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Ready, Set, SEO

ASSOCIATIONS NOW, June 2011, Feature

By: Bryan Ochalla

Summary: Strong search engine optimization for your association's website could mean the difference between getting found and getting lost. Three experts offer advice to move your site up on the search results page.

According to Tobin Conley, search engine optimization (SEO) is "a bit of terra incognita"—Latin for "unknown land"—for most associations.

He should know. Not only has Conley assisted associations and other nonprofits with SEO on numerous occasions as a senior consultant in technology management for DelCor Technology Solutions, but he has spoken on the subject nearly as often.

That's not to suggest SEO is a completely unknown quantity among today's associations. In fact, Conley says, many of the executives he has spoken with over the last few years not only know about it but "pine for it. They think, 'Wouldn't it be great if we had that?'" (Admittedly, not everyone feels that way. For more on that, read the sidebar, "So You Think You Don't Need SEO?" below.)

So, why do so many association leaders pine for SEO? Thad Lurie, director of strategic technology services at the American Wind Energy Association, says it's because they realize SEO can help them and their associations both attract new members and assist old ones.

Regarding the former benefit, Lurie says, "When people look to join a professional or trade organization these days, they do it online." Truth be told, a certain percentage of those people may not even know your association exists. "That's where SEO comes in," he says, by helping them find it online.

Another way SEO helps associations attract members—as well as serve existing ones and members of the public, if that's part of an organization's mission—is by increasing the visibility of the best, or at least most relevant, content and information on their websites.

Most associations "want to attract the attention of people who may become members, but at the same time a lot of them have a public mission, too, so it's important to them that they make high-quality content available—and findable—that educates and informs about whatever their topic of choice may be, and SEO is critical for that," says Lurie.

Advance Advice

So, what do association executives need to know or keep in mind before jumping into SEO?

One of the first things an association needs to do, according to Lurie, is answer the question, "Who in our organization is going to be responsible for SEO?"

He admits that can be a tricky topic to tackle, because it depends, in many ways, on the size of your association, what you're trying to accomplish, how much money and time you're able and willing to devote to it, and more. "Our general suggestion is that a lot of people in your organization are going to be responsible for it. Your IT folks are going to have some responsibility for it," Lurie says. "As are your marketing folks, your communications folks, and, of course, whoever is creating your web content."

According to Conley, it's also important to have some sort of plan in place before pushing forward with SEO. Even better, he says, is to have a web vision and mission statement in place. "A lot of organizations don't have one, but they're important. Everybody says, ‘Oh, yeah, we want people to find our site,' but they never stop to think why they want them to find their site and what they want them to do after they find it," he says.

As such, Conley says the most important question an association can ask itself as it considers (or reconsiders) SEO is, "What do we want our site to be?" That question is followed closely by three more: "Why do people come to our site?" "What do they want to do?" and, "What do we, as the association, want them to do?"

All of those questions are salient, he says, because "SEO is no good if people find your content and then find it's not important to them. In other words, it doesn't pay to be found and then ignored."

Another reason they're important is that they help get everybody in an association on the same SEO page. "When you get all of your people in a room and ask them, ‘OK, what is the site meant to do?' finance will say one thing, marketing with say another, and membership will give a third answer," Conley says. "‘It's a transactional site,' ‘No, it's a brochureware site,' ‘No, it's a feel-good-fuzzy site.' Well, which is it? That's not to say all of those things are mutually exclusive, but if push comes to shove, you have to be able to answer, ‘Why do we have a website? What is its purpose?'"

It sounds simplistic, Conley says, "but you really have to start that far back to make sure you have a shared vision before moving ahead with a specific plan." The last thing you and your association should keep in mind as you set your sights on SEO success is that it takes time.

Along the same lines, says Dan Scheeler, director of website architecture at the National Quality Forum, is that "a lot of people don't realize that SEO, and web-content maintenance in general, is a process. It's not something you can do one time and then say, ‘OK, we're optimized.' It involves continual review, continual maintenance of the content."

The Secrets of SEO Success

Once all of that is out of the way, the actual SEO process seems quite simple, especially if you adhere to the following pieces of advice.

For starters, Scheeler says, always remember that "quality content is the key. If you have good content that has been written for the end user and not written for a search engine, you're probably going to do better [than an organization that does the opposite] in the long run when it comes to SEO."

According to Scheeler, one key to achieving that goal is to know what you want the outside world—whether that's your members, legislators, the media, the public, or another group entirely—to find, and then craft content around that and make certain the words that people are using to search for that information are getting individuals to that content.

Another key to producing quality content, says Scheeler, is to keep from being too wordy. "It all goes back to the old axiom, ‘Lead with the need.' If you're writing a page about, say, a new search widget, start by calling it ‘New Search Widget' instead of ‘XYZ Association Announces the Introduction of their New Widget Designed to Enable Search.' That example is a little extreme, obviously, but the point is that you should write for the web and not be so wordy," he says.

Most end users aren't looking to read long, scholarly papers, says Scheeler. Rather, "they're skimming, looking for just what they need. Search engines do the same sort of thing. They're indexing your site, and if you include the right words in the title of the page, in the header and toward the top of the content, you're probably going to get better search placement for that piece of content than if you bury it under a lot of meaningless text."

Removing jargon from your site also can be an important factor in producing search-engine-optimized content. "There's definitely a tendency toward jargon and industry-specific terminology in the writing I see on many association websites," says Scheeler, who suggests "thinking like an outsider" when creating such content.

"If your association is only interested in appealing to professionals who are in your trade, then it may be OK to use jargon. If you're interested in attracting consumers, the general public, the media, or legislators, though, you might want to take a step back and think about the kinds of words or terms those people would be searching on that relate to your profession," he says.

Conley agrees, saying, "At the end of the day, the language that matters most is that of the end user. Now, you can try to educate them if the language they're using is wrong, but ... what you don't want to do is irk them or ignore them."

It doesn't take much to craft, format, and set up content in such a way that the search engines will know what it is, Conley adds. "I'm not trying to say it's a trivial undertaking, but the benefit you get out of it will make the cost, effort, and time you put into it well worth your while," he says.

Oh, And Don't Forget Analytics

Something that goes hand in hand with producing quality content when it comes to achieving SEO success is putting web analytics to good use.

"Talking about what you can do to make your content more search-engine friendly is important," says Lurie, "but it's also important, once you've started the process of making your content more search-engine friendly, to measure your results."

Tools like Google Analytics—which Lurie likes because it's "extremely robust, easy to implement, and free"—allow associations to see if their traffic is changing and improving as a result of their SEO efforts.

"It gives you quantitative data," Lurie says of Google Analytics. "It not only tells you how many people are landing on your pages and where they're going once they're there, but it also provides you with lots of information about search terms that are being used to find your content."

In other words, such tools allow you to find out a lot about your audience. "And knowing your audience and SEO go hand in hand," Lurie says, "because it's not just about what you want them to find, it's also about what they want to find. And if they're looking for apples and you're providing oranges, you've got a problem. Without data on the back end, all of your SEO is just guesswork."

Just like the overall process of SEO, though, Lurie says making use of analytics "takes time and resources. Someone has to go in and set up the reports. And then someone has to sit there and look at the data from reports and do something with it. Because you can't just look at the data and say, ‘Oh, our traffic increased 10 percent last month, so we're obviously successful.' That's not how it works. You have to look at why your traffic increased 10 percent. Maybe you had denial-of-service attack, or maybe traffic increased due to one specific resource that you didn't think anyone would be interested in."

Lurie's last piece of advice for associations looking to hit the SEO jackpot: Don't be afraid that you're going to do something wrong. After all, he says, "there are really only two ways you can do something wrong when it comes to SEO: One is to do something illegal in an attempt to game the system, and the other is to do nothing."

Additional Resources

For more advice related to producing and formatting quality content, see "Search Engine Optimization: The Secret Ingredient" [PDF], a handout from Conley, Lurie, and Scheeler's Idea Lab at the 2011 ASAE Great Ideas Conference.

Sidebar: So You Think You Don't Need SEO?

Though Tobin Conley, senior consultant in technology management for DelCor Technology Solutions, has met a number of association executives who pine for SEO, he also has met a few who don't give it a second thought.

"There are some, although I would guess they're the distinct minority, who say, ‘We don't need [SEO] because people know how to find us,' or, ‘We don't want John Q. Public to find us.' And that may be true—if, in fact, everybody knows your URL is your association's acronym dot org. In that case, you're probably not going to try to drive public [search-engine] traffic to your site."

For example, he adds, if your association doesn't need or want to grow its membership or doesn't directly serve the public, "SEO may not be as driving an issue as it is to other associations and organizations."

Even if either of the above-mentioned situations describes the one your association is in, Conley suggests it can still benefit from SEO. "Some of the lessons of SEO, such as good tagging and titling, should not be ignored by anyone. In other words, just because you don't need SEO from the outside, it doesn't mean you shouldn't optimize your site's content for its findability on the inside of your site."

Sidebar: SEO Sure Isn't What it Used to Be

If your association dabbled in search engine optimization in the past and didn't seem to benefit from it, Thad Lurie, director of strategic technology services at the American Wind Energy Association, suggests you try dabbling in it again. After all, things have changed quite a bit since SEO arrived on the scene.

"The way things used to work, the crawlers [programs that analyze websites] would run through and look at header tags and some other hidden HTML elements that would then be fed back to the search engines and then, in many ways, determine the page rank," Lurie says.

People quickly figured out how to game the system, such as by filling their header tags with popular search terms, which would, in turn, greatly improve their page rank. Thanks to the way search engines determine where high-quality content is, "you can't really game the system today," Lurie says. "Nor should you want to."

SEO has changed in another way, too. "In the past, SEO was thought of in a website-centric sense—as in, you need to optimize our website," Lurie says. "At this point, that isn't the most effective way to optimize."

To be as successful as possible with SEO today, "you shouldn't be optimizing websites, you should be optimizing pieces of content that, generally, are their own pages in websites," he says.

Bryan Ochalla is a freelance writer based in Seattle. Email: me@bryanochalla.com

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