In the first part of my series on SEO for nonprofits, I discussed why SEO matters and isn’t something that’s just for for-profit companies. In this post, I’ll be explaining some of the strategy and underlying tactics that go into executing successful SEO for a nonprofit.
First, let’s set the stage for how SEO works in practice and some of the theory behind the strategy outlined here.
On-page SEO matters, but it’s just a start
Imagine you’re opening a restaurant. You’ve done a ton to promote the opening night. You made a Facebook event, put up flyers, bought radio ads, and invited all of your friends. The big night comes and everyone shows up. They’re ready to eat.
There’s just one problem: You forgot to put a kitchen in your restaurant and you don’t have any food to cook.
On-page SEO is sort of like the kitchen of your restaurant. It’s a nonstarter—you can’t do anything without it. But having a kitchen doesn’t make your restaurant good or fill it with customers.
If you take a website and do everything right to optimize the pages for specific keywords and create great content that is useful and relevant, you still won’t necessarily see it climb in the search engine results. That’s because on-page SEO is just a start.
Once upon a time, there were on-page optimization techniques and tricks that you could do to raise your site’s visibility without any added effort. But those days are long gone—today, you need to invest in SEO and content over the long term. Think of it like branding or any other aspect of marketing.
You don’t just do it once and quit.
Building authority for your site
The cornerstone of modern-day SEO is page and domain authority. Although the terms used by the industry tend to fluctuate, this is some basic measure of how trustworthy your website is, as determined by factors other than the words that are on your site itself.
In other words, this is how seriously Google should take you. Are you a trusted source on information about a particular topic, or are you just trying to rank well in search?
The most obvious (and notorious) factor that’s used to determine a page’s authority is the number of other sites that link to it (backlinks or linking domains). More links to your site means your site will likely rank higher in Google for the terms which you have relevant content.
But there are a slew of other factors—like shares and likes on social media—that go into the calculation. No one knows the exact methodology.
Whatever the specifics are, this is—at its most basic—a form of branding.
All things being equal, sites with a greater reputation within the market will tend to see better search engine rankings. They’re more well known, they’re more trusted, and they’re more likely to be relevant to the user who is searching Google for an answer.
This factor—authority—is really the meat and potatoes of any SEO engagement. It basically boils down to ongoing digital marketing efforts. Things like content marketing, PR, and social media are all part of the game plan and serve to build a reputation for the website in question.
The bad news here is that SEO is much more complex than it once was. It's really not something that you can buy or pay for directly. It comes as the product of sustained marketing and branding.
The good news is that in the pursuit of SEO, your organization can also realize a slew of other benefits and traffic from sources like social and referrals. It forces you to think and operate more holistically.
Now, let’s dive into what a tactical plan might look like for you to achieve SEO success.
Step 1: Keyword Research
First and foremost, we need to do some basic research about your organization, cause, or industry. We need to know what terms people are using when they are searching for topics related to what you do.
There are several ways to do this, but the simplest and most common is to use the Google Keyword Planner.
In order to use this tool, you’ll need to sign up for an AdWords account. It’s free and you don’t need to spend any money on ads to use Keyword Planner.
Once you’re inside, you can put in a few relevant keywords and then get back suggestions along with search traffic volume, based on what you typed in. You may want to try using this tool a few different times until you are comfortable with the results. Try playing around with variations in different terms to see what you get back.
Save these results as a CSV so you can open it up in Excel or Google Sheets.
Step 2: Content Mapping
Once you have a set of relevant keywords, you need to map them to relevant pages on your website.
Do you have a page on your website that’s all about volunteering to help feed the homeless? Well, Google needs to know that. And the way they figure it out is by looking at the stuff that your pages actually say and then parsing it out to determine what words and themes are relevant to that page.
For this step, you’ll likely want to create a Content Matrix, which is a document that shows all of the pages on your website and then has columns where you can fill in details and information about the page. In doing so, you’ll have a full look at all of the pages on your website and you can assign keywords and write relevant copy for each one.
Go through your list of keywords and match them up to each page on your site. Try to match 1-2 relevant keywords to each page—don’t go crazy.
Once you have your keywords assigned to each page, you’ll want to go ahead and write content for the three main on-page components for SEO:
Title tag - This is what’s shown at the top of a page in your browser. It’s probably the most important aspect of on-page optimization because it’s also what is shown to users when your page appears in the search engine results pages (SERP).
Heading tags - Use H1, H2, H3 tags throughout your pages to indicate different sections and subsections. Every page should have—at the bare minimum—an H1 tag that corresponds to the relevant content on the page. H2 and H3 tags can be used to divide the content up into different subsections.
Meta description - The meta description on your page won’t help its ranking (so don’t worry about stuffing it full of keywords), but it will appear in the search results page as the text under the heading on your site. So it makes sense to write some custom copy here—think of it like an advertisement for that particular page.
Note that nowhere in this process should you try to “stuff” a bunch of keywords into the content of your website. Write for people first. Incorporate the relevant keywords where they would occur naturally, but don’t force them into the page.
If there’s not a good way to insert a specific keyword into a certain page, then consider creating a new page for that keyword or creating an article or another piece of content about it later.
At the end, if you have a bunch of keywords left that are relevant but not covered on your site, you may want to create additional pages. Or save those keywords and use them to generate content ideas (see Step 4).
Step 3: On-Site Optimization
Here’s where you do the actual stuff that matters to Google and the other search engines. Taking the keywords, titles, and content that you mapped out in step 2 and actually applying it to your website.
With each of the pages on your website mapped to a specific keyword or set of keywords, you can go through each of your pages and make the necessary changes. This may require some technical assistance, depending on your level of knowledge and how your website is managed.
If you use a CMS (content management system, like Drupal, Joomla, or Wordpress) then you may be able to install an extension or plugin that will make doing this work incredibly simple.
Step 4: Content
Once all of the main pages on your website are optimized for specific keywords, it’s time to think about the bigger picture.
Simply put, more pages on your website means that you will have relevant content for more keywords, which means that your website is capable of bringing in more search traffic.
More pages = more topics/keywords = more footprint.
This is one of the biggest benefits of having a blog or other source of new content that is being updated on your website. It gives you a way to add pages to your website over time and accumulate information on a broad range of relevant topics.
Of course that’s not the only purpose. But you should implement a content marketing strategy that takes into account what are called “evergreen topics”—guides, tutorials, or Q&As that answer specific topics that are always relevant to your target audience.
For example, if your organization is focused on helping the homeless in Los Angeles, then you may want to target people who are looking for ways to get involved.
Some topic ideas:
How to start volunteering at a homeless shelter
What you should know about helping to the homeless
10 ways everyone can help the homeless
How much does it cost to help the homeless?
From an SEO perspective, each new piece of content should focus on a specific subject or topic. That doesn’t need to be the only thing you post on your blog (you’ll also want content that can be used on social media or in newsletters, for example) but it should be part of the strategy that you implement.
Step 5: Promotion
Creating content and putting it on your site is the relatively easy part.
Once you have the content, you have to do something with it. We’ve all heard the tree falling in an empty forest analogy—and content marketing is much the same. Even if we create great content, if that content exists in a vacuum, then it will never be seen, shared, and spread.
So a big part of your content marketing and SEO strategy is promotion of content. Much of this is tactical in nature and involves identifying relevant people in your industry/niche/market and reaching out them individually to share your content.
For example, if you created a great resource—perhaps it’s a guide on how the average person can do the most to help the homeless with $10 per month—then you’ll want to look for other organizations, people, and companies that might share this and help you raise awareness for the content.
Consider government organizations, other nonprofits, or advocates in the space.
If you create and share great content, many times people will be willing to help you spread the word.
What you’ll get from this is basically exposure, which will lead to you getting (hopefully):
Don’t expect overnight success here. This is a constant process. You’ll need to continue to create content, promote it, and repeat. Over time, your traffic will grow. Links to your website will grow, which will help you rank better in Google. Plus you’ll have more content (more pages) to rank for more keywords.
There's a lot to learn about promotion, but here are some starting guides:
- Promoting Your Content Marketing (Moz)
- How to Develop an Effective Content Marketing Promotion Strategy (CoSchedule)
- Promoting Your Content to Increase Traffic, Engagement, and Sales (QuickSprout)
Together, all of these factors will lead to rapid growth in traffic to your website—and hopefully huge growth in supporters, advocates, and donors.
It’s not easy, but it can be done. And building your brand online will pay for itself 10-times over if it helps you deliver sustainable, long-term growth for your organization.
Questions about content marketing or SEO? Just give me a shout—I’ll be happy to help.