Understanding and Implementing SEO for Universities

SEO for Higher Education: Leveraging Organic & Paid Search Strategies to Draw Future Students to Your Site

Did you know that 5.8 billion Google searches happen each day? Those searches range from where to eat lunch to information regarding major life decisions, like where to go to college.

Google is continuously working to help students more easily research and find data. In 2018, they added a college search feature, which provides a high-level overview of information pulled from the U.S. Department of Education. Entries for each institution include contact information, a description with photos, and most important, it provides easy answers to common questions: acceptance rate, graduation rate, and an extensive tuition breakdown.

With its more recent inclusion of the exploration tool and community college cost comparisons, Google’s college search feature is becoming more and more robust to fit the needs of users.

So, how does this impact your college or university? With increased functionality in college search, if your website or webpage’s position is low, prospective students may miss the opportunity to learn more about your programs or student life. In order to consider enrollment, they need to be able to compare more than just cost. That’s where SEO comes into play.

First of all, what is SEO?

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of increasing your website or webpage’s accessibility to maximize its traffic and rank higher on search engine results pages (SERPs). And with over 90% of the worldwide search engine market share, Google is the place to begin.

You may be wondering what your placement on Google has to do with enrollment. Well, did you know that moving up just one position in Google increases your relative click-through rate (CTR) by an average of 30.8%? And that less than 1% of internet searchers click onto the second page of a Google search? The higher you are on page one, the better visibility you have. More traffic leads to more conversions, and ultimately, better enrollment numbers.

Although there are hundreds of different factors that influence ranking, today’s post covers the fundamentals that will have the greatest impact on your college or university’s overall strategy. So, let’s take a look at how universities can leverage SEO to get in front of their students.

Keyword Research
Where do you start? By thinking like your target audience. Come up with words and topics that prospective students would search; these become your “keywords.” Keep a running list in a spreadsheet. Consider enlisting the help of admissions counselors since they tend to speak with students the most. You may even have helpful data from previous Q&A sessions.

After you’ve compiled the list, you’ll need to enlist the help of a keyword tool, like Google’s Keyword Planner, to determine each keyword’s popularity and help measure the competition to rank for them organically.

But thorough keyword research requires much more than that. When you dive deeper (and use even more advanced tools), you can uncover related long-tail phrases (inquiries over one or two words). For example, if students are searching for the short-tail phrase “criminology programs,” are there others searching “criminology programs with internships?”

Each of these longer queries provide opportunities to strategically develop your content and showcase your program’s specific value adds. By unraveling your audience’s search requests, you can create eBooks, blog posts, and webinars that answer their most burning questions. Then, you can begin driving traffic to your website. But not just any traffic, curious prospective students who are likely to convert into enrolled students.

Internal SEO & Competitor Audits

Speaking of websites, let’s talk about yours. SEO audits are integral to help identify elements of your website that are preventing it from being accurately crawled or indexed, and therefore harming your ranking. Once these red flags are identified, it’s time to fix them.

How do you conduct an SEO audit?
Since there are so many factors that impact SEO, it’s essential to take a holistic view if you want to create the most thorough and effective strategy.

In addition to some technical barriers, someone conducting an audit without a strong background in SEO could overlook important structural nuances. For example, a piece of content may be written very well, but the blog post’s technical structure could be harming your site due to slow page load time or pagination that’s unable to be crawled by search engines.

Here at Vital, we break our audit into four different sections; then, we take the time to comb through each ranking factor to identify technical issues. We’ll divide up each SEO consideration and place them in a priority hierarchy. For example, our “priority one section” includes the biggest problems that will also have the biggest impact once they’re fixed.

At the end of the audit, we may end up with 30 or more different considerations in a logical order. Then, we run through that list and fix each issue.

What about a competitor audit?
Your internal audit is only half the battle, which means audits of your competitors are the other half.

When we conduct competitor research, we analyze three things:

Ultimately, we’re asking: “Which competitors can we learn from?” “What are they doing really well that’s causing them to outrank us?” We’re going to take note of their top-ranking pages. We’ll analyze their site to see what other sites are linking to them (a key factor in Google search rankings). We can look at their paid advertising budgets to see the keywords they’re bidding on and the ads they’re running. Then, we’ll look at their conversion offerings. Are they utilizing eBooks? Webinars? Chatbots?

All of that insight is informative; it lets us know which areas we may need to strengthen. Then, we can benchmark the internal audit against each competitor with tangible data showing how many keywords they have, what kind of content they’re creating, and where we stack up by comparison.

SEO Best Practices and Technical Recommendations

As you begin comparing yourself to your competition, you may notice a pattern: Online universities are really hitting the mark with SEO. This primarily has to do with page structure, specifically subdomains vs. subdirectories. Since this is one of the most important factors for ranking, we’ve already dedicated an entire post to exploring the differences and discussing their impact on your website.

Now, what if you can’t fix your website’s structure? That’s OK. As we’ve already mentioned, there’s no shortage of SEO considerations on which to focus your attention. It would be overwhelming to cover everything. Since we’ve already talked about auditing your site, let’s take a step back and cover seven SEO best practices:

1. Take advantage of local search, college directory listings, and review sites
For an online degree program targeting people across the country, local search might not be very relevant. But for a college attracting an on-campus audience, it’s integral.

There are a number of factors that help your local SEO (yes, there’s a common theme here), including garnering links from local businesses; utilizing a consistent NAP (name, address, and phone number) across your website/external listings; and by utilizing Schema.org and Google My Business to properly signal your website’s relevance to search engines. We’ll dig a little deeper into those two tools below.

Review sites and directories can be extremely helpful, but it all depends on their performance. Do they rank for your target keywords? And if so, how many and how much traffic are they accruing? That will tell you if it’s worth having a review or directory link on those sites.

Ultimately, you want to ask whether people are actually seeing them. In the higher education space, there are plenty of sites that are solely reviewing the best criminal justice degrees. This kind of niche will help tremendously. If someone browses your criminology program for a while then stumbles upon one of these review sites, you’ll want to appear there to help validate your program in that prospective student’s eyes.

2. Recognize that your content strategy and content calendar are already created
The competitor review and initial keyword research essentially build your content calendar. All of this data is hugely influential when you have the knowledge to use it most effectively.

For example, if you’ve identified a target group of keywords, but don’t rank for them and don’t have a page that could, it’s time to create a page with new content that will address some of those queries.

Then, you can scour Google Analytics and observe which pages are converting well and which ones aren’t. What about the existing pages that are driving a lot of traffic but not converting? That behavior tells you that the topic is intriguing, but the offer clearly isn’t working. So, let’s use the data we’ve gathered to optimize that existing content and create a new offer that resonates better. Always prioritize impact.

3. Address duplicate content
Duplicate content does the opposite of creating impact. Google’s Panda algorithm update places authority on original content and penalizes websites that appear to be repeating similar content over several pages in an effort to manipulate the search engine. When the search engine discovers more than one URL with the same content, it’s unclear which one to rank higher, so both pages suffer.

A lot of academic programs create a “criminal justice degree page,” and then subsequent pages for each course included in the degree. This could quickly add up to 30 or so different pages of individual courses featuring very similar content since they’re all linked to the same major. This structure could harm your appearance on the SERP.

Academic content optimization would consolidate those course offerings onto the original program page with a table of contents that allows prospective students to jump to each topic on one page. Ultimately, you end up with a much less jarring user experience and an SEO-friendly page that has an opportunity to rank much higher.

Start small, broken links are pretty straightforward. From a technical standpoint, this means that you have a URL that was changed but not redirected, so the user only sees a 404-error page. Very bad user experience. When Google crawls your site and continuously lands on dead ends, your page authority decreases and your ranking drops. Thankfully, these are an easy fix. You should catch any 404s in your SEO audit and simply redirect the traffic.

Although they’re bad on your site, broken links on other sites present a unique opportunity: broken link building. This strategy involves using a tool, like SEMrush, to find content that was ranking but no longer exists. Maybe you have some content that would fit perfectly. Then, you can reach out to the website host and mention that their link is directing to a 404 page, offering your content in its place. You’re improving their site and they’re simultaneously helping you build backlinks.

Guest blogging is another way to build backlinks. With the extensive networking in colleges in universities, there are countless opportunities. If you’ve conducted a data study, have dense articles, or other relevant content, consider leveraging some of your reputable contacts in the higher education space. You could reach out to them with a quick summary of your content and how it could add value to their audiences. Hopefully, they publish your pieces on their websites. The more backlinks you receive from reputable sources, the more likely it is that Google will send visitors to your site.

5. Optimize website for speed and linking
For the casual browser, speed matters. According to Google, more than half of website visits are abandoned if a mobile page takes over three seconds to load. During your SEO audit, you should certainly be assessing your website speed using a tool, like WebpageTest, that essentially “grades” your website.

This tool reports important information, like: What’s your time to first byte (TTFB), the time it takes a user to start receiving content? Is static content being cached? Does your website use a content delivery network (CDN) to help minimize delays? If you’re running a lot of scripts, they all need to load before the content appears; these could be optimized to load in a single layer. Then you can understand why it’s loading so slowly and where to focus your attention.

Many times, it’s as simple as image compression. Since university and college websites typically display heavy imagery, simply taking note of image size could make a huge difference for your website speed.

6. Use videos and premium content to improve CRO and time on page
Although you want to make sure you don’t have giant files on your site, premium content will help improve time on page and conversion rate optimization (CRO). In fact, people spend an average of 2.6x more time on pages with video than those without.

The longer they spend on the page, the more time they have to increase their confidence in your institution and notice additional CTAs. Now that you’ve guided them a little further in their buyer’s journey, they might be ready for the next step. Most websites are built to only address the bottom of the funnel and only address the sale. “Enroll today.” Well, why should they?

Only a small percentage of your traffic may be ready to “enroll today,” so you could be missing a whole audience of prospective students. Instead of alienating this group, create a strategy that guides them toward enrollment.

Let’s talk about a prospective student who stumbles upon your hypothetical criminal justice degree page. They watch a video highlighting the program’s internship opportunities and a few quick testimonials from alumni who secured jobs after graduation, one of whom chose to pursue a law degree at your university and went on to become a judge. You’ve probably captured your audience’s attention, so what’s next?

Strategic and informative offers. Perhaps an article titled, “How to Determine if a Criminal Justice Degree is Right for You?” At the end of that article, you could include a link to a webinar with the now-judge-alumni discussing their journey through your program and the ease of the track to law school, not to mention the connections they developed, which ultimately helped them secure their dream job.

Creating this type of experience is more likely to convince your prospective student to reach out for enrollment information, or even to apply. But without carefully guiding them through their buyer’s journey, you could have lost them at “enroll today.”

7. Mobile first/responsive web design
How else will you lose prospective students? When your site takes too much time and effort to navigate.

Google is switching to mobile-first indexing, which means it’s going to use its mobile index instead of desktop to rank sites. There are a lot of sites that still aren’t even responsive (meaning that the layout adjusts to properly display content on different screen sizes), and universities are a big culprit.

Not only will a terrible user experience harm your ranking, it could turn students off from your institution entirely. Remember the three-second load time from earlier? Your audience has very small tolerance on mobile since it takes up the entire screen. Don’t lose them over something that you could fix.

Now that we’ve given you seven different considerations to jump start your SEO strategy, let’s talk about seven tools that will help get you there (we’ve already mentioned a few of them).

Tools for SEO

1. Schema markup for universities
OK, let’s talk about microdata first. “Schema markup,” pulled from Schema.org, is a form of microdata that includes a huge vocabulary of tags. By adding them to the HTML on your site, you signal search engines to understand the content on your site, properly categorize your pages, and better represent you on SERPs.

According to Search Engine Watch, “While it may not correlate directly to an increase in ranking, using Schema.org markup allows search engines to pull through rich snippets and rich data like images, reviews and opening hours, making your site appear more attractive on the SERP and thereby increasing click-through.”

And you guessed it, there’s a whole section at Schema.org for universities.

2. Keywords Everywhere
Remember when we talked about keyword research? Keywords Everywhere is a browser extension for Chrome or Firefox. This tool helps uncover long-tail phrases and includes the search volume, cost per click (CPC), and related competition. Having deep keyword insight really drives an effective content strategy.

3. Google Analytics
This is an excellent website analytics service to track and report your website traffic. By using Google Analytics, you can identify user behavior, such as pages generating high traffic and low conversions. Then, you can take a look at the page and see if there’s a better call to action that you could implement on the page to help CRO.

4. Google My Business
Another Google tool, verifying your school’s information establishes your online presence. Through Google My Business, students can quickly access important contact information, directions, and reviews. Be sure that the search and maps information is accurate to help prospective students find you. (And remember, make sure this contact information matches the NAP on your university site!) Take the time to add photos, update your school’s description, and make a good first impression — because this is what prospective students will look for first.

5. SEMrush
We’ve covered keywords, audits, and backlinks. What does SEMrush do? All that and more. They leverage their immense database of over 46 million domains and 120 million keywords to complete your own keyword research, track your competitor’s strategy, run your SEO audit, and identify opportunities for you to gain better search traffic. Imagine what this knowledge will do for your content strategy.

7. Enlist an SEO Expert
Wow. Take a deep breath. We’ve covered a lot.

If all the acronyms and technical jargon feels over your head, you are not alone. SEO is complex and everchanging, but it’s necessary. You can certainly empower a member of your team to jump in there and sift through all the different considerations, run audits, and set up the different tools we’ve discussed. But that’s a lot to ask without a strong background in this stuff.

Now, this is where you’re expecting the shameless plug. We should point out that the expert doesn’t have to be Vital. (But we’d love to help!) No matter who you choose, make sure that you ask them one important question: Are they experienced enough to build a plan that uses each element of SEO to work together and maximize your ROI?

SEO is tricky. It needs to be conducted strategically because PPC influences SEO. Your keyword strategy builds your content strategy. And so on.

So, how does SEO really impact your overall marketing strategy?

It has the potential to increase enrollment. Everything we’ve talked about — ranking on Google, mobile-first indexing, and broken links — probably don’t mean a lot to you, but enrollment does. If you outsource your SEO strategy to the right partner, then they won’t just talk about your rankings. They’ll talk about your goals.

You’re interested in getting a brand-new academic program off the ground? They’ll conduct the keyword research to see how students are searching and how you can position yourself at the top of the results page. How many enrollments do you want? They’ll build a strategy to maximize your numbers.

The value of SEO isn’t just in boosting your university’s website rank for your target keywords. The real value is guiding the next generation of students through your doors, students who may not have found you, students who can have an incredible impact on the world with the help of your university. Today, that’s more important than ever.

So, let’s introduce some new students to your school. If you’re interested in learning more about how Vital can help, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Talk to us about your enrollment goals, and we’ll bring the tactics.

An experienced SEO and web developer who works across all major platforms and content management systems, Dave integrates his knowledge of web development with a strong sense of inbound linking, SEO and analysis. Prior to joining the Vital team, David was an SEO specialist and web developer at a leading SEO firm and ran his own web design and SEO company. He studied web design and interactive media at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.

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