SEO For Nonprofits: A Beginners Guide To Digital Marketing Success
The time has finally come to demystify Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for nonprofits.
In the last step of this digital marketing plan, we’re going to share SEO strategies and tactics we use to increase search rankings on Google.
Join us as we take a deep dive to explain:
- What SEO is and how it works
- Why nonprofits should be investing in SEO
- The top 13 on page SEO factors for content marketing
- The top 9 off page SEO factors to get higher rankings
- How to measure and track digital marketing success
What this guide is: An introduction to the top 23 SEO best practices that will help get your content ranked in 2018, including:
- On page SEO factors – factors that are visible to your audience at the page level. (e.g. keyword optimization, mobile optimization, or anchor text links).
- Off page SEO factors – factors that are behind the scenes and used by search engines to communicate to with your site (e.g. page speed, structured data, or inbound links).
What this guide isn’t: There are a ton of SEO factors that aren’t mentioned in this guide and is intended to help beginners learn and navigate through the best practices. We make no claims to suggest that SEO is a silver bullet, but instead, insist that SEO should be part of an integrated marketing plan to gain exposure online.
What is SEO and how does it work?
One of the first things you learn in principals of marketing is the marketing mix, or the four Ps of marketing: Product, Price, Promotion, and Place.
Creating strategies around these four pillars work to establish the foundation of your marketing plan. Over the years these terms have evolved to fit the adoption of new marketing channels.
For example, Place use to be limited to a physical storefront and the value of its location measured in foot traffic.
But along came the internet and e-commerce, which forced the traditional definition to evolve and include website properties.
Just as physical stores fight for prime real estate in heavy foot trafficked areas, so do websites to gain search impressions and clicks.
In other words, when people search for a keyword that is valuable to your brand you want to be the one ranking on the first page to drive more traffic to your site. So how do you get those first page results?
With search engine optimization.
Think of SEO as the language used by search engines to communicate with your website. Web crawlers scan the internet indexing websites and following any linked resources it has access to.
Search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo then use complex search algorithms to index and rank content.
The purpose of this is to ensure every search query on their platform delivers the best possible answer for the user.
By optimizing your website’s content for search engines, you make it easier for their web crawlers to understand your content and the topics you write about.
Of course, this only begins to scratch the surface of understanding how SEO works.
There are at least 200 ranking factors on Google alone and it’s likely that there are more we don’t know about.
While this may sound overwhelming, don’t let it discourage you.
Having a solid understanding of the basics covered in this guide can make a dramatic impact on the search visibility of your website.
Before we dive into those factors, I think it’s important to discuss why SEO is important for nonprofits and how donor preferences are driving the need to invest in search.
Why SEO for nonprofits is important to online growth
Donors are shifting their preferences to online giving as their preferred method of donating to causes they care about.
Last year saw a 7.9% increase in online donations made to nonprofit organizations with signs of higher than predicted growth in 2017.
So how are nonprofits tapping into the evolution of donor trends?
- 67% of nonprofits across the globe are set up to accept donations on their website
- 34% of nonprofits have paid for advertising on social media
- One nonprofit used online channels to surpass their year-end fundraising goals
Now, more than ever, nonprofits are turning to online platforms as an inexpensive and effective way to reach a broader audience.
This includes adopting pay per click (PPC) ads as part of their promotional strategy to increase revenue and create brand awareness.
And while PPC can be an effective marketing tactic, it’s not a replacement for an integrated digital marketing plan where cross-channel promotion is used to maximize exposure.
I won’t pretend to tell you search engine optimization (SEO) is a silver bullet- nothing is.
But when integrated with the rest of your digital marketing strategies you begin to build the framework to foster sustainable long-term growth online.
It’s easy to understand why organizations are hesitant, or at the very least overwhelmed, by SEO, especially since the investment often takes years to prove its value.
Furthermore, it’s a time investment for staff to learn how to introduce SEO into the content marketing process.
However, if you’re already invested in content marketing as a means to promote your nonprofit’s mission, then SEO is a key component to the success of your marketing plan.
On page SEO factors
1. Create user-friendly URLs
Industry studies show that short URLs with your target keyword or phrase rank better than long URLs.
The first URL is difficult to remember, and it doesn’t give context to what the article is about.
After all, digital + marketing is a very broad category.
While the second URL is cleaned up, having the date and year in subfolders doesn’t add any benefit to rankings unless you’re publishing content frequently like a media organization.
If you want to maximize the chances that visitors will remember and share your URL, then having a clean structure with your focused keyword or phrase is the best way to go.
2. Begin the page title with your keyword
If you take a look at many of my articles I tend to place the keyword or phrase I want to rank for at the beginning of the page title.
This is because the closer your keyword is to the title tag the more weight it carries with search engines.
You won’t always be able to include your keyword at the beginning of the title, but at the very least you should include it within the <title> tag.
3. Insert keywords in your heading tags
Use heading tags to help Google understand the structure and text on your page.
In most cases, the H1 tag will be the title of your article.
Sub-headings are then used to categorize your page into topic sections.
For example, under the H2 tag on page SEO factors, Google knows the text proceeding the H2 tag is related to the topic of on page SEO.
Likewise, when I begin a new H2 tag, the proceeding content will be related to that topic.
An ideal page structure should have no more than one H1 tag and at least one H2 tag should include your target keyword.
4. Include your keyword in the first 100 words
Adding your keyword in the first 100 words provides search engines with clues on the topic of your page.
This is helpful for search engines, which are constantly looking for patterns to assign relevance to the topics you write about.
Pro Tip: Blod at least one of your keywords within the body of your content.
While this is not a direct ranking factor, it may have implications for visitors who land on your page to quickly give them context on what they’re about to read.
5. Use multimedia to engage and retain visitor attention
Transforming your ideas into words can be difficult and not everyone will read and interpret your writing in the same ways.
As it turns out, relevant images get 94% more views than content without images.
This is because people process images 60,000 faster than they do words, making it easier to understand and retain information.
Images, videos, interactive and immersive content are also key to keeping visitors engaged on your site.
The longer a visitor stays on your site the more relevant the content must be to their search query.
6. Build responsive and mobile optimized pages
If there’s one thing I see the community adopting quickly, it’s optimized pages for mobile devices.
And there’s are compelling reasons to do it, outside of creating a professional web experience:
- 51% of people who visit a nonprofit’s website do so on a mobile device.
- 1 in 4 donors use mobile devices to discover nonprofits they were previously unaware of
- 25% of donors complete their donations on mobile devices
While mobile optimization isn’t a direct Google ranking factor, it indirectly benefits SEO by reducing bounce rates in addition to giving your website the perception of professionalism.
Google’s mobile-friendly test tool is a quick way to check whether or not your pages are optimized for mobile devices:
7. Add your keyword to an image alt tag
Search engines don’t process images in the same ways humans do.
Instead, they rely on image alt tags to index them.
Not only does this help images rank in search, but by including your target keyword you reinforce authority around the phrases you want to rank for.
Take digital promotion as an example, which is a phrase that receives 800 searches per month.
Three of my images appear on the first page in the image slider because I include the keyword in the alt tag.
To rank for image packs you may also want to consider adding your keyword to the image file name.
Let’s answer the next burning question you might have:
“Is image search valuable?”
According to Jump Shot’s data, 1/3 of all searches on Google are performed in Google image search.
In addition, ranking your image provides an opportunity to get a link back to your site if someone reuses it on their site.
8. Meta descriptions likely affect search rankings
No, adding your keyword to the meta description will not influence your search rankings.
However, data collected from Moz suggests that organic click-through rates do.
The more clicks your page receives the more relevant the content must be to answering a visitor’s search.
What does it mean for marketers? It means optimizing your meta descriptions for clicks.
9. Link to outbound sources
A study found that pages with outbound links to external sources have a positive impact on SEO.
Search engines will crawl these external links to learn more about your website.
For example, if you write about a shortage of clean water in the world and then link to a website that is dedicated to providing clean water to children in Africa, then Google will read your page as clean water shortage + Africa.
For visitors that land on your site, these links help support our argument to persuade people to your point of view.
10. Use internal links to relevant pages
These links help to build page and topic authority on the content topic while improving site navigation to relevant topics.
If you notice that you link to a particular page or source often across multiple pages or blog posts, then perhaps it makes sense for you to create a page on your site that covers that topics more in-depth.
It’s also a great way to come up with new content ideas that will help reinforce rankings around topics,
11. Include keyword rich anchor text
When you start building out your internal link building strategy it’s important to consider the words you use within the text of the link.
This is also known as the anchor text link.
Google assigns authority to the text within the link to provide context for the pages you’re linking to.
In this example, the anchor text in the link is an exact match to the keyword I want to rank for.
While it may sound like the logical thing to do, it will cause issues with search engines.
In the past, people would try to game the algorithms by spamming anchor text links to artificially increase their rankings.
Google caught on to this trick and now penalizes websites that abuse this tactic.
To avoid this penalty I recommend using related keywords.
In the example above you might try using:
- Digital marketing plan for nonprofits
- Nonprofit marketing plan
- Marketing plan for nonprofits
12. Use latent semantic indexing (LSI) to rank for related search terms
Latent semantic indexing, or LSI for short, are words and phrases that are related to the keyword you want your page to rank for.
There are a few reasons to add related keywords to your content:
- You avoid keyword stuffing penalties from Google
- As a result, your content will sound more natural to readers
- There is potential to rank your content for related keywords in search
LSIGraph is a free tool that provides a list of related keyword suggestions based on your keyword:
This suggestion tool does have the downside of not providing information like keyword difficulty.
I would recommend testing your LSI words using a keyword difficulty tool like SpyFu to assess potential ranking opportunities.
13. Write long form content
There are plenty of reasons to write long-form content in 2017:
- It provides an opportunity to dive deep into a topic
- Visitors who find the information of value will stay on your site longer
- More words equal more keyword ranking opportunities
Industry studies also show that longer form content tends to rank better in search results.
The top 10 results on Google’s first page average 2,000 – 2,500 words in length.
But does this mean you should also produce long-form content on your website?
As always, the answer is: it depends.
You should never sacrifice audience engagement for the sake of search engines.
Take time to understand what your audience needs are and their preferences for consuming your content.
Off page SEO factors
1. How to add a sitemap to Google and WordPress
A sitemap is a hub on your site that contains links to every page.
The purpose of having a sitemap is to make it easier for Google’s web crawlers to sort and index your website.
It also helps these crawlers understand how each link on your site relates to one another, which is an important part of an internal link building strategy.
In short, having a sitemap is extremely helpful in getting your content ranked.
It’s also incredibly easy to get set up.
A quick test to tell if you have a sitemap that is easily crawled by Google is to type the following into any web browser:
Depending on the XML Sitemap tool you use, a list of your website pages will populate.
I’d recommend using the free Google (XML) Sitemaps plugin if your site is built on WordPress.
Just download the plugin and activate it and you’re all set.
Once you have your sitemap generated submit it to Google Search Console for indexing.
2. Robots.txt file
Another easy win for off page SEO is to create a Robots.txt file.
This file helps Google’s web crawlers find and index your website while also giving the option to ignore pages from being indexed.
To get started, type the following into a browser of your choice:
It should look something like this:
The framework for this file goes as followed:
With the allow function, you can specify pages or folder directories that you want Google to index and crawl.
If you have member only pages or ones that you prefer not to appear in Google’s index you can use the disallow function.
For example, I don’t want my /wp-admin/ or /tag/ folders and sub-folders to be indexed by Google, so I disallow them.
Within Google Search Console you can test URLs to see if the allow/disallow rules you’ve created are working as intended, as well as check for any errors.
Finally, be sure to reference your sitemap within your Robots.txt file as another way for Google to crawl your site.
You can download the guide below with step-by-step instructions for setting up your sitemaps and robots.txt files:
3. Include structure data (schema markup)
Structure data is what tells search engines, at a high level, what your content is about.
Here’s a screenshot of the structured data from chapter 1: Digital Marketing Plan:
Don’t get too intimidated by the lines of code.
In a moment, I’m going to show you a free tool that anyone can use to structure their web content for search engines.
First, let’s define the fields:
- Title: Defines which headline should appear in results.
- Author: Who is responsible for publishing the article.
- Date Published: When was the article published. This is how websites display the date stamp in search results.
- Image: What image should be served in the image packs.
- Category: This tells Google what topic your article or page is about. We covered the importance of building topic authority chapter 2: Nonprofit Marketing Strategy.
Each of the fields above help Google to further understand how your website relates to the keyword being input so that it can serve the best possible results to the end user.
It also gives control to webmasters, by telling Google exactly what to serve when the content is pulled.
There are two ways to edit your structured data.
- You can go to Schema.org and create the structured data based on their guidelines. This requires you to hard code the data onto your website.
- An easier and non-technical solution is to publish your page using Google’s Data Highlighter tool.
Head to the Data Highlighter tool within your search console under the Search Appearance drop-down menu.
Here you can see I’ve submitted all of my articles using the tool:
You’ll have to wait until after Google has indexed your page before you can begin highlighting.
I’ve noticed this can take anywhere between 2 to 8 hours, but you can always speed things up by using Google’s fetch tool.
Once indexed, enter the URL of a page and begin highlighting:
Once you’re done hit publish and you’re good to go.
According to Google, either 1) Schema.org or 2) Data Highlighter are an acceptable method for structuring your website’s data.
4. Increase your page speed load times
Websites have become obsessed with page speed and so has Google.
While page speed is not explicitly stated as a ranking factor by Google, it does have implications for people clicking through to your site.
According to one study, people expect a site to load within 2 seconds.
Any longer and you risk visitors abandoning your page.
Pingdom‘s page speed tool is a great way to test your site’s load time:
It even breaks down the score to show areas of where you can improve the performance of your website.
I’d also recommend checking out any of these free page speed WordPress Plugins:
Lazy load, for example, requires the visitor to scroll down to the image before it is loaded o the page, reducing the number of requests a page needs to perform when a visitor lands on your site.
Less request equal faster load times, which means fewer opportunities for visitors to abandon your site.
5. Mobile page speed is a ranking factor for mobile searches
Google announced that on July 2018 page speed will be a ranking factor for mobile searches.
Just as web pages need to be serving fast load times on desktop clients, so should your mobile pages.
We live in an increasingly mobile world, so much so that it’s estimated that by 2018 57% of all internet traffic will be conducted on a mobile device.
To keep up with these trends and to better serve user queries, it makes sense for Google to want to score mobile search results based on page speed.
This is part of a broader initiative called the Mobile First Index, which was announced by Google back on November 4th, 2016.
In other words, Google will begin crawling, indexing, and ranking content based on the mobile version of your site – not the desktop version.
As a first step towards the mobile first initiative, Google launched a mobile page speed tool.
In addition to analyzing the overall health of your mobile page, the tool also provides remediation steps to take to improve page load times.
Of course, none of this is new and we’ve been talking about the crossover from desktop to mobile viewing for the last 3-5 years.
What is interesting is that mobile development tends to stop at screen optimization and page speed.
For example, mobile-optimizing your site doesn’t make filling out a lengthy donation form any easier on a smartphone.
I predict websites will, and already have begun to, serve different versions of their site entirely, dependent on how the user is viewing the page.
6. Create accelerated mobile pages (AMP)
Accelerated mobile pages or AMP, is a project developed to deliver fast mobile content.
AMP serves an HTML stripped down version of your website.
This means all of your fancy scripts that add to functionality or design are removed in order to display content FAST.
Take a look at the difference between a non-AMP and it’s AMP counterpart for chapter 1 of this guide:
If you compare the two pages side by side using the Pingdom tool mentioned in the page speed section above, you’ll see a noticeable difference in performance:
The AMP size is 8x smaller, sends 169 fewer requests and loads 1 second faster than non-AMP.
Now, Google has said that AMP is not currently a mobile ranking factor.
Some interpret that to mean AMP might become a significant factor in the future.
In my view, it doesn’t matter whether or not AMP offers a ranking benefit.
It’s all about user experience, which I believe AMP does well by providing the most simplistic way for people to consume your content.
One of the easiest ways to set up AMP is with the WordPress AMP plugin by Automattic.
Give search engines a few days to index your pages before checking to see if they were implemented correctly.
You can go into your Google search console and use the Accelerated Mobile Page tool to check for errors as well as the number of indexed pages:
I also came across an accelerated mobile page validator tool that lets you test multiple URLs at once:
While accelerated mobile pages don’t influence rankings, it is a sign of where SEO is going.
I recommend taking a look at implementing AMP onto your site as a low-medium priority.
7. Website security (HTTPS) is a ranking factor
Hyper Text Transfer Protocol (HTTP) is the connection between your browser and the website you’re trying to reach.
The “S,” stands for secure, whereby the connection between your browser and the website is encrypted.
First and foremost, HTTPS provides trust for your customers, donors, or members.
It’s also a requirement for PCI (Payment Card Industry) compliance.
We’re in an interesting period of time where companies, nonprofits, and even world governments are at risk of falling victim to a cyber attack.
By moving your organization to HTTPS, you’re creating another layer of defense to safeguard donor payment information and personal data from being stolen.
Google’s perspective is that all user connections between its browser and the website should be secure, so much so that they introduced HTTPS as a ranking signal back in 2014.
Getting HTTPS set up on your website is extremely easy and inexpensive.
Most hosting providers offer a service to purchase an install an SSL certificate on your website for $50.00 per year.
Once you have the certificate installed you will need to create a 301 redirect from every HTTP page to HTTPS.
This is important because when you apply HTTPS across your website, the HTTP versions stay published.
If Google’s web crawler stumble upon these pages you risk being penalized for having duplicate content, although iit’srare.
As a WordPress user, I found the Really Simple SSL plugin to get the job done quickly – and it was free.
It created all of the 301 redirects as soon as I activated the plugin.
It also converted all of my pictures from HTTP to HTTPS, which helped fix the mixed content issues I was having.
In short, HTTPS is important to building trust, safeguarding against cyber attacks, and to getting high rankings on Google.
8. Develop an inbound link building strategy
Link building has quickly become one of the most talked about practices in the digital marketing community.
Ever since Google announced links as one of their top 3 ranking factors, marketers have been developing strategies to earn those links to their site.
You might recall us going into detail in chapter 3: Digital Promotion Strategies.
Think of links as a mention of authority that gives your content credibility.
The more high-quality links your content earns, the more valuable the information must be.
In addition, links from websites that have related topic authority reinforce your own.
For example, a link from Nonprofit Technology tells Google that the topic of my website is focused on nonprofits.
Likewise, a link from a related marketing website will generate topic authority around marketing.
From a non-search perspective, having links to your site from websites that are in your industry is a great way to generate referral traffic, build your audience and grow your brand.
9. Structure your content around topics
The search landscape today is dramatically different from how it was 10 years ago.
Following on page SEO best practices used to be enough to get first page rankings for highly profitable keywords.
But times have changed and search engines are constantly working to improve results for users.
This has partially been brought about by how easy and inexpensive it is for companies and individuals to create websites.
With more websites being created, the need to quickly and accurately sort information forces search engines to evolve.
A key component of this evolution is structuring content around topics.
When developing a content strategy, it’s easy to focus on topics for articles or rush head first into keyword research.
However, how you structure your content plays a significant role in SEO.
Take this guide as an example.
Each page is inter-linked, which passes topic and internal link equity, in addition to including relevant keywords to each page.
As a result, I’ve been able to rank on the second page for a highly competitive term: Digital marketing plan.
How is digital marketing success measured?
SEO can be an incredibly frustrating process because of how long it takes before the investment proves its value.
So it makes sense to want to know how to measure if your SEO strategies are working.
The obvious answer is to measure organic traffic growth or increases in conversions on paid services, form fills, or donations that can be tracked back to search.
Another way is to look at keyword ranking growth.
For example, in September the total number of ranked keywords on my site was 67:
By January 18th, that number has jumped to 665.
My keyword rankings from the 11-50 page position have also risen 7X from 35 to 278.
I’d highly recommend investing in a keyword tracking tool like Ahrefs, Moz, or SEMrush to measure these results.
The platforms are relatively inexpensive and offer a lot of value, but in this case, you’ll be able to easily measure the progress of your digital marketing activities.
In the final chapter of this digital marketing plan, we’re going to share free and paid marketing tools you can use to achieve your nonprofit’s online goals.