Google loves to tweak your search results. In fact, each year, it changes its search algorithm around 500–600 times. The reason you should understand this is because to keep or improve your nonprofit's keyword rankings, you need to be prepared to make adjustments.
While Google certainly won't share it's ranking algorithm or even clarify what it considers to be the most important ranking factors year to year, you can still get a pretty good idea of what to do to improve your rankings by checking out yearly Ranking Factor Reports from Moz and Searchmetrics.
Each report (both were released this fall) outlines the most important ranking factors of 2014, and highlight key trends and takeaways. We'll take a look at some of these highlights, and cover what you need to do to keep your nonprofit's website relevant in 2015.
Here's the Infographic of Searchmetrics' Top Ranking Factors in 2014
Top 5 Ranking Factors: What Nonprofits Need to Know
1. Click-Through Rate (CTR)
CTR is the measure of how often your links are clicked when they appear in search results. According to Dr. Peter J. Meyers, "Whether or not a result gets clicked on is one of Google’s and Bing’s first clues about whether any given result is a good match to a query. We know Google and Bing both have this data, because they directly report it to us. In Google Webmaster Tools, you can find CTR data under “Your site on the web” > “Search queries”."
What Can You Do? To increase your CTR, one thing you can do is make sure every page of your site has a descriptive, relevant Meta Title and Meta Description. These are called "Rich Snippets" when they appear in search results. They entice the searcher to click through to YOUR page. Below is an example of a VERY rich snippet: a search for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
2. Relevant Terms
What are Relevant Terms? According to Searchmetrics, they are: “Semantically removed relatives of the main keywords, and are usually part of a subordinate topic cluster. They are not mandatory but are often included in the main copy.” This means they are terms related to targeted keywords and they signal that the entire body of content is about a specific topic by providing added context. For example, if you’re targeting the keyword “volunteer legal help” the page might use similar terminology like “pro bono attorney” or “volunteer legal services”.
What Can You Do? Just write compelling, descriptive content on each page you create for your site! Go back through your site's content and improve it by including more information with these relevant terms mixed in organically. Make sure to write for your reader, not Google. Keep content organized well, and link to other site pages on similar topics.
3. Google +1s
Google+ is still low on the priority lists of most nonprofits, as many lack the motivation and resources necessary to create and manage yet another social network. Well, here is the motivation! Google certainly favors it's own social networking platform, and in addition to all the other tools that Google + offers, this demonstrates that socially posted content that gets a lot of +1s tends to rank well.
What Can You Do? Get active on Google + if you haven't already! I've seen sooo many nonprofits that either haven't created a Google + profile or have only scraped the surface of what can be done on the platform.
At the very least, make sure your organization's name and correct address are displayed on Maps, add a profile pic and cover image, link your YouTube account, start posting your content, sharing others content, and start making connections with like-minded people and organizations.
4. Number of Backlinks
The internet is dubbed the world wide web because it's essentially a vast structure of links that together form a web of information. One of the ways Google determines rankings is by crawling that web and counting the number and relevance of backlinks to a given page and website.
What Can You Do? There are many ways to get backlinks to your site: creating videos, listing your organization in directories, guest-posting on other's blogs, participating in community events that get press, writing awesome articles for your blog, and much more.
This is the idea behind content-creation for link-building from Paddy Moogan of Distilled:
"You create these assets with a view to earning links to them from people who find them relevant, interesting, funny, informative, etc. You then reach out to these people in an attempt to actually build those links. Over time, you aim to reach a point at which you don't need to ask for each and every link that you receive."
5. Facebook Shares
This may be the most misleading part of the ranking factors report. SEO expert Eric Enge did a study earlier this year, finding that Facebook likes and shares don't actually impact search rankings, but that these Facebook interactions are more likely indicators of a successful piece of content.
"There was an SEO that said "OK, we see a lot of links on Facebook and those are the pages that rank well," but that's correlation, that's not causation. Instead it's probably that there's something really awesome and because there is something awesome then it gets a lot of likes on Facebook and a lot of people decide the link to it."
However, they're included in the ranking report because a lot of external data shows a strong correlation between Facebook shares/likes and high rankings.
What Can You Do? Definitely keep posting and sharing your content on Facebook and the other social channels. If you're like most nonprofits Facebook is probably your go-to social platform, and there is no need for this to change in 2015.
Commentary from Digital Marketing Experts on the 2014 Ranking Reports
Here's a bit of unfiltered insight from some of the top marketing and SEO experts on the findings of the 2014 Ranking Reports:
Mike Ramsey of Nifty Marketing:
"What a crazy year for local search! Overall, this year taught me that you can never settle on a couple factors and only push those. Things are changing so fast that you would quickly find yourself falling behind when the next updates come around. The best method is to focus on getting in front of your audience with great content all across the web and in turn finding ways to get feedback."
Phil Rozek of Local Visibility System:
"Google is obsessed with reviews. Last year (2013) they relaxed the filter, put reviews front-and-center in the carousel, launched the “City Experts” program, started telling reviewers when their reviews have been filtered, and rolled out the “reviews dashboard” in the Google My Business interface - to name just a few highlights.
In 2014 so far, Google has pushed reviews in the SERPs even more. They’ve started showing snippets of reviews in the Knowledge Graph panel. Reviews pop out even more in the layout that Google has been testing as a possible replacement for the carousel, where even basic info like phone numbers and website URLs have been stripped out of the SERPs, but Google still shows those golden review stars.
Google reviews do seem to help rankings, in my experience. I don’t know whether it’s a direct benefit or an indirect one (because reviews help click-throughs). Not that it matters. The benefits are ridiculous and many."
Gene Maryushenko of Whitespark:
"User behavior is a growing influence. Whether it’s the time spent on website, the click-through rate on your listing or the number of times someone clicks on directions, user behavior is sending signals and it’s hard to imagine this ever going away. This means websites need to be relevant and click-worthy."
Steven Shattuck of Boomerang:
"The top ranking factor in the 2014 report is CTR, or click-through rate. To put it simply, Google takes into account how often your links are clicked when they appear in search results or on social media. The more clicks you get the, the better Google assumes your content is, thus ranking it higher.
It’s important to make sure that your webpages have an enticing title, image and meta description. Since these three elements (often called “rich snippets”) make up what is seen when a link is shared, they need to elicit clicks."
Marcus Tober of Searchmetrics:
"...just creating more (or easier) content does not positively influence rankings. It's about developing relevant and comprehensive content for users dealing with more than just one aspect of a certain topic. The findings support the idea that search engines are moving away from focusing on single keywords to analyzing so-called "content clusters" – individual subjects or topic areas that are based around keywords and a variety of related terms.
So, please stop these outdated "Checklist-SEO" practices which are still overused in the market from my perspective. It's not about optimizing keywords for search engines. It's about optimizing the search experience for the user."
Getting Ready For 2015
What's most important to take away from this is an understanding of the way Google's algorithm seems to be trending. This probably sounds a bit technical for the typical nonprofit director, but you should note that most of the advice here is centered around sharing your knowledge, and making connections.
As a nonprofit, this is what you need do anyway to succeed. You just need to make sure you're finding ways to do it correctly online.