I was recently hired to solve an SEO problem for a global nonprofit. With their permission, I wanted to explain the problem and EXACTLY how I solved it (step-by-step); so that if your nonprofit is suffering from a similar issue, you can use this blog as a walkthrough to help you fix it.
This blog is for you if:
– Google knows your nonprofit is important, but doesn’t understand what it’s about
– You’re ranking for a lot of keywords, but most of them are irrelevant
– You’re not ranking for relevant keywords for your nonprofit, even though you’ve got a well-established brand and lots of links from reputable sites
When I started working with them, Girl Rising already had an internationally recognized brand. They had worked with Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway on their award-winning documentary Girl Rising. They had partnered with Michelle Obama on the #62milliongirls campaign, and had generated over 5 billion global media impressions.
That authority translated to their website, too. They had an Ahrefs domain rating of 70, and 2,665 referring domains.
When they hired me, Google knew Girl Rising was important…but had trouble identifying what they did.
The site ranked #11 for ‘girl’.
It ranked #10 for ‘girl from it.’
It even ranked for some NSFW terms, like #22 for ‘girl on girl.’
But Google had real trouble understanding that they were a girls’ education charity. The site ranked on page 1-2 for only 10 ‘education’ terms, and 0 terms around ‘charity’ or ‘nonprofits’.
Google knew they were important; you can’t be a mom-and-pop and rank on page 2 for a head term like ‘girl’ with 1.5 million searches/month. But Google didn’t understand what they offered, so it just threw a bunch of mud at the wall and hoped some of it was relevant.
The Solution (Complex Diagnosis, Easy Fix)
This was a complex diagnosis; it took time to dig through Girl Rising’s hundreds of rankings and figure out what was going on. And it took longer, because nothing on their website screamed ‘girl from it’ or NSFW. Their website looked clean and relevant.
After the diagnosis, the fix was easy. Not simple; it involved a fair amount of technical work. But it was fast to actually implement.
My hope is that by walking you through the technical work I had to do, and the above diagnosis, you can skip to the fast and easy implementation.
Of course, if you’d like to talk to me about fixing it for you, I’m available. I have 6 years of SEO expertise and I specialize in helping nonprofits.
Step #1: In-Depth Keyword Research
The first step was to identify the keywords that Girl Rising actually wanted to rank for. I already knew their brand, so this was just a case of figuring out how their target market searched in Google.
To identify a big list of relevant keywords, I used SEMrush. I plugged head terms (ex. “Girls’ education” “education nonprofit”) into SEMRush’ Keyword Magic tool, looked at Broad Match and Related Match, and exported them all into Excel.
I supplemented this by scraping the keywords that other orgs in this space (ex. Malala Fund, She’s the First) rank for and exporting those into Excel as well.
Then I just picked out the relevant keywords that Girl Rising wanted to rank for, and mapped those to specific pages. The home page was by far the most important.
(if you’d like an in-depth guide to keyword mapping, check out this blog I wrote, about halfway down the page)
Step #2: New Information Architecture
Once I had my relevant keywords mapped, I went through and wrote new titles, meta descriptions, and H1 tags for each page to conform to those keywords.
For example, I knew I wanted the home page to rank for keywords around “girls education” and “education nonprofit,” so I changed the title tag from “Girl Rising” (old) to “Girl Rising | Girls Education Nonprofit” (new).
This simple change, done across 160 pages, helped Google understand what Girl Rising did. The beauty of this strategy is it involved very little elbow grease; I didn’t have to rewrite tons of on-page content, I just had to tweak some short titles and descriptions.
One big change was changing their default title tag from, “Girl Rising – NAME OF PAGE” to “NAME OF PAGE | Girl Rising Education Nonprofit.”
(normally you don’t want the same phrase, like “Girl Rising,” in the title tag twice; in this case it was important because the name of one of their films is “Brave Girl Rising.”)
What’s important wasn’t changing the order of the terms, or replacing a dash with a vertical line.
What’s important was changing the default branded title tag from, “Girl Rising” to “Girl Rising Education Nonprofit.” This made it impossible for Google to miss the fact that Girl Rising was a girls’ educational nonprofit.
It also helped with branding, because Girl Rising’s documentary was SO well-received that lots of people thought that was all they did. By adding “Education Nonprofit” to many title tags, we showed users that Girl Rising is more than just a documentary.
(Hey, if you can kill two birds with one stone, why not? 😉 )
Step #3: Revised URL Structure
When I started with Girl Rising, most of their URLs were doing what’s called, “hanging off the root.”
This confused Google because Google looks at URL structure and subfolders to help it understand a website. A site with only top-level URLs is like a company hierarchy where every employee is called a vice president; if you want to get a sense of how that company operates, it’s not very helpful.
Ideally you want a site structure with subfolders like this:
I changed the URL structure to leverage subfolders and create a real hierarchy.
This helped Google to better understand Girl Rising’s website and what they offered.
The beauty of this strategy is that, again, it took SEO know-how but not much elbow grease. It required developing a comprehensive new URL structure. But actually writing and implementing the URLs only took a couple of hours across the whole site.
So, what happened once we updated the information architecture of girlrising.org?
Giving Google a new information architecture was like moving the rudder on the world’s largest aircraft carrier. The ship didn’t change course overnight, but over the next few months Google learned what Girl Rising is.
Total keywords they’re ranking on page 1-2 for rose 60.29% (from 340 to 545) from July 2021 (the month before I started) to February 2022.
Total keywords around “charity” and “nonprofit” that they’re ranking for rose 305.88%, from 17 to 52.
Total keywords around “education” that they’re ranking for rose 52.6%, from 114 to 174.
The net result is that by ranking for more relevant keywords, we substantially increased qualified organic traffic to the site.
Organic traffic rose 54.96%, from 2,973 visits in July 2021 to 4,607 in January 2022.
Not bad for a few hours of work!
DIYing Your SEO, Or Outsourcing the Problem
If your site’s ranking for a lot of irrelevant keywords, then I hope this blog gives you an in-depth blueprint to follow. If you follow these steps in a strategic way, I think you’ll see substantial gains.
And if you’d like help with this issue or SEO more generally; OR if you just want someone to do it for you and get your SEO working the way it should, feel free to reach out. I have 6 years of experience doing SEO full-time, I’ve seen and solved a lot of complex problems, and I’m happy to help.
Is your Google Ad Grant not generating the results you dream about? Is it running, but you have the nagging sense that it could be doing more for you—that $10,000 per month of free ad spend should be making more of an impact for your nonprofit than it is?
Or, do you know you need to build a Google Ad Grant account but you’re not sure where to start?
If so, I wrote this guide for you. I’ve done pay-per-click advertising for over 5 years with a focus on Google Ads, and I built out and headed the pay-per-click branch of my old agency before I left to serve nonprofits. I wrote this guide as an in-depth explainer to help you optimize your Google Ad Grant so you can start putting that $10,000 per month to work for your organization.
In this guide I’ll show you the most important key points to help you optimize (or build!) your account to start flooding your site with visitors, volunteers, and new donations. I’ll cover key principles I’ve learned in over 5 years of running 20+ Google Ads accounts.
1) Set Priorities (and Conversion Actions) For Your Account
This is the most important part of building a Google Ads account: set priorities so that you’re using the $10,000/m of free ad spend to drive actions that directly help your organization.
For most nonprofits, these actions tend to be:
donate to your cause
sign up for your mailing list
sign up as a prospective volunteer
You might have other priorities, but make sure you know what you want your Google Ad spend to do for you and build around that.
Once you have 1-3 key priorities, make sure to set those as your Conversion Actions in Google Ads. If you want to drive donations, set a donation (or at least a visit to the “Donate” page of your site) as a Conversion Action. If you want to drive email sign-ups, set up email form submissions as a Conversion Action.
I recently audited one account that spent $10,000 per month driving people (not their target market) to read blogs. Instead of donations or email sign-ups, their conversion action was: blog reads. This could have been effective if the blogs tied into the organization and the problem it solved, but they didn’t.
It was a real shame: the account was beautifully built in a lot of ways, and had a low average cost-per-click and a very high click-through-rate. Whoever built it got it 90% right. But this one issue cut off its effectiveness at the knees.
Tie your Google Ads account to specific goals that matter to your nonprofit, and you’ll be amazed at what $10,000/m can do for those goals.
2) Setting Up Your Account Structure (TOFU, MOFU and BOFU)
When you’re building your Google Ads account, it’s important to remember that most people aren’t going to see your site for the first time, click through to your donate page, and donate $100/month on their very first visit. Nor are they going to volunteer to sign up with you if this is their first time hearing of you.
Remember, the average customer journey involves 7-13 touchpoints. Someone might Google the problem you’re trying to solve and read one of your blogs, and then leave, and then find another blog, and then see you on Facebook, and then go directly to your homepage, and then see a testimonial from someone you’ve helped, and then see your page about how you’re solving XYZ problem, and then finally decide to donate (or volunteer).
Conversion paths for a nonprofit, with identifying information greyed out. See those people who visited the site directly 5x, then came in from Google, then visited the site directly another 14x? That’s common.
So I’ve found that it’s better to structure your ad account with this in mind. How do you do that?
Top of Funnel (TOFU)
I like to spend a fair amount of my budget on TOFU (top-of-funnel) traffic. What is top of funnel traffic? It’s people who are looking for information about who you are or the problem you’re trying to solve. Let’s say that your charity sponsors children in Africa. “Child poverty in Africa” (a keyword with 260 searches/month) would be a top-of-funnel keyword, because the person is searching for information about a problem. They’re still in learning mode; they’re not ready to take action yet.
What kind of ad and landing page do you show someone who’s searching, “child poverty in Africa?” How about a blog that weaves together human stories and statistics to a) show users what child poverty looks like and b) provide a bigger context for the size of the problem and why it matters so much to address it?
The call to action on this page wouldn’t necessarily be to donate; it might just be, “Sign up for our email newsletter to stay in the know about this essential issue.”
Top of funnel campaigns build awareness and give people a great first introduction to your nonprofit. They’ll start to associate your brand with the problem that you solve, so when they’re ready to donate you’ve already laid the groundwork.
Middle of Funnel (MOFU)
I also like to spend a fair amount of my budget on MOFU (middle of funnel) traffic. Middle of funnel traffic is people who are still looking for information, but are starting to get interested in how to solve the problem. Going with our running example that your charity sponsors children in Africa, “how to prevent child poverty” (50 searches/month) would be a good middle of funnel keyword. The searcher might not be ready to donate yet, but they’re actively looking for information on how to solve the problem.
What kind of ad and landing page do you show someone who’s searching, “how to prevent child poverty?” How about a blog that talks about the ripple effects of prosperity caused by sponsoring a child, and tells the story of a sponsored child from your organization who returned to their home to create jobs and opportunity there?
The call to action on this page might be to visit a page where the user can see lots of children they can sponsor.
Bottom of Funnel (BOFU)
The last place I spend my Google Ad Grant is on BOFU (bottom of funnel) traffic. BOFU traffic is from people ready to take action. They might be searching, “sponsor a child in Africa,” (720 searches/month) in Google.
What do you show these people? How about a landing page with exactly what they’re looking for—a page of children in Africa to sponsor, with a way for them to pull out their credit card and do just that?
How Does This All Tie Together?
First, with TOFU and MOFU campaigns you’re building brand awareness and user engagement before you ask for the donation. That way when people are looking for a charity to donate to, they’re more likely to remember you. That’s often far more effective than just asking people for a donation on their first visit to your website.
Second, you’re meeting people where they are. If they’re in “gather information” mode, you’re giving them information. If they’re ready to take action, you give them the opportunity to.
Third, you can use retargeting to tie all three types of campaigns together if you want. You can use a TOFU campaign to build brand awareness, and retarget to only those people to show them your MOFU content. Then retarget to only people who have seen your MOFU content to show them your BOFU content. This can take a large target market and brand awareness to do well, but it’s one way of nurturing your leads all the way through the donor journey.
3) Picking Keywords
Keywords are the foundation of your Google Ads account, because they dictate which searchers you’re getting in front of and when. If you want to get in front of people searching for a child in Africa to sponsor, then, “sponsor a child in Africa” is a great keyword.
It’s important to think about the user intent behind each keyword, and choose different buckets of keywords for your TOFU/MOFU/BOFU campaigns. Someone searching for, “sponsor a child in Africa” isn’t looking for information, so that shouldn’t be a TOFU keyword. By contrast, “how does poverty impact child development” (90 searches/month) could be a great TOFU keyword because it gives you more opportunity to talk about the problem (child poverty) and how imperative the problem is to fix.
Once you’ve chosen your keywords, what match type should you choose? Google has a great rundown of the three match types (Broad, Phrase, and Exact) here, but essentially: Broad match has the loosest matches, and Exact match has the tightest.
I like Phrase match as a default. Broad match can burn your budget on keywords that are only tangentially relevant, and Exact match often doesn’t capture all of the different variations for how people search in Google.
If your keyword is, “sponsor a child in Africa,” then making the keyword Broad match means you might show for barely-related search queries like, “books on helping kids in Africa.” Exact match, on the other hand, would miss search queries like, “how much does it cost to sponsor a child in Africa?” Phrase match offers a happy medium.
Adding Negative Keywords
Once your account is live, make sure to check every week or two for irrelevant queries that are showing up for your keywords, using the Search Queries report:
The Search Query report shows all the queries your ads are showing for, so you can find the irrelevant ones and add them as negative keywords. Identifying information has been removed.
Once you find an irrelevant query that your ads are showing up for, add the irrelevant part as a negative keyword. For instance, if your ads are showing for the query, “sponsor a child in Haiti” (110 searches/month) and your organization doesn’t work in Haiti, then you can add “Haiti” as a negative keyword.
This is especially important if your nonprofit is local. For instance, I used to work with a bariatric surgeon who was in Denver and one of our keywords was, “bariatric surgery.” Even though our geography was restricted to Denver, we still saw search queries like, “bariatric surgery Texas.” Making “Texas” a negative keyword fixed that issue.
4) Writing Ads
When it comes to writing ads for your Google Ad Grant, you have two choices: Expanded Text Ads (ETAs) and Responsive Search Ads (RSAs). Here’s the breakdown:
ETAs vs RSAs
ETAs: include up to 3 headlines and 2 descriptions. You write the headings, descriptions, and the path (the visible URL, which doesn’t need to exactly match your landing page URL) and Google shows the ads just the way you write them. Pretty traditional.
RSAs: You write up to 15 headlines and up to 4 descriptions, plus the path; and Google’s AI will mix and match different headline/description combinations to find the ones that generate the best click through rate.
I used to distrust RSAs, but I’ve actually seen good results with them lately. Google’s AI is very smart, and getting smarter. And Google heavily encourages you to use them. I haven’t seen hard evidence of this, but I suspect that they discount some of your clicks on RSAs to encourage you to keep using them, because you using RSAs is good for Google (more opportunity for them to test/refine their AI).
I recommend for each ad group that you include 1 RSA and 2-3 ETAs.
Writing Headlines & Descriptions
How do you write your headlines and descriptions? Here are some tips:
1) Match your ad to the user intent and the landing page. If your user is searching, “sponsor a child in Africa,” then one of your headlines should be about sponsoring a child in Africa. Make it clear to the user that your ad matches what they’re searching for.
1a) Your ad should very clearly match your landing page. Users care a lot about ad—>landing page continuity. Why? It’s easier to see with an example from the corporate sector. Let’s say that an ad offers “Free Shipping,” so the user clicks it, but when they get to the landing page there’s no mention of free shipping. At best they’re going to be confused; at worst they’re going to suspect (and perhaps rightly so) a bait-and-switch where the ad included misleading copy to make them click.
If you mention something in your ad (for example, that someone can sponsor a child for $1/day), then make sure to include that same benefit in your landing page to minimize user confusion and build trust.
2) Use selling points from your other successful marketing campaigns. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel here. If you know from your email marketing that subject lines like, “Fund a child’s education,” generate clicks from readers who turn into donors, then use that same copy as a headline in your search ads.
Google Ad Extensions
When it comes to Google Ad Extensions (Instalink has a great list of the 17 different types here): use them. Use as many as you can without repeating yourself or saying things that aren’t true.
Why? First off, the extensions make your ads larger. More real estate means users are more likely to click on your ads versus a different nonprofit’s. That can even lower your cost-per-click by improving your ads’ Quality Score, meaning you can reach even more people with your Google Ad Grant.
One of the benefits of sitelinks, an ad extension that Google offers, is that your ads can be giant. This is all one ad.
Second, ad extensions let you showcase more benefits of your nonprofit. I’ve used sitelinks to showcase new initiatives of my clients, for instance. I’ve also used callouts to highlight some of the work a client has done (ex. Working in XYZ countries), or an achievement of theirs (ex. Endorsed by XYZ celebrity or organization).
5) Landing Pages
Picking a landing page is a lot like writing an ad. Think about the user’s intent and offer users a landing page that gives them what they’re looking for. If their keyword is, “sponsor girl child,” (40 searches/month) then show them a landing page with girls they can sponsor. If their keyword is, “benefits of sponsoring a child” (50 searches/month) then show them a landing page with copy, images, and stories explaining the impact they can make by sponsoring a child.
This landing page, from Children of the Nations, tells a powerful story to convey the benefits of sponsoring a child.
In most cases, you can pick an existing landing page on your site rather than having to create a new one from scratch.
The one thing a successful landing page needs is a clear call to action. Whether it’s asking users to sign up for your newsletter, donate, volunteer, or something else, give them a clear next step so that they’re more likely to take the actions that matter to your nonprofit.
Finally, just like with ads, I encourage you to piggyback on other successful marketing campaigns. If one email marketing campaign generates lots of donations by sending email users to a specific landing page, then leverage that same page for Google Ads. I created a lead-gen campaign for a staffing agency with an 8-10% conversion rate, just by using landing pages with copy and benefits that the client already knew worked well.
Remember, it’s not about reinventing the wheel; it’s about identifying what resonates with your target market and doubling down on what works.
Conclusion: Ongoing Optimization
Even once you’ve built (or tweaked) your account and your new ads/keywords/landing pages/etc are live, you’ll want to monitor and optimize your account on a regular basis. I go into most of my ad accounts every week (sometimes more often). I look at what’s working, look at what’s not working and how to fix it, and keep my eye on the account overall so that I keep Google Ads working its hardest for my clients.
There are a few big reasons to optimize your account on an ongoing basis:
1) Data will out
I’ve had what I thought were amazing ideas for new ads/keywords/etc, but when I plugged them into Google Ads the data didn’t bear them out. The kinds of people I wanted weren’t clicking, or the wrong kinds of people were. By keeping your eye on the account every week, you can rapidly identify what’s not working and cut it (or tweak it) so that you’re not throwing good money after bad.
At the same time, I’ve had ideas I thought were so-so that turned into amazing results. After attending SMX Advanced (an international search engine marketing conference) a couple of years ago, I tried a new idea for an assisted living account that I wasn’t quite sure about. It generated a flood of leads, and I was able to reroute the account to double down on this strategy once we saw it worked. The more shots you take, the more shots you’ll hit.
2) The World Changes
When Coronavirus hit, every PPC account I or my network was watching saw huge changes. Big spending dropped off as people tried to save money. Elective surgeries were back-burnered. Demand for virtual events skyrocketed, and demand for in-person events cratered.
The world changes, and the international situation changes (as any charity with operations in Afghanistan knows intimately). That change can present new challenges and opportunities as you try to bring awareness to your cause.
By staying active in your Google Ads account every week, you can adapt rapidly to a changing world.
3) The Charitable Landscape Changes
Other nonprofits in your space are constantly innovating, and trying out new Google Ad Grants strategies and tactics. That can have a big impact on your own account. A keyword that brought in low-cost donations last month might double in cost this month.
By keeping an eye on fluctuations like your cost per click and click through rate, and on what other nonprofits in your space are doing, you can adapt agilely and make any necessary changes.
Working With An Expert vs DIY-Ing
I’ve been doing pay-per-click for 5 years and loved (almost) every minute of it.
If this is sounding like a lot of work, then I’ll be honest…it is. It’s important, but optimizing $10,000 per month of ad spend to bring in a flood of donations, newsletter sign-ups, and volunteers is not a one-hour job.
If you want to do it yourself, then I sincerely hope this blog helps. If you still have any questions, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll answer to the best of my ability.
If you don’t have the internal resources or expertise to optimize your Google Ad Grant and just want someone to take it off your plate, I’ve worked with Google Ads for over 5 years. I’ve managed dozens of clients and they’ve been pretty thrilled. If you’d like me to take a look at your Google Ad Grant account, I’d be happy to:
do a complimentary audit & strategy session
talk to you about YOUR goals for the account and what you’d like to achieve (be it more monthly donations, more newsletter sign-ups, more one-time donors, or something else)
build out a plan to optimize the ad account to meet those goals
Feel free to email me at email@example.com, or get in touch here.
Did you know that Google offers nonprofits like yours $10,000 per month of free advertising spend to bring new people to your site, get volunteers, and bring in more donations? Lots of nonprofit marketers don’t.
That’s why I wrote this guide. In this guide I’ll show you why you should claim your Google Ad Grant and how to do it (it’s actually very simple, unlike applying to many other grants).
Importance of the Google Ad Grant
First, let’s take a step back. Your marketing team is already short on time and trying to juggle too much. Why should you add one more channel (i.e. Google Ads) to your plate?
Reason #1: $10,000/month of Free Ad Spend
First, the $10,000 per month of free ads is nothing to sneeze at. Google is the most successful advertiser on the planet because their ads work. When I was running Google Ads for corporate clients, we often saw a 10:1 or 20:1 or even 30:1 return on investment. In nonprofits the math is different, but a good Google Ad Grant account should still generate thousands of dollars per month of additional donations. That’s enough to justify the cost of building and optimizing the campaign and maybe even hire another part-time worker to take some of the load off.
Reason #2: Permission Marketing
The reason that Google Ads is so effective brings us to our second reason the Google Ad Grant is important: Google leverages permission marketing. You’re not pushing your brand in front of your audience; you’re letting them come to you.
Let’s say that your nonprofit sponsors children in Haiti. When someone Googles “sponsor children in Haiti,” you can be sure of two things. One: they’re part of your target market. Two: in that moment, they are interested in and looking for what you offer. If you can use Google Ads to get in front of them in that moment, there’s a good chance you can turn an interested user into a donor or volunteer.
Talk about striking when the iron is hot! Google Ads can help you get in front of your target market right when they’re most interested in learning more about you.
I love permission marketing because it’s highly respectful to your target market. You’re not pushing your message into their lives, you’re just giving them exactly what they want when they want it.
Reason #3: Control the User Journey
Google Ads is incredibly powerful because it lets you control the user journey from start to end.
Let’s keep running with our example and say that your nonprofit sponsors children in Haiti. With Google Ads, you can decide which keywords you want your ads to show for (ex. “Sponsor a child in Haiti,” which has 110 searches/month in Google). Then you can decide exactly what message your audience sees when they Google that keyword, via the ad headline/display URL/description. If you want users to see right away that they can sponsor a child for just $1/day, you can make sure they do.
Save the Children, maximizing the value of their Google Ad Grant.
From there, you can decide what page the user will visit once they click on your ads. Want them to see a page with all the adorable Haitian kids who need sponsors? You can make sure they do. Want them to see some text about why sponsorship is important first? You can show them a page about the importance of sponsorship. Want them to see only girls to sponsor, because your keyword is actually, “sponsor a girl in Haiti?” You can do that.
You have complete control of the user journey, including what messages your audience sees and when. That’s powerful.
How to Claim Your Google Ad Grant
Okay, you understand the value of claiming your Google Ad Grant and accessing that $10,000/m of ad spend. So how do you do it?
The instructions are actually pretty simple. Unlike most traditional grants, the Google Ad Grant doesn’t require a long proposal, a list of program goals and objectives, or even an abstract or summary. You don’t need a specialist to apply or get accepted. In fact, the whole application will probably take you under an hour.
Here are the steps:
1) Sign up for a Google For Nonprofits account (instructions here, straight from Google)
2) Register your nonprofit with TechSoup or a local TechSoup partner.
3) Apply for the ad grant (instructions from Google here)
Note on this one: some nonprofits get tripped up because they have commercial activity (ex. A shop where users can buy T-shirts to support the cause). There’s nothing wrong with this, but you’ll need to mention on your site how proceeds from the shop support your mission.
And that’s it!
Conclusion: Building Your Ad Campaign
Of course getting approved for your Google Ad Grant is only the first step. Once you’re approved comes the hard part: actually building out a high-functioning Google Ads campaign with keywords, ads, targeting, landing pages and more to flood your nonprofit’s site with engaged users, new volunteers, and new donors.
If you don’t have the internal resources or expertise to build out a whole new channel and just want someone to take it off your plate, I’ve worked with Google Ads for over 5 years. I’ve managed dozens of clients and they’ve been pretty thrilled. I can:
talk to you about YOUR goals for the account and what you’d like to achieve (be it more monthly donations, more newsletter sign-ups, more one-time donors, or something else)
help you claim your Google Ad Grant
build out an ad account (that you’ll approve) to meet your goals, including: writing ads, finding keywords, identifying landing pages, building ad extensions, dialing in targeting (both geographic and demographic) so you’re only reaching the people you want to reach, and more.
My rates start at $1,200 for a full Google Ad Grant account build-out. Once the account’s rolling and bringing in a flood of new donors every month, you’ll never look back.
If you want to bring in more online donations for your nonprofit, developing and implementing an SEO content strategy can help. In this blog, I’ll show you exactly how to do that.
Why Is SEO Important?
There are 3.5 billion searches on Google per day. Even more important than the number of searches, though, is the mindset of those searchers. By using an SEO content strategy to rank for the right keywords, you can get in front of your target market right when they’re looking for a nonprofit like yours. If your nonprofit sponsors children in Africa, for instance, then ranking for the keyword, “sponsor a child in Africa” can get you in front of thousands of users per month who want exactly what your nonprofit offers.
Why Is An SEO Content Strategy Important?
Amazing content is the cornerstone of SEO. When Neil Patel (recognized as a top 100 entrepreneur under the age of 35 by the United Nations, and one of the top voices in the SEO community) surveyed 1,141 marketers on Twitter about the importance of content for SEO, 89.5% said that content is king.
Content is the engine that drives SEO growth, and without an SEO-driven content strategy your odds of ranking for important keywords goes down dramatically.
So here’s what we’ll be covering in this article:
– Why is an SEO content strategy important?
How to optimize a page
Top of funnel content
Middle of funnel content
Bottom of funnel content
Conclusion: the human touch
The first step to developing an SEO content strategy is keyword research. You want to build a big list of the kinds of search queries that your target market is entering into Google.
This list is critical because it should inform your content strategy. Let’s continue with our example from above, and imagine that you work for a nonprofit that sponsors children in Africa. You might notice from your keyword research that 3,600 people are searching for, “Poor kids in Africa” every month. That tells you that writing a blog about child poverty in Africa could reach a big audience.
How do you do keyword research?
You’ll need to use a tool, and there are a few great ones on the market. I’ll show you my process using SEMRush, but you can easily adapt this for other tools.
1) Competitive Research
Identify 5 of your competitors and plug them into your keyword research tool (if you’re using SEMrush, go to Competitive Research–>Organic Research). It helps if these are large competitors who rank highly for a lot of keywords.
When you enter these competitors into SEMrush, you’ll get a list of all the keywords they rank for. You’re not trying to copy what your competitors are doing with this step; you’re just getting lots of data about the kinds of things your target market is searching for.
2) Casting a Wide Net
Once you have your competitive research, go through the list of keywords your competitors are ranking for. Look for keywords that are short, have high search volume, and tie in to what your nonprofit offers. For instance, “sponsor a child” (4,400 searches/month) could be good. Grab 5-10 of these head terms.
Next, plug in each head term and your tool will give you a big list of keywords related to that head term (if you’re using SEMrush, you’ll enter your head term into the Keyword Research–>Keyword Magic Tool). This lets you cast a wide net. For example, plugging in “sponsor a child” will give you thousands of related keyword ideas ranging from, “become a child sponsor” (40 searches/month) to “hungry children” (1300 searches/month).
Once you export your related keywords, and add it to your list of competitors’ keywords, you’ll have a big list of keywords you can look through for content ideas.
3) Keyword Mapping
Once you have your list of keywords, start looking through it for ideas for content you want to create. As an example, you could write a blog post about poverty among children in Africa, targeting the keyword, “poor kids in Africa.” You could also create service pages for each country you serve, listing children available to be sponsored in that country; that would let you capture traffic from keywords like, “sponsor a child in South Africa,” “sponsor a child in Kenya,” “sponsor a child in Uganda,” and more.
Map each of your chosen keywords to a page (which can be an existing page on your site, a new page, or even a video or podcast). I like to use a format like this, using Excel:
How to Optimize A Page
Just because you map a keyword to a piece of content in Excel, doesn’t mean that Google will rank that content for the mapped keyword. You have to actually use the keyword on the page you’re writing (or in the video or podcast description, if we’re talking about multimedia content).
Here’s how to optimize a written page, whether it’s a blog post or services page, for a keyword:
Title tag: Use your keyword once in your title tag.
Meta description: Use your keyword at least once in your meta description.
URL: Use your keyword once in your URL.
H1 tag: Use your keyword once in your H1 tag.
Body of the page: Use your keyword in the 1st 200 words, and occasionally throughout the page. I aim for a keyword density of 0.5-1% on average, but one reason I love SEMrush is that they’ll give me a target keyword density for each search query based on what Google is already ranking for that query.
(The formula to calculate keyword density is below, courtesy of SEO software blog Alexa Internet).
Length and comprehensiveness: Look at what’s already ranking on page 1 of Google for your target keyword, to get a sense for what Google thinks users want. Also, put yourself in the mind of a user: if you were searching this keyword, what kind of content would you want? An in-depth guide with lots of data? A personal story putting a human face to the problem? Write the kind of content you think would best serve your audience.
Use these tips to optimize your written pages for your target keywords. Bear in mind, optimizing a Youtube video or a podcast is a little different; you can find excellent optimization instructions for YouTube here and podcasts here.
Semantically related keywords: Google uses semantically related keywords to check how relevant and how in-depth / authoritative your page is. For instance, a page about sponsoring a child in Africa might not be seen as complete without using terms like “orphan” “schooling” etc. This is the part of SEO that I personally find hardest to do manually, and where it’s most valuable to have a tool to recommend semantically related keywords that Google puts a lot of faith in.
Next, we’ll go into the types of content you can create to help your nonprofit get in front of the right audience in Google.
Top of Funnel Content
Top of funnel (TOFU) content is content that doesn’t try to sell your target market on the services you offer. Instead it educates, answers questions, and helps your audience to understand the problem you’re working to solve.
The benefit of TOFU content is that it can light a fire under your target market by bringing the problem you’re working on home to them. It can also boost brand awareness, so that your nonprofit is top-of-mind when the person wants to donate. The average digital journey from awareness to payment takes 7-13 touchpoints, so getting in front of your target market early and often (in a way that answers their questions, rather than annoys them) is critical to generating more online donations.
For example, 3,600 people per month search for the keyword, “poor kids in Africa.” An SEO-optimized blog post that uses statistics and human stories to showcase the problem of child poverty in Africa might be exactly what those searchers need (and want!) to see. And if the content resonates with them, they’ll remember your nonprofit when they’re further along the donor’s journey and want to contribute financially.
It’s important to note that TOFU content can be multimedia. What about a YouTube video that tells the stories of three starving children in Africa, and then uses statistics to put those stories in a wider context? Or how about a podcast episode where you interview an economist in Africa about child poverty?
Middle of Funnel Content
Middle of funnel (MOFU) content should talk about how you’re solving a specific problem. You’re reaching people who understand that it’s a problem, are interested in helping to solve it, and want to learn more.
The benefit of MOFU content is that you’re meeting your audience where they are and gently nudging them along the donor’s journey. You’re offering additional touchpoints in a way that respects them and gives them what they’re looking for. You’re also talking about how your organization solves XYZ problem, which is hugely valuable to a target market that wants to help solve XYZ problem; you’re planting the seeds that donating with your organization can help them make a difference.
For example, you could write a blog post around how to become a child sponsor, that lays out the obstacles and benefits of sponsoring a child.
Bottom of Funnel Content
Bottom of funnel (BOFU) content is content that engages the user in solving XYZ problem. You’re targeting people who know that XYZ is a problem, who want to help, and who have passed from the “learning” phase to the “let’s take action” phase of the donor’s journey.
The benefit of BOFU content is that you can get in front of people right when they’re most interested in solving the problem your nonprofit was created to solve. Talk about striking when the iron is hot! This type of content can be a powerful way to generate donations, especially among users who already know and trust your brand because they’ve consumed your TOFU and MOFU content.
For example, if your organization sponsors children in Africa, you could create a services page around, “sponsor a child in Africa,” that has the profiles of children in Africa that the user can sponsor. You’re getting in front of users right when they most want to sponsor a child, so this type of page (properly SEO optimized) can generate a lot of sponsorships.
Conclusion: the Human Touch
Whether you’re creating TOFU, MOFU, or BOFU content, the most important thing to bear in mind is: write for humans. You’re not trying to write for Google. Think about your target audience at each step of the donor’s journey, and give them the content (which can be written, audio, visual, or a combination) that they’re looking for.
That’s how you build an SEO content strategy that doesn’t just rank in Google, but actually converts interested users into online donors.
If your team doesn’t have time to develop a strategy, write content, SEO-optimize pages, publish them, and update the strategy regularly, I can help. I’m a 6-year SEO veteran, and I’ve delighted clients like The Bariatric & Metabolic Center of Colorado, Assured Assisted Living, and Girl Rising.I’m also an award-winning writer and I’ve written for outlets like National Review, The Hill, and Free Together. If you’d like to work together, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch here.
A good SEO program can transform your nonprofit. Google can turn into an endless pipeline sending readers, volunteers, and (most importantly) donors to your site. A strong SEO program can double or triple your online donations, given time; and give you a lot more room in your budget to pursue new ideas and new initiatives.
But there’s always the danger of overpaying for SEO. Especially when SEO pricing varies so dramatically, and anyone can call themselves an SEO ‘expert’. And as the marketing director for a nonprofit, you don’t have a dollar to waste.
How do you know how much you should be paying for SEO?
My Pricing Philosophy: How Much Should SEO Cost?
I’ll dig deep into the numbers of how much SEO costs in a little bit, but first I wanted to offer a few rules of thumb as someone who a) has been doing SEO full-time for over 6 years and b) works almost exclusively with nonprofits.
1) SEO Shouldn’t Cost An Arm and A Leg
I worked at an SEO agency for 6 years, and the price for my labor went from $100/hr (when I was first starting out as a junior analyst) to $350/hour (when I left as SEO Manager).
When I set up as a freelancer, I could have charged $150-$200 per hour. I have the experience, and I know I can deliver value at that price point. But I don’t want to just deliver value. I want to deliver so much value, at such an amazing price, that it becomes a no-brainer to work with me. I want your C-level team to not just be happy you hired me, but to be absolutely thrilled because donations are flooding in and the cost was easy to afford.
I charge $60/hour rather than $200/hour because it’s not just about making money; it’s about having a real impact on the world. I know that by lowering my rates, I can serve smaller nonprofits with tighter budgets, and do more of the work that God is calling me to do.
Agencies vs Freelancers
More broadly, I think this is a key area where it may be better to hire a freelancer than an agency. I like and respect the agency model, but it does have a lot of overhead. Agencies need to pay for HR personnel, salespeople, operations managers, and everyone else who keeps the business running but doesn’t actually do SEO. All of that overhead gets filtered down into their costs, which is why marketing and SEO agencies often charge $100-$300 per hour.
There’s nothing wrong with that when they’re serving the Comcasts and Amazons of the world. But a good freelancer with real credentials can often provide similar value for a fraction of the agency price.
2) SEO Is An Investment, But it Shouldn’t Be A Strain
SEO is an investment, no doubt about that. It’s an investment that can pay off dramatically in the long run, and flood your nonprofit with online donations; but it is an investment. It requires time and money to do right.
But you shouldn’t have to scrape every last dime in your marketing budget together to pay for an SEO provider. If you’re thinking, “maybe we can afford this if we cut our graphic designer, scale back on social media, and…” then that SEO provider probably isn’t for you.
SEO can work wonders, but it’s not guaranteed and it takes time to work well. If you can afford to invest in multiple marketing channels already, SEO might be for you. But if you’re thinking of sinking all your hopes (and dollars) into SEO, don’t.
3) SEO Should Deliver An ROI In 6 Months
The price of SEO should be low enough that it’s a wise investment. SEO is a marketing channel where the gains compound. At month 1, you might not be seeing a return. By month 3, you should be seeing some movement. By month 6, you might be seeing a 100% return. By month 12, you might see a 150% return. And so on.
Your SEO program should be affordable enough that it’s generating a real return within 6 months. SEO needs to pay for itself, and in the nonprofit sector it needs to pay for itself quickly.
That said, SEO can be an incredible channel that can pay for itself many times over, when it’s done right. At my old SEO agency, one of my clients generated a 100:1 return on investment; he paid us $1, and we generated $100 back. His surgical practice had more patients than they knew what to do with by the end, so many that he was considering hiring another surgeon to help with the load.
SEO can flood your nonprofit with qualified visitors who engage, volunteer, and donate. It can open the floodgates, and the importance of a great SEO program cannot be overstated.
But never lose sight of the fact that it needs to justify itself. If you’re looking at hiring an SEO agency for $400/hour, then they need to provide a roadmap to explain how they’re going to make at least $401/hour for your nonprofit within 6-12 months.
Next up, we’ll dive deep into the SEO pricing models.
SEO Pricing Models
There are 4 primary SEO pricing models:
Price per hour
Price per month
Price per project
Price Per Hour
$150/hr for SEO work of any type
Price Per Month
$1500/month for XYZ deliverables
Price Per Project
$500 for a technical audit
$0.50/word for copywriting, $250 per link
Price Per Hour
This is the most intuitive pricing structure, because it very clearly ties inputs to outputs. If your SEO provider charges $100/hour and spends 10 hours on (for instance) writing content, you’ll pay $1,000.
Pros: This structure is simple and transparent. You know exactly what you’re paying for.
Cons: You’re paying for inputs, not outputs; which means you need to make sure you’re hiring an ethical SEO provider who’s using your time well. Setting up Google Analytics shouldn’t take 10 hours.
Pros: The costs are predictable and transparent, which helps with budget forecasting.
Cons: Again you’re often paying for inputs not outputs.
Price Per Project
Some SEOs charge per project; for instance, $500 for a technical audit or $2,000 to help you recover from an algorithmic penalty.
This pricing is more common with technical SEOs, because they clean up the biggest issues on your site and then they’re done.
Pros: You know exactly what you’re paying for. A one-off project also lets you get a feel for the SEO you’ve hired and how you work together, without having to sign a long-term contract. I offer a 2-week SEO content marketing project so I can prove myself to new clients right away, and then once I’ve proved myself we often discuss a month-to-month plan.
Cons: SEO isn’t one-off, and you’ll generally see the best return on investment from an ongoing SEO campaign rather than one-off projects.
If your site crawl has 168,562 warnings, a one-off technical audit might be helpful.
This is essentially price per project, but for multiple/ongoing projects. For example, an SEO could charge $0.50 per word for copywriting, $250 per link built, and $1,500 for a content strategy.
Pros: You know exactly what you’re paying for, and this structure doesn’t require that the SEO work be one-off.
Cons: This can lead to fluctuating budgets; your SEO may cost $2,500 one month and $3,350 next month. That can make budget forecasting difficult. Some SEO providers may cut corners here, too; if you’re paying $250 per link, some links may be less valuable than others as the SEO tries to deliver whatever will get him or her paid.
So, How Much Does SEO Cost?
Ahrefs, an SEO software provider, put together a fantastic blog with data on exactly how much SEO costs, broken down by factors like agencies vs freelancers vs consultancies, time the SEO has been in business, and lots more.
If you want a deep dive into the data, here’s the blog. I’ll leave you with what I see as the key takeaways, so you can get an accurate sense of how much SEO should cost.
– SEO providers who have been in business 2+ years (don’t ever hire an SEO with less than 2 years of experience) charge an average of $2,563.20 per month for their services.
– If you want to pay per hour, SEOs with 2+ years of experience charge over $100/hour on average. SEOs with 2-4 years of experience charge $110.69 per hour on average; that jumps to $118.85 for SEOs with 5–10 years of experience (I fall into this category, though I charge substantially less), and $142.50 for SEOs with 10+ years of experience.
– If you want to pay per project, SEOs with 2+ years of experience charge an average of $4,629.59 per project. Take this with a grain of salt, though; because a project can be anything from fixing 404 errors to overseeing a complex site redesign with dozens of moving parts.
In Conclusion: Hiring the Right SEO Provider
What’s more important than how much your SEO provider costs? How much value they provide. A college intern who charges $15/hour is likely to waste your money. On the other hand, if Neil Patel (one of the top SEOs in the world) offered to do SEO for $150 per hour that would be a steal.
A great SEO provider can flood your website with engaged users who read, volunteer, and donate to your cause. SEO can be the best investment your nonprofit has ever made, and can thrill your c-suite by generating so much money that your team can explore new initiatives and expand operations.
Imagine an SEO provider who brought in so many donations that your marketing budget was no longer tighter than an 80-year-old drum, and you could start to invest in “nice-to-haves” like a website redesign and Facebook ads.
I’ve been doing SEO full-time for 6 years, and I’ve racked up a lot of wins for clients. I’ve helped small organizations to generate so much money they planned to hire more senior staff to handle all their new leads. I’m a true believer and I care about helping you succeed.
If you want to learn SEO so you can help your nonprofit to reach more people and bring in more donations, you’re in the right place.
What this blog is NOT
– A soup-to-nuts guide of the different components of SEO. If you’re looking for such a guide, smarter people than me have written them (and I’ll link to a couple of those guides in this blog for you).
What is blog IS
– A detailed explanation of how to learn SEO, from someone who’s spent 6 years in the industry. I’ve gone from “What is SEO?” to “This SEO content strategy helped a client increase their organic traffic by 1,000% in 9 months”…and you can too.
But first, let’s take a step back. What IS SEO?
What Is SEO?
SEO stands for search engine optimization, and it’s the art and science of helping organizations to rank higher on Google (and other search engines). Let’s say that your nonprofit focuses on environmental issues. SEO can help you rank for keywords like “environmental nonprofit,” getting you in front of your target market right when they’re looking for an organization like yours.
SEO is broadly composed of three pieces:
– On-page SEO (this includes things like content, keywords, and the user experience)
– Off-page SEO (links to your website)
– Technical SEO (essentially: how well can Google crawl your website)
Each of these is important; and when all three work together, your odds of ranking in Google for the keywords you want to target goes up dramatically.
Why Is SEO Important?
SEO is essential for nonprofits because it can help you get in front of your target market, right when they’re most interested in hearing from you. If you’re an environmentally-focused nonprofit and you can rank for the keyword, “environmental nonprofit,” then you can show up in front of users who are actively looking for a nonprofit like yours to engage with.
SEO gives you the ability to leverage a huge marketing channel:
Organic traffic tends to be very high-quality, because you’re targeting people who want to engage with you. Maybe that’s why in a 2018 survey, 49% of marketers said SEO has the highest ROI of any marketing channel.
Now that you know SEO matters, how do you learn how to do SEO yourself?
Step 1 to Learning SEO: Educate Yourself With Beginner Guides
Lots of very smart men and women have written soup-to-nuts guides answering questions like What is SEO and Why are keywords important and What is link-building? Reading guides like these is how I got my start learning SEO.
You don’t have to read all of them, though it might be a good idea. I personally learn by doing, so I would pick 2-3 good guides (I would recommend Moz, Bruce Clay, and Google’s beginner guide) and then start testing. Which leads me to….
Step 2 to Learning SEO: Test
I’m a big believer in learning SEO by doing SEO. Concepts like keyword research and title tags didn’t really connect for me until I started testing them.
Pick a couple of SEO strategies that jump out at you, and start testing them on your nonprofit’s website. Maybe do some initial keyword research to inform an on-page SEO strategy, and then start writing blogs around specific high-volume keywords. Or maybe you’re more technically-minded, and you want to clean up the duplicate title tags on your site.
Whatever you test, keep a record of it: what change you made (ex. publishing a new blog) and the date you made them. I like Google Sheets or Google Analytics annotations for this. That way, you can easily track what’s working and what’s not working. And, thinking about your SEO optimizations in a data-driven way will help you keep the learner’s mindset that is essential to learning SEO.
This is how you practice SEO online. And what you practice, you get good at.
Step 3 to Learning SEO: Take Courses
Blogs and free guides can only take you so far. If you’re serious about learning SEO, I recommend a premium course taught by some of the world’s foremost experts in SEO.
Benefits of a course:
– detailed roadmap to SEO success
– higher-quality than blogs, because they’re often paid
– often includes support options to ask the course designer questions, and/or an online community with other course members.
When I need to learn something in-depth, I take a course. Here are some great SEO courses:
SEO is part art and part science, and no-one knows everything. It’s important as you test SEO strategies and take courses to have a community that you can ask questions of and bounce ideas off of.
Is your latest blog not ranking as well as you’d like? Another SEO may have some advice. Are you struggling to set up goals in Google Analytics? An SEO with a more technical skillset might be willing to audit your setup and figure out where you went wrong.
How to Find SEO Groups:
Meetup (just search “SEO”)
– In-person communities are often smaller than virtual communities, so you’ll get a narrower range of members. On the other hand, you can often build relationships with peers more easily in-person than online.
Facebook (just search “SEO” in Groups)
– These groups can be hit or miss; I recommend looking at the group’s posts before you join to make sure a) posts are informative or pose thoughtful questions and b) answers are in-depth and useful.
Communities in paid courses
– Many paid courses will have a community of students. For instance, Brian Dean’s Facebook mastermind for SEO That Works students has a lot of talented experts eager to talk SEO.
How to Get the Most Out Of SEO Groups
Getting the most out of any group (in-person or online) seems to come down to two things: engage, and add value. I’ve found four ways to do this:
1) Ask smart questions (Engage).
Avoid questions you can just Google the answer to. Show you’ve done your homework, and the group members will be a lot more likely to respect you.
2) Post what’s worked for you (Value-Add)
If you cleaned up duplicate title tags and saw a 15% rise in organic traffic, post about it! Maybe you’ll inspire someone else to do the same and they’ll see a benefit.
3) Post what didn’t work (Value-Add, Engage)
If you posted an SEO-optimized blog and it’s not ranking, post that! Your struggle may help someone else. Additionally, sometimes you’ve done everything right except for 1 small (but key) thing, and the other experts in the group can point that out to you.
4) As you get more advanced, answer questions (Value-Add, Engage)
When someone asks a question and you have insight that would benefit them, share that insight! We’re all learning, and we’re all on the same team.
Step 5 to Learning SEO: Keep Up to Date On Algorithm Updates
Google constantly tweaks their algorithm; Search Engine Land reports that they change their algorithm 500-600 times per year. Most of those changes are very small, but sometimes they roll out a substantial algorithm change and it pays to be ready.
Google algorithm updates can upend the search landscape. When Medic rolled out in 2018, one of my medical clients lost half their organic traffic overnight (don’t worry, we got it all back).
When an update rolls out, look for commentary on it–especially if it coincides with a rankings/organic traffic drop for your site. When Medic rolled out, I found a Marie Haynes blog that explained why one of my clients had seen a rankings drop, and I was able to help them reclaim their rankings in a few months as a result.
Step 6 to Learning SEO: Find a Part-Time Gig
There’s nothing better than learning from someone more experienced than you. When I wanted to get good at content writing, I joined an agency as a freelance writer. I had an excellent editor who mentored me: I gave her free articles she could pitch to National Review or The American Conservative or Washington Post, and she gave me amazing feedback on them.
Lots of SEOs started as interns or junior analysts at agencies and learned there (I learned a ton during my 6-year agency stint). Learning from someone who’s already an expert in the industry can be powerful.
But you don’t have to quit your job at a nonprofit and find an SEO internship. What if you emailed your friend who does SEO for your local church or a nonprofit you respect, and offered to volunteer your time? In exchange for 5 hours/week of you doing entry-level SEO work for them, ask them to train you on what you’re doing and why it matters.
Beyond the Six Steps: Practice and Patience
Learning SEO is like learning any other technical, complex skillset. It takes time. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t rank on page 1 of Google after 6 months of DIY SEO. If you want to get good at this, it’s going to take a consistent effort and a consistent investment of time over months and years.
And if you decide that you don’t want to learn SEO after all, but you still want your nonprofit to rank higher in Google…I’ve already done everything I wrote about above. I paid thousands of dollars for advanced SEO courses, I’m active in SEO groups, and I spent 6 years doing this full-time while learning from a fantastic mentor.
If you’d like to use SEO to grow your brand’s reach and bring in more donations, feel free to reach out and let’s talk.