Cancer Support & Research SEO Sector Deep Dive

Jess Mackereth

SEO Analyst

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Hands being held -

In the UK today, there are a wide range of big and small charities working across the cancer support spectrum: some pioneer research, some offer frontline support to people who are affected by cancer; some do both. Some have specific audiences (e.g. young people), and some focus on specific types of cancer. As part of this audit, we wanted to understand and explore opportunities to improve the organic health of some of the charities we reviewed, which were:

Reflections on our data

The Domain Authority (an indicator of the overall “strength” of a domain) of charities in this sub-sector averaged 68/100. This is one of the highest averages across all the sectors we looked at, with only the Environmental sector having a fractionally higher average of 69. Similarly, the average number of referring domains that point to these websites was higher than the majority of other sectors (aside from those under the Mental Health umbrella). Typically, the number of referring domains correlates with DA, as we see here. Across the five charities we looked at, there were an average of 17,598 referring domains.

Cancer Research UK, the largest charity in this report, have the highest Domain Authority of all 52 charities we looked—9 “points” clear of the next nearest charity. The number of referring domains the site was, at the time of writing, over 37,000. This is a phenomenally strong backlink profile.

Sector Super Tip #1

Review your backlink profile against your competitors to identify high quality, authoritative domains linking out to those other domains and not yours. When conducting outreach activity, your PR and comms team should encourage sites to link to a page most relevant to the topic of the outreach. Building links to pages other than the homepage will improve the authority of the specific page, which could result in greater organic visibility for that page, as Google will view it as a trusted source of information.

Core Web Vital Skills (metrics that Google considers important in a webpage’s overall user experience) are on average lower in this sector compared to all other sectors, but interestingly the range of scores for these metrics is significant, with Macmillan scoring just 19 compared to a score of 62 for Prostate Cancer UK. This suggests there is opportunity for charities in this sector to gain an edge over their competitors.

Sector Super Tip #2

Core Web Vitals is now part of Google's algorithm; as such, it's an increasingly important area for charities to focus on, and these metrics should be prioritised over the coming 12 months. There is an opportunity for charities in this sector to increase their CWV score to stand out against competitors, given the relatively low average across the sub-sector.

Keyword Gap Analysis

The charities within this sub-sector are providing a broad cross-section of content to users: information and support to those affected by cancer, income-generating content, and important, often technical insights into the latest drug developments and research findings.

All of these charities rank well for the relevant keywords that users are searching for around each of these areas. However, many of them have significant ranking gaps that surprised us during this audit. One prominent example centres around Breast Cancer Now’s rankings for the following keywords, for which they are not current visible on page 1:

  • ‘breast self examination’
  • 'how to check for lumps in your breast'
  • ‘how to examine your breast for lumps’
  • ‘how to do a breast exam’

Tip: All 52 charities included in this project have similar ranking gaps that will surprise. We recommend writing down 30-40 non-branded keywords for which your organisation “must surely rank on page one for”. Google each, and note down your actual rankings. You’ll be surprised!

In the case of some of the keywords above, the top results are owned by American charities and US medical healthcare websites. This is a really big opportunity for Breast Cancer Now to rank better for users searching in the UK. We see this pattern again for a UK-based search on “breast tenderness after menopause”.

SERP for "breast tenderness after menopause" query SERP for "breast tenderness after menopause" query

For this term, no UK charity ranks in the top results, and all of the charities we audited are outranked by US medical healthcare websites. This presents a real opportunity for UK charities, particularly those specialising in breast cancer, if they can present well-structured, well-optimised content to Google that’s seen as more relevant to searchers in the UK.

Sector Super Tip #3

Charities in this sector who are looking at their competition should avoid solely focusing on UK charities which they perceive themselves to be competing against. Users would most likely prefer to see UK results appearing in the top positions over US organisations, so expand your competitor list to include charity and healthcare websites in non-UK locations.

Unique traffic-driving content

Despite its size and clout, our third-party tools show that the research-focused content on Cancer Research UK’s site isn’t generating the same levels of traffic as other content on their site. Where the charity does drive significant traffic not seen for other charities is around cancer statistics. Within the relevant subfolder, CRUK are ranking in position 1 for over 500 keywords, including ‘how many people die of cancer each year’, ‘breast cancer survival rate’ and ‘bowel cancer survival rate’ and these pages have gained backlinks from publications such as The Guardian, NY Times and the BBC. This is a standout area of performance against other charities in the sector, and goes a way to explaining why CRUK holds considerably more position 1 rankings than the other charities.

In the context of CRUK, it's perhaps unfair to single out a much smaller charity in this space, but we felt it worth mentioning that the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity website is currently underperforming against all of the other charities within this sub-sector. This is is exemplified by the number of URLs from the site that Google is indexing. At the time of writing, Google was indexing around 600 URLs on Royal Marsden’s site, compared to almost 8,000 for Prostate Cancer UK and over 19,000 URLs on Breast Cancer Now’s site. The main traffic driving pages on Royal Marsden’s site are fundraising and donation pages, where traffic arrives mostly from branded keywords. The disparity between Royal Marsden and the other charities indicates that there is significant opportunity on Royal Marsden’s site to create unique content aligned to a niche keyword strategy that could generate significant organic growth for the charity. For hospital charities this isn't an easy task, but there are definitely options for content creation that would allow this charity to better own smaller keyword territories.

Royal Marsden does - however - have a hero keyword in the form of ‘cancer charity’ which has 1,000 searches per month. Royal Marsden Cancer Charity ranks directly behind Cancer Research UK and Macmillan, which is an incredible positioning on a very competitive search engine results page. This suggests that Google believes Royal Marsden to be relevant here, and so the potential to rank for other types of content is definitely there - it’s just a case of utilising targeted content to get there.

Sector Super Tip #4

When it comes to reviewing content through the lens of keyword rankings, trying to rank for “head terms” like “symptoms of cancer” will be difficult. Instead, find your charity’s long-tail niche, and exploit the potential to outrank other organisations by creating content that meets user need, as CRUK have in the above example. There will be areas that your charity can distinctly own: keywords might not, in isolation, drive millions of users, but owning keyword territories with smaller search volumes will soon add up in high value sessions.

Content Structure

Content designers and SEOs alike know that content should always be structured with both users and Google in mind. But the really smart practitioners know there’s really very little difference between the two—Google is trying to serve the user first. By signposting content, using headings and tables of content, you will be able to provide users (and Google!) with context and answer their queries quickly.

For example, Macmillan’s detailed page on Lymphoma ranks in position 1 for high volume keywords such as ‘lymphoma’ (77,000) and ‘lymphoma symptoms’ (15,000 m/s). This is in no small part due to the excellent way the content is structured on page. Clearly some real thought has gone into it at a content design level.

Macmillan's website IA Macmillan's site IA brings tangible SEO benefits

Forum Content

Four of the charities we looked at have forum type content on their site, which is providing users with a platform to discuss concerns and ask questions. This content frequently ranks well on Google, and we’re aware from our work within this sub-sector that there is often debate internally about whether to continue allowing this forum content (effectively user-generated content) to rank over “owned” content on a specific topic. Breast Cancer Now, Prostate Cancer UK and Macmillan all house this forum content on a subdomain, whereas CRUK have a /thread/ subfolder for the content on their main www domain. All of these charities have forum content ranking on the first page of Google for high volume keywords; for example ‘lump in armpit’, ‘lump under chin’ and ‘zoladex weight gain’, however it would be interesting to explore how these charities could boost visibility for some of these keywords and provide users with more detailed information, by creating relevant content on their main domains. A tactical content strategy in this sector should include reviewing the potential to "migrate" this content from a UGC "format" to being "owned".

Branded SERPS

Overall, the branded SERPs are strong for each charity’s main branded terms. Although Organization schema (structured markup which provides search engines with information about your organization, including your logo, website address, social media profiles, and contact information) is not present for all of the charities we audited, Google appears to be understanding the crucial brand signals; all the charities have knowledge graphs appearing.

Macmillan's SERP Macmillan's branded SERP

For most of the charities within the sector, a Twitter snippet is appearing underneath the first result, which is taking up considerable space on the SERP. This is a good thing, because these types of results take up valuable space on the SERP and provide a further E-A-T signal to both users and Google. If your charity's Twitter feed isn't appearing in this way, it's worth investigating why, because you're missing out on owning valuable real estate in the SERPS.

CRUK Twitter Feed CRUK's Twitter feed in the SERPs

For the keywords ‘cancer support’ and ‘cancer research’ (both of which skirt the line between brand and non-brand) Macmillan and CRUK are appearing respectively at the top of the SERP and they both hold knowledge panel results for each. This is a big win, as Google is making the connection between these non-brand keywords and the charities. This is important: the term ‘cancer research’ has 36,000 monthly searches compared to 13,000 for ‘cancer research uk’. These are the types of keywords that both organisations should monitor to ensure they don’t lose these featured snippets out of an assumption they’re strictly branded.

Image SERPs

Image search is one of the key areas we see charities in this space underperforming on.

For many keywords relating to symptoms, treatment and stages of cancer, image pack results are appearing at the top of the SERPS that help users understand some of the details around cancer—this is fantastic to see. For example, Cancer Research UK has diagrams on their ‘stages’ type content, which are often being pulled through to the SERP e.g. ‘ovarian cancer stages’ (a term with 800 monthly searches):

CRUK image pack result in Google CRUK image pack result

Not only are image packs appearing within the search results, users appear to actively search more regularly for images within the cancer charities sub-sector.

In our sample data set of non-branded keywords, there were a significant number of very high volume searches that explicitly used phrases such as ‘diagram’, ‘image’, ‘picture’ and ‘photo’. This is perhaps to be expected when searchers are trying to understand their symptoms and diagnoses. Examples of these types of queries include (with monthly searches):

  • skin cancer images (24,000)
  • lungs diagram (11,000)
  • swollen lymph nodes in groin female pictures (5,600)
  • pictures of skin cancer (4,600)
  • cancer lumps pictures (3,600)
  • mouth cancer images (3,300)

We find that generally image search is seen as a lower priority tactic within SEO strategies, however, there are opportunities with these searches to rank both in the image pack results, and also within the main results. In our sample keyword research there were 136 image-specific keywords with a combined monthly search volume over 91,000 searches.

With the high volume, and clearly relevant search intent, users are demonstrating a need for accurate imagery related to their cancer symptoms. Images and image search should be taken seriously by cancer charities, not only for organic search rankings, but also as a method of providing service users with accurate information.

We noticed a number of specific opportunities for charities to improve their visibility on image search. For example for the keyword ‘stage 4 pancreatic cancer’ (which has 1,100 monthly searches), CRUK are not appearing on the image pack, possibly as the image alt text on the relevant page is not optimised to include this keyword—it is currently “Diagram showing M1 pancreatic cancer from the TNM staging system”.

Breast Cancer Now, who provide advice to users who would absolutely benefit from visual explainers, do not rank prominently in the image search results for terms including “self-exam” or “how to check for lumps in your breast”.

Sector Super Tip #5

Charities in this sub-sector should spend time auditing and optimising their image SERP profile, which is influenced in part by image alt text. Using optimised alt text on images allows Google to understand what an image should be about, increasing the chances of images being pulled through to the SERP. It’s a great way to bring new, engaged organic audiences into content.


Charities that work in any kind of healthcare sector face a unique set of SEO challenges (and, in fact, a distinct SERP profile). “Competition” comes in many forms. The NHS rightly dominates rankings for many high volume keywords, while US medical charities and other US healthcare sites are often indexed above UK charities. The key to a successful SEO strategy is to consider the whole SERP: a structured, well-researched keyword strategy that ensures you’re owning your specific niche and delivering unique traffic, a blend of UGC on forums and owned content that meets searchers’ needs, properly optimised images with a specific SEO focus in image search, and a strong backlink profile will all contribute to stronger rankings and more organic traffic.

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