Cancer is an ugly and horrific disease, and anything anyone can do to help defeat it is worthwhile. There are a whole plethora of not-for-profit organisations out there dedicated to supporting victims and their families as well as advancing research into treatments, but the vast majority of these are reliant on donations to do their work. That means marketing – and in this day and age that means a website, and therefore organic search has a role to play as a channel just as it does for any other organisation, profit based or otherwise, that wants visitors to part with money.

I decided to have a look at the two biggest UK cancer charities, Macmillan and Cancer Research UK. Macmillan have recently revamped their site and content area so it seemed like a good time to have a particular glance over the informational aspects of both sites. As is common in the third sector, both organisations aim to inform and educate as much as they support and research or treat, and a lot of their early stage awareness traffic is likely to be drawn from this supporting content.

Device Accessibility

First things first: cross-device accessibility. Reaching the widest possible audience in a device-agnostic way is pretty essential to grow audience awareness to support fundraising. Just to get an idea, let’s look at both the site homepages and their main “information” entry point landing pages to see how things are being handled.

Cancer Research Mobile

Cancer Research UK have gone down a dual tech route with the homepage being fully responsive (i.e. wriggle your browser window size about and the site changes layout to fit) while internal pages are adaptive, selectively serving differently laid-out content on the same URLs. This approach is perfectly sensible if historical design choices mean that pushing full responsiveness sitewide isn’t practical, and by just serving URLs up with different CSS based on screen size they’ve saved themselves a lot of headaches. It’s nice and slick for users too, which is of course the main thing.

MacMillan Mobile

Macmillan have opted for the entirely adaptive/selective serving route, serving the same content with different CSS on the same URLs – again perfectly fine, slick and smooth from a UX perspective so no problems here either. Good stuff.

Sadly neither of the sites are making use of the Vary HTTP header which is pretty essential for selective serving of content based on user agent – aside from the fact that this is a signal Google uses to spot mobile content for visibility and ranking purposes, it also makes sure that caching servers (such as those used by most ISPs) double check user agent before serving a page. Not using the header to highlight that the URL content changes this way can mean caches will mistakenly show mobile pages to desktop users, or the other way around. Messy.

Content Optimisation

To be found consistently content needs to be optimised for search. That’s just one of those facts of life, like cats knocking things off tables. This is partially down to copy and the quality of the content itself, but there are (as always, at least when I’m involved) some technical considerations that need to be taken into account as well.

To get a rough idea of how this is being tackled by the two charities, I had a poke around in the code view of their respective pages on “What is cancer?” to see how things looked.

Cancer Research Content

First up is the granddaddy of SEO fundamentals, the H1 tag. Present and correct on both sites, understandably wrapped around the “What is cancer?” heading – perfectly sensible. H2 use starts off well for both, covering the subheadings of secondary content areas (particularly effective on Cancer Research’s scientific breakdown approach), but then sadly they both fall into the old trap of putting H2s around repeated and structural elements like footer sections and similar items. These are window dressing, not content sections – ensure you mark them up accordingly (my personal preference is not to use H tags at all for things like footers and sidebars).

Copy is all nicely wrapped in <p> tags on both sites, although Macmillan are missing out on both optimisation opportunities and the chance to better engage both audiences and multimedia-hungry search crawlers by not including any imagery on their page. They are admittedly taking a less clinical approach than Cancer Research, which is a logical brand decision, but surely some sort of simple diagram or illustration could have helped their page?

Macmillan Content

Advanced Markup

By which I mean the not-really-that-advanced semantic and social markups like Open Graph, Twitter Cards and To assist in awareness, search visibility potential and social reach, having these key supporting content areas marked up using the appropriate methods would seem to be a no-brainer for both organisations.

To see how they did, I picked a single article on “Cancer and your emotions” from the support sections of each and had a look at the markup. At the very least I had hopes for WebPage and Article markup, via microdata or otherwise.

On the front Cancer Research have at least made an attempt, adding both AggregateRating and Article to their page, however there’s been a bit of a misunderstanding on how semantic objects need to nest up and relate to one another to be effective, the AggregateRating markup hasn’t been implemented quite correctly, and the Article has no properties so is largely wasted effort anyway which is a shame. There’s no sign of any Open Graph or Twitter Cards on there either.

Cancer Research

Cancer Research are still doing better than Macmillan on this front though, as the latter haven’t got a scrap of, nothing for Twitter Cards and only a title and description for OG which isn’t really making good use of the markup at all.

Macmillan Markup

In Review

There aren’t any obvious technical winners in this brief look at the two sites. Cancer Research could perhaps be said to edge slightly ahead when it comes to their image use and attempt at markup, but really it boils down more to the quality of content as is so often the case, especially when technical implementation is neck and neck.

One of the 4Ps content gang would be better placed to conduct a full analysis of the content, its tone and quality and so on, but I did manage to bribe Sally Gurteen, Senior Digital Communications Executive for our B2C clients, into offering some at-a-glance thoughts:

“They’re both so different in approach, but I don’t think either of them really get it spot on.  While the content for sites of this nature is very important, user experience is what matters first since it directly influences how users discover, move through and eventually share (or don’t share) content.

The Macmillan page is overwhelming – lots of text without an easy or clear structure. Cancer Research, on the other hand, is structured very clearly but comes across as plain and disengaging.

The challenge with this sort of sector is to be as clear as crystal while also being appealing to the different parts of your audience. Applying emotional intelligence is crucial for a topic like cancer, in order to engage sensitively and appropriately with the user, as well as understanding the journey of their search intent. Some form of testing, or at least comprehensive engagement measurement, for different tones, flavours and styles of content would definitely be an advantage here to see what works best.”

So there you have it – search marketing both technical and content-wise in these two excellent examples of the third sector. No clear blue ribbon winners in this case, but with a goal like beating cancer on the table I’ll settle for a big double-thumbs-up at the solid foundations of cross-device accessibility and SEO-friendly code fundamentals.

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