More of our lives than ever are spent online. And the first place we go for information is Google. That’s why it’s more important than ever for nonprofit organizations to consider SEO when building their organization’s presence online. As part of Mightycause’s commitment to providing small and mid-size nonprofits with as many fundraising resources as possible, we’re breaking down some basic SEO concepts in this post to help you understand the benefits of SEO for nonprofits. And, most importantly, where to get started.
What is SEO?
SEO is an acronym for “search engine optimization.” It means formatting your website, through a mixture of web design and content creation, so that search engines can easily understand the content on your website and show relevant pages to users. Unlike paid placements in search engine results page (SERPs), SEO is comprised of practices that will help pages on your website place in organic search results, meaning that they are unpaid placements based on how well your page relates to a user’s search.
The Importance of SEO
When you want to know something, or find a product, where is the first place you go? If you’re like most people, you pull out your smartphone, open up your browser, and consult a search engine. And search engines have gotten amazingly sophisticated. They now feature predictive search, which can finish your sentence before you’re even done typing it. They even know where you are. So, if you search “coffee shops near me,” you’ll get a neatly organized list with the addresses of the closest coffee shops (and directions to them, whether you are walking, driving, or taking public transportation.) They can even recommend related searches that might be helpful in finding the information you’re seeking.
SEO is all about making sure that your business or nonprofit is seen. And not just seen, but seen by the right people, at the right time.
The SEO difference
So, let’s say you’re looking for a new winter coat. You know what you want, and your requirements are pretty specific. You’re looking for a winter coat that’s red, has a hood with faux fur, down-free, in a US women’s size 14. You Google those requirements to try to find your new coat.
Google will pull up a mixture of paid search results (which are marked as ads) and a page full of links to coats similar to the ones you’re looking for. Like most consumers, you’ll click through a few of the results, and probably purchase one of the coats featured on the search engine results page (SERP) Google generated for you.
Now, there may be many more companies with coats that would have worked just as well for you. Heck, some of those coats may be even cheaper, or better quality, than the one you ended up buying. But you ended up choosing your new coat because of the results Google presented to you. And it chose those results based on how well those pages were optimized for your search. So, those other companies? They lost out on a sale because another company ranked higher than them in a Google search.
That’s the power of SEO. It’s the difference between someone finding a website and spending money, and not even knowing it exists.
The Benefits of SEO for Nonprofits
Okay, so nonprofits aren’t trying to sell coats or any other products, usually. So, what’s the point of SEO for nonprofits? SEO can help you build your nonprofit’s brand, reach more people in your community, share information about your work, and engage new donors.
Think of the last time you considered supporting a nonprofit. Did you Google them? Most people do. It’s an important part of verifying that a nonprofit is legit and worthy of support. And as more of our lives move online, including philanthropy, it’s essential to have a strong digital presence. When people in your community need your help, or just want to do some volunteer work, having a digital presence is critical.
SEO helps you build that presence and become a trusted resource for more people in your area of work.
Every visitor is a potential donor
Just as everyone who calls your phone number, or enters your lobby, or attends an event, is a potential donor, so is every website visitor. And the more traffic you bring to your nonprofit’s website, the bigger your pool of potential donors will be.
Understanding What Search Engines Look For
It can be intimidating to know where to start with improving your SEO. So, it’s helpful to first understand what search engines are looking for in the first place.
A brief history of search engines
It’s really hard to imagine a world without Google! But whether that was just a long time ago for you or you weren’t around then, here’s what it was like. Websites existed, but they were hard to access — there weren’t many places where the world wide web was, well, woven together. If you wanted to find a specific website, you needed a link. And that’s where search engines came in.
Early search engines weren’t very well-organized. They had interfaces that could be difficult to navigate, and often search results were irrelevant to your search.
And then Google came along. Google’s search algorithm was the first one to organize search results in an intuitive way, and offered more refined, relevant results. They made sure that the results they provided were the best and most relevant. They’ve made several major upgrades to their search algorithm to even further refine and better organize search results for users. There are other search engines still around (like Bing and Yahoo) but Google was the innovator, and is still the leader in search technology.
At the end of the day, that’s the core of what Google looks for: How well does this page answer the question this user is asking?
How Google fetches search results
To understand SEO, it’s important to understand how Google searches in the first place. Google (and other search engines) utilizes software called a web crawler (also known as a spider) to browse the web. The crawler prowls the internet, fetching information about the content on a website and places it in an index. So, instead of needing to seek out a list of relevant webpages each time someone searches for the ending of “Game of Thrones,” it already has the most relevant webpages in indexes and can quickly organize them on a SERP.
And that’s why, if you want to rank high on Google searches, you need to provide a sitemap. A sitemap is a structured list of your pages that web crawlers can use to understand what content you have on your website and on each page. (And you also need to make sure your website and all its pages can be crawled and indexed!)
A keyword is a word or a phrase that a user enters to find information about a topic on a search engine. So, for instance, if you were shopping for information about donating blood, you might type into Google, “How do I donate blood?” And that’s your keyword. Google will search its indexes for pages that best answer that question.
Keywords are where you’ll want to start when you’re developing web content for SEO. You’ll target that keyword (in ways we’ll discuss below) to rank in SERPs and write your content around that keyword (and question).
You can use free or paid tools to conduct keyword research. Choosing the right keywords is essential to strong SEO strategy. If you target keywords where the competition is too stiff or the keyword is too broad, you can set yourself up for failure. And if you choose keywords that are too specific and aren’t being searched very often, you can struggle to make progress. So, here are the key things you’ll want to look for in keywords:
- Traffic: You want to find keywords that get a decent amount of traffic. You don’t necessarily want to target keywords with the highest amount of traffic, because there can be a lot of competition on those SERPs and small nonprofit websites may not be able to compete! So, consider the amount of traffic, and look for keywords with a moderate amount of traffic.
- Opportunity: This means finding keywords where there’s a chance for you to rank high in SERPs. A high opportunity keyword is one that isn’t locked down by competitors already, and has a decent search volume. Many keyword explorers will grade keywords’ opportunity to give you a heads-up when there’s room to dominate on a SERP!
So, for example, let’s say you’re an animal rescue in Boise, ID and you’re looking to rank on pages for a keyword related to cats. Now, “cats” is too broad of a keyword, because you have a specific purpose: You want people to find your adoptable cats. And there’s a lot of competition from pages that have general information about cats as a species. So, you have to narrow it down. Instead, you might want to target the keyword “cats for adoption in Boise.” There probably plenty of search volume and opportunity with that keyword, and if you structure your page to target that keyword, you will likely rank very high and be seen by people in your area looking to adopt a cat.
What Google looks for
Google wants to offer its users the best and most relevant search results. To determine whether or not a page is helpful, it looks at several different factors:
- Does your page contain content related to the keyword or phrase the user searched?
- Is your website and/or page a trustworthy, authoritative source of information?
- Is the content on your page and/or site robust?
- Have you made it easy for Google to understand what is on your webpage and/or website through the use of a sitemap, titles, page descriptions, headers and subheaders, etc.? (More on that in a minute!)
To rank well in searches, you need to use a combination of on-page SEO and off-page SEO.
On-page SEO is exactly what it sounds like: It’s the stuff you do on your webpage that tells Google and visitors what your page is about.
Titles, headers, and other details
A web crawler is a piece of software, so in order to talk to it, you need to speak its language! And that means that you’ll need to place some key things in your website’s code:
- Page titles: This one should be easy, but you’d be amazed how many pages on the internet don’t have titles! Page titles should be short, describe the content on your page, and contain the keyword(s) you’re targeting with your content.
- Meta description: This is a little blurb about 155 characters long that summarizes the content on your page, so search engines can put it under your result. Here’s what it looks like:
- Headers: Headers on a webpage aren’t much different than headers in a Word or Google document — they act as bullet points for the content in a section on your page. And headers on a webpage (which are behind H1, H2, H3 and so on in the page’s code) help Google better understand what’s on your page, and how relevant it is for a user.
- Structured data markup: So, you’ll probably need some help with this one! But structured data markup just gives Google more information about your page. It’s a little bit of code added on the backend that is not visible to people visiting your page. Google uses it to create knowledge panels and snippets, among other things. Here’s what it looks like:
- Page load speed: This is also something you may need help with, but Google also considers how quickly your page loads. That’s because it wants users to be able to get the answers they need quickly! If your page takes forever to load, that stands in the way of users getting quick answers. So, Google will ding you for being slow when deciding where to place you in SERPs.
- Mobile-friendly design: Most people aren’t conducting searches from desktop computers anymore, they’re using their phones! So, if your page is not mobile-friendly, that can be a barrier for people searching from their smartphones.
Optimizing your page content
SEO isn’t all backend tweaks! A lot of it is simply creating content that is optimized for search engines. Writing for SEO is part science, part art, but thankfully there are tools to help. Here’s what you need to know about writing page content for SEO:
- Robust content: The bare minimum for word count on a page is 300 words. The ideal is somewhere around 1,000 – 2,500 words on a page. Google is looking for pages with information that is comprehensive and specific, not thin and general.
- Keyword density: Keywords are the terms people search for that you’re targeting with your content. You’ll want to make sure you’re actually using your target keywords in your content, and there is a science to this: You want a keyword density of 2.5%.
- Skimmable: People don’t read webpages as often as they skim them. So, to perform well in search, content that is easy skim (by using headers or lists to break up the text, for instance) works best.
- Has images and videos: People have short attention spans, so Google likes to provide pages with more than a wall o’ text to keep users engaged. Things like images, infographics, and videos can help make your page stand out.
- Internal and external links: Google doesn’t want your page to be a dead end. So, including some links to internal content (meaning it exists on your website, like a link to a related page) and external content (meaning it exists somewhere else, like a helpful resource someone else created) gives the user the opportunity to dig deeper into the topic.
- Alt-text: Alt-text is the a bit of copy that explains what’s in an image. If someone using a screen reader was visiting their page, it’s what the screen reader would pick up to let them know what was in the image. It also helps Google better understand what’s in the image. It’s a little thing but very important!
Content DON’Ts for SEO
Knowing what to do to optimize for search is half the battle. The other half is knowing what not to do.
- Keyword stuffing: You want to include keywords in your content, but not too much. Why? Because that can be read like spam. Keyword stuffing would look like this, on a page about apples: “Apples are such a great fruit! There are so many kinds of apples. Fuji apples, gala apples, pink lady apples, granny smith apples…” Keyword stuffing is any keyword density over 2.5%, and looks like it was written by a robot. Avoid it like the plague!
- Duplicate content: If you’re targeting a keyword, you should only have one page for that keyword. You should avoid repeating yourself or having multiple pages that serve the same purpose, or target the same keyword. You’ll also need to avoid having the same content, same copy on more than one page. Essentially you’ll end up competing with yourself!
Tools that help with content
If you have a WordPress site, Yoast is a great plug-in that will help you optimize your page content or blog posts. SEO tools like Moz have page graders that will let you know how you’re doing and suggest ways to improve your SEO.
SEO for nonprofits mostly consists of things you do on-page. But that’s not all Google looks at! There are steps you can take off-page that will boost your visibility on SERPs.
Backlinks are a huge part of off-page SEO. And the reason they’re so important is that Google looks at them to determine whether you’re a good source of information. A backlink is what it sounds like: It’s a link to your webpage on someone else’s page.
Not all backlinks are created equal, though. Google wants to see that your page has been linked elsewhere, but it’s also looking at where it’s linked. A link on 100 people’s blogs is nothing compared to a single link on a well-respected, well-trafficked website… for instance, CNN.com or The New York Times’ website. (This is why paying for backlinks isn’t a shortcut to being #1 on a SERP.)
How do you get backlinks?
In most cases, you ask for them. This can be creating and executing a strategy where you find opportunities to ask for backlinks on related pages (such as high-trafficked blogs and news articles), or simply remembering to ask for links when applicable. For instance, if you notice that your animal shelter’s webpage about how to help baby birds you find is quoted on a blog or webpage, you can ask for a link.
Press and news stories can also be a great place to get backlinks. So, if your Executive Director gave an interview to a local news outlet, be sure your website is linked! And if you have a relevant link about the topic of the interview, ask for a link to that page!
Should we pay for backlinks?
In a word, no. There are lots of service that offer backlinks for what seem like reasonable prices, but in most cases these are selling links on Private Blog Networks (PBNs). These networks are “blogs” created for the purpose of selling backlinks. Don’t spend your precious money on buying backlinks! (And it can actually hurt your SEO if you’re linked on a bunch of spammy, illegitimate-looking sites.)
Google My Business
One super easy thing you can do to boost your position in SERPs is sign up for Google My Business. When you sign up, you can create or manage your business profile, and this will help Google provide more helpful details about your nonprofit.
You can add your address to make it easy for people to find your with Google Maps, add your phone number to enable users to call you with just a tap on their smartphone, enable messaging, link your website, add photos, and more. You can also start getting reviews to help build your reputation in your community.
Google My Business is free to sign up for, and makes a big difference! It’s an easy win we recommend for off-page SEO.
Learn More About SEO for Nonprofits
For more information about SEO for nonprofits, and additional tips and tricks, check out our hour-long webinar on the topic!