Search engines exist to answer the world’s questions by providing the most relevant response to a search query within seconds. Ideally, the results at the top of the search engine result pages (SERPs) have high-quality content and provide a website that matches the user’s intent. This post will go over the basics of how search engine optimization (SEO) works, and then we’ll dive into SEO tips for nonprofits to help increase your organization’s online presence.
- What Is SEO?
- How Does SEO Work?
- 7 SEO Tips for Nonprofits
- Use the Right Target Keywords
- Create Quality Content
- Follow On-Page Best Practices
- Provide the Best Possible User Experience
- Pay Attention to Off-Page SEO
- Leverage Local SEO Opportunities
- Stay Updated on SEO Trends
- SEO Reporting
What Is SEO?
SEO is the process of earning traffic from search engines organically—meaning you aren’t paying for ads or sponsored content placement. To earn that coveted organic traffic, you need to follow a set of guidelines and best practices that show search engines that your site is the authority people need.
The goal is to get your site to rank as high as possible for target keywords or phrases relevant to your website so that your site organically appears in the top of the SERPs.
For demonstration purposes, let’s say that we own a local dog rescue and are trying to improve our SEO by optimizing our website.
The first page of the SERPs is a worthy goal, but if you’re aiming high you might as well shoot for the top three positions. A recent Martec360 study reported that 71% of searches result in a page one click, and 67% of which are within the first five results. Clicks drastically drop for results below the fold with results 6 through 10 accounting for 3.7% of page one clicks.
How Does SEO Work?
While there are a few key search engines, for the purposes of this blog post, we’ll focus on the most widely used search engine, Google.com. Google’s search algorithm consists of hundreds of ranking factors and is very user-focused, meaning it puts user experience (UX) first and prioritizes UX optimizations as ranking factors.
SEO is really just about communicating your value to search engines and helping them help you. You want to make it as easy as possible for search engines to understand what your website is about. Is your site selling dog leashes, offering dog-parenting tips, or sharing information on dogs available for adoption at a local shelter? By putting the right keywords in the right places, you are in control of how search engines view and understand your site.
Your organization can improve its online presence by optimizing its site in a few different areas:
- User experience
- On-page and technical SEO
- Off-page SEO
These SEO best practices for nonprofits mostly revolve around the first two areas: providing the best user experience by creating high-quality content, matching search intent, and implementing on-page SEO best practices. However, stellar content on your site is only half the battle.
A holistic SEO strategy also takes off-page SEO into account. Off-page SEO includes your social media strategy, guest blogging, and influencer marketing, but the most important aspect of off-page SEO is having a healthy backlink profile. When a credible source links to your page via a backlink, it helps boost your rankings and increases your exposure. A proactive strategy to encourage backlinks to your site will ultimately increase brand awareness and connect your organization to a larger audience and ensure the work you put into generating valuable content does not go to waste.
With all of this in mind, below are seven SEO tips for nonprofits to help your organization get started on your journey to page one of the search results.
7 SEO Tips for Nonprofits
1. Use the Right Target Keywords
To boost your content’s relevancy, it can be helpful to write with a keyword in mind or to use keywords to inspire the subjects of your pieces. Using a target keyword will help you communicate with Google about the main focus of your content and, in turn, the types of queries it should rank for.
It’s crucial to remember that you’re writing for a human and not a search engine. As you write, keep the keyword in mind, but don’t feel like you need to stuff it into your content in a way that’s unnatural.
To identify your nonprofit’s high-value keywords, the most important criteria is that the keyword is relevant to your organization and potential supporters. Beyond that, you’ll need to understand search volume (the average number of searches that query gets per month) and difficulty or competition (how many other websites are competing for the same keywords). Various keyword reporting tools can give you insight into search volume and competition.
There are many SEO keyword tools out there with varying price tags and a plethora of features that the casual user won’t need. Many of the industry favorites, such as SEMRush or Moz, offer free trials so you can get a feel for the software before making an investment. Depending on your budget and needs, you could also opt for a free version of one of these more robust platforms.
SEO tools like these will help you find target keywords and their search volume, your website’s current rankings, and which sites are currently ranking for your target keywords. The tools also allow you to monitor your rankings over time to understand your progress.
A Note About Keyword Search Volume
It’s important not to be discouraged by low search volume data. Nonprofits exist nationally, internationally, and locally, and based on your niche, it’s impossible for tools to capture every keyword in every location in Google’s index. Therefore, keyword tools might report low to zero monthly search volume when that’s not necessarily the case.
It’s important to optimize for keywords that explain your nonprofit’s cause (e.g. pitbull adoption) to make it as relevant as possible to the searcher in order to bring in the most qualified traffic. Focus on phrases that capture your nonprofit’s mission instead of just targeting high search volume keywords.
2. Create Quality Content
There is an old saying that content is king, and it’s true. Google wants to see that you’re giving users the information they are looking for, and fast. Don’t make your site visitors dig through complicated navigation or massive blocks of text to find what they’re looking for.
To create quality content is to write or provide something of value to the reader. But it’s more than just writing something that they’re looking for. Other writers can do that too. You need to present information in a way that’s digestible and engaging and resonates with the reader.
The internet has made it easier than ever to publish and share content, but with that ease comes intense competition and saturation. It’s never been more important to produce differentiated and focused content.
Create Focused Content
To focus your content, you need to have a clear understanding of what your target audience is interested in. Rather than creating something and pushing it out at your readers, your content should consider what your readers define as valuable and be inspired by their perspectives. Dial in on small snippets of specific information that will be sure to get your reader’s attention.
As you create your individual pieces, remember that quality content is:
- Easy to read and uses simple language
- Well-organized and remains on topic
- Contributes to the dialogue surrounding the topic in an original way
- Written for a specific audience
- Written for a specific intention
Here are some content opportunities worth exploring:
- Blog Posts: Keep supporters engaged by regularly creating useful and relevant blog content. This is a great place to share updates from your nonprofit on things like campaign performance, event recaps, beneficiary stories, tips for your fundraisers, and more. Use this content to drive users to your donation, event, and campaign pages. Publish on a regular basis to signal to Google that your organization is a trusted expert on the topic.
- YouTube: Not only is video a powerful medium to engage viewers, but YouTube is also the second largest search engine in the world. Leverage that power by uploading your videos in an organized manner and using video transcripts and keyword-optimized descriptions to offer additional supportive text to your videos on YouTube to increase rankings. Share these videos throughout your website and on your social channels to increase engagement and drive traffic back to your site.
- Visuals: Incorporate visuals like photos, videos, data visualizations, screenshots, and infographics into your content to engage readers.
When creating content, keep in mind that you are writing for an audience that includes potential and existing donors, supporters, fellow nonprofits, and the general public who don’t know anything about your nonprofit. Your content should be informative and engaging for loyal supporters and newcomers alike.
3. Follow On-Page Best Practices
Help Google understand your pages and overall website by using on-page elements. “On-page” means they happen directly on your website and impact how Google crawls your website and each of the pages. On-page factors aid Google’s understanding of your content and the types of keywords the content should rank for. These on-page factors can also impact how users, not just search engines, understand your pages as well. We like to categorize on-page elements in the following way:
A title tag is what appears as the clickable blue text in the SERPs and also at the top of your internet browser (pictured below). Title tags carry heavy weight when it comes to ranking signals.
For ideal optimization, it’s important to create a unique and relevant title tag for each page that includes your target keyword for the page and your branding at the end. Use your target keyword as far to the left of the title tag as possible, include branding at the end, and try to keep the title tag within 55 to 60 characters to avoid being cut off by Google.
Meta descriptions are the text that appears under the title tag (blue clickable text) in the SERPs. While they don’t directly impact your rankings, a well-written meta description can lead to high click-through rates, which will have a positive impact on your organic rankings, and vice versa.
Each of your webpages should have a unique meta description that includes relevant information for what the user can expect to find on the page and a call-to-action at the end to encourage the user to click.
The title and subheadings of your content help structure your writing, align the reader’s expectations with your content, and serve as a helpful cue to search engines. When keywords are used in headings, search engines realize that the keywords are important within the greater context of the piece. The search engine uses this information to help determine if a page is relevant to a user’s search query.
If you’re writing for a specific keyword, include it in a heading to indicate that it’s a main subject of your webpage. Deliberate headings will not only organize your content effectively but also communicate the value of your piece to search engines.
Try to emulate the page’s unique target keyword in the heading and then use subheadings to support the structure of the page. Make sure these headings are coded appropriately—your primary heading at the top of the page should be coded as an h1 tag and supportive subheadings should be h2 or h3 tags.
Google can’t see images, so explain what an image is about by using concise and descriptive alternative text, or ALT text. This text appears to a user when they are unable to view the image or are using site readers, and the text also gives clues to search engines on what the image includes or represents. ALT text is a great way to incorporate relevant keywords in order to increase your page’s keyword relevancy and optimization.
Find opportunities throughout your content to link internally to other pages to help users discover new content on your site and to demonstrate relevancy to Google. For example, if you have a blog post recap of a fundraising event your organization hosted, use text in that section to link back to the event overview page or to promote tickets for the next year’s event. The text you use to link to the page is called anchor text.
Anchor text refers to the specific words that are hyperlinked to another page, as exampled by the blue text below.
Search engines assess anchor text to check if the content of the article matches what the link suggests the page will be about. This information is then used to better understand the relevancy of a page to a user’s search.
In order to write effective anchor text, follow these tips:
- Use accurate and descriptive text
- Be as concise as possible by using 4 to 6 words to hyperlink instead of an entire sentence
- Leverage anchor text for both external pages and internal linking within your website
- Avoid nondescript anchor text such as “read more now” or “click here”
- Use your target keywords sparingly
4. Provide the Best Possible User Experience
Give your audience the best possible user experience on your site. Google prefers to rank websites that give their searchers the best experience so they don’t get frustrated and bounce off your website or off of the search results page.
Best practices for user experience include quick load time and page speed, intuitive navigation, and discoverable content (meaning it’s easy to locate the desired content on your website and takes a user no more than three clicks to find).
Also, with mobile usage on the rise and now surpassing desktop usage, Google has opted to prioritize their mobile-first index, meaning it’s never been more important to have a mobile-friendly website. Google has made it easy to understand how mobile-friendly your pages are by offering free tools like this mobile-friendly test. Google search console also helps website owners understand various unique user-experience issues as they relate to mobile. Keep an eye on these types of errors and work with your web developer to address them.
5. Pay Attention to Off-Page SEO
Off-page or off-site SEO refers to ranking signals that occur outside of your own website. One of the most important off-site SEO ranking factors is backlinks, which is the name for when other websites link to one of your webpages. These backlinks to your site are measured by Google based on their relevancy to your organization and their authority in the space.
Backlinks can increase your credibility as a source as they are essentially seen as a “vote” of authority from another site. When more reputable websites link back to your website, your pages will seem more credible in the eyes of a search engine.
One way to garner links is to reach out to publications or news sites when you host an event or launch a new campaign. Ask to be considered for inclusion in any upcoming articles or event calendars they share. Make sure to include a link to your main website or your campaign page to help their readers learn more, make a donation, or purchase tickets.
One critical aspect of maintaining a healthy backlink profile is to monitor your own webpages to ensure every time a URL is changed or removed, it’s redirected to another relevant webpage in order to retain any backlinks that are pointing to the original page.
6. Leverage Local SEO Opportunities
Though often overlooked, local SEO is a crucial part of your overall strategy. Local SEO includes creating or claiming your Google My Business listing to ensure your organization appears for branded keywords associated with your organization’s name (e.g. “Second Chance Dog Rescue”) or local searches where keywords are used with localized qualifiers (e.g. “dog rescue San Diego”).
For example, when searchers are looking for local dog rescues, Google displays Google Maps with various Google My Business listings and each listing, if managed properly, displays the location, contact information, reviews, questions and answers, photos, and more. This is great Google real estate, especially for localized searches and search intent.
To create this listing you’ll be asked to:
- Add or claim your organization
- Verify your organization
- Add some photos or videos
- List your hours of operation
- Include a summary of your organization
- Monitor the review section and respond to reviews
- Respond to any questions
7. Stay Updated on SEO Trends
SEO is constantly evolving, so stay up to date with industry updates and trends by following Google Webmaster Central and other industry blogs. Some of our favorite SEO blogs include Search Engine Land, Moz, and Search Engine Journal.
Here are some of the latest Google industry updates and trends worth exploring:
- AMP: Accelerated Mobile Pages are now backed by Google as they help make mobile sites load instantaneously with minified code.
- Structured Data: Structured data is a way to mark-up the information on your pages to help Google understand the various elements. This information can help improve your page’s SEO and keyword rankings.
- Mobile-First Index: Google has defaulted to the mobile index over desktop since the number of mobile searches have surpassed desktop. This means Google will start ranking your website using it’s mobilebot and your mobile website instead of your desktop site, so it’s important to have a stellar mobile site and SEO.
- HTTPS: If your website is still on HTTP rather than HTTPS, it’s worth looking into going secure. Google only wants to give its users a secure experience where their data and information is not at risk. Therefore, Google has promised a ranking boost to secure sites and will even warn users of non-secure sites in their internet browser Chrome.
Google offers a number of free tools that help you understand your website performance. We highly recommend setting up Google Analytics to monitor your site and landing page traffic. Google Analytics will also help you understand your top performing channels. Google Search Console is another Google tool you can use to monitor your website’s overall health and also general keyword performance.
Amplify Your SEO
SEO is like going to the gym. It takes a while for people to notice, and you have to continually work on it to see results. But if you give it ongoing attention and evolve your strategy as you see what works for your nonprofit, you’ll see an increase in organic, qualified traffic which can lead to more donations and better engagement.
Does your nonprofit focus on SEO? Tell us about your strategy in the comments below.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in 2015 and was updated for accuracy and to reflect current best practices.