Web Marketing Today

Local SEO for Non-profit Organizations

In many ways, non-profit organizations enjoy a high degree of trust from search engines. Websites with .org domains are less prone to do commercial link manipulation, and competition among non-profits is not as fierce as some other industries. Even so, non-profits that enjoy better search engine rankings likely gain greater market share in terms of contributions and participation than those that do not rank well. This will add up to greater success over time.

Just think, if someone has an old automobile or clothes to donate, the first organization in the search results likely receive those donations. Similarly, if someone is looking for a museum to visit, or a concert, ballet, or play to attend, those organizations that rank at the top will get the customers.

So, while budgets at such organizations are usually thin, they must still try to incorporate search engine optimization as part of their overall marketing activities — or they miss out on opportunities, repeatedly.

Here are some of my top search optimization tips for local non-profit organizations.

1. Rank in Google Places

Read “Basic Checklist for How to Rank in Google Places,” my earlier article. All of those items are effective and apply, although I’ll touch on the most important items here with specific details for non-profits.

2. Put Primary Information in Text on Your Home Page

In HTML text — text that’s not embedded in images or Flash animations — state your organization’s name, type of organization, phone number, and full address on your website home page. For an example, the Southeast Louisiana Chapter of the American Red Cross not only has its name, address and phone number in regular text on the home page, it also lists the names of each of the parishes in Louisiana where it offers services. Another great example is the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, which has an excellent description at the foot of its home page, along with its address and phone number.

Lower Manhattan Cultural Council includes important information at the foot of its home page.

Lower Manhattan Cultural Council includes important information at the foot of its home page.

3. State your Category

Depending on the type of organization, you may need to mention a few different categories, such as your specific type, in addition to broader, more-general types. For example, museums, symphonies, ballets, arboretums, theaters, food pantries, and homeless shelters are all specific types of organizations that would be essential to mention in text where search engines can read them and understand what the organization is. It’s also a good idea to mention other broad categories that may be applicable, such as “non-profit,” “charitable,” “arts,” or “cultural organization.” If a potential donor or volunteer is interested in finding an organization like yours, having this text on the home page will help your site be assessed as relevant. Don’t make prospects work hard to hunt for you. You wouldn’t believe how many charitable organizations fail to have “charitable organization” mentioned on their sites. For a great example, look at Wheels for Wishes of Illinois. Its home page very clearly conveys that it is a charitable organization, using multiple words and plural and singular forms, such as “charity,” “charitable,” “non-profit,” and “foundation.”

4. Use your Title to Target your Name and Place

Your site’s home page title is highly influential. Be sure it states the name of your organization, and the locality, such as “Dallas Better Business Bureau.” The page’s title is visible at the top of your browser when you view a page, and the title is also used as the name and link test in most cases when the page is listed in search engine results. So, the title should be clear and attractive to click on.

5. Use a Short Meta Description

It’s important to use a short description of your organization in a meta description tag for the page. This description is usually, but not always, the text that search engines use as the little preview description snippet below the links in search results. Quite a lot of non-profit websites overlook adding a meta description, and if there isn’t one, Google will go to other sources or cobble one together from visible text appearing on the page. Here’s an example for The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, which has no meta description, so its description snippet in search results seems to be off-topic.

The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston doesn't specify its own meta description.

The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston doesn’t specify its own meta description.

Add a meta description to your home page so that you have better control to produce a more optimal snippet for your organization. It must be concise, like an elevator speech, and no longer that about 155 characters. But don’t make it too short, either.

6. Get Listed in Online Directories

Establish listings for your organization in major online yellow pages sites and business directories. This creates “local citations,” which are mentions of your business location that are then used by search engines for ranking purposes. Online directories provide a double advantage. Not only do they provide citations, they also help to incrementally establish that your organization is a real entity, which helps with parts of search engine algorithms based upon trust. For example, note how the Heritage For The Blind, Mercy Housing, and Special Olympics Colorado are all listed in Superpages.com when one does a search for “charitable and nonprofit organizations” for downtown Denver.

Superpages.com results for Charitable and Nonprofit Organizations in downtown Denver.

Superpages.com results for “charitable and nonprofit organizations” in downtown Denver.

7. Communicate your Tax-free Status

Organizations that depend upon donations can benefit by clearly communicating their tax-free status. Make it prominent and place it on the home page or in an easy-to-find place such as the About page and on online donation pages. For instance, Saving Grace, a Los Angeles-based organization dedicated to the human treatment of animals and to animal rescue, clearly states its tax-free status on its home page. This will help with conversions, persuading people to visit your site to join and donate, but it also may help improve trust with search engines and may indirectly help with rankings by increasing clicks and reducing your site’s bounce rate. Regardless of possible search engine ranking benefit, it makes good marketing sense to not force new visitors to your site to have to hunt for this information.

Saving Grace LA clearly communicates its tax-free status.

Saving Grace LA clearly communicates its tax-free status.

8. Use Separate Websites for Charitable Events

I’ve had a number of non-profits ask me if they should set up information about their main, annual charity fundraisers as a subsection of the organization’s main site, or as a completely separate website. The answer is that in most cases a separate site may provide greater benefit, in the long term. If you have sufficient support and volunteers to set up and operate the separate site, doing so can help to benefit your main website’s rankings over the long term. The separate site gives you a website that can have a unique keyword profile, and may be able to collect more links from many other sites than just your main site. In some cases, websites and news stories will link to the event site and your organization site when reporting on the event. Take for instance the annual C.A.T. Walk & Fun Run in the Portland, Oregon area. This event is a fundraiser supporting cancer awareness and treatment that is operated by Tuality Healthcare Foundation, an organization supporting medical and health education programs. The C.A.T. Walk & Fun Run website accrues links from many race and event websites, and it in turn links back to the Foundation’s website. Plus, the event itself could potentially have its own local directory listings. Another example could be the State of Search Conference website, set up by an organization I volunteer for, the Dallas Fort Worth Search Engine Marketing Association. Separate sites also give you the opportunity to list logos and links of sponsoring companies, which might otherwise not be appropriate for the organization’s main website. If you use an event hosting website to reduce your overhead instead of hosting your own site, check ahead and see if the hosting site would nofollow links to your organization. This would render the links of less worth to you in terms of search optimization.

The Dallas Fort Worth Search Engine Marketing Association hosts a separate page for its State of Search Conference.

The Dallas Fort Worth Search Engine Marketing Association hosts a separate page for its State of Search Conference.

9. Allow Photography to Encourage Photo Sharing

Allow photography to encourage photo sharing whenever possible. Some museums and other arts organizations still operate as though this were the 19th century, sandbagging their potential online success. When your fans post images on Flickr, Pinterest, and Facebook, they may often tag your social profiles, mention your organization, and link to you — all of which help bolster your rankings. These references are also free advertisements among social media sites, promoting your events. So, engineer your policies to help encourage these activities and you’ll reap the rewards. There are difficulties with allowing people to shoot photos — museums may not own copyrights of visiting shows, aging artworks or fragile historical relics could be damaged by camera flashes, and they may fear loss of potential profits if other businesses publish calendars featuring works they hold. Even so, it’s possible to navigate the difficulties and allow people a limited license to snap photos and share them. The ready availability of digital cameras and cell phone cameras — not to mention the recent advent of Google Glass — make this growing phenomenon a major advantage for organizations to tap into. Take for instance the photography policy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. This policy is perfect for allowing people to shoot photos for personal use while still limiting photos in instances where it’s problematic.

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, allows visitors to take non-flash photos of their collections, including some of the most famous art in the world such as Van Gogh's The Starry Night, 1889.

The Museum of Modern Art allows visitors to take non-flash photos of its collections, including some of the most famous art in the world, such this one from Van Gogh.

10. Use LinkedIn to Capitalize on your Employees, Donors, and Members

LinkedIn, the professional networking and resume site, is helpful for converting your social connections into references to your organization. Professional associations are particularly conducive for optimizing with LinkedIn because members often like to telegraph their membership on their resumes. To facilitate this, have a “Company Page” on LinkedIn for your board members and employees to associate with their profiles, and add a “Group Page” for your members at large to join, if someone else hasn’t already. A great example of this would be the San Francisco Chapter of AIGA. The AIGA San Francisco group has over 4,000 members.


The AIGA San Francisco LinkedIn group page.

The AIGA San Francisco LinkedIn group page.

11. Optimize your Site and Blog for Twitter and Facebook

Many non-profits have discovered that social media use translates to greater community engagement, and there may be direct and indirect benefits to search optimization through increasing your presence on major social platforms. You can tweak your site to make it so that your status updates containing links to your site can display more attractively by installing a bit of code. Add both Twitter Cards and Facebook’s Open Graph code in the headers to your site’s pages and blog to enable this. For instance, on Twitter, a status update with a link usually appears as a brief line of text along with the link, limited to 140 characters, maximum. However, sites that have successfully implemented Twitter Cards enjoy Tweets that can have a “summary” link which, when clicked, will expand to display more information — a preview of the page linked-to that can include images and text. Here’s an example from the Arts Foundation of Cape Cod —Tweets to its blog are more engaging:

Sites with Twitter Cards installed receive a summary link with text and images in tweets.

Sites with Twitter Cards installed receive a summary link with text and images in tweets.

The Arts Foundation of Cape Cod’s blog is hosted on Tumblr, which now provides Twitter Cards automatically. Facebook does this, too, if you link to Facebook posts in Twitter updates. Other top sites may provide this as well. But, you can add this to the organization’s site, blog, or press release section.

12. Run PPC Ads for Free

There has been sufficient research for some years that indicates when sites appear in both the organic and paid search results there is something of a synergistic effect — average clicks to the ads and to the pages appearing in search results increase, possibly due to improved brand visibility, or to increased odds of getting visibility and clicks. The Google Grants for AdWords program can provide up to $10,000 in advertising per month to eligible non-profits. Non-profit groups that aren’t participating are throwing away a significant benefit every day. Here is an example: I searched for “non-profits, Seattle, WA”, and one of the ads is for Pinky’s Passion for a Parkinson’s Cure, a charitable organization located in Washington.

Pinky's Passion for a Parkinson's Cure PPC Ad.

Pinky’s Passion for a Parkinson’s cure ad.

There is definitely more that local organizations can do to optimize for search engines, but this list is a good start that will achieve real benefits. If your organization is strapped for resources — as so many are — consider contacting local professional marketing and Internet marketing associations to ask for volunteers to help you out with these tactics.

Improving your SEO will translate to success for your organization, benefiting your constituents in the process.

Chris Silver Smith
Chris Silver Smith
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  1. Mike September 4, 2014 Reply

    Interesting article. I also work on SEO for a charity called http://vietnamveteranscardonation.org/

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