If you’ve been exploring any kind of digital marketing, you’ve probably come across the term “SEO.” This may have prompted any number of questions. Is it a new-fangled academic degree? A food additive? The refrain to a children’s song about farm animals? So many possibilities.

I’m not sure what SEO may or may not represent in other contexts, but when we’re talking about digital marketing, I can tell you that it stands for search engine optimization. And that translates to when and where your organization’s name appears when someone searches the internet using words related to your work.

Still not totally clear? Don’t worry — in this post, I’ll explain everything that nonprofits need to know about SEO.

Simple terms, please!

Although SEO is a very technical, algorithm-driven process, it is pretty practical in its application. When you type words into the search box in Google or another search engine, the site will return to you a list of websites that it thinks will help you find what you are looking for. The websites that appear first are those that most closely align (in a digital algorithm way) with the words you chose.

Search results appear in a page like this, called the search engine results page (SERP). From our nonprofit marketing guide, The Download.

Maybe it will help to look at it from another angle.

Ever wonder why there are so many companies with names that begin “AAA”? Once upon a time, we used to use business directories that were printed on yellow paper. For a fee, you could have your organization listed, in alphabetical order, under one or more category heading. This was how you conducted a targeted search for goods and services. It was also how you boosted a small child who couldn’t quite reach the Thanksgiving dinner table.

Company names like “AAA” are a holdover from a time when savvy marketers wanted to make sure that their businesses appeared at the top of the list in these alphabetically-ordered publications. They knew that people would be more likely to call the first few companies under each heading in the directory.

The category headings were important too. If you were a plumber, you wanted to be listed in the “Plumbing” section. But maybe it would be good to be listed under “Home Repairs” too. Or, in the case of a nonprofit, a health clinic might want to be listed under “Doctors” as well as “Health Care,” if those headings were available. 

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What that means for your nonprofit organization

While search engines don’t work in exactly the same way as the Yellow Pages, two marketing principles haven’t changed:

Do a quick Google search for, say, “animal rescue,” and organizations that paid for prime search engine real estate will be at the top. Paid search engine ads are a topic for another article. For now, we’ll focus on the next tier of search results – the organizations that found their way to the top organically. 

The question is, how do you get there?

First, your keywords

When you typed the words “animal rescue” into Google, they became the keywords that the search engine used to decide what information to give you. Your job is to identify the keywords that people will use when they need what your organization provides.

Common sense will go a long way in picking your keywords, but don’t stop there. Take a look at Google’s related searches, located at the bottom of the first search engine results page (SERP). Pay attention also to what terms Google autocompletes as you type in your search words. 

An SEO tool like the one that’s built into Constant Contact’s Website Builder can generate a high-quality list of keywords, complete with monthly search volumes and competition levels. 

Monthly search volume will tell you how many times people search for the keyword each month. You’ll want to choose keywords that get enough search volume to indicate a decent amount of traffic, but not so much volume that your organization would be hard-pressed to make it to page one of the search results. Competition level will give you an idea of how many other organizations, and maybe businesses too, are targeting a particular keyword. The greater the competition, the harder it will be for your organization to rise to the top.

If you want to take a deeper dive into keyword analysis, I highly recommend this blog post. Even if you aren’t ready to implement every idea in it, you’ll learn a lot about how search engines work.

Ready, set, optimize!

Armed with your selected keywords, you can start tweaking your website to include those terms in strategic places. This will help the search engines find and include your website in their search results. Strategic places for your keywords are:

  • The title of the page
  • The meta-description tag (that’s the summary that describes the content of a web page under each search result listing)
  • The beginning of the page’s content
  • The main headings (H1  and H2)
  • The secondary headings (H3, H4, and so on)

Constant Contact’s SEO tool will guide you through these, and many other, strategies for improving your ranking in internet searches, such as adding alt text to your images and including a title tag on every page on your site. If you’re starting from scratch or considering a website refresh, Constant Contact’s Website Builder has SEO built-in.

Don’t stop there

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that once you’ve updated your website for SEO that you’re done with optimization. 

Search engines like fresh content, and this is particularly good news for nonprofits. Community-minded organizations have a wealth of diverse opportunities to share their message. Donor profiles, client testimonials, new achievements, helpful tips and information – there are so many ways you can tell your organization’s unique and compelling story. Offering up a varied schedule of blog posts, photo galleries, and videos will keep your audience interested while also supporting your search rankings.

Consistency is really important when it comes to keeping your content fresh. A simple content calendar can help keep you on track and will also prompt you to think about your organization’s activities in new ways. You will begin to see the SEO value in your next park cleanup or puppy adoption event.

Here is more good news: Maintaining a consistent stream of content does not necessarily mean additional hours at your desk trying to come up with blog post ideas. Content can also mean photos and videos. Just be sure to include your keywords in the captions.

In addition, guest bloggers can help carry the writing load. You can invite clients, community partners, and local experts to contribute. Most people are happy to help, and you can help them in return by highlighting and linking back to their web pages. As with your photo and video captions, make sure you pop your keywords into the first two paragraphs when you’re making the final edits.

If you can manage it, you can also offer to guest blog for other organizations as well. This would lead to something called backlinking. A backlink is created when another website includes a hyperlink back to your website. Your nonprofit friends will appreciate your help in bringing something of value to their audience. 

How much is enough?

Developing, optimizing and managing your organization’s website can feel like a drain on an already overworked staff. But consider this: 90% of adults in the U.S. use the internet. And who doesn’t consult search engines regularly? Google processes 63,000 searches per second. With this much potential for reaching the people who need your services most, an optimized website is a powerful tool for achieving your organization’s vision for a better world.