ULTIMATE GUIDE TO SEO FOR CHARITIES

Ultimate Guide To SEO For Charities

 

This guide is written by Dan Holt. Dan has been involved in digital marketing since 2009, since which time he and his agency, Boss Digital:

  • Have managed over 300 campaigns, including many in the charity market
  • Been featured in many of the world’s largest digital marketing blogs and magazines, including Moz, HubSpot and Search Engine Journal
  • Dan also runs a weekly podcast on BossToBoss.org, where he interviews the world’s leading sales and marketing experts, including many from the legal industry, on a variety of topics from content marketing to PPC.
Dan Holt
Dan Holt – Managing Director

Over the last 10 years Boss Digital have delivered hundreds of SEO campaigns, many of them within the third sector for charities such as Ark Schools, Heart UK, The Turing Trust and RAF Sports Federation.

As with commercial organisations, the relationship between a charity’s website and the search engines is of huge strategic importance. Whether within a business or personal context, the vast majority of digital journeys begin with a search into Google, so if you’e not ranking for the search queries that correspond to your audience and the problem you’re seeking to solve, then your ability to fulfil your vision will always be hampered.

This guide has been created to share best practice guidance in extensive detail so that other charities in all markets can fully leverage this massive opportunity.

The Basics

If your charity is new to SEO and you believe that it’s something you should be investing in, then it’s important to recognise the basic pros and cons of this as a channel, as well as the fundamentals of how the search engines work.

Starting with the later, the search engines rank webpages based on:

  • The quality of the content on that webpage – at the most basic level this begins with tags and elements having been correctly populated so that Google can interpret the subject matter of the page, and at a more advanced level it’s influenced by the depth and variety of the content, the way in which it is presented visually, and the behaviour of the user (as a rule greater engagement suggests greater quality).
  • The degree to which they trust the domain on which the page exists – in other words, the authority of the brand. There are countless signals that feed into this score but the factor most closely correlated with high performance pages is the quantity of links from other high quality, and ideally relevant domains. Other factors, depending on the search vertical in question, include – social media, brand and repeat traffic, and broader web citations.

From the point of view of your charity, it’s important to understand the pros and cons of SEO as a route to market…

Pros:

  • The traffic is free – while your charity may have to invest a significant amount in developing your SEO, you’re not actually paying for each individual visitor – that’s the whole point. Therefore, once you exceed the point of breakeven, everything else is effectively free of charge. This is why, when achieved at scale, SEO produces one of the highest returns of any channel activity on the web.
    value of digital marketing
  • You are building a compound asset for your charity over time – unlike direct response methods like PPC, your SEO is constantly growing in value. And even if you pause that work, the value is retained (although of course progress is all relative to your competition so over time they will catch up!).
  • The conversion rate is typically quite high – this of course depends on the exact proposition of your charity, but in most verticals you will find conversion rates of around 2-4% for well designed landing pages. The leads then also tend to be fairly qualified as the prospect is part of the way through their journey.
  • It forces you to do other important things – at the heart of SEO is the challenge of developing quality content and building a trusted brand. However, the advantages of these two things extend far beyond the search engines. Quality content means better brand messaging, higher conversion rates, stronger brand recall, and improved channel performance throughout all the platforms surrounding your website. There is also a technical component to SEO, insofar as Google wants to rank sites that load quickly and display well across all the major devices and browsers, which in turn means a much improved user experience. In short, a great strategy for your SEO, means a great strategy for your brand as a whole.
  • Long term stability – there was a time when SEO was a hugely volatile space, and it’s certainly true that if you engage in aggressive tactics you will be vulnerable to having the algorithmic rug pulled out from underneath you, but as long as you’re engaging in legitimate practices then actually SEO is a remarkably predictable channel nowadays. And unlike social media platforms, which are constantly growing and waning in their popularity, Google is unlikely to see its dominance challenged any time soon.
  • Charities tend to have one big advantage – as we will come on to, a drawback for SEO is that it takes time. However, this is principally as you have to slowly build the authority of the domain, particularly via link acquisition. However, most charities attract links at a significantly above average rate, often from highly authoritative sources like .gov domains or other charities, meaning that the process is often significantly accelerated for those in the third sector.

Cons:

  • It may damage your UX and brand messaging – from an SEO perspective, more is generally more. Your goal is to become a one stop shop for information in your niche, as that is what Google will reward. However, this volume of information can cause issues from both a UX and brand point of view. It may dilute the key messages of your charity that you wish to get across, and it may offer so much detail and choice to the user that it actually impedes the natural flow of their journey. There are, however, ways of overcoming these issues. For a start, priority information can be given greater emphasis within the visual hierarchy. It can be placed at the top of the fold or highlighted through design accents. Javascript and tabulation can be used to hide information that could be overwhelming to the user, and only display it should the user select a particular call to action. You can even distinguish between the primary UX and secondary SEO landing pages, by removing the latter from the main navigation and linking to them more discretely instead, allowing them to be indexed but without disrupting the central journey from the home page and other top level pages. In short, these obstacles only become problematic when insufficient thought is given to the website design and architecture.
  • It may not give you results overnight – SEO is a famously slow process. It takes time to build your authority, develop all the necessary content and gain recognition from Google. However, as explained above, charities are often in the unusual position of already having a lot of these positive signals before investing in SEO, and therefore they are likely to see the results far quicker than commercial organisations.
  • You are depending on the whims of Google – it’s true that any channel centric strategy always comes with a degree of uncertainty. After all, who knows if search engines will even exist in 10 years from now? There is a limit to the control we can exercise in this regard, and we certainly can guarantee that Google won’t make some algorithmic change that radically shifts your charity’s exposure within the search engines. However, most changes that do occur are designed to counteract overly aggressive tactics made by commercial organisations seeking to exploit the shortcomings of the algorithm to their advantage, and as a charity it’s unlikely that you would ever fall into this category. On the contrary, the majority of changes that have occurred in the last 10 years have actually helped charities, and it seems safe to assume that trend will continue for the foreseeable future.

Top 8 Questions Asked In SEO By Charities

Top 8 questions asked in SEO by charities:

  1. Should we buy links?
    There was a time where aggressive link acquisition was the norm. Organisations of all shapes and sizes would engage in, at best, questionable tactics to accelerate the speed with which they grew their inbound link portfolios. Much has changed since then but still the question is asked – “Should we be scaling our link strategy?” The answer is “It depends”.If you’re able to do so through legitimate means such as high quality digital PR or some form of legitimate outreach then fantastic, as there’s no question that it certainly aids your ability to rank for competitive terms, but any form of link acquisition that contravenes Google’s TOCs should be avoided at all costs. In short, before engaging in any link solicitation, simply ask yourself the question – are we actually building our brand and are we making the internet a better place in the process? If the answer is yes, crack on. The reality for most charities, however, is that they naturally acquire links at a high rate anyway, so this is unlikely to be the obstacle it so often is for commercial entities.
  2. Should we do the SEO in-house or outsource?
    Of course the answer is that it depends on the skill set you have within your team. However, for the vast majority of charities I would suggest it is a case of creating the content in-house and having the technical and on-page elements performed externally. After all. it’s not only far more likely that you have copy skills in house than deep technical SEO skills, but you also have by far the greatest understanding of your charity and the audience, and therefore outsourcing all the content is likely to cause some problems.The good news is that the majority of the time is actually incurred on the content creation, so this model should enable you to run your campaign in a financially lean way (as it probably doesn’t need to be said that the hourly rate for an agency is quite a bit higher than for an internal member of your team!).

    Charity Outsourcing

  3. Does our social media presence affect our SEO?
    As with so much of SEO, the answer is far from binary. On the one hand, it’s certainly true that there is a correlation between those charities with large following and engagement levels on social, and high rankings in the search engines, and if there is a causal link then it will only be a positive one, but actually there is still very little evidence of any direct impact.There are several possible explanations for this. The first is that Google prioritises those signals over which brands have limited direct control (and are therefore harder to manipulate).This is why links from other domains are so highly valued. Whereas a charity could easily post lots of low quality content on social or grow its follower and engagement stats through robots or advertising, so it would be quite difficult for Google to interpret what represented a trusted brand and what was reflective of other, more aggressive tactics. Finally, Google is in competition with the big social platforms. Perhaps not directly since they killed off Google+, but all the same they are still competing for people’s time and attention, so do they really want to give brands another big reason to invest in social rather than search?
  4. How quickly should we expect results?
    We understand that for charities SEO can represent a big investment. However, it’s so important all parties are honest and up-front about the fact that results will rarely come overnight. The exception (and this does actually occur with disproportionate frequency with charities than it does with commercial entities) is when there is a huge amount of authority not being channeled effectively. In these instances a small amount of on-page optimisation can yield huge results. However, these instances are not the norm.Typically SEO is a question of slowly (albeit faster than your competitors, of course!) building compound value over time. If results are seen in six months, that’s fantastic, but it could be more like 9-12. Charities will understandably become nervous as the months are passing, but you should be able to reassure yourself as you see certain indications things are progressing in the right direction. First there should be an increase in the number of pages indexed in the search engines. All of this data is available within Google’s Search Console. Then there will be an increase in rankings for priority phrases. Later will come the traffic, as some of these target terms begin to hit the top of page 1, and finally will come the enquiries, as a percentage of the traffic begin to convert (which will of course mean different things for every charity). As long as you are seeing progress against this sequence you should hold firm. You will not regret it.
  5. Why invest in SEO over PPC?
    If you’re a registered charity then you should be able to acquire a monthly grant from Google for your ad spend. Having PPC as a string to your digital bow is therefore a no-brainer (although there are certain complications that can arise with charity ad campaigns). However, that by no means eradicates the role for SEO. For a start, unless you’re going to be spending your own money, your PPC traffic will be capped by the grant, whereas your organic traffic is theoretically limitless (one of our long term charity clients generates over 30,000 visits a month, far more than they could ever attract via PPC).Secondly, by ranking well in the organic listings you are positioning your brand as an authority on the subject matter in question. Finally, by building your SEO through content marketing, digital PR and generally developing your brand, you are establishing a permanent asset for your charity. This asset will pass value not only through Google but other search engines, and the exposure will spill into other channels such as social media and the broader press. PPC, on the other hand, is only as valuable as the budget you are spending that moment. If for some reason that tap is turned off, you will have little residual value to show for it.

    PPC Vs SEO

  6. We are in the process of building a new website for our charity. Should we bring in SEO expertise now or after the new site is launched?
    This is a simple one. You absolutely must bring them into your project immediately. Their insight will help shape the new structure of the site, ensuring you are balancing the needs of both the user and the search engines. If, however, you wait until after the site is launched, their impact may be too late. Not only will the chance have been missed for them to elevate your search presence, but the new site may have actually damaged things further and their input will likely be too late to undo or repair that harm caused.
  7. What should take priority, SEO or the user experience?
    There was a time when a charity would need to decide which to prioritise with their website; the user experience or the search engines. Naturally charities wanted to ensure the user found all the information they needed in a way that was fast and simple, whilst getting across all the key brand messages, but considerations from an SEO perspective often battled against this. The latter would see the emphasis placed on content volume and absurdly high keyword densities that over resulted in a jarring experience for the user, and poor representation of the brand. Those times are, thankfully, long behind us.While Google does still favour pages with lots of content, it allows charities to place much of this behind tabulated fields using javascript, meaning that only a very small proportion of the overall content is visible at any given time. This is great for the user as it means the content they can see is digestible, and also as all the content exists on the same URL the additional content appears almost instantly the moment a user clicks on the appropriate CTA. Occasionally, where a charity really wishes to keep the messaging very minimal, there will still be a degree of tension between the two considerations, but in these instances we can usually resolve the problem by asking the question – does this page need to form part of the primary user experience? If it does, then we prioritise the UX and brand considerations, but if not then we can remove from the primary navigation and place it deep within the website, albeit linked from various other relevant pages, so that it’s effectively only accessible directly via the appropriate search queues in Google.
  8. How quickly do we need to add new content?
    If you’re at all familiar with SEO you will know that content is the oxygen to any campaign. However, good quality content is also time intensive to create, and time means money. Therefore, it’s quite understandable that any charity undertaking an SEO campaign would ask the question – how much is enough? The answer of course depends on the exact niche in which your charity is operating. If those brands that are competing for your keyword groups are creating content at a rate of 1000 words a month via blog posts, information resources, etc, and you are creating 2000, then you will likely be at an advantage. However, if they are creating 50,000 words a month then you would have to exceed that. This of course is something of a generalisation as not all content is created equally. 1000 words that’s beautifully presented and accompanied by unique imagery and video is going to be worth several thousand words of text alone.Likewise the domain will play a role. The authority of the the charity in the eyes of Google will determine how much heft any given page carries, as will the internal link structure that channels the authority around the website. All that said, content velocity is always one of the primary drivers of success, so ensuring you are at least matching if not exceeding the rate at which the most active charities in your niche are producing content is a cornerstone to any successful long term SEO strategy.

A Charity Case Study

When we first began working with Heart UK the site, like a lot of charities, already had a very strong level of domain authority (we will explain the significance of that a little later). However, the degree to which that authority was being channeled was extremely limited.

We discovered that the most frequently visited pages were in the food area of the website, and so we set about creating a far broader array of optimised pages targeting similar queries and the traffic began to explode, now exceeding over 300,000 visitors a month (purely from Google organic search).

With this traffic we were then able to massively grow the email database, at a rate of around 50 new emails per day, and at no ongoing expense. In turn, this database has enabled the brand to forge lucrative partnerships with a range of commercial entities that are seeking to engage this audience.

If your charity is looking for support with their SEO, contact us here for a free consultation!

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