Does your organization show up on the first page of results in search engines like Google or Yahoo? The content and structure of your website can have a dramatic effect on how easily potential constituents can find you via search engines. This article explains how.
Let's do an experiment. Go to Google and type in the most commonly used version of your organization's name. Do you show up first in the resulting list of sites? What if you type in a short phrase describing the type of work you'd like to be known for? Do you show up in the top page of those search results, too?
Your placement on search engines like Google or Yahoo Search is important. At a minimum, it should be easy for your current constituents to find your site using your organization's name. Showing up on the first page of search results for key terms — for instance, something like "Cincinnati women's shelter," if that describes your organization — can also make a huge difference in your site traffic, not to mention in potential donors, volunteers, and clients' ability to find and connect with you.
You don't have complete control over where and how your Web site shows up in search engines, but you have more power than you might think. The process of site tweaking and outreach that's used to enhance your search engine placement is called search engine optimization (or SEO for short). While SEO is often described in ways that make it seem like a mystical art form, in fact none of the key steps are particularly hard to understand. They are often, however, time consuming, and most require at least the ability to update your site's text, if not basic HTML skills.
Investing time in comparatively straightforward tasks like including key phrases in titles and headlines can reap some substantial benefits. Below, we suggest 10 steps that can help search engines find and prioritize your site content. While some steps are more technical than others, these concepts can help anyone understand and prioritize search engine optimization for their organization.
1. Ensure Your Site Has High-Quality Information
The cornerstone of any optimization strategy — or just a good Web site strategy, for that matter — is a lot of great, relevant information tailored to those you'd like to attract to your site. A large volume of high-quality content helps with a number of the steps listed below — for instance, you're more likely to have information that's useful to any particular person, you're more likely to include the key phrases for which people are searching, and other sites are more likely to link to yours.
Not to mention, of course, that a terrific site is more likely to engage the people who find you through search engines, and encourage them to become not only repeat visitors, but friends of your organization.
2. Help Search Engines Find Your Site
Search engines read through huge volumes of information on the Web with software programs called "robots" or "spiders" (because they navigate, or "crawl," through the Web). These spiders create an index which contains, essentially, all the pages they've found and the words that are contained on them.
You need to make sure your Web site is included in those indexes. You can easily check to see if your site has been indexed by Google's index by searching "site:www.yourdomain.org" — . This search will show a list of all the pages from your site that are included in Google's index (ideally, every page on your site).
If you're not included in the indexes — for instance, if you have a new Web site, or one without much traffic — none of the steps below will do much good until you are. How do you get included? You can submit your site to the search engines — to Google, or Yahoo for instance — but experts are divided on how useful this is. It's certainly not a quick way to be included.
A better way is to get other indexed sites to link to yours. You can start this effort with huge, general-interest directories like the DMOZ directory, but you're likely to have as much or more success with directories or listings related to your field. Is there an online directory of children's service organizations? Does your United Way have a listing of local organizations? Do your funders have a list of grantees online? Any of these (or ideally all of them, as per the next section) could provide the link you need to be indexed.
Some online services say they'll submit you to a lot of directories and search engines automatically. These generally aren't worth the money, as indiscriminate listings aren't nearly as useful as ones targeted to your sector.
3. Encourage Others to Link to You
Links from other sites to yours are a critical aspect of search engine optimization. A couple of links will help the search engines find your sites, but lots of links will show them that your site is a central, important resource for particular topics.
The more incoming links you have from credible organizations (that is to say, organizations that show up high on search engines themselves), the higher you will be listed in search results. To check to see the links that Google has indexed for your site, enter "link:www.yourdomain.org" into the Google search bar. The resulting list doesn't include every link from every site, but is a guide to the approximate quantity of high-quality links.
How do you get people to link to you? As we mentioned above, there are likely a number of organizations that have a list of organizations like yours. Ensuring you're included in all the relevant directories is a good start. See if partner organizations will link to you. Do a search on the phrases for which you'd like to be found and look for ways to get the organizations at the top of the search results to link to you. Think through content you could provide — perhaps reports, articles, toolkits, directories of your own — that would be so useful that organizations would be inspired to link to it.
4. Identify the Keywords For Which You'd Like to Be Found
We've talked so far about ways for people to find your site as a whole — but people are unlikely to be looking for your site specifically. They're much more likely to be looking for good information or a resource on a particular topic, which they'll identify by entering the first words that come to mind when they think about their topic, known as keywords in search engine optimization lingo.
Identifying the keywords that people are likely to use, and for which you'd like to be found, is a critical step in search engine optimization. You should ideally think through keywords not just for your organization as a whole, but for each content page that might have useful information for your target audience. For instance, "Cincinnati women's shelter" might lead people to your organization, but if you offer meaty content on your site, a search on "signs of domestic abuse" might also lead people to you.
How do you identify your core keywords? It's not a science. First off, try to identify phrases that are reasonably specific to your organization. Trying to show up in the top of the search results for "the environment" is likely to be a losing battle, but "measuring river-water quality" is a more achievable goal. In thinking through your keywords, consider:
- What phrases are associated with your organization? Start the keyword process by listing the words and phrases that you're already using in your marketing materials. The name of your organization is an obvious one, as is the name of any well-known people associated with you. Do you have a tagline or short mission statement that concisely and usefully summarizes what you do? What phrases do you use in that?
- How are people currently finding you? If you have access to a Web site analytics tool, you can likely see the search engine phrases that people are currently using to find you. These can be a useful starting point in understanding how people search for your information. Think about how you can increase the ease with which you can be found for these phrases, and use them to provide inspiration for more important phrases.
- What search phrases are people using in your domain? Tools like Good Keywords or WordTracker can help you to brainstorm keywords related to the ones you've already identified, and to find the phrasing that searchers are most likely to use.
How many keywords should you have? That's up to you. Ideally, you'd have a least a couple keyword phrases for each page on your site. Some organizations optimize for thousands of keywords. However, starting with just a few phrases and a few pages is far better than nothing.
5. Place Keywords in Prime Locations
Once you've identified your priority keywords, the next step is to integrate them into your Web pages. When someone searches on a key phrase, the search engine looks for pages that include prominent mentions of the phrase: ones that contain it a number of times, show it toward the top of the page, and include it in key locations.
Unfortunately, there's no substitute for the time-consuming task of incorporating your keywords into each content page. For each page, consider how you can incorporate your keywords into:
- Headlines and section titles. Text that is formatted prominently (bigger, bolder, higher on the page) is more likely to affect search engine placement than other text, so keywords will hold more weight in headlines.
- Link text. The words used as a link to your page are prioritized highly when the search engines consider that page. Optimize the links within your own site and especially any external links you have control over, for example in your blog, email signatures, social network profiles, and so on. Encourage others to link to you using your keywords — for instance, by providing keyword-heavy titles and descriptions for resources on your site.
- Page title metadata. Each page has what's called a "title metadata field," which controls the text that shows up in header bar at the top of the browser window — and which is also frequently shown as the page title in search engine results. This is one of the most important places to include your keywords. This title field can be edited through the HTML code of the page, or through most methods you might use to update your site — for instance, through Dreamweaver, Contribute, and most content-management systems.
- Page description metadata. Each page has a "description" field, a longer description of page content that can be accessed in a similar way to the "title" metadata. The description is another important place to include your keywords, and is also sometimes shown by search engines as the description of your page in search results.
- Page text. Repeating your keywords a number of times (but not so many times to annoy your readers, of course) throughout the page text is likely to boost your placement.
- Page URL. If you can control the actual filename of the page (e.g. "search_engines.html"), keywords embedded in the URL are also counted as highly relevant.
If you are looking for a comparatively quick way to optimize each page, adding keywords in just the title and description metadata can provide substantial results without a wholesale rewrite of your site.
Note that the keywords need to be shown as text. Spiders can't read images, so any page, header, or feature that's displayed as a graphic — regardless of how prominent on the page — is invisible to search engines.
6. Ensure a Search-Friendly Web Site Architecture
Okay, we need to delve into a bit of technical detail for a minute. Unfortunately, the detailed structure of a Web site can affect your search engine placement in important ways. If you're not generally familiar with Web site construction concepts and HTML (the language of Web sites), you may need to flag this section to the attention of a trusted Web developer.
Spiders don't read in the same way that a human would, so it's important to follow some basic site-structure guidelines to ensure that they can find and read your information:
- Include content early in each HTML page. When looking for content keywords, search engines prioritize keywords that show up early in the text of the page — and that text includes all of the HTML code. Try to structure the page so that the HTML code includes the content as early as possible — as opposed to, for instance, including code for complex headers, navigation bars, and sidebars before getting to the actual page text.
- Use standard header tags. Some search engines prioritize text that is displayed in standard formatting tags such as H1 or H2, so it's worthwhile using those as opposed to creating custom names for your header styles.
- Be careful of duplicate pages. Search engines react badly to duplicate content, as it's a common ploy of those trying to spam a search engine into better placement. Be careful of structures that show the same page content at multiple URLs (for instance, as a print-friendly version). If multiple versions are important, use the "robots" metatag to specify that additional versions shouldn't be indexed. Also, take particular care not to set up a site so it can be seen in its entirety at multiple domains (for instance, at both http://www.idealware.org and http://idealware.org) — instead, redirect from one domain to the other.
One last caution: avoid tricks. In reading through this article and others, you may think you've found loopholes to get higher placement without the work. That's very unlikely. Search engines spend a huge amount of time trying to preclude shortcuts, and they don't take kindly to being tricked. If you set up your site in a way that looks to a search engine like you're trying to fool them, they may remove your site from their listings altogether.
7. Keep Your Site Fresh
Search engines love new pages. Try to add new stories, reports, news releases, and the like so that search engines feel that your site is frequently updated and thus should be frequently indexed. If your site is rarely updated, it can take months for search engines to find your infrequent new additions.
Blogs can be a particularly useful way to easily add new pages to your site — and can also provide great information that encourages links from others (not to mention all the other ways blogs can help in marketing and outreach!).
8. Consider Google Grants
So far, we've focused on ways to tweak and optimize your site in order to be listed for free on any search engine. There's another way, though, to be listed on Google: Google gives away free search-engine advertising (the links listed as "Sponsored Links" down the right side of the search results page) through its Google Grants program.
If you're approved for the program (at the moment, Google appears to be using a non-competitive vetting process, although it can take up to six months or so to hear back), you can place text ads that show up each time someone enters key phrases into the Google search box. The grants often offer enough free advertising to allow you to place ads for hundreds of keywords.
Google Grants isn't a replacement for the steps above. It only affects Google and not other search engines, and many organizations find that an ad to a page doesn't bring nearly as much traffic as a link to that page from the traditional search results. However, it's a straightforward process that every nonprofit should consider.
9. Be Patient, but Keep Checking In
Search engines don't respond to changes overnight. In fact, it might take a month or more to see the results of your efforts reflected in search engine results. Don't give up hope — keep including keywords in new content, and asking other organizations to link to your resources.
Once you do see some results, don't rest on your laurels. The Web is a dynamic place, and new Web sites, new articles, and changing search engine priorities can affect your placement. Check in on the search results for your keywords at least every month or so, to help maintain your position and continue to enhance your strategy.
10. Enjoy the Fruits of Your Labor
Unfortunately, search engine optimization isn't a particularly short or easy road. But it's important to take on at least some of the basic steps — for instance, ensuring your site is linked to from a few well-known sites, and including some of your most important keywords in page titles and headers.
When your new donors, volunteers, and clients mention that they found you through Google or Yahoo Search, you'll be glad you took the time.