Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for starters

Tuesday, June 15, 2010 | 10:51 AM

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It’s a single special sauce that makes a Big Mac a Big Mac, and even Dr. Pepper has only twenty-three flavors. So it’s not without some pride that I say that Google uses over 200 signals in order to decide how to rank websites in our search results. That’s almost twenty times as many secret ingredients as there are in KFC’s original recipe!

A lot of people want to know what they can do to be the top-ranked result on Google for a particular search. I can’t tell you exactly how to do that—if I did, everyone would be top-ranked and our search results would be a huge mess—but it’s no secret that the top-ranked non-profit sites tend to have useful and original content. That said, even the best content in the world will only take you so far if search engines have trouble accessing or understanding it. Resources like Google Webmaster Tools can help you make sure that your content is search engine friendly and easily found online.

Making Your Content Search Engine Friendly

Google crawls the web using a software program called Googlebot that visits websites and adds them to our search index (other search engines have similar programs). Googlebot is very smart and capable, but it’s no human. Googlebot can have trouble interpreting pictures or video, and can generally only see text. If the organization name on your homepage is just a big image, then you’ll want to make sure that the name is featured in the title of the page, or elsewhere in text so that Googlebot can find it. This holds true for images of event flyers, schedules, contact information, and any content that you want users to be able to find easily. Having this information available in text also makes your website more accessible to users who aren’t able to interact with your site visually.

Another thing you can do to help search engines understand your site is to use good anchor text. These are the words that are clickable for a web link—the words ‘anchor text’ in the last sentence are an example of anchor text. Anchor text gives search engines additional context about the content to which you’re linking. Search engine friendly (and user friendly) anchor text describes where the link will take you and doesn’t just say ‘click here.’

Unhelpful anchor text: For information about Google Grants, click here.
Awesome anchor text: To apply for a grant, visit the Google Grants website.

In the first example, it’s not immediately clear to the user if the link goes to the Google Grants website, or if it goes to a different site with content about Google Grants. The second example tells the user and Googlebot that the link is to the Google Grants website, and it lets Googlebot know that some people are referring to the page at as the ‘Google Grants website.’

These are just two quick tips to make your website easy for search engines to index. For more ways you can make your content search engine friendly, check out the Google Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Starter Guide.

Using Google Webmaster Tools

To help you make your site search engine friendly, Google offers Google Webmaster Tools, a set of tools you can use to see how the Google search engine interacts with your site. You can see which search queries are causing your site to appear in Google’s search results, and also make sure that Googlebot is able to index your site successfully.

To get started, you’ll need to visit Webmaster Tools, sign into your account, and add your website. The sign-up process will walk you through the process of adding your first website, and if you hit a snag there’s a Help Center and a community of webmasters in the Webmaster Help Forum that are always willing to answer questions and help out.

Once you’ve added your site to Webmaster Tools, you can see all sorts of interesting information about your site, including customized suggestions about changes that will make your site more search engine friendly and a tool that lets you see your website the way Googlebot sees it.

Making your site search engine friendly is just one part of a successful online strategy for your organization, but it can pay off with increased visibility. Search engine optimization may not have the zing of a clever AdWords campaign or the spice of a nicely-designed site, but done well it can be a secret ingredient that helps people find and support your cause online.