A race to the top:

Search Engine Optimization for Associations

By Bill Edmunds

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AS ASSOCIATIONS USE THE INTERNET more and more — from web pages to web-based association management software to social networking — one technological advantage is becoming a necessity: search engine optimization. Search engine optimization, or SEO, is an effective tool being applied by progressive nonprofit associations and their members.

The goal of SEO is to position your organization's ranking on page one of Google. SEO has progressed from just listing keywords and meta tags in the HTML script to a total revamping of an association's website and related Internet databases. And while Google, Yahoo and other web search engines sell sponsored links on the first page of their listings, the costs for those links are beyond financial practicality for most nonprofit organizations. Though the natural listings actually have shown to bring better quality, more cost-effective traffic, this leaves associations with the task of updating and improving their websites to maximize their rankings — a task that requires highly specialized knowledge and training in SEO.

So, how does an association compete against for-profit entities and other associations within its industry? How do you increase your visibility and Internet traffic, all while working within your budget constraints and available high-tech expertise? While working with the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association (AOBA) in Nashville last year, I sought to improve the association's website and enhance the websites of its members. SEO was a key component of that strategy-with a primary goal to be listed first in Google, Yahoo, Bing and other search sites.

Our SEO strategy began with an extensive review of the various companies that could help AOBA restructure its website and focus on maximizing its ranking to boost traffic and retention, along with increasing AOBA's non-dues revenue. We looked at several local Nashville businesses such as bytes of knowledge and the Horton Group Interactive Agency (who uses the Drupal content management system). Following extensive analysis, AOBA selected an organization with a 12-year track record of success, a company called SEO Advantage®. While the company works primarily with large businesses, it had expanded into collaborating with national associations. They had been working with several AOBA West Coast members for years, and it was easy to measure the positive results they introduced.

This partnership between SEO Advantage and AOBA injected several powerful benefits. It created a yearly projected income of $1 million of non-dues revenue for the association (one-fourth of AOBA's total revenue). Additionally, it included an Internet strategy to elevate the association's rankings to the top spot for alpaca searches and a way for AOBA members to improve their websites, search engine listings and public perception.

The SEO process was approached systematically. First, the structure of the website was examined. This included the keywords, website elements, HTML code, tagging and navigation. Then AOBA developed a portal and linking plan, followed by a strategy for their member/ public news center, media/press center, blogs, social media, affiliate linking and prospect information collection.

The next step was to begin a processing phase. This incorporated blog postings, press release copy, white paper copy, website page creation, portal site copy, article copywriting, social media linking, link partners creation, directory submission, authority content creation, affiliate management, animal buying guide creation, along with continuous testing, analysis and growth.

The final phase will be measuring the results - AOBA's rankings, traffic, product or services expansion, and market expansion. Over the long term, the association will maintain a comprehensive view of its assets together with a broad view of the market and its competitors. Its position will be managed via a realistic ongoing budget, timeline and success metrics, with appropriate continuous re-investment and refinement of the design.

The largest source of projected revenue generation developed with SEO Advantage is a national animal database for alpacas. It provides added value to each member, even with no increase in dues. A Web page in this database directory is given free to each member with his or her paid membership in AOBA. The information on the page is derived from the member's profile-in essence, a listing of the member, their ranch or farm name, and the address and contact information. Members have two options to enhance that page, with costs starting at $250 per year They can expand the information about their farm, and they can also link their animal listings in the national database to display on their own websites. AOBA even offers members the option to engage SEO Advantage directly to have their own websites developed or enhanced.

Since livestock organizations focus primarily on breeding, the selling of alpacas or breed-stock services is a key member benefit. With this new system, members' animals could be highlighted in the national animal database, which is searchable by other members as well as the general public. By linking member websites with the database, it increases the search engine rankings for not only the member, but the association as well. In AOBA's review of the marketplace, they found that their members were spending more on other Internet animal databases and receiving only a portion of the benefits AOBA had to offer. It will be an easy transition to move its members to a more successful national alpaca database. It is also hoped that it will increase membership in the organization over the coming years.

For non-livestock associations, a national or regional database of products and services provided by the members is a viable service that many nonprofit groups could utilize. It creates a searchable database for the membership to reach other members or the community with their services or products. It also is an opportunity for affiliate members, corporate supporters and vendors to have an effective selling tool within the industry.

So, what are the benefits of search engine optimization? For the member it is a less expensive yet successful way to build a meaningful Internet presence. AOBA found its members were spending much more than the association charges for its web-based listing, for a less effective program with outside providers. Second, it addresses the search process for AOBA members, moving them up in the ranking so they are no longer the "683rd item on the 14th page" of Google. For the association, it moves them up to the top spot in searches, because they are interlinked with each of their member's sites and with the national animal database.

It is also set to provide a significant (non-dues) revenue stream for the association at a time that they cannot afford to increase its dues or costs for conferences and educational seminars. The AOBA staff did not have to become experts at search engine optimization, keyword listings or other website tricks to increase rankings as it is all managed and implemented in conjunction with SEO Advantage®.

Bill Edmunds is a CEO/executive director whit 12 years of experience working in association management and almost 20 years in managing marketing departments in other industries. He bas worked for 501 (c) 3, (c) 5, and (c) 6 - nonprofit organizations in the Chicago, St. Louis and Nashville areas. Bill is member of the Tennessee Society of Association Executives, past president of the St. Louis Society of Association Executives and a. member of the American Society of Association Executives. For more information Bill can be reached at (615) 891-4310.


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