SEO Strategy for Higher Education

Universities are some of our favorite SEO clients because they bring a wealth of knowledge and resources to the table. From professors to doctors to artists, universities host a wide range of subject matter experts from which we can help build a formidable organic presence online.

There are five key components to higher education SEO success; keyword strategy, landing pages, technical audits, content, and link building.

Why is SEO important in higher education?

Having the right keyword strategy means figuring out how to connect with people searching for exactly what you offer. Unfortunately, there’s often a disconnect between how a university describes its programs and how people search for those sorts of programs.

higher education stats

For example: we work with one of the largest Christian universities in the nation, and they have a degree program for teaching English as a second language, called TESOL. Can you guess what people interested in a program like this typically search for? It’s not TESOL—it’s ESL.

  • “ESL” = 60,500 avg. searches per month
  • “TESOL” = 18,100 avg. searches per month
  • “ESL programs” = 880 avg. searches per month
  • “TESOL programs” = 140 avg. searches per month

There are six times as many people searching for “ESL programs” and three times as many searching for “ESL.” This doesn’t mean TESOL-related keywords are irrelevant, but it’s an important indicator of what else is relevant.

Once you have a solid keyword strategy in place, you’ll want to make sure you put keywords in the right places.

We recommend placing keywords:

  • In title tags (limit title tags to 55-60 characters)
  • The H1
  • The URL
  • In copy (making sure it sounds natural to readers)

Landing Pages

The more landing pages you build, the more opportunities you have to rank for keywords important to your institution. A common problem we see with universities is they try to create as few pages as possible on their websites. This is not a best practice.

For example: we work with a world-renowned university just outside Chicago, and when we began, they wanted their “business programs” page to rank for each of the business programs they offer, including: a Bachelor of Business Administration, an associate’s of business and an MBA. The problem is, it’s nearly impossible to get a single page to rank for several very competitive terms like that. The more effective approach is to create separate landing pages for each program.

Universities frequently ask us what to do when they offer a program with multiple variations. For example, our client outside Chicago offers business graduate certificates for marketing, finance and HR. They originally had these housed on a single page because they considered them all part of one program resulting in a business graduate certificate.

Outside the world of SEO, that’s a fair way to organize things, but because there’s a lot of search volume for each of those individual certificates, and the university had plenty of unique content to describe the courses for each certificate, we created three landing pages.

Technical Excellence

There’s nothing sexy about the technical considerations of SEO, but it’s important that your website is technically sound and that it provides a great user experience. There are only ten organic spots on the first page of Google and if your website doesn’t perform like a Ferrari you’ll definitely be passed by your competitors.

Five key considerations:

  1. Site speed: Time is money and users will bounce if your website is slow to load.
  2. Duplicate content: Make sure each page has unique copy. Don’t create pages with the same content and different variations of keywords. Google recognizes that.
  3. Canonical tags: Make sure canonical tags are set up properly. If you have thin pages for each program—like pages that simply list courses and professors—you should canonicalize back to the main programs page.
  4. Internal linking: People too often miss opportunities to link between pages. About a third of your links should be keyword targeted. So if you’re writing a blog post about your MBA program, link to the MBA program page with anchor text “MBA program,” or some variation.
  5. Mobile: This is especially important for graduate and adult studies since the target students for these programs are likely searching on their phones while on a lunch break from work. At this point, failing to optimize your site is inexcusable, especially for an institution of higher education.

Content Creation

We love creating content for universities because of the built-in authority they carry. Content creation is a perfect way to utilize the expertise of professors, faculty and other people associated with the university. And infographics are the go-to content type. We’ve had a lot of success creating interactives, eBooks and guides, but infographics consistently perform best when being pitched to journalists and publishers.

The two most important considerations when developing content are to a) make sure the subject matter interests a broad audience, and b) make sure you’re adding something of value to the discussion.

We classify content in two general categories: authority and relevance.

Authority-building content generates a large number of quality links. It might not be specifically related to an individual program, but it will appeal to large sites with broad audiences. For example: for one university client we created an infographic about the distance each player from a local NFL team traveled in his career. The university had a relationship with the NFL team, and the infographic earned a lot of great links from news sites across many major markets.

Relevance-building content covers topics that are highly-relevant the client’s work. In the case of a university, the connection may be to a specific program they’re looking to promote. While the goal of any SEO content piece is to generate links, you can expect fewer links to come from relevancy pieces because the audience is almost always smaller. For example: for one university client, we created an infographic called, “A Day in the Life of an ER Nurse,” demonstrating what it’s like to be a nurse in an emergency room. The intent was to associate with a popular nursing program at this university. While the audience for the piece was narrower in this case, the links it earned were extremely relevant and often came from authoritative nursing websites. The result was a sharp increase in rankings for keywords related to the nursing program, and subsequent boosts in organic traffic to the client’s nursing program pages.

Link Building

Once you’ve created a great piece of content, the next step is to promote it and try to earn links back to the content from influential sites. Links are one of the most important ranking factors in Google’s algorithm, which determines what sites to display in search results.

The good news is journalists and bloggers love content from universities because they consider university personnel very reputable, knowledgeable sources. So if you work for a university, go ahead and shoot for the stars! Start by reaching out to top tier publications, including major news networks and websites that host industry thought leaders. Everyone is hungry for expert content.

All that said, you shouldn’t just accept links from anywhere. Look for these indicators to ensure you’re dealing with a quality website:

  • Does the author have a significant following?
  • Are people commenting on the author’s posts?
  • Does the author reply to comments?
  • Does the website have a social presence?

When sending emails to pitch your content, we recommend keeping them short and to the point. Journalists get bombarded with hundreds of emails like this, every day. Here are a few tips to guide outreach emails:

  1. Keep it short and to the point—aim for five sentences or fewer.
  2. Highlight the authority of the piece, mentioning specific professors or experts who contributed.
  3. Let the writer know why their audience will care about the piece.
  4. Offer to send a quote from someone at your university, to include in the writer’s article.

Challenges of SEO for Higher Education

While universities are some of our favorite clients to work with, they come with a unique set of challenges. If you work for a university, it’s important to be aware of these challenges when deciding how to construct an SEO strategy—because universities often need to be more conservative than various private companies, there’s added pressure for the SEO work to be highly efficient and effective. We think this translates to the need for expert support, but we’ll let you be the ultimate judge of that.

Challenges with university clients:

  1. Branding: Universities are as stringent about adhering to brand guidelines as any clients we work with. While certainly understandable, it’s important to recognize that journalists tend to shy away from content that seems too promotional. In fact, they’re quite sensitive to it. Working with a university involves a delicate dance between adherence to brand guidelines and respect for the integrity of journalists and their work.
  2. Conservative content: We work to avoid controversial topics with all our clients, but universities are especially sensitive to topics that could be controversial. Understandably so—reputations are everything in the world of higher education, and they must be protected.  Still, with universities, there’s a lot to avoid. Sometimes we avoid topics or mentions of other brands / institutions because of conflicting sponsorships and influential alumni.
  3. Timelines: Typically, universities aren’t equipped to move as fast as many of the companies we work with. The process can be drawn out on the account of content being reviewed by large teams of people, including fastidious legal departments. It’s certainly smart to be careful, but if projects move so deliberately, they’d better be effective!

If you’re part of a university and struggling to get quality leads, it’s time to rethink your marketing plan. We’ve noticed a lot of universities rely on push marketing strategies—like TV ads and billboards—which are both costly and notoriously hard to measure. With a successful SEO strategy, you can show up at just the right time, when prospective students are searching for you! Plus, it’s very easy to track your results with Google Analytics and know exactly how well your money’s being spent.

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