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SEO 19 min read December 11, 2017

The Season Of Giving: Leveraging Charities For Link Building

The Season Of Giving: Leveraging Charities For Link Building
Picture by: Natalya Soroka

Michael Hayes
Founder of Darby Hayes Consulting, an SEO agency based in New York City and specializing in driving revenue growth for businesses of all types.
The close of the business year has always been a popular time for charitable donations. Is a way to give back to a cause we care about, and also handily reduce our taxable income. The #GivingTuesday movement which just passed was an extension of this, and created a way for non-profits to spur more donations in the "season of giving."
For SEOs and link builders, charities have been a long utilized source for high-quality backlinks, in various respects. While it may seem very self-serving, it should come as no surprise: Creative SEOs will generally weed out any way of building links on the web, everything from white-hat content marketing to hacked-site spam, and more.


Intro to link building

For those unfamiliar with "link building," I'll provide a short introduction.

One of the key ways Google decides which websites to rank well in their search engine is backlinks, i.e., 3rd party sites that link to a given website or webpage. Links are one of the most effective ways at improving ranking, but also generally the hardest ranking factors to influence.

Because of this, an entire field of practice emerged, "link building," which attempts to find creative and effective ways at generating backlinks.
These tactics can range wildly, some examples:

  • Friendly outreach, (i.e. "Hi! We've created this content, it's great, would you link please?");
  • Outright purchases, (i.e. "How much for a blog post?");
  • Broken link building, (i.e. "You are linking to a 404 page, my page is better");
  • Automated Spam, (i.e. Programmatic posting of content/links to publishing platforms like forums, web 2.0s and article directories);
  • Hacked sites, (i.e. Exploiting vulnerabilities in CMS like wordpress, posting links or content without owners consent or knowledge).

Because of the value associated with search engine rankings, the SEO community can and will find any way to build links. This includes leveraging charities, the subject of this post.


A word on ethics

I'd like to address up front any concerns about the ethics of leverage charities for link building.

I understand, it sounds weird. We should be giving to charities out of the kindness of our hearts, not for personal or professional gain. But I would frame it in this light:
1
Businesses have budgets associated with link building. Would it be better if we spent this budget solely on for-profit institutions?
2
If these tactics help to funnel more money into the hands of charities, can that be considered a bad thing?
3
Businesses leverage their charitable giving in order to leech credibility off of those good causes, this is a well-known business tactic meant to influence the psychology of customers.
4
Businesses leverage their charitable giving in order to leech credibility off of those good causes, this is a well-known business tactic meant to influence the psychology of customers. Which is worse, influencing customer behavior or influencing a soulless algorithm?
All that being said, if you don't feel comfortable with any of the tactics/strategies listed below, feel free to not partake in them. However, none are unprecedented or outside of the realm of ethical practice, in my opinion.


A word on "paid links"

I'm going to let you in on a little secret: all links are paid links.

When someone touts the dangers of "buying links," it's usually people that have little to no actual experience ranking websites or practicing SEO. If I were to guess, these people would have very little success at tactical SEO, and source all their alleged "knowledge" from industry blog posts and Google propaganda. I say this because, years ago, I was just like them. Simply put, I was, and they are, beginners.

The more years you put into the industry the more you will realize that every link has been paid for, in one form or another. It costs money to write content, it costs money to make sites look pretty, it costs money for hosting and CDNs, it costs money for strategy sessions, it costs money for PR, it costs money for customer service, it costs money for outreach, writing guest posts, running scrapers, digging through broken link reports, whatever.

So when all those white-hat links come pouring in, it can't be argued that they aren't bought and paid for. So let's dispose of those hollow "paid links" arguments and just get down to the brass tacks: this is a tactic just like any other.


Why charities make for good link building

There are several aspects of charities that make them prime target for link building, including:
1
They are trustworthy. Charities often attract very high-quality backlinks and develop a high domain authority in large part because people trust them and don't have the same hesitation around linking to them as they might a for-profit institution. This is one of the reasons SEO makes a great strategy for non-profits.
2
They are locally relevant. Most charities you will deal with on a tactical level will be local in nature. Obviously, the largest non-profits like the Red Cross are national companies, but they also have something like $500 Million in non-government contributions and don't need to be slumming around with local SEO guy.
3
They are always open to talk. Non-profits live and die on fundraising, and are always, always, always leveraging their non-profit status in order to get something for free or on the cheap. Any business owner that's given quotes to a non-profit can attest to this. This means they will be open to propositions, so you can easily get your foot in the door.

That being said, they aren't doormats and don't want to be link farms, so you still need to be creative and tactful when pitching.
4
They are a good cause! Let's not lose sight of the fact that they are a good cause that seeks to do good in the world. By supporting them you support their mission, and this is, ostensibly, a good thing.


The tactics – ways to leverage charities for link building

Ok, enough preamble. Let's get down to the real tactics you can use for link building.

Starting off with the most common and most obvious, the Sponsor page.


#1: Sponsor pages

Sponsor pages are areas on a site where a company will list out all their supporters. This sometimes (but not always) comes with a link back to the company site.

This is the most common tactic because it's so simple. I give you money, you give me link.

Of course, you'll have to be a little more courteous than that when reaching out. Here's an example of one outreach e-mail I sent just the other day:
I obviously want to confirm that I'll be getting a link before I make the donation. Thankfully I got a nice response as well:
How do you go about finding these opportunities? Just like any webpage, you need to get creative with your Googling. Here are some search queries you can use:

  • "sponsor us" $100
  • inurl:/sponsors $100
  • inurl:/sponsors $100 AND "501(c)(3)"
  • inurl:/sponsors $100 ("New York City" OR "NYC" OR insert city name here)
  • "sponsor our team" AND "501(c)(3)"

You will find that there are plenty of local charities, non-profit athletic teams, animal shelters, etc. Here are some examples I've found using the above searches:
You get the idea. There are plenty of opportunities across the web.
PRO TIP: Use some of your niche keywords to find sponsorships that are extremely relevant to your niche or your geography. Not only will it provide relevant links, but it will make more sense to the organization, and avoid getting flagged as a spammer when reaching out.


#2: Event sponsorships

This is one of my favorites because it starts to cross over into more classic PR methodologies. The tactic can come in a few different ways:

Donate your office space
If you have an office space you can host an event for a charity of your choice. This counts as an "in-kind" donation, but also leaves you open to being mentioned in press releases and press/blog coverage for the event.

Donate your equipment, merchandise or service
Another "in-kind" donation, this is great if you have products or services that you can provide to an event coordinator. Some common examples are: DJ equipment for parties/events, food or drink purchases for fundraisers, random "junk" that can be raffled off for donations.

Get creative: What do you do? How can you do it to help someone? If you are an internet marketer, maybe you can help with website set-up or promotion. If you are a graphic designer, offer to design flyers. You get the idea.

This is all well and good, but even better (in my opinion) is going one step up the food chain and organizing an event yourself.

Run your own fundraiser
This is my favorite tactic because it doesn't rely on any specific charity organization, but allows you to organize a fundraiser for yourself, generating your own funds that will be used for good.

In this way you will not only generate coverage for your company, but spur donations. You essentially become the charity (although not technically).

Here's how it works:
1
Pick a cause you care about and/or is of urgent need (such as hurricane relief after a disaster hits.)
2
Begin to organize a fundraising event which will raise funds to donate to a relevant charity (such as the American Red Cross). Use your office space, if possible, to host the event. Make the event fun, like a block party, with raffles, live music, food and refreshments.

I know, easier said than done, and this will take resources and time. I didn't say it was easy.
3
Reach out to other companies in your sector or in your location to ask for their support. You want to brand the event and fundraiser with your niche or your location, so that all the coverage you get will have that relevance as well. Think "HVAC for the Homeless," or "San Diego for Sandy Victims," something like that.
4
Put together a landing page or a microsite for your event. This will be where all the coverage points to. If you use a microsite, i.e. "HVACfortheHomeless.com," you should then 301 it to a relevant landing page on your site after the event is over, otherwise the links will be gone.
5
Put together a professional press release. Host the press release on your site for reference, and consider using a press service to hit the wire, although you won't rely on this to get coverage, you will be doing your own outreach.
6
Submit the event to all community calendars in your area (a nice link building trick in its own right).
7
Reach out to all relevant bloggers and newspapers to get coverage for the story.
Again, I didn't say it would be easy. There's a lot of work that goes into making something press-worthy, and a lot of logistics that go into running an event.

The upside is, it works, and people are happy to support a good cause. Check out this outreach e-mail for an event I recently put together for a local client:
And a very nice positive response:
After a little back and forth we got a blog post, a community calendar entry and an offer to share on social, nice! One of the biggest challenges with "white-hat" link building is finding something that is worthy of press mentions. Timely charities are definitely worthy of coverage, especially local coverage, so this is really a great fit.

Above all, you are also generating new revenue for a good cause!


#3: Scholarships

Another great way to create a charitable arm of your organization (and gain exposure and links from it) is by creating a Scholarship. Albeit this has been run into the ground over the past 5 years or so, but it still provides an effective way to give back to your community and build SEO equity at the same time.

Here's how it works:
1
Virtually every college and high school has a list of "External Scholarships." These scholarships can range from a full, $40,000 scholarship down to $500 grants. You will endeavor to get listed on as many of these pages as possible.
I recommend offering $1,000 to one student each year. It may sound like a lot of money at first (and it is a lot of money to a broke college kid), but it comes out to like $80 a month, equivalent to a phone bill, and can garner you dozens of backlinks or more.

Some Google searches to find these opportunities:
site:.edu external scholarships
inurl:k12 external scholarships

2
Create a beautiful landing page with your guidelines, and perhaps a video introduction. Have it hosted on your main site, as you want links to benefit your domain. It's important to come across as very legitimate here.
PRO TIP: After you've awarded your first scholarship, create a "Past Winners" section with a picture and bio, so that people know you aren't some type of scam.
3
Create a giant list of outreach prospects. NOT JUST the External Scholarship pages mentioned above, but relevant blogs and press that might be interesting in providing coverage. (This is where you can outdo the generic competition).
To this end, consider making the scholarship some type of special interest, either geographical (i.e. available to NYC students only), or other interest group (single mothers, Irish-Americans, Engineering students, etc). Press loves a good angle, and this gives it to them. The trade-off of course is that you will have a smaller, niche audience, so pick a big enough niche to make it worth your while.
4
Don't be a scumbag. Some people offer a scholarship and then never pay out. This is really corny and shortsighted. This scholarship can be a source of fresh links each year, but not if it's a scam.
I'm not a lawyer or tax pro, consult a professional to talk about the tax ramifications of a scholarship.

There is a reason this tactics has been used repeatedly, and it's because it works. If I told you I could get 30+ .edu and .k12.us links for $80 a month, you'd be foolish not to look into it.

And while financial aid offices and guidance counselors probably get a ton of these e-mails, you can still get lots of interest. You should endeavor to "wow" the staff visually, that will entice them to share, like this example:
Furthermore, you should view it as an opportunity to foster good relationships with the community. When I've done this in the past, I make sure to add on layers of perks for the winners, such as:

  • Local limo company offers $1,000 scholarship plus a free prom limo ride to high school seniors.
  • Local consultancy offers scholarship, plus ongoing mentorship, letters of recommendation and preference in future internships.

You get the idea. It's more than just paid links.

Let's pass to some examples from rather prominent sites that have offered a scholarship program. NYC-based company Empire Maids offers to write an essay on the importance of education to NYC Youth and the best author gets the scholarship.
As you can see this is a common tactic, used by large national sites and smaller local sites alike.


Conclusion

Supporting a good cause should be part of every established business. Ramping up the culture of giving, while at the same time gaining exposure and benefiting your SEO, is a perfect recipe, in my opinion.

Not only are the basic "sponsor" pages relatively easy and effective, but it opens the door to more complex, involved efforts that have the potential for bigger benefits, to both the charity and your company.

Press coverage and link worthy events or assets are hard to come by (if they were easy, everyone would do them), and one of the best ways to break through the noise and get attention by blogs and press is to leverage a good cause.

Doing so in a creative, thoughtful and honest way will reap rewards for everyone involved.

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