SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, is the practice of gaining natural, or “organic”, visibility on search engines, like Google, Bing and Yahoo. It has become a primary strategy for many businesses of all types, from large e-commerce retailers to smaller local service providers.
As Google now controls a reported 40% of all Internet traffic, SEO has become a booming business, driving customers and brand visibility to virtually every sector of commerce.
However, at its essence SEO is about profit motive. No surprise there, as SEO is slated to become a 80 Billion dollar industry by 2020. So the question is, can it be a viable strategy for non-profits? Can SEO be a worthwhile investment for charities and other NPOs?
We’ve set out to investigate this. You can see our findings below…
The Lay of the Land – Current Organic Performance of NPOs
Before diving into the “nitty gritty” tactical and strategic perspective of SEO for non-profits, let’s take a look at some big players and how they are current approaching and/or performing with their organic traffic. This should shed light on what is feasible when laying down an action plan…
Search Traffic and Revenue of Top NPOs
Looking at the top 5 most followed charities as listed by Charity Navigator:
Doctors Without Borders (http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/)
Non-Government Contributions: $331,492,050
Organic Traffic Estimate (SimilarWeb): 305,643
Paid Traffic Estimate (SimilarWeb): 35,705
Organic to Paid Traffic Ratio: 89.54% / 10.46%
Organic Keywords (Ahrefs): 59,335
American Red Cross (http://www.redcross.org/)
Non-Government Contributions: $471,838,357
Organic Traffic Estimate (SimilarWeb): 2,612,879
Paid Traffic Estimate (SimilarWeb): 314,389
Organic to Paid Traffic Ratio: 89.26% / 10.74%
Organic Keywords (Ahrefs): 415,017
The Nature Conservancy (http://www.nature.org/)
Non-Government Contributions: $517,549,683
Organic Traffic Estimate (SimilarWeb): 659,509
Paid Traffic Estimate (SimilarWeb): 27,551
Organic to Paid Traffic Ratio: 95.99% / 4.01%
Organic Keywords (Ahrefs): 288,212
World Wildlife Fund (http://www.worldwildlife.org/)
Non-Government Contributions: $131,500,581
Organic Traffic Estimate (SimilarWeb): 1,005,781
Paid Traffic Estimate (SimilarWeb): 43,000
Organic to Paid Traffic Ratio: 95.90% / 4.10%
Organic Keywords (Ahrefs): 378,849
Natural Resources Defense Council (http://www.nrdc.org/)
Non-Government Contributions: $104,876,572
Organic Traffic Estimate (SimilarWeb): 798,609
Paid Traffic Estimate (SimilarWeb): 19,814
Organic to Paid Traffic Ratio: 92.70% / 2.30%
Organic Keywords (Ahrefs): 286,401
Well, that’s some serious traffic and some serious money.
Let’s look at some key findings here. Of the Top 10 most followed charities (5 of which are listed above), on average:
- 47% of total traffic comes from Search (800,000 visits per month, on average).
- 91% of search traffic is organic, 9% is paid.
- 200,000+ Keywords tracked in Ahrefs.
Seems pretty apparent that organic traffic is a very significant traffic channel for major NPOs. While it’s not possible to deduce how much revenue is associated with that specific channel, we’d have to imagine it would be significant as well.
So far that’s a big check in the viable column…
Why SEO Makes Sense for Charities
The previous data shows that the major NPOs are in fact performing extremely well via organic search. Let’s take a step back for a minute and discuss why SEO makes sense for large organizational charities. Knowing the “Why” will help inform the “How” of an ongoing strategic plan.
For larger organizations that have been around for years, they have likely built up a strong domain authority. Profit-driven organizations leverage this authority to rank for commercial terms, and NPOs should leverage it to support their search strategy as well.
For smaller organizations or those that are just starting out, you won’t have this advantage baked-in, but you are in a better position to attract links/domain authority than the average commercial company, since you have an audience that is sympathetic to your cause.
One of the challenges for promoting e-commerce and other profit-driven endeavors is that your audience (whether it’s users, colleagues, outreach prospects or the general public) is not sympathetic to your cause. They know that it’s a profit-driven enterprise and won’t give you the benefit of the doubt.
This creates the challenge of having to create non-profit driven value assets in order to drive an SEO strategy (i.e. informational resources, how-to guides, tools and other “linkable assets”). Veteran SEOs know this problem all too well.
In fact, a common tactic for companies to attract links is to sponsor charity events, run fundraisers, or reach out to local non-profit organizations. They have to imitate charities! NPOs have this advantage already baked-in, so it only makes sense to leverage it.
Chances are a charity will be pretty specific, it needs to be in order to best use its assets for good. The Red Cross is all about disaster relief and recovery, St. Jude is about childhood cancer, etc.
In SEO terminology this is called “semantic” (or topical) relevance. It means that you should be able to easily rank for keywords/topics within your purview.
LiveStrong.com, owned by the Lance Armstrong’s LiveStrong foundation, has used this advantage to the extreme by ranking all over the place for all types of health and fitness terms (garnering an estimate 70+ Million visits per month!).
So now that we know the intrinsic advantages that NPOs have for an SEO strategy, how can we implement one?
Getting Tactical – Action Plans for a Non-Profit SEO Strategy
As we’ve seen, SEO is certainly a viable strategy for non-profits. But what about the specifics?
In my opinion, there are 2 general strategies that would be most effective for leveraging SEO, they are:
- “Money” keywords + Online Donations
- Content Strategy + Retargeting/Social Media Nurturing
Let’s dive into these below…
“Money” Keywords and Online Donations
This section will bear the most resemblance to standard (profit-based) SEO. Finding popular search keywords that have a clear “buyer” (or in this case, donor) intent, and optimizing for those keywords. Just a quick bit of keyword research shows that there are many keywords worth targeting:
- donate car to charity – 2,400 Searches per month – $33 per click
- donate money to charity – 260 Search per month – $11 per click
- pet charity – 390 searches per month – $2 per click
- cancer donations – 880 search per month – $17 per click
These types of keywords show a pretty clear “buyer intent” by the user for an almost immediate donation to a non-profit.
The cost-per-click (CPC) is indicative of this, as it shows advertisers are willing to pay significant money for that traffic (i.e. upwards to $33 for a single click of “donate car to charity”).
For this type of SEO to be effective, organizations must research exactly what keywords are both most relevant and most popular and develop highly converting (and SEO optimized) landing pages to target those keywords. An SEO agency is generally best equipped to perform these tasks.
Content Strategy + Retargeting/Social Media Nurturing
The next type of strategy is still related to performing keyword research and publishing relevant content, but the keywords are not as directly related to donations (but still relevant to the non-profit niche or sector).
The goals and tactics around this type of content strategy will be different, but still very effective. Depending on the niche, this could arguably be the most effective way as increasing the brand awareness and reach of your organization. This is how the top NPOs we listed above are ranking for an average of over 200,000 keywords per month.
What do we mean by relevant keywords? Performing a quick bit of keyword research we’ve found these general questions:
- Why do you give to charity?
- Are charitable contributions tax deductible?
- How much money do you have to donate to get a tax deduction?
- What do charities need most?
- How much money has been donated to cancer research?
- What has cancer research achieved
That was only in about 5 minutes of research, but you can see the potential for reaching a relevant audience.
Going back to our previously cited top NPOs, we can see them ranking for all types of informational queries:
NRDC (an organization which lobbies for environmental issues):
- what is global warming
- water pollution
- air pollution
- food waste
ASPCA (animal rights):
- kennel cough
- puppy mills
- cat behavior
- dog separation anxiety
Red Cross (emergency response):
- basic first aid kit
- how to keep pipes from freezing
- hurricane safety
- typhoon vs. hurricane
You get the idea.
These are all informational queries (while the previous section might be considered “transactional” or “commercial” queries).
This means that a user won’t be ready to pull out their credit card and donate right away, but that is OK. Why? Because it provides tons of other opportunities, including:
- Social Media/Newsletter Signups – Getting your brand/content in front of an audience allows you to capture their email or social media profiles. This is *perfect* for growing your brand and allows you to nurture them for potential future donations.
- Retargeting Ad Programs – “Re-targeting ads” means showing advertisements to people that have already visited your site. Not only are these types of ads generally less expensive (because the impressions are fewer than general ad campaigns), but they are hyper-targeted and proven to be very effective. They can be leveraged to increase social media or email campaigns, or for donations.
- Relevant Content + Link Opportunities – Good content attracts links passively (especially if it’s ranking in search engines). This helps create a “snow ball” effect of increased content -> increased domain authority -> increased traffic.
Simply put, online publishing allows organizations to reach an audience. Virtually every niche or sector has a target audience that performs some types of online searches. Publishing online, with proper SEO tactics in place, provides opportunity to expand organization reach and influence.
NPOs are in an even better position then standard businesses because of their favorable/sympathetic standing with an audience, topical relevance and (often) pre-existing authority of their websites.
Aligning that reach with the proper conversion actions and effective audience nurturing techniques provides fertile ground for organizational growth, both in the for-profit and non-profit industries.
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