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As founder and CEO of Sozo Firm, Andrew Jensen provides corporations and nonprofits with web marketing efficiency consultation. Through advising on issues ranging from search engine strategy to website usability, he enjoys helping nonprofits experience firsthand the potential of the web.
Josh: Andrew, thank you so much for speaking with the Case Foundation today, we are delighted to have you. Your industry, the Search Engine Optimization (SEO) industry, has become an important component of online marketing strategy as the influence of search engines grows online. While many organizations (nonprofit and for profit) have picked up on SEO, I think others have yet to be introduced to the idea. Could you give us some background?
Andrew: Ever since the early days of the web in the mid '90s, website owners saw the opportunity for wealth and success if they could only get their websites to rank near the top of the list in the Lycos, AltaVista and InfoSeek search engines. Some webmasters tried to "game the system" and were temporarily successful in having these early search engines prominently display their websites even for irrelevant searches. Search engines responded by developing increasingly complex algorithms which relied on scores of factors to determine how well web pages should rank in search results. Google, for instance, relies on a couple hundred factors and regularly improves its algorithms. Simplistically speaking, SEO focuses on increasing both the quantity as well as the quality of traffic to a particular website through "organic" (non paid) search results. While some search engine results can still be manipulated, the best SEO strategies today center on developing websites for the user, with rich content laid out in a logical format and in compliance with search engine recommended webmaster guidelines.
Josh: One of the things that really piqued our interest in your company, the Sozo firm, is its commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). We’ve experienced it first-hand; your pro bono efforts have been a great help to the Case Foundation and our sister organizations, and it is greatly appreciated. What motivates you to be so committed to CSR?
Andrew: I'll credit my parents with instilling that within me. They required my siblings and I to volunteer a few hours a week at a community nonprofit for 2 years (ages 14-15). I chose to serve in the Accounts Payable department at our local hospital, and I had a blast. During the summers of my teen and college years, I served at several youth camps in the eastern U.S., and, since completing graduate school, I've had the privilege to serve at several religious and community organizations. Success and happiness are not the byproducts of commercial fame and wealth; there is hardly anything more fulfilling than giving of yourself to help further a noble cause. My dream is to start a nonprofit to help equip disadvantaged kids in Baltimore & York with web/video technical skills to prepare them for careers or for starting their own businesses.
Josh: This is really truly admirable Andrew, and right at the foot of things we care about. At the Case Foundation, we see a crossroads between technology and the nonprofit sector. It seems like the Sozo firm sits right at the fault line of the two. In your experience have you seen many nonprofits embracing SEO, and what sorts of success have you seen?
Andrew: Many nonprofits have been a bit slow to recognize the value in SEO or else their understanding of it is incomplete. I find that a lot of my time with nonprofits is spent educating them about SEO, clarifying misconceptions and, hopefully, empowering them with the knowledge that they can use to apply to their websites and become more visible online. Some nonprofits even have a supporter or staff member who knows just enough about SEO to be dangerous; they might then apply some minor changes to a website which have huge negative consequences in search engines. We'll address the problem areas, advise them on sustainable web strategy, and gradually watch their traffic increase along with their rankings in search engines. Many nonprofits that we've worked with have had phenomenal success with their websites; sometimes, however, I fear this online success can lead to a false sense of security as nonprofits stop being proactive and let Google do all their marketing work for them. Change is inevitable in our rapidly progressing, technologically oriented world; nonprofits need to be ready to stay abreast if not ahead.
Josh: Speaking of staying abreast, obviously we don’t want to give away your secret, but do you have any general advice for nonprofit organizations trying to improve on their web marketing?
Andrew: Develop useful content and lots of it! Take advantage of social media sites to connect with your supporters, other change makers, and even your opposition. Be proactive with your website and internet marketing; don't sit back and wait for people to come to you - creatively drive them to your website. Humbly ask other nonprofits to profile your organization on their blogs, and serve out the same kindness to nonprofits you admire and work with. With their permission, profile corporations and businesses who support you; bravely encourage them not only to give financially but to also give you publicity through references to your organization on their websites. Be sure to read the SEO basics for nonprofits.
Andrew: Definitely Google. Though I'll readily concede that Yahoo! has made some incredible progress over the years, and Bing definitely beats single-handedly the earlier Microsoft search engines. Every year, sometimes with much pizazz, a handful of new search engines go public. Many of them even boast former Google or Yahoo staff as part of their team. However, I have yet to be impressed with the search results. Organic search is much, much more complicated today than it was when baby Google was launched in '98. It's not impossible, but it would be very challenging for a new search engine to take over anytime soon. At the same time, if the Bing-Yahoo deal actually materializes with Bing providing the search results for Yahoo, that will be a significantly large enough sector of the search market that nonprofits should care how their sites are ranking there too. But I don't see Bing overtaking Google anytime soon.
Josh: In the internet world things change by the millisecond. We have heard of new types of user interfaces like Google Wave which might revolutionize the way we use the net, so how do you think your industry will change in the near future?
Andrew: Google Wave is incredible. Live interactivity, I believe, is going to cause a paradigm shift in much of how we share and react to information throughout the net. Coupled with that, Google Search is not the same search engine we had even a year ago. The use of personally tailored search results coupled with geographically biased search is already outdating many "traditional" SEO techniques. My Google search results may vary from yours; my search results right now may vary from the results I might see in a few minutes due to being influenced by other searches I make. For a traditional SEO company to "stay in the game," they will have to essentially redefine the scope of what they do and, throwing away their bag of tricks, help clients truly succeed with a much broader web presence that offers tangible value to users.
While it is still crucial, of course, to make sure a website is structured in accordance with search engine webmaster quality guidelines, the thrust now is for nonprofit organizations to proactively reach out and connect with others in the broader scope of the web, encouraging open dialogue, offering multimedia experiences, and contributing content of value. The nonprofit that will find success online tomorrow will begin working today toward becoming an organization that not only has an impact in the physical world but one that also has an impact online.
Josh: Well Andrew, this has been extremely thought provoking and more than informative for nonprofits and other organizations trying to learn the ropes on the web. Thanks so much for joining us today and we'll make sure to keep checking in with you as this industry evolves.