Competition for a spot on the first page of Google can be intense—especially in higher education. If you search for “what is the best MBA program in the US” (sans quotes), you will find at the top of the search engine results page (SERP) a “People also ask” box, some ads, and a few organic listings.
Google reports under the search box that there are “About 304,000,000 results.” How many of those do you think people actually read? We’re going to guess that most people probably will not read even the first ten results on that topic (just a hunch), so that leaves hundreds—if not thousands—untouched. Just them and the crickets.
While our search example is a competitive topic and a fairly broad term, it illustrates how much content and information is available online. There are university web networks out there whose sheer volume of content outweighs small publishing houses.
With so much content available to searchers, getting listed on the first page of Google is important. Otherwise, it’s unlikely your web pages will be discovered.
Now, let’s take a look at the higher education SEO best practices that will help you rank on the first page.
1. Define Your Goals
We often think in terms of just the student body when we picture people on the web searching for higher-ed-related things. Your actual goals as a university might expand that picture a bit:
- Are you hoping to grow enrollment?
- Do you need to manage your university’s reputation?
- Are you trying to reach out to fundraising sources?
- Do you need to recruit talent?
- Are you seeking to improve your public relations?
Each of these suggests a different targeted user before we even talk about what keywords they will type into Google. We might be seeking to attract potential students, parents, teachers, professors, and even the odd reporter or blogger. Let’s look at the strategy to address each of the above goals:
- Growing enrollment: Market the university to attract students, or parents/teachers/counselors who might refer a student
- Manage reputation: Spotlight academic achievements, awards, athletics team victories, positive rankings
- Fundraising: Foster a sense of community for alumni, spotlight specific donor opportunities, showcase donor impact
- Talent recruitment: Present the campus as an awesome, dynamic place to work with golden career advancement opportunities
- Improve public relations: Publicize campus community, highlight diversity and positive atmosphere, promote key staff, improve brand sentiment
We will mostly be focusing on the student in this article, as increasing student enrollment is typically the top priority of most higher education institutions. But when you’re developing your SEO strategy, you should keep the big picture in mind as well, since any higher education institution has the above goals in some mixture of ranking priorities.
We already have a whole article about “The Top Ten Questions Students Search About Your College” based on search activity analysis statistics from one of the top SEO analytic engines around. We did some of your research for you!
Keyword semantics is a whole science in itself. SearchEngineJournal has a deep article on user intent, so consider that a good “101” introduction.
Briefly, most web search queries fall into the “do – know – go” pattern. The user either wants to do something, know something, or go to a specific page or site on the web. That’s one theory that makes a good starting point, but it doesn’t cover everything. Searches that apply specifically to your university, as we cover in our “top ten questions” article, have specific wording which you can ensure appears on your site.
Furthermore, “keyword stems” are secondary words on a page that help Google contextualize a query’s intent. That way when a user searches for “black cat,” Google has enough information to tell whether your page is about the animal, the Washington D.C. nightclub, the short story by Edgar Allen Poe, the Marvel comics character, or the Janet Jackson song. It turns out that talking about a subject naturally is exactly how you direct Google to consider your content in the light of user intent.
The takeaway: create a log and call it your “keyword lexicon.” Within, you have all the targeted phrases that you want to rank higher for, depending on your goals. Work those phrases into relevant content pieces on your site – it’s right there in our next step.
Here’s one of those advantages we mentioned that universities have. Content marketing revolves around some simple rules:
- Talk about a subject
- Focus down on details of the subject
- Broaden the focus to talk about the perimeter of the subject
- Talk about the subject a lot
- Talk about the subject some more
- More more more!
Luckily, being the central hub of academics in society, universities are natural content mills. You have professors, teachers, and faculty all eager to show off their competence. You have students with busy minds and passionate subjects they love to discourse. You have news going on all over campus, with classes, lectures, and activities to report. You even have an educated, white-collar environment with people who can compose well-structured content.
Your school’s website can use all of these resources. Creating Content Hubs on Your University Website to Cater to Your Varied Audiences,” which is a good step in this direction. More to our main point, we highlight some examples of the best university blogs we’ve found and analyze their respective strategies. It’s a great inspiration piece to get your ideas flowing.
Remember that all this content has a few other functions besides just pushing you higher on a SERP. It builds your brand reputation, impresses students when they get to your site and see everything going on, and it stimulates your on-campus community. A media-rich university is a happy university.
While a portion of your student body is from out-of-state or international locations, the majority of prospective students are local. That means they’re conducting searches like “colleges near me.” To ensure that your school appears for local searches, you need to optimize your citations.
Citations are online directory listings that contain your name, address, and phone number–this is commonly referred to as NAP. This information tells Google where you’re located so that they can include you in relevant local searches.
There are many different types of citations, some in niche directories and others that are used across industries. Most SEOs will tell you that it is essential for every business to have a comprehensive up-to-date listing on:
- Google My Business (GMB)
- Bing Maps
Google might have already entered your address into Maps as a point of interest, but you should still claim the listing and enhance it. A GMB listing includes images, reviews, links to social media platforms and website pages, and interactive elements; it’s basically a mini-brochure for your campus. GMB listings are often the first thing that searchers find, so you want to ensure that your’s is compelling.
While general business data platforms, like GMB and Facebook, are important, you must also create citations within industry-specific directories. Here are a few we recommend for higher education institutions:
Make sure that you’re using consistent NAP across all business directories, as well as social media profiles.
This is the technical side of SEO, but it’s one that people often neglect.
Thought bubble: The present younger generations may be at a disadvantage. Older generation web users grew up with the web in the 1990s and understood how the underlying structure works intuitively. Later generations came along with a mobile phone in hand, by which time website development amounted to “install WordPress and you’re good to go!” Yes, but later generations miss out on the technical side while everybody assumes they “just know.”
So head on over to Google’s SEO starter guide if you need that refresher. This doesn’t really deal with on-page content so much as it deals with technical specs. A brief list of checks you should make for pages on your website:
- Use title tags
- Use header tags sensibly (they work just like an outline)
- Use description tags
- Consider structured data for nonstandard content such as schedules, syllabuses, menus, course catalogs…
- Don’t hide text or alter text between what Google’s crawlers “see” and what visitors see
- Submit a site map when you’re sure your site setup is finalized – or whenever you make major structural changes to it
Here’s a big problem that large websites like university sites struggle with: Crawl depth.
Ideally, every page of your website should be within 3 links from the front page (root-level URL) of your website. Google’s search crawlers follow links they find, but they only search so “deep” before they give up and backtrack. Directories, index pages, and a range of navigation menus help with this. Over and over, we find sites complaining “this page never gets indexed by Google.” That page is buried behind eight clicks, nobody can find it.
Overall, you should understand that Google’s indexing and search tools use AI methods which they are improving all the time with the goal of charting the web the way users want to navigate it. A sensible page with a coherent structure that looks good to you will also look good to Google. But Google cannot “read” in a comprehensive way, so you need to scatter cookie crumbs and put up signposts for it to not get lost, so to speak. This is why title tags, headers, etc. come in handy for SEO.
Nearly all Internet traffic has now gone mobile, to the point where Google will de-list a website if it is not mobile-friendly.
Not only should your site be welcoming to phones and tablets, but it needs to load fast and be snappy to navigate, as well as being handicapped-accessible. When in doubt, a good rule of thumb here is “plain instead of fancy.” Not every page needs to have gyrating animations playing all over it. Rich media is nice, but watch what embedded videos do to your load times. Even plain image content can weigh a web page down if the image sizes are too large (in terms of data, not dimension).
Google has some guidance for these points as well:
- Google’s package of Core Web Vitals tells you what site metrics matter, and helps you test your domain for issues
- Use the Google page speed tool for a speed test and breakdown of issues it encounters
- Use Google’s mobile test tool to check your site’s performance on phones and tablets
- Use Google Search Console to detect other vital web stats
The rapid pace of current technological progress has led to an increase in the pace of change to Google’s standards. This means new developments in common site standard tools like WordPress and its plugins. Therefore, if your site is more than ten years old and hasn’t been maintained to modern standards, it’s likely failing on one of the above metrics.
Poor site speed and mobile usability frustrate users and Google alike. Sites with bad marks in the speed and mobile usability category end up with a high bounce rate, meaning visitors are getting to your site and leaving right away. These are mission-critical problems that you should have a developer fix right away.
Have you noticed that throughout this blog post, we’ve included links to other web pages on our website? We’re doing this because website maintenance is a complex topic, naturally. But while we’re at it, internal links help Google to navigate a website and also serve as yet another signpost telling it that certain pages are important.
In addition, being liberal with internal links helps students to find more information on your site. As we mentioned before, universities tend to have large, sprawling domains with many linked sub-departments. Having a “master menu” at the top for the website at large and a “submenu” in the sidebar for the local department of the current page is one strategy to manage a bulky site.
There’s more to ranking well on Google than just blaring great content. Google cares who your friends are too, so it takes into account the referrals it gets from other websites. Google views these links as a “vote of confidence” and because other people find your content useful, it boosts your webpage’s authority.
Here again, universities are in a good position to reap backlinks. Local news websites will link to you whenever a story develops. You can encourage that by sending them a press release whenever you add a new building to the campus, announce a new coach for your team, expand a department, or other newsworthy events. Alumni will naturally link to your site for their credentials if nothing else. Establishing links to the community for extracurricular activities will foster backlinks as well. And of course, publishing your research will be an evergreen source of backlinks whenever somebody cites your study.
Learn more about link building in our article “Easy Link Building Strategies to Grow Your Business’ Authority and Increase Rankings.”
Naturally, social media is important in today’s web. While this doesn’t help SEO directly, Google still crawls links from social media content, so that’s one more inroad for crawlers and a minor backlink strategy on its own.
Higher education learning institutions benefit from active social media accounts in many ways. Students hang out there almost exclusively anyway. Social media is great for sharing images and media showing off your campus and culture. And it puts a friendly, in-touch face on your institution.
That wasn’t so painful, was it? As much variety as there is in colleges and universities, that’s how much variety there is in higher-ed websites. We find some to be better put-together than others, but just about all of them can use some TLC. Remember that today’s student spends a lot of time using technology and will likely judge you by your website quality.
The higher education industry is fiercely competitive; if you’re looking for help optimizing your website for search, feel to reach out to us. We’re happy to dig into your SEO strategy and give you advice that will help your school rank at the top of Google.