Once upon a time, the baseline website rule for nonprofits was a nice and simple declaration: “you have to have a website.” Nowadays, that rule has been expanded somewhat to include a number of factors that reads more like “you have to have a good website that your audience can find and use.”
A core piece of this shift has to do with Search Engine Optimization, or SEO. This is essentially a set of rules and strategies that help your website to be found more easily on search engines like Google. Without proper attention being paid to the measurements Google uses to rank your website, it’s likely that your nonprofit’ website will fade into the later pages of search results. Where you are ranked is important, as on Google, 18% of organic clicks go to the #1 position, 10% of organic clicks go to the #2 position and 7% of organic clicks go to the #3 position. In addition, 75% of users never go past the first page of results, so you want to help your website be as high up on that first page as possible!
Here are five changes you can make to your website to help ensure SEO best practices are in place and help drive visibility of your organization:
1. Regular Content Updates
There’s a reason that marketers and content developers use the mantra “Content is King” when working online. With changes over time to Google’s system, search engines no longer use hard-coded keywords in your website’s header to index it. If you worked with building a website more than just a few years back, your developer may have helped build in a long list of keywords, padding this list to increase your chances of being found.
Instead, Google’s system actually reads your content and uses that to determine your site’s keywords and how valuable it is for search users. By having regularly updated and well-formatted content that is of value to users, your site will be seen by Google to be a true resource for its users and will give your site better ranking over time.
The general rule should be to never publish content that is less than 300 words, though a word count of 500 is a much better minimum.
2. Responsive Design
Over the last years, users have been going online with their mobile devices in greater and greater numbers. Some websites are already beginning to see their traffic consist more of mobile users than desktop users. If your website is not displaying and working well on mobile devices, you are potentially driving away a lot of your audience (and donors)! In addition, Google changed its algorithms last year to give precedence to websites that are mobile friendly. This means that if your site is not built to handle mobile traffic well, you’ll not only drive away traffic, but your site’s ranking in search results will also suffer.
A responsive website is built so that it reformats itself depending on the size of the screen is it being viewed on, maintaining the branding and design of the main website in an automatically resized version. Responsive sites are the gold standard in mobile usability, as they allow users to have a great experience on their mobile devices while still taking in your brand and messaging seamlessly.
3. Appropriate Use of Headings
As stated above, content is a critical part of making sure your website is putting SEO at its heart. Regularly updating content is not enough in and of itself to really take full advantage of SEO strategies. By breaking up content through the use of headings (the sections headers of this article are a great example), you simultaneously make Google use those headings as keywords for your page and make the reading experience easier for your visitors.
To make sure that your headings are working correctly, ensure they are not simply reformatted paragraph text. They should be using HTML tags like <h1></h1> or <h2></h2> to be properly defined as headings. If you are using a Content Management System (CMS) like WordPress, the content editor includes options to make text the appropriate heading level just like you would in a word processor like Microsoft Word.
4. Well Written Page Titles and Descriptions
In every website’s source code is a section called the head, which is contained between tags that look like <head> and </head>. This section contains very important information that helps the site operate correctly and allows search engines to get more information. One key set of data in this section is the “title” and “description” of the page. These should be written to be easily read and should be unique to each page on your website, both for user experience and because these are what Google will use in search results. The title of your page becomes the blue link, and the description is underneath.
Besides simply becoming what is listed on Google search results, these titles and descriptions become some of the most powerful keywords on your website. Make sure they are well formatted on each of your pages and stay within the length limits of Google search results.
Your page title should be no longer than 55 characters including spaces, and your description no longer than 160 characters. Any longer and they will get cut off in search results.
5. Include Images
A website that is all text is, let’s face it, really dull. Using images on your website is a great way to communicate your message quickly to visitors and to keep their attention. When selecting images, try to avoid using anything that looks like clip art, as this tends to make your website look less professional. Similarly, stock photography that feels “cookie cutter” and isn’t closely tied to your message or isn’t high quality will do the same thing. We’ve all seen the image of the smiling customer service rep with a headset!
Also ensure any images have appropriate ALT tags on them, since Google will use these to index your images and add keywords to your pages. They are also important for those web users who need screen readers to navigate. ALT tags should be a description of what is in the photo rather than necessarily tied to your branding. A tag that reads “photo of a happy dental patient” is more powerful SEO-wise than “Dr. Smile Dentistry.”
Final note on images, don’t just google something and pull an image from your search results! Most any images you find will require a license (read: money) to be authorized to use, and using them without permission can lead to having to pay more in the end. Our article on ditching clip art has some great resources to find free, high quality photography.
SEO is a vital part of websites on the modern web, but getting some of the basics in place shouldn’t be scary! Just remember that most SEO, once you get the hang of it, follows a lot of rules of common sense. Much of it comes down to simply developing well written content that your audience will appreciate and making sure things are named correctly. There are more advanced aspects to ensuring your website is taking advantage of SEO strategies, but starting with these core tips will put you on the right track.