Mar/Apr 2006

What does my nonprofit organization need to be doing for search engine optimization to ensure constituents can find us on the Web?

by Dr. David Crooke, Founder and CTO, Convioand Gaea Connary, Internet Marketing Manager, Convio

Every day, new businesses and organizations are popping up on the Web. In fact, Netcraft's Site Survey reported approximately 35 million domains with active Web sites in February 2006 — a 30 percent increase over the same time last year. In this environment, it is increasingly important for a nonprofit to take steps so constituents can easily find it on the Web, which in turn will improve the organization's ability to attract new donors, volunteers and other supporters.

Getting found on the Web

A key way that people look for information online is through search engines. The process of optimizing an organization's Web site so that it does well in search engine listings is called "search engine optimization" (SEO). SEO is not to be confused with "search engine marketing" (SEM), which is marketing a Web site via paid listings or ads on search engines. An easy way to remember the difference: In Google, when you type in a word and it returns a set of results, the site listings on the left are the result of SEO, while the advertisements on the right are the result of SEM.

Entire industries have been developed around SEO and SEM, and strategies for both can get complex and expensive. SEO requires an investment of time and a willingness to experiment, but does not require payment to the search engines to improve rankings in search results. In the interest of providing quick and inexpensive techniques for getting found on the Web, the following will focus on basic SEO strategies.

SEO: Is it all about Google?

Approximately 80 percent of Internet users use a search engine to find information on the Internet. According to Nielsen//NetRatings, Google has a 42 percent share of search engine usage, with Yahoo! at 22 percent and MSN Search at 11 percent. While these top three comprised more than 80 percent of the 5.7 billion searchesthat occurredin January 2006, there are many other, smaller search engines. To determine the focus of its SEO efforts, an organization should understand its audiences and which search engines they use. Web site reporting tools can provide this information.

Setting goals and measuring success

Spending time and effort building an SEO strategy will be more valuable if an organization can demonstrate success. Consider the goals of the SEO program before getting started.Receiving top placementin search rankings may not be realistic given available budget and resources, but getting on the first page may be.

Success metrics may include improved result rankings, increased site traffic, increased number of repeat visitors and, most importantly, increased number of conversions. A conversion can be defined as more volunteers registered, more newsletter subscriptions or more donations collected.

Measuring results requires a Web analytics tool that provides these types of metrics. Be sure to have an analytics tool in place before launching an SEO program, and note the current metrics in order to monitor improvements over time.

Building a keyword list

Perhaps the most important step in creating an SEO plan is to develop a list of target keywords and keyword phrases. These are the words that most people likely will use to find an organization. A list of 10-15 target keyword phrases is a good start.

Making changes to Web site code

Several steps can help optimize an organization's Web site code for search engines. Here are just a few tips for Webmasters:

  • Change TITLE tags to include target keywords. For example, the title of a home page shouldn't be "Home," but rather the name of the organization and a description of its mission using keyword phrases.

  • Consider how to use keywords in the names of Web site pages. For example, rather than naming the volunteer registration page "volunteer-signup," an animal rescue group might try "volunteer-signup-shelter."

  • Don't focus much energy on meta tags for description and keywords as these are becoming less weighted by search engines.

  • Use keywords in image ALT tags as well as in the actual file name of the image.

  • Use conventional HTML for the titles and subtitles on pages, such as H1 and H2.

  • Decrease the amount of code in pages by placing JavaScript and CSS styles in external files. Optimize your HTML by eliminating unnecessary tables and/or using CSS to format your page. The benefit: copy that is higher on the page in HTML source code will be more heavily weighted by search engines, and smaller HTML files will load faster in visitors' browsers.

Organizations using a content management tool to manage their Web sites should confirm that it can support these changes.

A link is not just a link

A key part of SEO strategy is what and how other Web sites link to an organization's site. A nonprofit has advantages over for-profit businesses. People may perceive a nonprofit's Web site content as more honest and altruistic, so the organization may find it easier to get other Webmasters to link to its site.

Here are a couple of points to consider:

  • Which sites should link to the organization's site? Look for popular, heavily trafficked sites with content that is relevant. Other nonprofits with similar missions are a good source. Also consider local newspapers, businesses and other directories for referring links. Blogs and forums are also possibilities for links.

  • What does the link say? If the link has just the organization's name, then this will help only when searchers are searching on the organization's name. By working with the Webmaster of the other site to factor in some keywords, an organization can improve its ranking on those keywords. If the link is on an image, the organization can ask the Webmaster to incorporate keywords into the ALT text.

Submitting a site to directories

In addition to providing the search function, most search engines have a directory that visitors can browse. One example is Google's Open Directory, also called DMOZ. Submitting to these directories is generally free but does not guarantee improved results ranking. An organization that has not optimized its site using the tactics outlined above may not benefit from submission.

In addition to the major search engine directories, there are hundreds of other directories available on the Internet. Some directories are free to list; others charge a fee. Some services will submit a site automatically to many of these directories for a fee, but an organization should investigate their relevance before taking that step.


Although it may seem complicated for an organization to position itself for easy discovery on the Web, a few basic steps ensure that the Web site is visible to new audiences. For additional information about SEO, take a look at SearchEngineWatch at http://searchenginewatch.com/. It is a comprehensive resource for information about how search engines work, recommendations for SEO and SEM strategies, new search engine features and latest news about the search engine market space.


What does my nonprofit organization need to be doing for search engine optimization to ensure constituents can find us on the Web? | Convio