Search engine optimization (SEO) sounds exotic and can seem overwhelming for many of us. As writers, we'd much rather work with words, not computer code. But good SEO is necessary to compete for space on the search engines...even for nonprofits.
The good news is that most SEO happens right in the content that you write. Good SEO happens naturally (or "organically" as the SEO experts like to say) when you write good content.
Google drives most searchers to your nonprofit website. But Google today is different than it was just a couple of years ago. That's because Google is getting better.
Google decided that too many people and organizations were "gaming" its system and it was concerned that low quality content was floating to the top of the search pages (SERP), crowding out the good stuff. So Google started tweaking its formulas for what went where.
This has caused considerable angst among websites, but it is really a good thing. You see, Google wants to reward good quality content that actually satisfies their searchers' needs. Google's standards are pretty simple when you get right down to it. It wants content that is written for the reader and that is high quality.
While this is a good thing ultimately, it does mean that we've all had to go back to the basics of good thinking and writing. And we may have to fix a lot of things that we did when the standards were more lax.
So what are the new rules? Well, you can make yourself crazy reading all the SEO material out there. And, if you're like me, you may only understand a small part of it, because it can get pretty techno.
But there are some simple guidelines that can be extracted from all the analysis. So forget the hard-to-understand stuff and start with what is easy to grasp and to do.
- Write for the reader. Forget the search engines and write to be understood by a real person. Use normal language, good grammar and spelling, and organize what you write in logical chunks that make sense. Try to imagine one particular person that you are writing for and settle down into an easy conversational style.
Don't assume your reader knows much about your topic. Explain everything completely and avoid jargon and insider terms. Use "universal design" as your template. That's when we design accessibility into everything we produce. Even someone who doesn't need the maximum accessibility won't mind having it available, while those who do need it will love it. In other words, don't worry about being too simple. Don't think of it as dumbing down but as providing the greatest possible access.
- Write frequently. The search engines love fresh meat. But so do readers. A blog is a great way to make sure that you're satisfying that craving for new. Your blog posts can link to more evergreen material deeper within your site too, boosting the rankings for those longer and fuller articles.
Writing more means that you will have plenty of inventory for your newsletters and your social media. Woody Allen (a writer by the way) said, "Eighty percent of success is showing up." Well, writing frequently is showing up.
- Use keywords, but very carefully. It's a good idea to do preliminary keyword research. You can find out what people typically search for within your field and the phrases they use to find things.
Once you know that, use those keywords or phrases once each in your meta-title, your meta description, your actual title for your article or blog post, and then sparingly in your copy. Remember keyword stuffing, where you'd put keywords everywhere, repetitively? Don't do that anymore. It's not the way you would write for a real person, and now search engines will dislike you for doing it.
- Make your headline count. Nothing is more important than a good headline. It must reflect what your article or blog post is about, and it must compete well among the mass of headlines that searchers will be scrolling through.
It should be both interesting and utilitarian. When trying to decide between crazily creative and useful, go for the latter. You're writing evergreen content, so create a headline that will inform and attract over the long haul. Save the catchiest phrases and your most edgy stuff for blog posts, tweets, and Facebook updates.
- Don't worry about writing long articles. Write concisely, but as much as you need to in order to explain your topic. Anticipate what your reader wants to know and cover it. You will likely find yourself going longer, rather than shorter. Long copy works just fine if you format it in a way that moves the reader's eye efficiently through the page.
- Format sensibly. Short paragraphs (six or eight lines) and short sentences are easier to read on a screen. Use subheads to break up your content, and make it easy to scan by using bulleted lists.
One good tip is that if you find yourself separating more than a couple of ideas with commas or semi-colons, consider turning them into a list. Dense copy is your enemy, especially now that so many people are reading your content on their smartphones.
- Embed links in your copy. But don't use too many. Be judicious and don't clutter your copy with links. Make sure that those links make sense and are relevant to your topic. Some links should go to other content on your website. The rest can go to outside sources. Don't use links instead of writing. Links should provide more in depth information or resources, not take the place of your own explanation of that particular point.
- Include a short list of related content. Don't list 20 articles. Less is more. Your reader will just get tired trying to decide which link to follow. If you must add more than three or four, break them up into topical chunks with titles.
Think of related links as a form of navigation for your reader. Help readers go deeper by finding more relevant information about the topic at hand. Make those links purposeful, not just bids for more page views.
- Include a photo on most of your web pages. Readers love photos, and the web is becoming increasingly visual. Make the photo relevant, include a caption, and fill out the ALT Tag for each one.
Use the photos that your organization has taken, not stock photos. Show the people you serve, volunteers doing their thing, events where people are having fun, endearing photos, emotional photos, and funny photos. Buy some good photo equipment and make sure that it is used. Do the search engines care? Well they do notice when people linger on your pages and that they share them with their friends. Great images help with both of those.
- Don't duplicate material. Avoid duplication within a page (for instance, don't use the first sentence of your article for the meta description). And avoid duplication within your own website. Don't pick up blocks of content from other pages and put them into this page. We all have created "boiler plate" information to save time. Just repeating that on your website can hurt you. Save the boiler plate for other uses. Make all of your website copy unique.
- Maintain your content. Even evergreen content gets old. Set up a schedule and system for updating content with fresh information, new statistics, and cutting-edge insights. Find dead links and change or delete them. Focus maintenance first on your most popular content. For content that is receiving less traffic, rethink the keywords, recheck the meta data, refresh the copy, and make sure that you're linking to that content from your more popular pages.
- Promote your content. Social authority has become a key driver of SEO. That means that you must promote your content through social media. But keep it simple. Set up a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn for starters. Where you hang out on social media really depends on the goals of your organization. Do provide social media icons on your website so that readers can share all of your content. The more sharing, the more "authority" your content will carry for the search engines.
The new rules for SEO are simple and under your control. In fact, the new rules are really the old rules. We just got sidetracked and neglected them. Stay calm, pay attention to the basics, and keep showing up.