SEO Tips for Beginners
By Ann-Marie Harrington

Ann-Marie Harrington
Ann-Marie Harrington
With everything nonprofits need to consider around their web strategy—keeping content fresh, prompting online donations, and updating a blog—should search engine optimization also be on the list?

The answer is a strong yes, because nonprofits that implement a successful search engine optimization—or SEO—strategy tend to connect with more of the people they need to reach.

SEO refers to a set of guidelines you can implement on your website so that when people search for words relating to your organization your site ranks well in search results. And that’s important because people are more likely to go to your website if it shows up on the first page or two.

Let’s face it, if someone types the name of your organization directly into Google, your website should come up on the first results page. But, what if the search terms or keywords someone types in are less specific? Where would you stand then?

Let’s focus on organic SEO, which refers to placement based primarily on the content of your website and not on ads that you buy to show up in sponsored results.

Search Engines 101

Search companies need to do a good job matching people with the types of information they are seeking. If you’re looking for an organization that advocates for the homeless and, instead, you get websites listing houses for sale, you wouldn’t be happy.

To make sure their results are hitting the mark, search companies employ up to hundreds of factors in their site-ranking algorithms. The criteria may include inputs ranging from the text in your domain name, and how long you’ve had your domain name, to how long it takes your pages to load and how reliable the server is that hosts your website. Of these many inputs, some of the most important are easily adjusted and involve keywords that you can select and use without a lot of technical training.

Speaking in Algorithms?

Search engines used to read a dedicated section hidden on every web page that contained keywords selected by a content writer or an SEO expert. Now, engines index all of the content on your site—everything from website copy to document names—to create a picture of what your website is about. This provides you with multiple opportunities to guide what the search engines select by using informational words throughout your content and in file names.

Help the search engines (and people searching for an organization like you) get a better view of what you are all about by focusing on these key site factors:

The text.

Write your copy using informational phrases (keywords) that people are likely to use when looking for a website like yours. If you are a homeless organization, you would make sure the word “homeless” appears on the page you are writing and you should refer to “affordable housing”, “homeless shelters”, and “advocacy” if all those words are relevant, too. By embedding key search terms into your content, you create a rich picture of your organization for your users and search engines alike.

What you should avoid with keywords is keyword stuffing, which is when you repeat your keywords too much and use the same keywords over and over to try to use keywords to manipulate the search engine into noticing your keywords. (This paragraph would be a big red flag and it’s not very reader-friendly either.)

The page name and page title.

When you create your website, you will be prompted to give each page both a name and a title. The page name is used throughout the administrative side of your site. The page title is the text that appears at the top of the browser, above the address bar, or in the tab (depending on your browser), for any given web page.

When your organization shows up in search results, the page title is likely the first thing people will see. Writing a concise, informative title provides the greatest benefit with the least amount of effort. The page title not only helps search engines decide how relevant your content is to a particular search, but it also helps someone decide whether (or not) to click on your link on the search results page. Are you what they are looking for?

The title of each web page should include the organization name and be relevant and unique to the content on the page. Something like: “Your Hometown Homeless Alliance #147; Volunteer Opportunities.”

It is advisable to use the same keyword phases in your page name and page title as often as possible.

The page description.

The page description is the sentence that appears under your page title in search engine results. It should read like a sentence (and not just a list of words). As with the page title, it should be unique to each page, contain a relevant keyword or two, and let people know what the page is about. So, it might say: “Current opportunities for shelter volunteers at Your Hometown Homeless Alliance.”

Page names and page descriptions are the two meta tags search engines continue to look at, so take some care in naming these.

The headline.

The headlines on any given web page also provide an SEO opportunity. We advise clients to, as naturally as possible, use the same keywords or keyword phrases used in the page name, page title, and page description in the writing of their headlines. Using the same example as above, then, a potential headline might read, “Your Hometown Homeless Alliance’s Volunteer Opportunities.”

Everything Counts

The big picture is made of many small pieces, so use every opportunity to provide relevant information. Consider the choice of words for headings, link text, captions, image alt text (phrasing used to describe an image for the visually impaired), and file names so that they are informative.

  • When naming a photo (most often a JPEG file), call it “shelter_beds.jpg” instead of “IMG000179.jpg”.

  • When naming a PDF file, call it “YHHA_homelessness_2014.pdf” rather than “report_14.pdf.”
Know what phrase is most linked? “Click here.” That doesn’t mean anything to search engines and, without context, it doesn’t mean much to users either. All linked text creates an opportunity to inform users and highlight information.

Do: “Read our report on homelessness.

Don’t: “To read our report on homeless, click here.”

Once you’ve mastered these basics, you’ll be doing well. Since SEO is ever-changing, there’s plenty of information to help refine your results. For more, see SEO resources provided by Google, Yahoo, and Bing.

Ann-Marie Harrington is president and founder of Embolden, a web development, design, and consulting firm that specializes in nonprofits and foundations. Email to or call 877-723-7720.