If you’re like most nonprofits, you want to wind up in one of the top results when people are searching for you or information you provide. How can a social change group earn a coveted spot in those first few search results? There’s a whole field of search engine marketing (SEM) that could keep you busy for days, and most of it is not focused on social change groups, but we can still learn from it. For now, let’s get started with three basic steps of search engine optimization (SEO):

1- Figure out relevant keywords and use them.

Put yourself in the chair of people who are looking for what your group has to offer. What words and phrases do they use to describe what they are looking for? Use those words as you write content, and include them in page titles and subheadings within the page. A search engine crawling your site will figure out how “relevant” you are to a certain topic based on the placement of those words in URLs, page titles and in your page content.

Next steps: Identify five to ten keywords or key phrases you want to be searchable for. Create relevant content about those topics and use those keywords in your page titles, use them in outgoing links, use them in subheadings and image descriptions. But don’t just throw them in there, make sure that it’s always relevant to use them. Take a hard look at your current pages for lingo and replace it with more commonly used language. (For example, don’t use “sexual minorities” if most people are looking for content related to “gay.”)

2 – Let Google help you

Google dominates the search engine market, and they have created many tools to help people learn about legitimate ways to get the most out of Google. Next steps: If you are not already using Google Analytics to examine your group’s website traffic, consider it. Google also has excellent tutorials in their Google Tools for Webmasters — videos and FAQ pages about how to become searchable and how to avoid common problems.

When your group is ready, you can also apply for a Google Grant, which can help you to drive traffic to your site using Google ads that you don’t have to pay for. But, if you apply for and receive a Google Grant, then don’t use it, they’ll cancel it, so don’t apply till you know someone in your group is ready to manage the grant.

3 – Use incoming and outgoing links to show your expertise

Who considers you an expert? Incoming links to your site tell a search engine that not only do you think you have useful content, but others agree. Search engines will also notice if your website is like the “Hotel California” and you only link to your own content, not allowing visitors to leave for related content (“you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.”) Your site should link to related, useful content at other websites.

Next steps: Identify five to ten related sites that should be linking to you and link to them first. Wait a few months then ask them to link to you. You can suggest that they should link to specific internal pages, or to your home page.

Those are some points to get you started, and let’s also talk about some of the bigger steps that are essential for a website that is popular with search engines and with people.

The big picture: You have to make yourself relevant and useful

A top spot in search results is something that you “earn” by being relevant and useful on a topic. To make the grade, you’ll have to answer these tougher questions:

  • Do you have timely, relevant content to offer someone who has a question about your issue in Oregon? (for example, racial justice or peace organizing)
  • How often do you update your website? Does it look like the online equivalent of a dusty old attic?
  • Do you have the most content on a particular topic?
  • Do you have the most accurate information there is to offer on a topic?
  • Do you break news on this topic?

These are the factors that can help move you up on the search results.

Next steps:

  • Come up with a doable plan to create more content on the topics you want to be searchable for.
  • Create content as often as you can, and keep your focus.
  • Create content that comments on and links to news on your issue.
  • Don’t move or delete your pages, archive them, so that you are creating a robust site.
  • Keep your home page fresh with your newest content visible or one click away for a human or a search engine robot visiting your home page.

What do you want your site to look like a year from now? Keep creating content with that in mind.

Is your software holding you back?

At the very least, your website should be using valid code, should create search engine friendly URLs for your pages (human-readable, without question marks or strange character strings), and the menu structure should link to all your pages. The established open-source content management systems (Drupal, Plone, and WordPress, for example), once correctly configured, are already optimized to make your site search engine friendly, so you can focus on creating content.

If you are still working with a site you created with old software or customized software, the money that you’re “saving” by not updating it may mean that you are losing website traffic that can bring visitors to your side of the issue, and names to your donor lists. Consider using the tools that are out there to bring your site in line with the way people are using the web now. It’s not a matter of if you’ll update your website software, but when you will update the software you use to maintain your website.

Next steps: Ask your website developer/maintainer about how to track your website statistics, and what they have done to help your content be well-indexed by search engines. If your developer doesn’t know how to do that, they either need to learn, or you need a different developer for your site to reach a higher level.

Bottom line: optimizing for search engines takes time and energy, just like any other type of outreach. And it offers us the chance to look carefully at how we are communicating with people who don’t already know us. What’s good practice for search engines is also good practice for introducing people to our organization or to our issue. As social change groups, this is the work we need to keep doing.

Hungry for more?

TechSoup has this useful article: Ten Steps to Being Found on Search Engines.

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