THE BLOG
09/24/2015 12:42 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2016

How to Use Search Engine Optimization For Your Nonprofit

Say you're launching a new non-profit organization (here's some tips on launching a new non-profit online BTW). What's the first way people will try to find you? They'll usually go to their trusty search engine (most often Google with about 2/3 of the market, Bing being #2) and type in your name.

It's critical that your official website shows up in the first page of results, in the top few choices above the fold if possible.

How do you make that magic happen? Here's some search engine optimization tips that will help you land at the top of the heap.

To step back a bit, Moz has a great in-depth guide to how search engines work and how to optimize your results, and SearchEngineLand has a great guide to seo as well. This post is a much more abbreviated work.

Search engines use several factors to determine the ranking of results, but these are the main factors you can control:
  • Use keywords in your URL(s)
  • Use keywords on your pages (both the page title and in headers, as well as content)
  • Get as many quality links to your site as possible
  • Tell Google about your site, so that it is completely indexed
Also remember that search engine optimization is a process. There is no magic bullet that will capture you the #1 slot in a day-- or ever, on some hot terms. For better placement, you're going to need to spend some $ on Google AdWords to get in front of your audience.

Google Adwords is a great idea for some non-profits, but especially if your search results are not where you want them to be. If you have a 501 c(3) non-profit, Google ad spending may even be free! More about Google Grants.

Your URL

The most important thing you can do at the start is secure a good URL. An ounce of search engine preventative work will save you a pound of trouble later (and keeping your URL out of the hands of your opponents!). Read my previous post on how to successfully launch your organization online, there's lots of tips in there about securing good URLs.

Use keywords in your URL if possible - i.e. your organization name (if it isn't too long) as opposed to just your acronym. It's unclear how heavily Google or Bing weigh this factor, but it certainly can't hurt. More importantly, it will help people find your site when they just try typing in the name + .com rather than searching. It may be worth buying the long form of your organization name and also the acronym .com and .org, and making them all point to the same place.

Secure good URLs using your name or keywords at Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn and Google+ etc. (if relevant) -- because these sites will usually have a very good search engine ranking without you needing to do much work. Don't forget to set the username for your Facebook page, to make the URL shorter and cleaner!

The reason for this is because quality inbound links are such a key factor in search ranking. And which sites have the most inbound links on the web? Sites like Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, New York Times, Politico etc.. Also this is one of the reasons why Rick Santorum is never going to be able to shake his particular unfortunate results.

And finally, make sure you are using permalinks on your site with keywords in them, i.e. your posts look like joesmith.com/why-i-oppose-keystone-xl instead of joesmith.com/?q=27 This is another opportunity to get keywords into the URL itself of pages.

Your Content

Make sure your content is as search engine optimized as possible. There's a fantastic free plugin for WordPress that we swear by. It makes it easy to determine how your site and individual pages will look to search engines (and when shared via Facebook), by letting you configure the meta description and title for the page. It also lets you solve the common CMS problem of your content showing up with many different urls thanks to categories, tags, and date archives. Google may penalize you for that. Use the LunaMetrics guide for SEOing your WordPress site for more tips. If your site is built in NationBuilder, be sure to configure the SEO settings for each page and for the site as a whole. Here's a guide for NationBuilder and SEO. Here's a guide for how to search engine optimize for Drupal, and here's a guide for Joomla and SEO.

Keep in mind that you want the title, meta description for each page AND the content on the page itself to match up with what people are searching for. So use keywords in the title of the page, and on the page itself (you can even put keywords into alt tags for images), but in a way that makes sense. Everybody's seen websites that are so keyword heavy that the sentences aren't even readable anymore. Google is starting to crack down on that kind of blatant keyword packaging, and overdoing can hurt you.

Remember that search engine optimization will bring people to your house. You still want them to come inside, and not scare them away with a wall of unintelligible keyword spam text. So your meta description and text snippets, social media sharing text, should be written in a way that it encourages people to click through to your site. But if it's misleading or false, people will bounce quickly off your page and Google will penalize you. Make your page descriptions attractive, but accurate.

Quality Links

One of the reasons why I emphasized having your landing page ready when you launch so heavily in my previous post is this: when you launch, it's the one time that newspapers, blogs etc. may link to your site. You need that search engine juice badly in order to do well in search -- as previously mentioned, quality inbound links are key.

But say you missed the boat for whatever reason, you launched with no url or a different URL. Then you'll need to do the hard work of getting as many sites out there as possible to link to you. See if you can get other friendly sites to link to you. Also don't forget if you have an old URL, to redirect it to the new one. You can tell Google (via Webmaster Tools) that your site has moved as well, or when you first launch tell Google to come crawl it (more later on this).

Don't forget about the "quality" part to achieving links. If you get a lot of search engine spam-type emails, these are the folks that use black hat techniques like spamming the content section of websites (or even hacking websites) and packing in paid-for URLs. Google can and will delist you entirely if you use black hat techniques. So, just like buying a questionable email list, DON'T DO IT.

Finally, pay attention to the "anchor text" -- the text you use to describe the link on a page. For example <a href="link">this is anchor text.</a> You want to make sure the anchor text for the quality inbound links matches up with how you want the search engines to think about the link itself. This is a good place to utilize keywords you want to rank for. <a href="link">my website</a> is not as good as <a href="link">friends of the planet website</a>. You have limited control over what other sites use for anchor text, but make sure every link you create has the best possible anchor text. This is critical for how you'll rate for some keywords.

Tell Google

One of the first things you should do as you launch your site (after you have set up an SEO plugin and/or made the appropriate SEO adjustments to your pages) is to tell Google to come crawl it. There are a few different ways to do this.

Make sure you're set up in Webmaster Tools. Did you know Google thinks of www.joesmith.com and joesmith.com as two separate sites? You can tell Google in webmaster tools which is the preferred version to use (also make sure your CMS allows you to set one as the canonical version). You can link webmaster tools to Google analytics for the same site, for an even fuller picture of traffic to your site, what search terms are driving people etc. Under the Search Traffic tab, you can also tell which sites link to you (and see what's missing). Under the Crawl tab (Fetch as Google), you can tell Google to go index your site right now. You can also submit a sitemap to make sure every page is indexed, which can be important if your site design does not easily allow access to every page. Make sure that sitemap is listed in your robots.txt file too.

Just because you're telling Google to crawl your site, doesn't mean you'll show up in search results. Be sure to check your robots.txt file, to make sure you are allowing search engines to crawl your site! Read more about robots.txt files.

Google takes into account your site speed in determining your ranking, and also whether the site is mobile optimized (i.e. Mobilegeddon happened in April, where Google started paying attention to this). If you want to keep your supporters happy and engaged, make sure your site loads fast and looks great on mobile devices. If you want to do well in search, that applies just as much. If your site is slow, setting up caching may help. Or it may be time to look at a full website redesign, especially if your site is not achieving your goals and/or is not mobile optimized.

Do all these steps above, and you will eventually rank well for your search terms. Like I said before, unfortunately seo is not an instant process. If you get a bunch of quality inbound links to your website, Google still needs to go out and crawl all those pages over time. Since the age of your site is taken into account by search engines, your search results should improve over time as well. More about search engine optimization at PowerThru.