International Aid & Development SEO Sector Deep Dive

Nick Vines

SEO Consultant

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The International Development and Aid sub-sector consists of charities raising money in the UK to be used to help people in need around the world. While the predominant focus is working in developing countries, some money is used at home in the UK for those in need here too. As part of our review of this sub-sector, we looked at the SEO health of the following charities:

Reflections on our data

Comparing the average ‘Domain Authority’ (DA) of charities in this group to the other nonprofit sub-sectors analysed, we can see that, at 67, it is at the higher end of the scale.

Something that is linked to the DA of a site is the number of referring domains (e.g. other websites) linking to it. Broadly, the more high quality referring domains a site has, the higher that site’s DA. However, in this group, our data shows that the average referring domains is significantly lower than the other nonprofit sub-sectors in our review. It’s likely that this shows that the quality of backlinks to charities in this group is higher than for the other groups; a high average DA combined with a significantly lower average number of referring domains implies this.

Sector Super Tip #1

It’s SEO best practice to say that a solid backlink strategy should focus on quality links over quantity links. Our review of this sub-sector reinforces and supports this mantra. If you want to compete in this sub-sector you have to really work on bolstering your backlink profile with high quality links.

Diving into the DA scores within this sub-sector, we see that they generally fall under two categories: Very High (70-75) and Medium (55-60). A look at income figures for these charities highlights a loose link between DA and income; the charities with very high DA’s typically have an income of over £100M.

The charities with a “Very High” DA have a significant ranking advantage over those with a “Medium” DA. However, if a charity in the Medium category wanted to improve their ability to compete against these Very High charities, then there are other strategies they can implement outside of aggressive link building. These would depend on a case-by-case basis, but one approach might revolve around highly targeted content strategies—creating more relevant content for your audience than that of the competition.

The average Core Web Vitals (CWV) score for International Development and Aid charities is lower than average compared to other sub-sectors. But within this group of charities, there is a wide spread of CWV scores from 28 up to 57. This highlights another opportunity to excel in this sub-sector; Google is placing increasing value on a fast loading page, and the top score in this sub-sector is only 57 (which Google classifies as a medium score). If a charity in this sub-sector wanted to outrank the competition then focusing on CWV for their core pages could help.

Sector Super Tip #2

CWV is an important development in SEO, but page speed isn’t a silver bullet for better rankings. Google is unlikely to rank a fast but irrelevant page over a slower relevant page. First and foremost, make sure that you have the right content to answer your users needs!

Keyword Rankings

This sector has some critical issues with the number of position 1, non-brand keywords its charities rank for. By this, we mean the number of keywords a website ranks first for, that don’t contain a charity’s name in the user’s search. This is a significant challenge for these charities to overcome: it’s great that they all have strong brand recognition, but it’s not so positive that Google often struggles to rank their content for broader, non-brand terms that relate to the appeals and causes each charity works within.

Tearfund has by the most acute result in this ranking data of all 52 nonprofits we reviewed: they rank for zero non-branded keywords in position 1. For the term “christian charities”, Tearfund were ranking in position 6 at the time of writing. ChristianAid (who we didn’t review as part of this audit) holds position 1. The SERP for this term is busy: there’s a carousel of Christian charities at the top (Tearfund are not in this), a “People Also Ask’ pack, a Wikipedia result, and three more non-charity pages before Tearfund appears. This is a term that Tearfund are bidding on via PPC ads, so it’s a target keyword for them. In more positive news, the charity ranks second for the term “donate to christian charity”. The charity also currently ranks on page 3 for the term “poverty charity”—we noted that their title tag contains no keywords other than “Tearfund”, so a very quick win might be to optimise this with some strategic keywords.

In Tearfund’s case (and this ranking issue is by no means theirs alone), the structure of their site, and the decisions the charity may have taken around content could be behind some of the issues. Their IA places heavy focus on “push” content in their Stories section which has little inherent SEO value (we’ll explore Push vs. Pull later in our audit). Similarly, their central IA understandably lists out their campaigns, bit it’s hard to map these campaigns (excepting perhaps Afghanistan and COP26) to specific user searches.

Tearfund IA Tearfund's IA

A Stronger Backlink Profile

Backlinks are (still) the glue that holds the internet together. They’re primarily the way users navigate the internet, and they allow Google’s bots to follow authority from domain to domain. A link from The Guardian has an equivalent effect to an arm around your website from the cool kids: Google infers a certain authority from it. As mentioned above, the quality of links to sites in this sub-sector is higher than that of other sub-sectors.

Comparing the linking profiles of the Very High against the Medium Domain Authority sites, one thing really stands out:

- Domain comparison of the Very High authority sites
- Domain comparison of the Medium authority sites

The screenshots above show that the total number of links from .edu and sites is significantly higher for sites with a Very High DA than compared to those with a medium DA.

Links from these types of sites are of much higher value, due to their inherent trustworthiness. Gaining links from these sources in such high numbers will definitely be impacting the ‘high average DA’ to ‘low referring domains’ ratio for this sub-sector.

Sector Super Tip #3

Look for opportunities to gain links from universities or government websites. This could be by partnering up, or asking them to signpost to your nonprofit site for support or information. Don’t be afraid to reach out to the institution and ask them to link back to you where the user’s needs are better met by the inclusion of links.

The Value of Appeals

The nature of this sub-sector’s common motives means that they are heavily reliant on topical appeals and campaigns to spread awareness and drive donations. Almost all of the charities in this group are utilising this model in some way; whether that’s for donating to a specific country in need (such as Syria or Afghanistan), or a current situation (such as Covid or the Rohingya crisis). For all of the charities in this sub-sector, the central challenge is ensuring you have dedicated pages on your domain that can serve as entry points for users at the moment that their awareness of a campaign peaks. Compounding this, content in this sub-sector needs to be inherently reactive to crises that often occur immediately (earthquakes, tsunamis), and that content needs to rank very, very quickly.

Well-designed campaign or appeal pages need to do two things:

  • They allow the organisation to capitalise on increased awareness around a situation, whether that’s a global crisis or an escalation in a specific country. If you can be reactive and get a page live quickly then you may be able to quickly rank for terms relating to the situation. Being the first page live and ranking comes with benefits. You will be the most visible organisation for these terms, and with time that will be reinforced. As the situation updates or general awareness of the situation increases, your organisation will hopefully continue to be the most visible and ready to spread awareness that drives donations.
  • They can sit relatively dormant as evergreen pages waiting for their opportunity to arise. When something happens in a specific country there will be a spike in searches for ‘donate to [country]’ terms. For example the recent, ongoing situation in Afghanistan saw a massive spike in donation-centred search queries that tailed off after the news coverage slowly stopped:
Screenshot showing increased Google searches for "donate to Afghanistan" searches Google Trends data showing the relative interest over time for the term ‘donate to afghanistan’

Sector Super Tip #4

Use appeal and campaign pages as a key traffic driving page to your domain. Be reactive when new situations arise, and ensure that your dormant evergreen pages are in good SEO health ready and waiting for the next spike in interest.

One last point on the specific challenges faced by this sub-sector: PPC has a crucial role to play in ensuring these websites can be ultra reactive. Being able to run ads and “rank” immediately through PPC is a given, but be sure to utilise this keyword data to inform your longer term SEO strategy. Analyse the search query reports you see in the wake of an appeal to understand how users are searching, Key nuances to look out for include:

  • The split between brand and non-brand queries
  • Informational queries vs. action-focused queries: are you seeing users searching for “what is happening in [insert country name here] or is there more of a lean towards taking action e.g. “how can I donate to [insert country name here]”. Do you have content for this former set of users that explains a situation?

Use this data to help you build out templates for your next campaign so that you’re ready to go next time, and also use it to iterate on existing evergreen pages around key appeals and align them closer to how users are searching.

Push vs. Pull Content

Showing the human side of the impact of donors' money by telling a recipient's story is a common content strategy in this group. It’s vital that your donors see how their money is being used, as well as being a very persuasive mechanism to encourage would-be donors to convert.

A good example of this kind of content is from WaterAid. They tell the story of Eveline who has had a borehole installed in her community, enabling them to have clean water pumping whatever the weather.

WaterAid screenshot WaterAid 'push' content

In SEO, we call this content ‘push’ content; it is the type of content that organisations will push onto their audience. Looking at the data in our tools for these pages across the group, we can see that these kinds of pages do not drive a great deal of traffic; users aren’t typically searching for this type of content in high numbers.

In contrast, when you are creating new content, you should use search insights to help guide you to create something that users are actually searching for. This is called ‘pull’ content, so-called because you are using it to pull users towards you.

Sector Super Tip #5

The donation story ‘push’ content is great for brand purposes, but it’s not effective at driving organic traffic. Be aware of its limitations in this context: don’t spend too much time on optimising this content for organic search; instead focus on optimising your ‘pull’ content.

Using ‘discovery’ content to expand your reach

Discovery content is content not related to your organisation's core offering. Looking at the sites that are estimated to drive the most traffic, we see a strong link to the amount of discovery content on a site and the amount of traffic it drives.

Islamic Relief UK and British Red Cross are estimated by our tools to be the top two organic traffic-driving domains, with an estimated 566K & 148K clicks per month respectively. Looking a bit deeper at the pages that drive traffic to these domains we see that there is a lot of discovery content on each site. For IRUK this content centres around the Islamic faith that helps to capture a wide range of searches outside of their core awareness and giving terms.

A great example of this kind of content is Islamic Relief UK’s ‘Prayer Timetables’ page, a hub that allows worshippers to find out the exact time of each of the daily prayers on any given date. This is one of their top performing pages, and will continue to perform well due to its evergreen nature.

Islamic Relief UK's Prayer Timetables hub Islamic Relief UK's Prayer Timetables hub

Similarly, the British Red Cross has a comprehensive First Aid content hub that performs very well for related search terms. This serves a similar purpose;it allows the organisation to spread its reach across a wide relevant audience, putting their name and cause in front of users who might end up using their services or donating.

Sector Super Tip #6

Look outside of your organisation's core “conversion terms" for these discovery content opportunities. If you can find something that is related to your organisation that you could be ranking for then try to create some content hubs as a first step to to ranking for it.

A look at the top traffic-driving pages across the other organisations in this sub-sector highlights another point around keyword rankings. For the organisations at the lower end of the “Estimated Monthly Traffic” metric scale (MSF UK, Tearfund and WaterAid), the majority of their top traffic-driving keywords are branded. This is a concern; without a significant non-branded keyword strategy and an overreliance on branded terms, it limits the amount of new users that these sites will attract through search. For these organisations in particular we would suggest looking at a non-branded discovery content strategy. Tearfund currently ranks in position 1 for 0 non-branded keywords, which is one of the standout metrics of this entire project. For contrast, Islamic Relief UK hold 1,627 no.1 non-branded rankings.

Youtube SEO

SEO isn’t just about Google searches—YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world. In this sub-sector, the quality of the video content we audited is very strong, with organisations often using on-the-ground footage to paint a picture of the amazing work being done “in the field”. Looking at some of the organisations who have the strongest presence on YouTube, we can see the following:

  • Islamic Relief UK has extremely strong video content with emotive, impactful creatives and as a result, some of their top performing videos have over a million views.

Sector Super Tip #7

Strong creatives are key to the success of video content in this sub-sector. However, make sure that your content draws users in to click through from the SERP, or related video panel. Overlay your content with an enticing thumbnail, with an optimised video title and description to capture attention and gain the click.

  • The British Red Cross has the largest number of YouTube channel subscribers. The main thing that we have noticed here is that the majority of their most viewed content is evergreen videos relating to First Aid; actionable videos that can be used to help people in need. Evergreen content is a great way to continually drive
  • Tearfund has particularly strong evergreen video content. Their standout video, “What is Poverty?”, performs extremely strongly in YouTube search results, ranking in position 1 for the same search term as the video’s title.
Screenshot of a YouTube search for ‘what is poverty’ Screenshot of a YouTube search for ‘what is poverty’

Having evergreen videos like these ranking at the top of the YouTube’s search page is a good way to spread awareness of your organisation and its cause. The challenge for charities in this space will be finding a topic that isn’t already well-served by high quality videos.

Sector Super Tip #8

Use an SEO tool to find high search volume evergreen terms related to your organisation’s niche and take a look to see how well it is served by other channels. If you think there is an opportunity to rank well, create high quality video content about it and monitor rankings over time.

International SEO

Given that most of the charities in this group are operating globally, one big consideration for this sub-sector is international SEO. This is of particular importance around branded searches.

Oxfam, UNICEF, Islamic Relief UK, MSF and British Red Cross all have issues with a non-UK aspect of their organisation ranking for branded searches in the UK SERPs. These issues are not always simple to fix. Below, you can see that for Islamic Relief, the global organisation’s site outranks the UK website for the branded search ‘islamic relief’ on Google UK:

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This isn’t ideal from a user experience point of view, but it's a more serious issue when it comes to the impact it has on crucial donation journeys. Here’s a real world example:

Screenshot of a Google search for ‘donate to msf’ Screenshot of a Google search for ‘donate to msf’

Here you can see that for a user in the UK searching for ‘donate to msf’, the donation page for the international site ( is ranking in position 1 above the donation page for the UK specific site ( When a user clicks on the international donation page, they’re prompted to then select from a very lengthy dropdown menu to select what region they’re from, and they’re then redirected back to the subdomain for UK donations. This friction doesn’t need to exist, and it’s possible to push Google to index content at a regional and geographical level to reduce this friction.

Sector Super Tip #9

Make sure that you have considered the impact of having your international sites ranking in the UK search engines. If Google is directing traffic or donations to the “wrong” site then this causes a variety of different issues for your users who often need localised information and experiences.

Sector Summary

This sub-sector faces a unique challenge from an SEO perspective: the need for content to rank quickly in response to situations they can’t yet know about. The solution lies in mining the various data sources (not least PPC search query data) to build templates for future content that responds to branded, non-branded, informational and action-focused queries. The role of “business as usual” content should not be overlooked for those contents whose work hinges on key appeals: understanding how to build your website’s authority outside of appeal time is just as important to your organic health as having well optimised pages ready to go. Evergreen content that responds to wider information around your charity’s objectives is one solution to establishing a strong Domain Authority.

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