How is search engine optimization for a nonprofit Web site different from “normal” SEO? I asked a couple of SEOs this question, and found out something surprising (at least to me) — nonprofit SEO is pretty much the same as the other kind. The goals may be different, but the basic SEO principles don’t change. If you want your Web site to be found in a search engine, you need relevant keywords, good content, unique Title and Meta tags per page, lots of incoming links, and so forth. That’s true whether you’re saving an endangered species or selling shoes.

What is different for nonprofits? To find out, I talked to Keri Morgret, who’s the site manager and in-house SEO for a project at an educational nonprofit research institute. It turns out that nonprofits do have some advantages! Besides the fact that most nonprofits are currently behind the technology curve, which gives those who are SEO-savvy a competitive edge, there’s also some serious free stuff available.

Nonprofits characteristically operate on a shoestring budget. This is especially true in our current economic times. So it was wonderful to learn that a bona fide, IRS-certified 501(c)(3) organization has advantages that include a bunch of free services. Based on Keri’s input and some additional research, below are seven budget-saving tips for smart nonprofits to consider.

Start with Some Free Search Engine MarketingThe Google Grants program awards free AdWords advertising to selected charitable organizations. Google is currently helping more than 4,000 organizations in this way, giving them a monthly allowance capped at $10,000 (or $40,000 if you qualify) in pay-per-click ads at no cost. They require that you use Google Analytics (also free) to frequently monitor and manage your keywords, but it’s in your best interest to do so.

There are a number of reasons why a nonprofit organization would want to use a Google Grant:

First, it’s free advertising!
Second, PPC advertising can help you find new donors or supporters and spread the word about your cause to people already interested in your topic. The ads appear on the search results pages when people search for the keywords you specify, so it’s a targeted audience. Your account is only charged when someone clicks your ad to go to your Web site. This can immediately bring traffic to your site, even if your organic listing is still buried on page 15.
Third, PPC ads are a fertile testing ground for keywords. The grant allowance gives you the freedom to explore different wording choices and identify new phrases people are using to find what you offer. (For-profit businesses would drool at the thought!) You’ll need to install Google Analytics (also free) to help analyze your results, and regularly log in to manage your AdWords campaigns. Keri pointed out that because you can now see the actual queries people use to trigger your ads, instead of just “3,234 other unique queries,” you have enough detail to make keyword research particularly effective.
Interested? Read more about how search engine marketing can help nonprofits and pay-per-click methodology in general. Then apply for a Google Grant and start your new marketing campaign.

Note: You may be wondering whether other search engines offer free advertising, as well. Yahoo! does not; instead, they donate money to a hand-picked list of charities. I also could not find anything being offered by Microsoft adCenter specifically tailored to nonprofits.

Add an E-Mail CampaignE-mail marketing lets you create a bulk e-mail campaign and track the results. While there are many services you could choose from, your shoestring budget will appreciate this: a company called Vertical Response offers nonprofits a great deal. Any 501(c)(3) organization is eligible to send up to 10,000 e-mails per month for no charge. If your organization needs to send more than that, additional e-mail credits can be paid for with a 15 percent discount. They’ll also give you 15 percent off postcard mailings and online surveys, if you like.

How does an e-mail campaign affect your SEO and Web site marketing? People receiving your e-mails may click to go to various landing pages on your site. One of the best features of Vertical Response is that it integrates with Google Analytics. You’ll be able to track those clicks, learn what landing pages work for what keywords, and strategize your marketing further.

Use Videos to Expand Your Online MarketingVideo offers a compelling way to communicate what your organization stands for. Reading about the plight of the manatees, for example, pales in comparison to watching a 30-second clip of a manatee rescue as it happens. To get exposure for a video, you can post it on YouTube or another video-sharing site, give it a keyword-rich description, and link it back to your own Web site. This is a great way to increase exposure and traffic for a site, and anyone can do this at no charge. However, nonprofits that qualify have a few extra perks they can take advantage of.

The YouTube Nonprofit Program gives nonprofits in the U.S. and U.K. the following benefits:

Increased uploading capacity
Premium branding
Listing on YouTube’s nonprofit channel and the nonprofit videos page
“Call-to-action” overlays
That last benefit lets you show a semi-transparent ad overlay on your video as shown below. Interested viewers can click the overlay and jump to your Web page, where you can collect e-mail addresses, sign-ups, signatures, or even donations.

Use Pictures to Maximum AdvantageThe photo-sharing site Flickr gives good causes a break by waiving the fee for a pro account. (It’s normally just $25 a year, but we’re maximizing a shoestring budget here.) You want to have a pro account because with it you can very effectively get links as well as content from Flickr. One important tip: Be sure to tag all your images with juicy, relevant keywords.

Collect Donations Online, Without Buying an E-Commerce SystemIf you want to be able to collect donations online without the e-commerce hassle and expense, you’ll be happy to hear about another special promotion for nonprofits. Google Checkout is available to nonprofit organizations who participate in the Google Grants program for free until 2010. It allows you to put a “Donate” button on your Web page that lets visitors check out at Google.

Get Free SoftwareTo get down to the absolute basics, before you can operate a Web site or even think about SEO, you have to have a computer and some software to run it.

TechSoup has established partnerships with many big-name software providers to offer free or reduced-cost technology to nonprofits. One such partner is Microsoft. Their Corporate Citizenship outreach to nonprofits, for example, can provide software donations and free licensing for lots of Microsoft products.

Participate in the Online Community and WinIn Keri’s experience, she’s found that the SEO community is generous with people working for a nonprofit org. Two years ago, Keri was the winner of Bruce Clay, Inc.’s first nonprofit charity contest, which awarded her free attendance to SMX Advanced and four days of search engine optimization training. She said she regularly runs Twitter queries for “nonprofit contest” and similar keywords looking for other opportunities. This spring it paid off when she applied and was awarded a free booth for her organization at the Web 2.0 Conference.

Besides winning prizes, participating in the online nonprofit community can boost your SEO know-how and give you valuable networking connections that can lead to links and increased traffic. The Nonprofit Technology Network, or NTEN, is a nonprofit org that strives to help other NPOs use technology effectively. They provide education (seminars and the like) and networking opportunities. You might want to join ($60 for a small .org, $85 for an individual membership), but even non-members can read their blog or sign up for their newsletter. You’ll get lots of free nonprofit news and technology info that includes a good dash of SEO advice.