Summary: Our complete one-stop guide for search engine optimization for the higher education industry. We drill down to the essential components of an effective SEO strategy that will get your university website noticed on the web.
Prospective students are searching the Internet for college, program, and career information. To position your university as a voice of authority and expertise, you need to rank highly for prospective student’s top questions and draw as many of those searches to your site as possible.
This article presents the complete higher-ed search engine optimization (SEO) playbook in one place and shares the essential elements of creating an effective SEO strategy.
SEO: Every Strategy Needs a Plan
Developing an SEO and content marketing strategy for a whole university is a considerable project. To make sure your effort isn’t wasted, you need to formulate a plan that best meets your goals. So what is a school’s goal in attracting search traffic to their website? On the surface, you might just say “to drive more enrollment,” but you can focus your campaign on subsets of that broad general goal.
Possible university goals in an SEO campaign:
- Increase enrollment in select programs
- Increase brand awareness and visibility of a new program
- Change the focus market to attract more of one demographic
- Stay competitive with other universities
- Boost the school’s image and manage its reputation
- Promote a new location or feature
- Attract more funding from potential donors
For each goal, you should have in mind a target audience. If you’re opening a new branch, perhaps there’s a market that has been under-served before, and now they need to know about this new opportunity. Or if there’s a “silicon prairie” tech boom going on in your town, you may want to emphasize your engineering and STEM programs.
Keyword Research: Search For Searches!
Nothing gives you insight into creating ideal website content like seeing how people search the web. If only there were a “search engine for searches”? Well, these kinds of resources do exist. Some starting points:
- AHrefs: SEO analysis tool, close to the industry standard
- SEMRush: A more feature-filled SEO analysis tool, very close competitor
- Google Search Console: Better for analyzing the traffic you get already
- Ubersuggest: A keyword suggestion generator
- Answer the Public: A search snooper which pulls up whole questions people search on a topic
Our goal with these is to find out what our audience is searching for, and then write to position content so it is a response to that query. Searches about tuition costs can be answered with a full fee schedule and links to financial aid. Searches about career prospects from a degree or course can be answered with testimonials from alumni about their ongoing career success. Whatever the query is, you want to have a web page that provides the answer.
Search is Evolving
It is important to note that SEO keyword practices have changed drastically over the years. As Google continues to update its algorithms and introduces artificial intelligence methods to facilitate better results, the new standard is “semantic search.” This is a step beyond parsing the raw keywords to parsing the most likely user intent for a search. You can now type in a general question the same way you would ask a human…
- “Where can I watch Godzilla vs. King Kong?”
- “How many calories should the average adult consume in a day?”
- “What is the average airspeed velocity of a laden swallow?”
…and get a web page that answers that exact question. For this reason, you don’t have to worry about including lists of exact text keyword phrases in every blog post. That is a very outdated method and produces content that no one would want to read anyway. Instead, provide comprehensive information on a topic using natural language, and Google will pick up the idea from there.
Note that Google also has a standard for certain industries, encapsulated in the acronym “E-A-T” for “expertise, authority, and trust.” The E-A-T standard mostly applies to important issues and high-stakes industries, like medical, legal, and financial information. Google started doing this when the web at large circa 2015 became riddled with fake news and quackery. It’s trying to weed out bad faith advice from dodgy sources with an agenda.
As a university, you should strive for high-quality content which is factually correct and thoroughly researched. Google values content by how useful it is to searchers.
The Taxonomy of Keywords
You can break down keyword searches into general groups. Some of these categories might overlap in one search, but it’s still helpful to think of them when writing targeted content.
- Broad searches: “high-ranking universities” – these phrases are likely to have some hot competition for clicks on the web already.
- Long-tail searches: “campus cafeterias that serve halal or kosher food” – far narrower searches that are rare but also under-served make an excellent opportunity to claim a niche.
- Informational: “What niche scholarships are available?” – the user wants to learn something in general.
- Navigational: “Medical degree near me” – the user is looking for a med school program near their home, which Google will recognize for their location and provide nearby results.
- High transaction intent: “Sign up for fall classes” – the searcher is ready to commit this instant. This is also a highly competitive search category.
Some searches can fall into multiple categories. Take an example like “school with the best COVID safety measures on campus.” This might be a prospective student who is seeking out information using a longer-tail query.
Create Compelling Content
Now we’re going to want to address those keywords and search queries in our content. That content can take the form of blog posts, comprehensive web pages, press releases, editorial content in leading magazines, and sometimes even support from linked social media profiles.
You’re clearly not the only university trying to draw enrollment candidates. So, how do you compete, especially with a domain that isn’t well-established or has lacked much content up until now? Here are some strategy tips:
- Create long-form, in-depth content that beats shallow, low-bandwidth content.
- Aim for the question that you, yourself, cannot find answers to.
- Create robust resources that fill an information void and draw backlinks, which can help increase your rankings.
- Stay aware of the latest trends and news and write to what people are searching for.
- Find the sweet spot between general, broad keywords and narrow, lower-volume keywords.
- Don’t write just to write. Create content that helps people.
- Google ranks your content based on quality standards that look at your authority and expertise on a topic. Always keep E-A-T in mind.
Remember also that we’re not just writing for the students, but for the guardians and peers of those students, such as teachers, counselors, and parents.
Improve Your Writing Quality
For the longest time in the SEO field, we used to tell people, “you don’t have to be Earnest Hemingway here; any half-capable hack can grind out content that keeps Google happy.” But now? We hate to gatekeep, but writing quality standards have come up a notch as compared to, say, the 2005 web. It might be beneficial to hire a pro-writing team or at least an editor to refine the copy. Let’s go over our quality content standards so far:
- Adjust your reading level: Determine the most appropriate reading level for your audience, and use tools like Readable to make sure you’re writing to that level.
- Write for people first: The best way to appease Google is to write for people first. l
- Be concise: While we want comprehensive content, it shouldn’t be rambling and hard to understand.
- Mind that grammar: It counts.
Now that we have all that covered so far, we need to talk about user engagement. We could meet all of the above standards and still not produce engaging content. We could instead create a dull, droning, great wall of text. Nobody wants to be put to sleep by reading copy unless it’s actually bedtime.
The most boring topics can be made engaging with a gifted enough writer. For instance, “the history of operating systems” sounds like something you’d read just to pass an exam and then never think about again. But along comes Neal Stephenson, author of In the Beginning was the Command Line. Bookmark it to read at your leisure sometime. Neal Stephenson has the advantage of being an accomplished science-fiction novelist, so he knows both how to wrangle a tech topic and sling a few good words around. His essay brings the topic to life with metaphors ranging from used car lots to Disneyland, with plenty of humor and a first-person layman’s perspective.
So we’re not all Neal Stephenson, but we have an example to aim for. We’re not all Earnest Hemingway either, but there is a Hemingway text grading app. It’s becoming easier to write well.
User XP is Important
The other half of engaging content is simply breaking up that wall of text into usable, digestive chunks. We do this through a well-formatted layout, using headers, subheadings, bullet points, collapsible sections, and the occasional image to illustrate a point. Doing so enhances our user experience.
This web page is an excellent example of formatting an important topic for easy digestion. Note the collapsed, clearly labeled sections. Clicking on a section expands that content with sections, lists, and links. This technique allows you to create comprehensive web pages that include all relevant information, but it’s easier to use. Instead of scrolling to the section a user needs, they can go straight there by clicking on the heading.
Additionally, you might consider including anything that clarifies the information, such as a chart, infographic, or FAQ (frequently asked questions) section.
Use Good Website Structure for Web Search Optimization
Now that we have user XP settled let’s try to make the page easier for our other user: Google’s web-crawling bots. The two steps work hand in hand because Google reads page titles and subheadings, too, using them as markers to indicate topic focus, essential parts of content, and so on. The WordPress plugin Yoast is suitable for handling lots of these details for blog posts.
There is much more to think about when it comes to the technical aspect of SEO, which is best to take up with your website maintainer.
- Your website structure: You want robust interlinking, descriptive URLs, and easy navigation.
- Your website speed: Google is penalizing slow sites now
- Your mobile-friendliness: Google ranks mobile-friendly sites ahead of sites written mainly for desktop and laptop
Website structure has to take into account not just us Internet-savvy folk, but people who may be elderly, impaired, in a hurry, not paying much attention, or just not that adept at this whole Internet thing. This includes those of us with fat fingers struggling to tap a link on a phone screen. To have a good website structure, you need at the minimum:
- A sitemap: Most online CMS come with this by default now
- Categories and tags: Use them correctly, be careful not to generate duplicate content with one-hit tags or sparse categories
- Navigation tools: Menus, sections, breadcrumbs, pagination widgets, archives, and more – “redundant” here is just barely enough
- Lost user recovery: A site search feature and useful 404 pages that help the user find what they are looking for
- Regular site audits: Nobody likes doing them, but they are essential for huge websites
University websites tend to be bulky. There are dozens of different departments, student blogs, professor blogs, campus news and announcements, school policy, contact points for recruitment, and more. Managing all that information is a challenge not to be underestimated.
As for site speed and mobile friendliness, there are a couple of points to address on the back-end:
- Consider upgrading and maintaining your server or hosting plan to accommodate traffic.
- Keep your image and video files small! This is the easiest way to increase your page loading speed.
- Use accelerated mobile pages (AMP) for blog mobile-friendliness.
- Audit and upgrade your website to adhere to Google’s new Core Web Vitals standards.
Build a Strong Back Link Portfolio
A backlink is when another website links to your site. It’s an important signal to Google, telling it that other users find your site helpful. Getting more links is called “link building,” and there are right and wrong ways to do it.
The wrong way is to try to buy backlinks or engage in other dodgy schemes to generate a false site reputation. Google knows all these tricks and penalizes you for them.
The right way to get backlinks requires some patient diligence. While universities are blessed with “.edu” domains, which Google naturally ranks highly, your main issue is competing with other universities. Higher ed has turned ruthlessly competitive. Small schools struggle to keep up with massive Ivy League institutions, as well as having their taillights chased by non-traditional remote education resources that have thrived during the COVID pandemic.
Here are the top three ways schools get links:
#1: Get in the News
Universities are naturally engaged with their local community, industry, and academic community. You have connections with government and industry partners, which you can leverage to your advantage. No municipal government was ever reluctant to promote their home campus, so you have a natural ally there. Beyond that, you can build up links from initiatives and programs between your school and collaborators.
- Industry and tech partnerships: Your STEM department should have a friend or two in business, possibly in a start-up incubator
- Partnered scholarships: Work with special interest groups, donors, alumni, and industry partners
- Community outreach: Any charitable activity or support for the social infrastructure is worth a headline or two
- Conferences: Whether it’s a professor heading to a tech talk or an art student giving a presentation at TEDx, make sure it’s publicized
- Competitions: Any department you have which enters students in science fairs, blog-o-thons, hack-a-thons, and so on
Any of the above, such as tech companies, competition headquarters, or conference guides, will have their own website to link back to you. More likely than not, they will have great Google ranking authority themselves. A busy school is a well-linked school.
Universities are a natural for publishing white papers, RFCs, research findings, exhibits, etc. Ideally, you should either have a university PR department or some eager students who want some experience in media. Work with them to issue press releases, post blogs, manage social media, or publish campus magazines or newsletters.
Any content you release is fair game for a backlink, especially from industry partners in the same field. This is where your content can serve a dual purpose; being good SEO search bait on your site and being linkbait from allied websites and social media accounts.
Now, what if your usual activity isn’t getting a lot of backlinks? Perhaps it is a bit general and other universities have the same news to report. However, what if you move into a niche with less competition? This is a tip from the blogging community, where bloggers at other websites are constantly seeking out long-tail information in tiny niches you would never think come up.
Does your school have any research departments? Can you do a study and aggregate data from other research resources? Can you take an existing study and make a graph or chart about it? Do you have an expert who can break down a complex topic and explain it in simple English? When paired with hard data that other authors can link to for a citation, these are all good ideas that can be your next ticket to a surprisingly lucrative backlink.
Try finding data that isn’t well-addressed on the web, especially for new fields that didn’t exist ten years ago. What are the exact effects of vaping, and what chemicals matter there? How are social media apps shaping youth’s social interactions? What effect are streaming services having on the satellite and cable TV industry? What became of the Hong Kong protests against China? Dig into today’s headlines, find a hot story, and link research A to story B.
As a backup, you can always be an original information resource for interviews. The next time there’s a big news story that has everyone arguing, look for an opportunity to partner with an expert in that field. Sitting down with a professor for a fifteen-minute chat is a better source of information than 90% of what the web has to say. If you can create content that debunks a common myth or shoots down a spurious claim, you’ll be in a better position to attract more backlinks.
#3: Guest Posting
Guest posting is just like regular publishing above; only you do it on somebody else’s site. Even though guest posting is a shopworn method of getting backlinks, it still works. SEMRush reports that there are still sites benefiting from guest posts, with more than half of surveyed respondents saying they use guest posts.
So send your best professor off to another site and have them guest-post. There is some etiquette to observe here:
- Pick a site that is not only an excellent authority to link to you but will actually benefit from your content.
- They get the SEO; you get the backlink. Make sure your pitch takes into account that the site would benefit from your content. Think hard and come up with a related topic or angle they haven’t covered yet.
- Still, remember that they are doing you a favor.
- Inquire once, then follow up if no answer after a week or two, then move on. Many site maintainers are simply too busy.
- Do send your best and brightest! Don’t make the website owner go through all this for a junk, fluffy article.
Whatever you do, do not turn in a broad, general article about the host site’s topic. They have ten blog posts on their core topic already. Perhaps even ask the site editor what they would like to see. Every site editor has that one piece on their wish list that they can never get around to doing themselves. They’ll jump at the chance to complete it now that they have a university research department and a professor at their disposal. In fact, you can produce something outstanding from some collaborations.
Conclusions: Higher Ed SEO is a Tough Game!
Times used to be when colleges barely even thought about marketing. They just went about their business, and the students enrolled because they had little choice if they wanted a degree. The 21st century changed a lot. Remote learning and mobility became substantial driving factors in competition. The Internet now allows any student candidate to research anything about schools and compare them on every metric. Students can afford to be pickier.
Your mission is to prevail in the sea of Internet noise, standing out to today’s attention-challenged youth while presenting your school’s brand identity as an excellent choice for continued education. Hopefully, we have helped you make it look easy!