SEO for Not Much Dough

In the fall of 2007, I had the opportunity to talk to Layla Masri, president of Bean Creative, about search engine optimization (SEO).

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a complex discipline. Entire companies specialize in ensuring that clients’ sites appear in the top five rankings across a host of search engines and portals when any of the terms the client has identified as key are entered. And some organizations pay thousands of dollars a month to take advantage of that highly specialized and focused expertise. But if that’s out of your organization’s price range, does that mean you’re forever consigned to page 25 of the Google listings for the industry you serve?

“Absolutely not,” stated Layla Masri, president of Bean Creative, an Alexandria-based web design and programming firm that focuses on the not-for-profit market.

“If an organization can’t invest the kind of money necessary for a full SEO engagement, they can still accomplish a lot just by investing some staff time.” Masri continued, “Five years ago, an association could be assured a good ranking in most of the search engines just by including the right title tags on their web pages. But companies like Google, Yahoo!, and MSN have gotten much more sophisticated about their rankings, so your organization needs to be more sophisticated in its approach as well.”

What are the top five inexpensive steps not-for-profits can take to improve their search engine rankings?

  1. Update your content frequently. One of the easiest ways to do this is to add a blog to your site. But, as Masri noted, “this requires a significant investment of staff time. The technology for creating a blog is easy. The hard part is making sure someone is adding well-written, relevant content on a regular and frequent basis.”
  2. Encourage people to link to you. Again, one of the quickest mechanisms to accomplish this is to create a blog that includes a blogroll (the sidebar list of links featured on many blogs), which makes it easy to exchange links. “Request link exchanges with like-minded organizations,” advised Masri.
  3. Become a recognized expert in your subject area. “One of the best ways to generate visibility for your website is to create something like a ‘top 10’ list or an authoritative article on a current topic that gets widely disseminated across the web,” noted Masri.
  4. Become active on relevant listservs and discussion forums. “This keeps your association top of mind in your market. And, as increasing numbers of these forums are archived on the web, it increases your chances of generating links and becoming a recognized expert on topics of interest to your constituents,” remarked Masri.
  5. Finally, make sure your web content is highly relevant to the focus of your organization and uses key words and phrases regularly. “Today’s more sophisticated search engines consider the quality of your content as well as its existence. If your organization’s key focus is women’s networking groups, make sure that wording and other similar phrases are used liberally throughout your site,” advised Masri.

What do all of these suggestions have in common?

They all represent great ways to get your members involved. Younger members sometimes shy away from the level of commitment required by committee or board service. However, they are precisely the members who are most comfortable with emerging technologies like blogs and social networking forums. While they might not be willing to volunteer for several years hard labor on your finance committee, they can be tapped to write occasional posts for your organization’s blog, to link to your association blog from their own personal or professional blogs, and to participate in discussion forums and listservs as a representative of your organization. And an involved member is a loyal member.

So let’s say you do have a budget, albeit small, to spend on improving your search engine position. What will give you the most bang for your buck?

Google AdSense,” stated Masri immediately. “Google AdSense is an easy way for website publishers to create ads that will be displayed on other relevant sites. Because the ads are related to what users are looking for on the sites they surf, AdSense allows you to get the word out about your association while allowing the owners of the sites on which your ads are placed to earn some money and enhance the content of their own pages.” Because the site owners get paid when someone clicks on one of your ads on their site, you can set a cap as to how much you’re willing to spend, which makes it easy to stay within your budget, no matter what its size.

Masri offered some tips to get the best results from AdSense:

  • Make sure your ads are posted on text-rich pages (not “Sponsored Links” or “Advertisements’”)
  • Make sure your ads are placed “above the fold“
  • Match the colors of your ads with the color scheme of the site on which they’ll be posted
  • Make is easy for the site owners to blend your ads with their pages by using a transparent background and removing image borders

“The most important thing to remember is that all of these items take dedicated staff time, energy and focus. If you want to improve your site’s rank, you really do need to put in the leg work or pony up the cash for someone else to do it for you. There are no free rides!” concluded Masri.