SEO for Nonprofits State of the Sector Review

Phil McMinn

Director of Digital Marketing

If you'd like a PDF copy of this report please email us at [email protected]

Welcome to Torchbox’s SEO Super Trumps microsite.

This microsite contains the findings of a nonprofit-wide SEO audit we’ve carried out, assessing 73 UK charities’ organic search profiles. We’ve measured success against six SEO metrics that cover technical health (how well Google’s bot can crawl and index your site), backlink profile (how many quality links from other sites your site has) and content (what content have you got, and how well does it rank). To make things fun, we’ve presented this data as a card game, allowing you to “play” your nonprofit against other charities operating in a similar space.

We’ve split charities into sub-sectors, based on each charity’s raison d'etre. These are:

We’ve audited each sub-sector to highlight key elements of the SEO landscape for each group of charities: that is, the defining features of the search engine results pages (SERPS) for the sub-sector. Our results are a snapshot and accurate at the time of writing: however, these will change over time as Google’s algorithm develops, and (hopefully) charities make changes to their sites that impact rankings. For now though, this data paints a picture of how the charities included in this sector are doing. All of the data we have used is pulled from tools that anyone can access.

Why have we done this?

This project exists because we feel that the nonprofit sector is currently paying less attention to SEO than it deserves. Three things lie at the heart of why we undertook this project.

Firstly, my guess would be that every charity included in this project has a dedicated social media manager in post, with a dedicated remit to manage social channels. I would also hazard a guess that very few of these charities (excepting the super charities we’ve looked at) have a dedicated SEO resource in house, whose primary job is to plan and implement a programme of ongoing SEO. No doubt it is part of someone’s job (and no doubt some will be outsourcing support), but even at some of the global charities Torchbox supports, I can not point to a single dedicated SEO resource in-house. A final guess: the quality of traffic arriving on each charity’s website from organic search will be of the highest quality when viewed alongside social, PPC, referral and direct traffic, and it will also be the dominant source of traffic too.

Secondly, over the last few months, our SEO team has doubled in size. Two of the team joined us from agencies who work with commercial organisations, and there was surprise from our new teammates about the disparity between how much time and budget went into SEO in that space compared to the nonprofit sector. I hear you: the budgets are incomparable. And you’re right, none of us at Torchbox expect our charities to commit to 15-20 days a month of retained SEO time. The point I make is around the relative time and budget spent on SEO compared to other forms—social, PPC, UX, development work, email.

And lastly, we just don’t see the kinds of proposals for dedicated SEO consultancy that we see for other areas of digital marketing. Back of the envelope scribblings would probably show that in the last 12 months, 4-5 charities have contacted us with a brief primarily dedicated to SEO. With our existing SEO clients, SEO is a conversation that we’ve typically led our clients to after establishing relationships via PPC and paid social. Rarely is SEO the horse that leads the cart.

A question of ownership

What lies behind all of this? The clichéd answers to this question revolve around concepts like “we’re already doing well / it takes care of itself” and/or “SEO is a bit of a dark art so no one really engages”. Those ideas certainly exist at the nonprofits we’ve worked with, and while this project aims to dispel these two myths, there is also another issue at play around ownership of SEO that may well be at the root of the nonprofit sector’s relative disengagement with SEO.

To illustrate this point: a few months ago, Torchbox ran a series of SEO “drop in clinics”. We approached charities we didn’t currently work with and invited them to a free consultation with one of our SEO analysts to discuss challenges and opportunities. One major charity said “no thanks”, and their reasoning really stood out, which I’ll paraphrase as follows:

“We're just about to begin developing a new website, so now's not the right time.”

Anonymous Head of Digital Very Large Charity, Somewhere in the UK

Here was a charity about to embark on one of the biggest projects a charity can undertake: an overhaul of their central supporter-facing website. Yet this charity held the belief that SEO needed to take a back seat during this process. I’ve been at Torchbox for seven years, and this theme has been one that has come up again and again: not now. It wasn’t something that the leads behind a CMS migration believed sat within their remit. Someone else owns SEO at that charity.

The result of this approach is one we see time and time again: lost rankings, lost traffic, lost visibility, lost users. The solution? Empower someone internally to lead on SEO. If you’re a mid-sized charity (by this, we broadly mean charities with an income of between £20m - £50m), this should be straightforward. It needn’t be someone’s full time job, but someone needs to centrally own SEO, and work with internal teams to ensure you’re designing a site that works for current and future supporters.

At bigger organisations this will be tougher, because SEO is something that needs cross-team input. You can not expect to “fix” SEO ranking issues with a simple tweak of a title tag after the content has gone live. You need to integrate SEO into every element of your charity’s digital output. Your comms team needs to ensure press releases include a request for a link back to your website. Your content team needs to reject any misconceptions that “writing for Google” is a bad thing and understand that “writing for Google” is writing for the user. Your UX architects must understand that for many websites, the user’s journey doesn’t start on the website. It starts on Google. Google’s SERPS are, in some ways, perhaps to be treated as a part of the IA of a site. This idea of someone centrally owning SEO, or perhaps even having “SEO” in their title might seem like a challenge, but think about how recently the idea of someone dedicated to managing your Facebook (and, dare I say it, TikTok) presence seemed crazy.

A Word About Competition

This project is designed to reflect your charity’s organic search performance in the context of other similar charities. But something feels inherently wrong about talking about competitors in the charity space. No one wants to see another charity not do well, and at the many nonprofit events I’ve attended over the years, bar brawls and shouting matches between charities have been few and far between. The nonprofit sector is a community with shared challenges, and there is a shared willingness to listen and learn. However, nonprofits who get in touch with Torchbox often talk about competition: who outranks us, who’s bidding on our branded terms, who we want to rank above in the search engine results pages (SERPs). A natural part of driving your organisation forward is to look at who is doing “better”, and attempt to improve in that context; it’s that interpretation of competition that guides this project. No charity comes out of this “on top”, and each charity we’ve looked at has significant organic weaknesses.

Yes, yes, but what does the data tell us?

That’s the preamble. Onto the good stuff: what does the data tell us about how SEO fares across the sector? Here are some of the key findings from the data we analysed.

  • Across four of the six metrics we’ve used in this audit, the Hearing and Visual Impairment sub-sector is falling behind. The average Domain Authority of this group of charities stands at 59; for comparison, the Environmental sub-sector’s average DA of 69 trumps the competition. Monthly organic traffic is estimated at 26K, half that of the next nearest sub-sector (Children’s Charities). The number of referring domains (websites that are linking to these charities’ websites averages 6,239—for comparison, this number stands at 20,480 in the mental health sub-sector. If you’re a charity operating in the Hearing & Visual Impairment space, now is the time to act, because the floor is yours. Read the full audit.
  • Mind dominates the mental health sub-sector organically. Across 3 of the six metrics, they’re so far ahead of the other charities in this space that it’s effectively a one-horse field. If you’re a charity in this space with a shared audience, look to Mind as the gold standard (and no, Torchbox don’t work with them on their SEO!). Read the full Mental Health sub-sector audit.
  • Links (still) really, really matter. Despite Mind’s dominance in the mental health sub-sector, Samaritans hold a joint equal Domain Authority with them. We suspect this is in part down to the no. of referring domains each charity has: Mind leads the entire nonprofit sector with ~49K referring domains, but Samaritans have an amazing 34,300 referring domains pointing at the site (just 300 less than CRUK). Whatever your sub-sector, if you’re not looking at growing your backlink profile, you’re never going to truly compete organically.
  • The Environmental charities we reviewed are not currently reaching teachers and parents searching for information about how to explain climate issues to children. We found significant gaps in the ranking profile—to take just one term, no charity we looked at ranks on the first page of Google for “how to explain climate change to children”. Read the Environmental sub-sector audit.
  • Three of the sub-sectors we reviewed have critical issues with their non-branded rankings. The Environmental, Children's Charities and Hearing Loss & Visual Impairment sub-sectors all rank, on average, for less than 250 non-branded keywords (e.g. Google searches that don’t include a reference to the charity name). This will be severely limiting these charities’ ability to grow their supporter base, and it’s a major area of opportunity for these charities. Those that engage with and embrace it may well see transformational levels of traffic arrive on site. The International Aid & Development sub-sector (read the audit) also fares poorly in this respect.
  • Cancer Research UK (CRUK), the largest charity by income in this report, has a predictably strong organic profile, with a caveat. It has the highest Domain Authority of all 52 charities—a whopping 9 “points” clear of the next nearest charity. The number of referring domains the site has stands at a mammoth 37,000 (only bettered by Mind, with a staggering 49,800 domains linking to their site). But the site also has a huge number of 30x and 404 codes; the second highest number across all charities, and only outdone by Alzheimer’s Society. The site has thousands of 301/2 redirects in place; this is likely to be a problem for CRUK in the medium term as these redirects become complex chains that Googlebot struggles to navigate. Macmillan, in contrast, has ~950 error codes on the site. Explore the Cancer Support & Research sub-sector audit.
  • Size of charity isn’t always a factor in a website’s performance organically. One of the charities in the Hearing and Visual Impairment sector (Sightsavers) has an income of over £300m, but has some way to go on a number of critical metrics, not least the number of non-branded terms that they rank in position one for (just 30). This is one of the single biggest eye-opening metrics that we found during this audit—while this charity straddles the line between being a visual impairment charity and an international aid charity, it ranks in position 1 for (almost) no non-branded terms in either camp. Similarly, Tearfund, who we’ve included in our International Aid sub-sector fare even worse: they hold zero non-branded first position rankings. At the other end of the scale, there are some prominent Davids amidst the Goliaths. Dogs Trust, a charity with ~£11m income and one of the smallest charities we reviewed, has a higher Domain Authority than RSPCA, Cats Protection and Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, and its estimated monthly organic traffic is 1.2m, comparable with the RSPB and the RSPCA, both household names. They’re leading the way on what’s possible with SEO for smaller charities, and they’re one of the stand out performers in this audit.
  • WWF has one of the strongest, most impressive content strategies we’ve ever seen in this sector. They hold position 1-3 rankings for keywords including “bee”, “jaguar animal” and “shark facts” (to name just a few) and for the terms “orangutan facts” and “lions in africa” they rank in position no. 1. They have a strong image SERP presence, and they own significant featured snippets. In the Environmental sub-sector, they are absolutely owning search engine results pages.

What Now?

We want you to use this data to begin understanding what’s possible in your sector. Our sub-sector audits provide tips and tricks relevant to each group of charities, based on what we see in the data: if there’s a comparatively low average on one metric like Referring Domains, we see this as an opportunity for a charity in that sector to gain an edge.

We also want you to be inspired. The Compare All functionality on this microsite will let you see who’s standing out across the whole sector, but there are no dominant winners and losers in this data. Some of the mega charities we’ve included have got at least one very poor stat on their cards. Some of the pluckier, smaller charities are punching harder than we thought they would be. Whatever the size of your charity, whatever your previous level of effort in this space, your charity has opportunities at its fingertips. More than anything, we hope this project will start a conversation at your charity about the need to place more focus on SEO.

Lastly, we hope you enjoy digging around in what is one of the sillier ideas we’ve ever had at Torchbox. Go forth, thrash the competition, be inspired by what all these amazing nonprofits are doing, and we’ll see you in the search results!

Play your nonprofit

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