Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Basics for Nonprofits

Search engines are one of the primary ways people can find your organization’s website, so it’s important to make sure that your website is “search engine optimized” (SEO = Search Engine Optimization). While many people talk about SEO as if it were a mystical process, the basics are pretty easy!

The following information is simplified so it’s not too technical or overwhelming.

How Search Engines Work

Search engines are incredibly complex but the basics are quite simple. A “robot” (really!) scans every site on the internet and analyzes the words each site uses and the links between sites. Primarily using those two factors, they determine the most relevant websites that should appear for each search term. That means that search engine rankings are determined by:

  1. The words you use on your site
  2. Who links to your site and the words they use to do so

So when someone searches for “environmental foundation,” search engines do the following:

  1. Make a list of all sites that use the words “environmental foundation,” including synonyms and variations (e.g. environment). Sites that use the words more often and in specific ways (see below) are considered more relevant.
  2. Rank those sites based on how frequently other sites link to each other. Links from a site with good search rankings carry more weight.

Set Your Expectations

Here’s something rarely said that should be obvious: When optimizing for search engines, your first goal is to rank for your organization’s name. By far, the most common search terms that will direct traffic to your site are variations on your organization’s name and website address.

Assuming people can easily find you by searching for your name, here are other terms you can try to rank highly for:

  • Geographically specific terms (e.g. “Lansing homelessness nonprofit” or “Delaware diabetes association”)
  • Very specific terms for which your site is genuinely one of the most-relevant results (e.g. “microfinance loans for high school students”)

Don’t expect to rank well for generic, high-frequency search terms like “baby charity,” “carbon offsets,” or “LGBTQ.” These are such common website topics that only sites with in-depth information and many sites linking to them—giving them a strong, long-standing reputation in the eyes of search engines—will rank highly and derive any meaningful traffic from those search terms.

Finally, be patient. Even if your site is well-optimized, it can take weeks or months for your work to fully pay off in higher rankings. There’s no way to speed up the process, so work hard now and feel great later when you see your search traffic increase.

#1: Write Good Content

Despite the complexity of the formulas search engines use to determine which words your website is most-relevant for, search engines benefit from the same things that your visitors will. Here’s Google’s #1 tip for how to “Help Google understand your pages”:

Create a useful, information-rich site, and write pages that clearly and accurately describe your content.

And here’s tip #2:

Think about the words users would type to find your pages, and make sure that your site actually includes those words within it.

So that means you need to write clearly and simply for your audience using the words they use. While this may sound obvious, you can’t rank highly for words you don’t use on your website.

Make sure you use enough words too. Aim for a minimum of 300 words on a page to provide search engines with enough information to make a confident guess about that page’s topic. Lucky for us, there’s a “Word Count” displayed at the bottom of the WordPress text editor.

The frequency of words can help your site rank higher when people search for those same words (and variants), but don’t go overboard. If you’re using words so frequently that it would annoy a reader, you’re using them too often. Search engines actually penalize sites when their “keyword density” is too high.

Always consider this piece of advice from Google:

Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”

Whatever you do, make sure you can answer “yes” to both questions. (And be honest!)

Formatting for better SEO

Beyond the specific words you use, the way you use them matters too. Some usages and formats carry more weight with search engines. In rough order of most to least important, here are some of the places words matter more:

  • Your website name/title (as it appears in the site banner and in the browser tab/window)
  • Your website URL
  • Headings in your page used as section titles
  • Link “anchor text” (the words you click) from other pages on your site to that page
  • Text in the main area of the page (as opposed to sidebar or footer)

So use your most important keywords in those places, but remember to focus on making your site useful to humans. If you can’t answer “Yes” to “Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”, don’t do it.

For a more in-depth—and speculative—list of how search engines evaluate words on your site, see “Search Engine Ranking Factors 2015” from Moz.

Why You Should Blog

Blogs have lots of benefits for you and your users as they provide fresh interesting content on your website and you can them share on social media. They’re also great for search engines!

A good blog post is a tightly-crafted piece (it’s OK if it’s short!) about a specific topic related to your nonprofit’s work. Over time then, having a blog means you’ve developed a rich set of pages about all sorts of inter-related topics, all relevant to your organization. Those posts contain lots of words that people may search for, and give people more parts of your site to link to.

Did you know you can easily include videos and social media posts in your blog posts? It’s a great way to create easy and engaging content!

Speaking of which…

#2: Links to Your Site

The other “half” of search engine rankings are determined by other sites that link to your site. These links don’t all carry the same importance. Sites that have high rankings already and are “trusted” by search engines because of links to their site, will carry more “weight” when they link to your site.

Furthermore, the words used to link from other sites to your site (e.g. Tatooine Public Libraries or Luke Skywalker’s boyhood library system ← those aren’t real links!) tell search engines more about the topics on your website (just like links you make on your own site to other pages of your site).

It’s also important to make sure that you clearly associate social media accounts with your website so that search engines can understand that a single entity is producing content about the same topics on multiple sites. The use of social media by search engines is a little unclear, but it will only become more important in the future.

“Link building,” as it’s called, can be hard and takes a long time, so be patient. Here are ways you can get links to your site over time:

  • Link to your site in all your social media profiles
  • Get listed in public directories of organizations
  • Write and promote blog posts that other people might be interested enough in to link to
  • Write guest posts on other websites and include a link to your website
  • Gain positive media coverage that may include links to your site
  • Leave good comments on other blog posts and include a link to yours in the comment form (this can lead to later links to your site too!)

Never buy links or participate in ways of linking to your site that appear spammy. It is more likely that this would hurt your site’s rankings than improve them. In extreme cases, Google may even remove sites from search results completely that appear to participate in illegitimate link schemes. Just like your writing and formatting, only collect links that will be useful for website visitors of both your site and the other.

Using WordPress SEO Plugins

SEO plugins for WordPress are primarily to help you make under-the-hood technical changes to your site that give search engines better information about your site. You can read more about my recommended SEO plugin for nonprofits, but whatever plugin you use, here are the things I expect of a good SEO plugin:

  • Include “open graph” and other “meta” information for social media sites to generate good link previews
  • Associate your site with your social media profiles with “meta tags”
  • Generate an “XML Sitemap” for search engines (so they have a complete list of pages on your website)
  • Allow you to tweak the page titles for search engines and the browser tab/window

The days of generating a list of keywords you’d like your site to rank for are long gone. Search engines stopped paying attention to these lists years ago. Now the only way to tell search engines what your site is about is the old-fashioned way: good writing!

More Things You Can Do

If you’ve read this entire page and have already done everything suggested so far, congratulations! Here are some other factors that can improve your site’s search engine rankings:

  • Site speed
    Faster sites ranking higher, so make sure you compress your images, remove unnecessary website features, and use a site caching plugin. Test your site and get suggestions for improvements with PageSpeed Insights or Webpagetest.org.
  • Mobile friendliness
    You may have heard about “mobilegeddon” in 2014 when Google first started accounting for this. Mobile-friendly sites rank higher for searches on phones and tablets than sites that aren’t. You’ll want to make sure you’re using a good theme that’s responsive so it works on all devices.
  • Secure Sites
    Sites with an “SSL certificate” that are viewed with “HTTPS” in a browser (you’ll see the lock icon in the address bar) are considered better and rank higher.
  • Sign up for Google Search Console and/or Bing Webmaster Tools
    These tools tell you how each search engine “sees” your site, including what words are used most often, how frequently your site appears in search rankings, and how mobile-friendly your site really is. With this information, you can head back to Step #1 and make your content better and more directly related to the work you do.