The SEO Volunteer: Volume 2

Having signed up with two charities last summer to help them with their digital marketing and complement my SEO, PPC and social media training from Salford University and SEMPO, my learning has definitely moved on. The following is a mega-post, but if you’re looking to build work experience in this field by helping a charity, it may prove useful.

Digital marketing isn’t a fixed process that will be the same for every business or organisation out there. Plus, it’s a two-way street: an organisation will have to change how it works, not for the sake of a web crawler hosted at Mountain View but for the sake of customers, partners and others who are proactively seeking useable information via the web (including mobile). However, voluntary organisations can involve stakeholders and gatekeepers that may prevent the kind of rapid change that you would see from an online enterprise eager to seize upon any and every advantage.

From 2 Charities to 1

It may not have been the most sensible thing to try and work with two charities while still in a full-time job, trying to find a new job post-redundancy, and with a new family to look after! So, I committed to working with just the one, ICA:UK, a charity based in Manchester that sells facilitation training to corporate, public and third sector clients. Facilitation training is a competitive marketplace and the goal was to improve their ranking for that very term – facilitation training – amongst others, and see what other issues could be resolved.

I was lucky in that analytics and technical issues were being dealt with by my main contact in the charity, and he “got” the notion that it wasn’t about increasing the quantity of traffic, but the quality. However other areas, such as opportunities for new content and linkbuilding, were shared amongst stakeholders and therefore trickier to negotiate. Due to funding constraints the site was volunteer-built and they were struggling with a version of Joomla in need of update, really, which made implementing potential page and site changes harder and in some cases not possible – perhaps another skill area I’d do well to explore.

As an aside, their facilitation workshops are an excellent tool for agencies, whether niche or full-service, in the project discovery stage, as they provide techniques to allow groups – say the marketing DM and their colleagues within a client business – to progress on concepts and achieve consensus. And you can even swap that energy-sapping flipboard or whiteboard for one of their rocking Sticky Walls.

What was done

  • A visit to Hubspot. Not a pro-SEO’s site of choice possibly, but running the url through Hubspot’s Website Grader (now called the Marketing Grader) helped point out a few things, such as the homepage having too many images without alt text to be that bot-friendly, or human-friendly, for that matter.
  • Analytics and backlinks were reviewed. Going over Google Analytics with the charity soon identified pages with the highest bounce rate, while a quick run through Open Site Explorer from good old SEOMoz identified existing sources of links that could be expanded upon further, and the odd irrelevant inbound link to be dealt with.
  • The indexing basics: I quickly made sure the site was submitted to Dmoz.org and the Yahoo! directory.
  • A Keyword Glossary was composed. By working with the AdWords Keyword Tool, I discovered some new potential terms but more importantly had a metric on monthly local search volume and competing sites for terms. I then used the “classic” KEI formula, squaring the search volume before dividing it by the number of competing sites. The higher the result the higher the potential efficiency, roughly. I then asked the charity to rank the most efficient 20 terms from 0-1 for relevance, ie what they would believe are most likely to convert. This is a rough, ready and knowingly flawed way of working with keyword discovery and efficiency. For example the Keyword Tool and similar databases can’t be trusted 100%, and there are more complex ways of defining efficiency that take PageRank and other factors per competing site into account. However, as a starting point it was sufficient.
  • PageRank flaws were identified. A whole page of outbound links lacking nofollow attributes, for example, was quickly remedied.
  • Domain and IP checks, and other technical tasks: the site was accessible both at a www. and non-www. version of the URL: a quick call to the hosting company to set up a 301 redirect on the non-www version was all it took to solve that. Were CSS and Javascript files stored separately, not coded on the pages? Check. Search engines like verified IP addresses, so has a reverse DNS been performed? Check. Is it a static IP, rather than a dynamically generated one? Yep.

What wasn’t done

  • Technical tasks Version #2: I wanted to, but didn’t, get stuck into meta tag errors, Meta Robots tags, xml sitemaps, creating a custom 404, and identifying server errors with Webmaster Central or similar.
  • Analytics Ninjtsu: key conversions and EOI on the site were identifiable but not being measured – and you can’t improve what you can’t measure. This was another area I needed to cover, especially to figure out attribution and attrition – what was originally prompting visitors to drop by, and why might they drop out?
  • Link acquisition: a potentially time-consuming task, but essential and well worth the investment in terms of time and effort. Which I couldn’t, and regret not being able to make the time. However, there’s also a key point of learning here: volunteers and staff within the charity were asked to think of their own contacts with a web presence who might provide a link – especially those such as academics, for example, who add content to a high-authority site such as a .ac.uk domain. Some balked at doing this which was a shame – I’d personally say there’s no harm in asking for this, but some people involved perhaps believed it to be too commercial a thing to be doing.
  • Content: there was a wealth of relevant content full of ready-made search terms in their quarterly newsletter, which while available as a PDF online and therefore crawlable, I could have repurposed for blog posts and editorial. While I had multiple time pressures, in hindsight I’ve learned a lot about managing time and rethinking what key tasks might actually be, and how to budget time. The charity’s CEO, in the meantime, became social media born-again and is now a voracious tweeter, and traffic deriving from his activity was immediately noticeable.

…and there’s most likely a hell of a lot more besides. There are a lot of charities and third sector organisations in need of this kind of support, and it can present a lot of opportunities to develop skills and insight for the would be digital marketer, whether you’re on the more technical or creative end of the spectrum. However, you have to balance out a good opportunity – and mine certainly was – against organisations less able to effect changes, either to their site or their activity, that might reduce what you can do, learn, and have to show to future employers.

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