

I’m choosing the latter because I’ve played with a lot of the AI art generation tools and I’m not impressed.  The real human hand is so much better at making authentic marks and interpreting themes in a unique and fresh way.

The Riches Are In the Niches

I love florals as much as every other flower-obsessed artist out there BUT when we only draw flowers, we are competing with everyone else who only draws flowers (how many thousands of artists do that and do you want to compete with them?).

What if instead of only drawing flowers, you broadened your themes a bit to include other search terms that are not over-saturated (think terms that have 3-5 pages of search results).

Take this cow skull and cactus design for example.  As I was making this I was thinking about someone who might be wallpapering an accent wall with a desert theme, or designing decor for a funky, modern desert themed bar.  This design is NOT for everyone, but for the people who are searching for this theme, it is perfect!

p.s. Want to make some trending, SEO rich art alongside me?  That is what my new class is all about!

Trending Artwork with SEO Class

Learn how to take the guesswork out of finding trending themes and building SEO-rich artwork around it so your art is easy to find online.

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