You’ve decided that 2015 is the year to invest in SEO (search engine optimization) to bring in more donors or customers through Google. You’ve issued an RFP and now have dozens of proposals to review. But, as a non-expert, how do you determine which partner is the best one to choose? This brief guide will give you the answers to some of the questions you may have been too embarrassed to ask.

What Does an SEO Actually Do?

SEOs work to get people to visit your site from Search Engines and then take action once they’ve arrived. Companies may call it different things, but generally search engine optimizers complete the following activities:

  • Technical SEO Tasks – these are generally programming related tasks. It will require the expert to ensure the website doesn’t have errors that would cause Google’s robot/spider to have trouble finding information on your website. Google also rewards sites that are mobile friendly and are easy-to-use. Google has set-up a blog to better inform webmasters what a Google Friendly site means.
  • Link Acquisition / Management and Content Marketing – Backlinks (links from someone else’s site that brings someone to your site) are a big part of Google’s algorithm – but not just any link will work: Google prefers links from trusted, reputable web sites. For instance, a link from CBC would be worth a lot more than one from a low quality web directory. In some cases, the spammy web directory might actually be hurting you and the SEO would need to try to have that link removed.
    One of the best ways to attract high quality backlinks is content marketing – the creation of blog posts, podcasts, videos, infographics and anything else that can get good backlinks and lots of social sharing (Facebook/Twitter etc.).
  • Content Writing and Clickthrough Rate Optimization – Google loves fresh content. Creating useful, clear site pages helps make your website more accessible. An SEO’s job is to ensure this content gets written and is unique and semantically related to the types of search queries you’d like your site to be visible for. It also means making sure that the meta information that displays on the Google search results page page entices clicks when readers see them.
  • Reporting / Analyzing – a big part of the job is making changes and then seeing what happens and repeating the process. It is very similar what a scientist might do in a lab. Starting with making a change, the SEO measures the effect in visitor traffic, local map listing, page views or online donations.Sometimes is can take months or a matter of weeks depending on what we are measuring.

Your SEO’s First Step

Once you’ve hired an SEO partner, they need to know where and in what order to make improvements. Just like when you bring your car to the mechanic or you visit your doctor, without a proper diagnosis it’s hard to know what area needs work. We’ve found it next to impossible to work with anyone without first doing a detailed audit of their website. The audit will bring to light what areas need work the most.

Once the audit is done, it takes a lot of patience, skill and a plan.

What About A Top 10 Ranking?

In the past, a big part of SEO was selling clients on the elusive “Top 10 Ranking”. It’s not a metric you should be worrying about in 2015. Here’s why:

  • My Google is Not Your Google – a few years ago, Google changed its algorithm to be more personalized. What that means is if I search for “charity cancer events” in Ottawa, my friends in Toronto will most likely see totally different results.
  • Google understands semantic meanings – meaning your content may say “water wells” but
  • 55%+ of all queries are 4 or more words – that means there are thousands of relevant phrases you could be reporting on.
  • Rankings fluctuate daily – different studies by Moz.com have shown top 20 rankings to fluctuate 3 – 10 places in any given day. What that means,is you might be 7 on Tuesday, 3 on Wednesday and 11 on Thursday.

Instead of rankings, we just focusing more on continually increasing the amount of qualified visitors from search engines.

Transparency

While you don’t need to know the fine details of what an SEO does, there needs to be a certain level of transparency. It shouldn’t be a mysterious world. SEO is not rocket science. It’s about making small incremental changes over time. Being transparent also makes the SEO more accountable. They should be able to explain (just like your mechanic or doctor) what approach they are taking and why they feel this is important.

I’ve heard about Panda and Penguin – what is this all about?

Google applies hundreds changes to its ranking algorithm (or formula) every year. While the exact algorithm is kept secret, Google sometimes shares the kinds of things they are looking for and SEO experts can make educated guesses about what works and what doesn’t.

Google and sometimes the SEO community have come up with code names for types of changes. Here are what two of the most important code names mean.

Panda is a code name for a formula that relates to the content on your website. Google’s algorithm is now able to evaluate real content vs spammy, poorly written content. They also look at “thin content” (usually pages with 300 words or less) and duplicate content (content that shows up multiple times on your site or someone else’s). To ensure your site won’t be hurt by Panda, your SEO would be need to make sure you have useful content, content that is unique on every page, and as few pages as possible with less than 300 words.

Penguin is a code-name for the part of the algorithm that factors in the backlinks to your site. They look at two areas: backlinks that seem spammy/marketing oriented (for example a link that has the words “Ottawa charities” linked vs “Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation”). The second area Penguin looks at is who is linking to your website; i.e. if it’s from a reputable vs. a low quality site. Penguin penalizes sites with a high proportion of “bad” backlinks.

What Else Should I Be Looking For?

Be careful about quick fix, too good to be true schemes. There are still companies out there that will promise results in a few weeks. Some can achieve this – temporarily – with linking schemes that occasionally still work (until Google penalizes the site, which can mean over a year spent in recovery).

We’ve found that a lasting shift in your traffic and donations takes time, and it can depend on what the weak points are on your site. Reputable SEOs will be putting in consistent effort for 6 months to a year in order to see results.