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Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for Nonprofits: A Beginner's Guide

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The following is an excerpt from Robots Make Bad Fundraisers – How Nonprofits Can Maintain the Heart in the Digital Age by Steven Shattuck, published by Bold & Bright Media.

Recently a family of raccoons had to be removed from the attic of my in-law’s lake house.

When we asked the owner of the pest control company how he was able to remove them so quickly his reply was quick, succinct, funny and purely logical.

He simply replied: “I think like a raccoon!”

Not only does that make total sense, but it’s the best and most future-proof SEO strategy you can have.

What is SEO?

SEO, or search engine optimization, is the practice of modifying your website so that you appear in search results for the terms you want to appear for.

If you wanted to appear for “animal shelters Indianapolis,” 

When it comes to SEO, thinking like Google is the #1 way to be successful. 

Why? Because even though there are many search engines, the vast majority of searches are done so through Google.

Its algorithm (the secret formula that decides who shows up for what searches) is an ever-changing and closely held secret. Thousands of SEO consultants and agencies spend every waking hour trying to optimize and often-times manipulate their websites in order to ensure their employers and clients appear as high as possible in as many searches as possible.

For nonprofits, and specifically fundraisers, SEO is somewhat less important than it is for for-profit businesses. It’s on the programs and services sides that its importance really comes into light.

For example, it’s unlikely that a donor would open up Google and search for “animal shelter Indianapolis” because they’re looking for an animal shelter to donate to. What they’re likely doing is looking to adopt a pet, or perhaps even volunteer.

Were a prospective donor to use Google in order to facilitate a donation, it’s likely that they’ve already made up their mind to do so (because your marketing has reached them some other way), and simply need help getting to the mechanism from which to donate. In other words, they would search for your brand name “People for Puppies Indianapolis,” find your website, and hopefully complete the donation.

That being said, it’s important to look at SEO from both perspectives:

  • Terms that describe your programs and services
  • Terms associated with your brand, or your brand name itself

Searching for “Google SEO Ranking Factors 20xx” will net you the latest thoughts on what works and what doesn’t. SearchMetrics is one of my favorite sources for this information.

Like donor psychology, the core philosophy around ranking factors do not change, though some minor shifts in the importance of each factor may fluctuate from year to year.

At the time of publication, the current most significant ranking factors are as follows:

  • Page Speed – does your website load quickly, even on mobile devices?
  • Security – does your website begin with https:// instead of just http:// (do you have an SSL certificate)?
  • Mobile Friendliness – is your website responsive?
  • Optimized Content – do they keywords and phrases you want to appear in searches for also appear on your website, including your location and brand name?
  • Technical SEO – do you have things like page title tags, meta descriptions, H1s
  • User Experience – do users spend a lot of time on your website, visiting multiple pages?
  • Backlinks – do other reputable websites link to yours?
  • Social Signals – are Facebook and Twitters users posting status updates that include links to your website?

Recently, Google has shifted away from links and content (the things that were easy to game) to a greater emphasis on user experience signals. When it comes to user experience, responsive web design is likely the most important consideration. It’s a mobile world, after all, and Google cares whether your users have a good experience viewing your website on a mobile phone.

For nonprofits, having a good mobile experience goes beyond how Google feels about it. Potential donors need to be able to find what they’re looking for on your website, and fill out your donation forms from any device. Not only could you get higher rankings on Google, but you’ll definitely get more revenue.

What doesn’t work in increase your search engine rankings are things like stuffing your page title tags, meta descriptions and on-page content with with keywords, building as many links as possible to your site no matter who it is that’s linking to you, and publishing as many random webpages as possible just to increase the size and content-depth of your website.

Trust me; many, many SEO service providers have literally gone out of business because their business models were based on either what Google used to value, or trying to shortcut what they currently value.

So what are nonprofits to do?

Other than using a dedicated website content management system (Squarespace, WordPress, Firespring, etc.) and perhaps even engaging with an SEO consultant who can further optimize your website from a technical perspective (use this blog post as a way to test their mettle), there are two main ways that nonprofits can catch the eye of Google while providing a useful service to their website visitors: owned media and earned media

1. Owned Media: Frequent blogging (to generate new on-site content)

Blogging has become absolutely indispensable with regards to the SEO conversation, especially for nonprofits.

Frequently adding new blog posts to your website increases your site’s word count and thus increases the opportunity for that content to appear in search results. Craft useful, relevant, educational and/or entertaining content. The more it gets read and shared, the higher its value in Google’s eyes.

Don’t Just Talk About Yourself

It’s fine to blog about your recent fundraising event or to send an email about a new volunteer, but if your communications start and end with what’s only going on in your world it’s unlikely that you’ll create real engagement. What would happen, instead, if you published expert content that your community could view as a resource?

Find Out What People Want To Know… and Answer Their Questions!

If your organization supports a specific cause, there are likely a lot questions about that cause or issue that you can answer. For example, a quick search on Quora for “alzheimer’s caregiving” returns dozens of questions. These are potential blog, seminar, webinar and newsletter topics that you can tackle in order to create value for not just your current constituents, but prospective ones as well.

Harness Your Internal Experts

If you’re worried about who will write all of this expert content, look no further than those within your organization. Your employees, volunteers and board members likely have some expertise around the cause you support – harness this knowledge! The more authors you have contributing, the more expert content you can publish.

As you start to create expert content, your nonprofit organization can evolve from just a cause to support to being a true resource in the community. Give it a try and see what happens!

2. Earned Media: Publication relationships (to generate reputable backlinks)

A backlink is a link from another website that points to yours. Link building has been the bread and butter of SEO for as long as search engines have existed. You want other people linking to your website.

However, low-quality links can hurt you, so strive for a low quantity of high-quality links. For example, it’s better to have one link from a major publication or media outlet, than 50 from random directories.

That’s exactly what earned media does.

To put it simply, earned media is getting someone else to talk about your organization. Paid media is advertising, and owned media is your website, blog, social media channels, etc. Earned media is getting someone else to talk about you, like a newspaper, blog or other media outlet.

Building relationships with journalists and bloggers, as well as crafting relevant and compelling press releases are the key steps towards a winning earned media strategy. Again, working with a dedicated public relations professional is probably your best course of action (don’t be afraid to bring on a PR student as an intern to concentrate specifically on this; there should be plenty for them to do!).

One way of looking at things that might encourage you is that SEO isn’t something you do, but the result of doing other things well. Once you have your website in technical order, owned and earned media will pay dividends beyond higher search engine rankings. 

Know that SEO is a long-term play. There are few things you can do that will generate an immediate change in rankings. Like planting a tree, the best time to get started was yesterday.

The next best time is today.

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  • Emily

    Hi Bree, Great question! SEO is the place to start, as your SEM efforts will not perform as well as they should without decent SEO first. This means a basic audit of technical and on-page SEO issues, which can be accomplished in maybe a dedicated week or two of working on this in the worst case scenario. This SEO for nonprofits guide provides an overview: For SEM, you should definitely apply for the Google Ad Grant, as it provides 501c3's with free SEM advertising (you can check your eligibility with this quiz: Unless you are already ranking on the first page of results for searches, SEM is a faster way to build visibility. Ranking organically with SEO is ideal, but you need a dedicated SEO person who can write content regularly and work on a backlink strategy. Hope this helps you to get started!
  • Bree

    What would you say is a good scenario where a non profit agency (pet shelter for example) would benefit from SEO tactics and scenario where they would benefit from SEM tactics.
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