Basic SEO to Help Online Searchers Find Your Nonprofit's Site

You don't need to be a tech wizard to take these simple steps toward higher Web traffic and ranking.

If your nonprofit has a website (as it should), and you're in any way involved in it, then you should know about a concept known as "search engine optimization" (SEO).

Here’s why: Imagine that you’re the only nonprofit in the known universe dedicated to conservation of banana slugs — but that, when someone plugs “banana slug conservation” into Google or some other search engine, the first page of results that pops up lists a bunch of other environmental organizations, plus some ads for slug poison. Or that you’ve posted a number of articles about banana slug science on your website, but even typing their exact titles into Google doesn’t bring them up until page three of the results.

You’ve got an SEO problem. "Search engine optimization" is the process by which website owners attempt to analyze (or in some cases, guess at) and respond to whatever systems the people behind the scenes at Google and other search engines devise to determine what the general populace really wants when they type in various search words, and which Web pages are most likely to deliver it to them. In effect, these search engines award “points” to websites that meet certain criteria, and demote the ones that don’t.

Think about when you do a Google or similar search. You are instantly given several pages of results. All of those pages may contain the exact words that you typed in. So, what determines the order in which you see those results? It’s not merely random, but is based on a complex algorithm, and each search engine has a different one — guarded as carefully as any secret recipe.

In large corporations, entire SEO teams spend their days tracking the latest changes to the various search engines' algorithms and making sure that their company’s name and products rank as high as possible in search results. As a nonprofit, you won’t have that luxury. So let’s keep it simple, with these top tips to help your nonprofit rise to the top of the search results list.

1. Consider what keywords are important for your nonprofit to use.

Independent searches have become a primary way for people to find their way to a website (or a page deep within that site), whether or not they know its URL. You want to make sure that you know what keywords your potential site visitors are most likely to enter into search engines — or are already using, which you can find out using software that analyzes site traffic. Then feature those words often and in prominent places on your website, so that search engines will pick up on them. For example, even if you would normally use the Latin term for banana slugs in most of your content, make sure to use the term “banana slug” as well, for searchability.

2. Put keywords high up in every page or article.

Look at my very first sentence in this article, above. It mentions "nonprofit" and "SEO." Those may well be the words that brought you to this article. If I’d just launched in with "Imagine that you’re a banana slug organization," then guess what type of visitors I’d most likely get? Every banana slug aficionado would find their way to this article, while the people wanting to know about SEO would be led elsewhere. Think about what words are important to people looking for the type of information your nonprofit offers, and feature them early and often in your Web pages.

3. Post lots of fresh content.

A stale, unchanging site gets fewer points in SEO Land. Adding a blog within your site will help with this, as will posting your nonprofit's recent press releases and other publications.

4. Encourage inbound links.

As a nonprofit, you have inherent credibility -- make use of it! As discussed under "How a Search Engine 'Sees' Your Page," above, the more other sites link to pages of yours (for example, listing your site in their "Resources" section, or referring people to a particular piece of content on your site through their own content), the better your site will rank. This is especially true if the referring sites are authoritative ones, such as major newspapers or government. (When one site links to another, search engines like Google look upon it as a "vote" in favor of that site.) Some site owners will find their way to your website and link to it simply by virtue of your being a nonprofit and providing good content, including in social media. If you have personal contacts at affiliate organizations, it’s also worth being proactive, bringing their attention to your content and asking them to link to it.

5. Make sure your content is getting attention on social media.

Search engines are increasingly bringing readers to content based on the fact that their friends on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and other social media sites have linked to or liked it. In other words, the search engines see "likes" (and the like) as a mark of quality, raising the rankings of the content accordingly. To take advantage of this, make sure your organization has a social media presence and that you’re posting your new and best content to it.

6. If already analyzing traffic to your site, look for patterns of visitor entries, exits, and more.

The more you learn about who is visiting your site and what they’re doing there (such as how long they’re spending on various pages and which pages are causing them to lose interest and go elsewhere), the more significant patterns will emerge. You may, for instance, find that gardeners are the biggest readers of your banana slug content — in which case you could either make sure to further address their interests or work harder to attract a wider audience. (Or both.)

A final note: The search algorithms change often, so don't follow these or any other rules slavishly. The ultimate goal of the folks designing these algorithms is to reward high-quality content that comes from trusted sources and bury the cynical providers of commercial, spam-like content. Stick to your principles, give readers useful information, and eventually your efforts should be rewarded with a steady stream of Web visitors.

You might also enjoy reading the article, "Your Nonprofit's Website as a Fundraising Tool."

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