This is a guest post by Keith Holloway. Keith is the founding partner of BetterMail.ca, an engagement campaign software company that operates a consulting division completely focused on search marketing and Wild Apricot is a (happy!) client of BetterMail.ca. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on twitter.com/TorontoSEO.
Search engine optimization, or SEO, is something we've all heard about, but what is it, really, and why should any association or non-profit manager care about it?
The fact is, if you're interested in bringing new members into your organization, or creating more value for your existing members, SEO is arguably the one marketing technique you simply can't afford to ignore. And, therein, lies the crux of the matter: SEO has to be viewed as an indispensable marketing tool, not some arcane web development process best left to the techies to worry about.
So, how does SEO work?
First, it's important to understand what SEO does. At it's most basic level, SEO is a systematic approach you can employ to ensure your organization earns the highest ranking possible for the specific search queries you're interested in out of the hundreds of millions conducted every day by people all over the Web.
Increasing the visibility of your web site through popular search engines captures prospective visitors at the peak moment of their interest... obviously not a bad thing when you're hunting for new members or donors. However, the order of the search results is compiled using each search engine's own algorithms to distinguish which ones are more relevant than any other.
Search engines look for strong signals of both trust and relevance in order to list your site for a particular phrase. Such is the value that the search engine provides to its customers. So, your site has to be trustworthy (links from trustworthy sites, no keyword spamming, no broken links, no pop-ups, etc.) and it has to be directly relevant to the search.
Breaking it down, successful search engine optimization includes three main components:
On page optimization: The keywords that generate the most qualified traffic are the ones you want to spread most widely throughout your web site. For example in the case of an association, these terms would most likely relate to the profile of your members. For example, if you run an association of real estate lawyers in Ontario, a good search term would be ‘real estate lawyers in Ontario' and your web site should be optimized accordingly.
There are many different places these keywords should go, including:
- HTML title tags - Displayed at the top of the browser bar, they summarize what the page is about. They also let visitors know they're in the right place. Each page on your site should have a unique title tag, and the keyword you want to rank for should be placed closer to the front of the title.
- H1 & H3 tags - Used as headlines and sub headlines for web pages, it's important to put keywords in these tags. Search engines pay special attention to them, so make sure you use headlines, and make sure to use your keywords in your headlines.
- Embedded URLs - When using hyperlinks in your content, it's important to make sure the anchor text is relevant to the page being linked to. Avoid telling users to click here. The word "here" will mean nothing to a search engine and your optimization efforts will be wasted. Instead, tell users to visit your Ontario real estate lawyers directory
- Content (keyword density/prominence) - It's important to place relevant keywords within the body of the written content on your page, so when prospective customers search for terms, they get what they're searching for. A good rule of thumb is to use your keyword at least twice on the page, and one of those times should be in the first paragraph.
- Meta Descriptions - These are used by many search engines, including Google, as the description of your site in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) they generate. Meta descriptions should highlight searched keywords, give your page a suitable description, specify some benefits and include a call to action. Essentially, the description should be looked at as an ad for your site. In other words, think of it as a way to convince searchers to click your ad ahead of all others on the page.
Site Structure: This internal linking of your web site includes the site map, page file names, directory structure, navigation links, links in the content, anchor text of the links, etc. Although more of a technical nature, site structure is of critical importance because it lets the search engines know what the site is about. It also provides information to the search engine about the relative importance and hierarchy of the information on the page. You should place your most important pages in your navigation so that they are linked from every page.
- Navigational links - Optimizing hypertext links and anchor text brings keywords that users are specifically searching for into prominence. It's worth putting extra effort into how you can get your keywords into the navigation to provide value for visitors and search engines because the navigational links are some of the most important links on your site. For example, why have a navigation that says "Home, about us, directory, etc" when it could say "OREL Association Home, Real Estate Law in Ontario Directory of Ontario Real Estate Lawyers, etc." Obviously you'll want to avoid being repetitive. However, being more descriptive and using your keywords is better for users and is much more useful for search engines.
External Links: These are links from other pages and sites pointing back to yours. These are arguably the most important component of SEO because external links are difficult to manipulate and, therefore, considered by most search engines as the best measure of a site's true trust and relevance.
For example, if the Globe & Mail newspaper wrote an online article about your association being a good source of information about real estate law and provided a link back to your site, it would provide the signal that your site is trustworthy (The Globe & Mail wouldn't link to just anybody) and that it is relevant to the term "real estate law".
One inherent advantage most associations and non-profits have in this regard is that they can enlist their members and supporters to provide links back to the organization web site. For example, some organizations create branded ‘badges' or icons and encourage their members to place them on their web site with a direct link back to the association member directory. For example, the icon might say "Proud member of OntRealEstateLawyers.com".
Your site must also have a comparable number or trust level of links to compete for search engine ranking on a particular phase. Link development is critical in this regard.
All in all, search engine optimization is an extremely valuable marketing device for any organization with an online presence. The key to making it work effectively is to choose your keywords carefully, and blend it in with a strategically sound content development plan that addresses the information needs of your organization's primary audience... your members and supporters.