by Sara White
Potential volunteers, donors, and recipients of a nonprofit’s services all need to do one thing: find the site. That’s where search engine optimization comes in.
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the act of refining your website such that search engines like Google or Bing may find it for a particular word or (preferably) phrase. Nonprofits use these keywords to describe their sites and help create calls to action.
So, what do we mean by keywords? These are words and phrases that relate to a web page’s topic, such as “NWA nonprofit website design” or “website weekend hackathon.” These words and phrases help web crawlers rank your website.
Ranking is where the website lands on the results page of the search engine. So, if you’re searching for “homeless nonprofits near me,” there will be a lot of results. Ranking simply means which ones are first (and you want to be first).
Web crawlers are teeny bits of software that read websites and determine how Google or Bing should rank them based on certain words. You’ve probably heard of the algorithm. Well, that’s not all there is to ranking sites. These crawlers do a lot of the work, too.
Crawlers look at sorts of things when determining how to rank a website, such as:
Without a decent ranking on a search engine results page, people simply will not be able to find your site and go to it, vastly reducing your outreach efforts and audience.
Ranking highly on the results page also brings a sense of “authority” that donors seek when deciding how to spend their money. For example, if you’re the top result for “donating blood NWA,” donors and volunteers will trust you more.
Additionally, search engines like Google and Bing automatically view users’ location information and return results that closely match their geography. So, when you search “free medical supplies near me,” the search engine knows to look in Northwest Arkansas, not Timbuktu.
A high ranking means the ability to create “buzz” for your nonprofit. Some potential donors or volunteers may just be looking for opportunities to give and stumble upon your site if you rank high enough, thus helping others find you more easily and spread the word.
Despite what you may have heard, writing is the most crucial part of search engine optimization. Content is king! People actually like reading, and so do web crawlers.
Search engines and web crawlers like content that is relevant and well-written. Your website must contain grammatically correct copy and include new, unique information (i.e., do not plagiarize).
Additionally, try to include synonyms for your cause on your site. An excellent way to find words you should have in your copy is to search for the main terms you’re using. Here’s an example:
Google search for “nonprofit website”
As you can see, the words “hosting,” “development,” and “design” all come up. If you were writing for a nonprofit that provides these services, you would want to include these words in your copy.
Another method of finding relevant content is to look at the “Answered Questions” section of Google:
Google search results for “nonprofit websites” under “People also ask”
The “People also ask” section of a search engine results page shows some information you may want to include on your site. But remember: do not plagiarize.
There are plenty of ways to get your site optimized for search engines. Let’s go over them.
While it may seem logical to be the first result for “nonprofit,” that is A. extremely difficult, and B. not as useful. Long-tail keywords provide web crawlers and searchers with better context about your organization.
Long-tail keywords get to the heart of the search query. They indicate a niche market that is more likely to convert to your cause, be it donors, volunteers, or people in need of your services.
An example of a long-tail keyword is “501c3 LGBTQ organization in NWA.” See how that specifies a very particular search query? Someone typing that into a search bar knows exactly what they want and actively seeks it.
Metadata consists of the primary keyword or phrase for the webpage, the description of the page, the title of the page, and the URL (hyperlink). Good metadata is critical to ranking well and getting your website findable.
Good metadata starts with a concise title that includes the main website’s name and the page’s name the user is on. An example of this is “What’s GiveCamp NWA – GiveCamp NWA.” Seem redundant? That’s okay because it’s still valuable information. Otherwise, we might be on a site like TechCrunch looking up what GiveCamp is.
A page’s title is best searchable when it is fewer than 60 characters long (including spaces!) for the whole thing, including the primary name. This character limit is less about the web crawler and more about the user experience. Google and Bing often cut off the text of a title after a certain length, making it hard for visitors to know what the page is about.
Example of a Google search where the title is cut off
Next up, we have the meta description, which is simply a paragraph describing the webpage. Now, this description will be different for each page you have and should indicate to the user what to expect from the page.
So, your meta description for your homepage needn’t contain details that you’d include in your “About Us” page, such as your founder’s name. Instead, this information would be better suited for the page on which it appears.
The length of the meta description is anywhere between 90 to 150 characters. For a better mobile search experience, it is preferable to keep it under 120 characters, as this is where the text cuts off.
Now, on to something you think you have little control over (but you really do). The dreaded URL. This hyperlink is also valuable for identifying your website and clarifying how it should rank.
Web crawlers, like humans, like readable URLs. This data lets crawlers better understand the website they are visiting. It’s also generally better for humans to read and comprehend. A URL that contains a bunch of random data, like letters and numbers, is less digestible than, say, https://givecampnwa.org/about-us/.
The URL should generally be short and full of keywords or descriptors (but not overly so). The absolute best practice is to have a keyword, title, and URL that all match to a degree. In the example above, we can tell from the URL that we are on the “About Us” page of GiveCamp’s website.
Images are tricky when it comes to web crawlers. While, yes, there is technology that reads images and translates them to descriptions and text, web crawlers simply do not want to go through that hassle.
Images on web pages need to be relevant to the topic and accessible. A best practice is to assume that no one can see your picture. That means adding captions, descriptions, and alt text.
Alt text refers to the “placeholder” text that appears when an image cannot. Accessibility tools, such as screen readers, cannot “read” an image to a user and must rely upon its alt text to describe it. Additionally, web crawlers will pick up on pictures and use them to rank a page.
The image’s name should also be clear and descriptive, meaning you may have to rename your files. An example would be “Child Hunger Awareness Fundraiser 2018.jpg,” not “PXL_56465618961.jpg.”
Yoast is a WordPress plugin that allows you to add keywords, synonyms, and metadata easily. It uses advanced technology to gauge how findable and readable your web page is and give you feedback.
With this plugin, you can quickly add metadata within the confines of each search engine’s character length. Additionally, it allows you to create an Open Graph, an image that will appear when the site is linked on social media or in other compatible places, like Slack.
Open Graphs should be around 1200 pixels x 627 pixels (1.91/1 ratio) and no larger than five megabytes. They should be a JPG rather than a PNG, as those files are larger and more challenging to render.
Yoast also checks for basic stylistic choices, such as pointing out when paragraphs are too long, you’re using passive voice, or there are repetitive segments. To this end, Yoast will also count your keywords to make sure you’re using them enough (but not too much!).
Most importantly, Yoast allows you to do quick redirects when you change your website. Unfortunately, when you alter your URLs, Google doesn’t always catch up right away, and bad URLs can lead to the dreaded 404 – Page Not Found page!
With redirects, you can take your old URL and point it to your new one, thus eliminating the need for search engines to play catchup or, worse, lead a user to a dead end.
Search engine optimization is the way nonprofits get donors, volunteers, and, of course, those in need of their services. No matter what nonprofit sector you’re in, you need to be findable to be successful.
When writing your website, don’t write only for the web crawlers. Keep in mind the users of your webpage. Remember, content is king!
Sara White has been a web developer and writer for over 22 years, creating everything from blogs to help files to knowledge bases to a supply chain wiki. Sara has volunteered at GiveCamp since 2017.