Search Engine Optimization Basics for Associations


Issue: March 2011

Search Engine Optimization Basics for Associations

By Ray van Hilst

Nice website. Shame I didn’t find it when I did research on your association’s industry.

Associations are natural thought leaders and like to be known as the go-to expert for their niche. However when I ask web users, “How do you research something related to your work?” their answer is almost always “Google.” Not, “I visit my association’s website.”

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is constantly evolving with new technologies helping web users find the right websites. Yet every day, I see association websites lacking SEO basics that could help them be shown in more industry-related searches. For all intents and purposes, Google doesn’t even know the site exists. So where should you start?

Your Acronym Is Not A Search Term.
Many associations assume the best search for their site is based on the acronym. But if your acronym is AWA, do you want to be found as the American Water Association or Applied Widgets Association?

Start with a look at your industry and key terms that apply to your area of expertise. List the most relevant ones covering what you do and your content. Here are just a few sources and considerations:

  • Use the full name of your organization including the industry.
  • What are the hottest topics at your conferences or in your publications?
  • What search terms help you find your competitors, whether it’s another association or a vendor offering education?
  • Look at your website analytics; what terms are already delivering traffic?
  • What are key terms the media uses about your industry in either mainstream media or business trades?
  • If your organization is regional, include the area you serve (state, region, city).

There are many tools to explore search terms including the keyword tool that is part of Google AdWords, as well as paid tools and services. Spend some time with them to build a concise list.

Lastly, avoid jargon. Remember, how you refer to a subject may not be what outsiders type into Google.

Meta Tags: Love Them. Use Them.
Meta Tags tell the web browser about the page you are reading including the page name, description, and the keywords for the page. It is also the first data a search engine reads when it finds a web page and stores it in the search engine database, yet many websites don’t have any Meta Tags on their pages.

Modern Content Management Software (CMS) systems easily add tags to your website. Go back to your list of keywords and make sure you are adding them as part of the process of creating and updating web pages. Include:

  • Title Tag: Generates the title at the top of your web browser. Give every page a title that relates to page content and includes one of your keywords.
  • Description Tag: Provides the description shown in the search engine results page.
  • Keyword Tag: Tells the search engine the subject of the page.

Write Great Content
Most associations do this well already. However make it more search engine friendly by remembering:

  • Use your key terms in the headline and body copy, but don’t overdo it and make your copy unreadable;
  • Don’t put all of your content behind your member login. Make some content available to the general public and search engines.

Links and URLs Matter
Even small associations can have well over 1,000 pages on their website. As you create content, make sure it can be found and understood by search engines.

  • Use friendly URLs in your site that describe the page content. For example, instead of$9, use a URL such as
  • With 1,000+ pages, you can’t expect a search engine to know which pages are relevant. Use links with descriptive anchor text in your newsletters, press releases, and throughout your site to help readers (and search engines) find your most important content.

SEO is Everyone’s Job Search Engine Optimization is not a one-time project. It should be a priority for everyone adding website content. Make sure they know the key terms, most relevant pages, and URL guidelines.

Most sites have a web content approval process. Make SEO part of the content creation process by including SEO basics in the review.

Every day new blogs, websites, and social media outposts are created about your association’s subject. The only way to stand out is to make sure search engines can find your site and your content.

Ray van Hilst is director of client strategy and Marketing at Vanguard Technology, an online technology service provider for associations and association management companies. He can be reached at @rvanhilst or rvanhilst@vtcus.


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