SEO for Nonprofits

Though the focus of my business is Google Grants, I thought I would share some beginner-level instruction on SEO as that is foundational for a good digital marketing plan.

SEO Definition

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. It refers to a website performing better in organic search. This term is used both for the discipline of improving performance and the person doing this work.

Organic search listings are what appear on the Search Engine Results Page (what you see after you Google something and before you get to the website) that does not incorporate advertising. The advertisements in the search results are referred to as Pay-Per-Click (“PPC”) Advertising, which, once again, is an acronym used both for the discipline and the person doing the work. SEO and PPC both fall under the umbrella of Search Engine Marketing (“SEM”). Though SEO and PPC are different, they both frequently work with search engines, meaning there is significant overlap. Building a web page based on SEO best practices will give you a good foundation for a PPC campaign like AdWords.

Personally, I hate the term SEO. I find it arrogant and hyperbolic. I take issue with the specific word “Optimization” in the phrase, as it implies perfection. There are thousands of people who claim to do SEO work and not all of them are perfect or even good. And there also isn’t really an objective perfect to achieve. There is the right approach for your organization to use Google’s tools to your advantage. I’d prefer a phrase more like Search Results Planning. But despite my personal hate for this term, I use it anyway for clarity because it is a well-established term of art in my industry.

Why SEO Matters

SEO matters because Search Engines, primarily Google, have established themselves as essential pathways to information. They are our digital roads. Imagine if there was no road to your nonprofit. Not appearing on a search engine for a search that is relevant to what your organization does is akin to losing your digital road.

People, in aggregate, make more than two trillion searches a year on Google. And those people disproportionately click on the web listings that appear higher on the screen. So you’re gonna miss out on a lot of web traffic from visitors who are searching for what you offer if you are the 9th listing. And if you’re on the second page, your likelihood of getting a click is close to hopeless. As disappointing as this may be for those who don’t appear on the first page, it makes sense. As a user of Google yourself, can you remember the last time you went to the second page of Google’s results for a search? There’s a common saying in the industry, “Where’s the best place to bury a dead body so that no one will ever find it? On the second page of Google.”

Why Nonprofit Staff Need to Know About SEO

I regularly advise that nonprofits hire an outside professional for SEO. Further, it is great to hire a web developer or manager with a background in SEO because the structure of your website affects your ability to be successful in SEO goals. However, nonprofit staff need to know something about SEO themselves, if only to have a sense of what to look for in a vendor.

Post-Keynesian Economist Joan Robinson once said, “The purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of ready-made answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists.” The same could be said for SEO. We all know that Google is important, but very few people understand even the basics of how it works. Many companies will call you promising to “get you on the front page of Google.” They do this hoping that you won’t investigate further details of their credibility and how getting on the front page will benefit your organization. You may have already received many of these calls.

SEO Example

Let’s say you’re a small nonprofit that sells widgets in a brick and mortar store. You notice that over the past 10 years your sales have declined. You get an email or a call from someone offering a fully-refundable SEO package that is guaranteed to put you on the front page of Google. You jump at the opportunity and scrape together the money to pay the salesman. After a few weeks of the salesman’s company doing some internet stuff, the salesman calls you and asks you to make a single search of a string of five specifically-chosen words. You see that your nonprofit is on the front page as the 9th organic web listing out of the 10 that are included on the front page. Awesome! Sales are gonna turn around!

Unfortunately, sales don’t pick up. Before paying the man, you should have asked some questions such as:

  • How often is that string of five words searched in a month in the region that is within driving distance to your brick and mortar store?
  • Is there another string of words that is searched more frequently and is relevant to what you are selling?
  • Do you show up on the front page regularly for the entire region within driving distance or just within a very close radius of your store?
  • What is the average click-through rate for 9th organic listing?
  • Are your competitors using AdWords advertising to show above your organic listing for that search?

Make no mistake: this stuff happens. I’ve been the recipient of a lot of these calls myself when I used to work in-house at companies. And on one occasion, I was fooled. I bought a customized youtube video for the company I worked for that I was promised would show up on the front page of Google. They kept their promise, but the video was so generic it was unlikely to get anyone to purchase our services and it only showed for that rarely searched string of words in a very small region. I’ve learned from that mistake and have become not only more educated in SEO but also savvier at vetting vendors.

If you don’t know how to assess a vendor for this service, you can be fooled by someone who doesn’t even technically commit fraud. In both the hypothetical example and my own experience, the vendor did what they said they would. The mistake was not understanding the value of what the vendor was doing before hiring them. I recommend you protect yourself not only by looking into the reviews, certifications, and the client list of a vendor, but also by having a basic understanding of what you are buying.

Five Pillars of SEO

SEO is a tough thing to learn. Not only is it highly technical, but it is constantly changing with updates to search algorithms. Further, the Google Algorithm for which SEO is based (since 80% of searches are on Google) is hidden from outsiders. Sometimes Google makes announcements concerning SEO best practices, the most obvious example of which is the Webmaster Guidelines, but that information is not the actual code they use; it is broad advice for making a technically sound website. And finally, with the rise of bloggers who all claim to be experts, it is hard to know what information to trust. And even a trustworthy blogger can write information that quickly becomes outdated (always check the date on blogs and videos). Personally, I trust Google’s own tutorials, Lynda lessons, and Search Engine Land.

Despite all these problems that are bound to frustrate even the most patient people, the good news is that the impact of these issues is overblown. Don’t let the lack of complete certainty about a specific rule cause you to give up entirely. The big picture concerns with doing SEO right are fairly apparent, widely agreed upon, and have stayed mostly the same over the past 20 years, an eternity in digital marketing time.

There are five major pillars of SEO. They are Authority, Relevance, Competition, Search Volume, and Target Audience. Download the guide to the Five Pillars by filling out the form below.