SEO Strategy for Higher Education

Universities, colleges, and higher education institutions can benefit greatly from SEO (Search Engine Optimization) because these organizations provide a wealth of knowledge and resources. Universities also host a wide range of subject matter experts who can help build a formidable organic presence online.

Why is SEO important in higher education?

Search engine optimization for universities is essential in establishing and strong online presence and attracting potential students. SEO can help colleges or universities increase visibility online by ranking higher in search results. This increased visibility can then help recruit students.

By understanding search intent and using targeted keywords, higher education organizations can attract students interested in specific programs, majors, or demographics. SEO for educational institutions allows them to connect with the right kind of students who are a good fit for their institution.

higher education stats

University SEO practices also encourage colleges to create informative, relevant, and well-structured website content that caters to the needs of students. This includes details about academics, admissions, financial aid, student life, and other relevant information.

With a large number of institutions vying for the attention of prospective students, a strong strategy of SEO for universities provides a competitive edge. Ranking higher in search results can significantly increase website traffic and potentially lead to higher enrollment rates.

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

Higher Education SEO Keyword Strategy

Having the right keyword strategy means figuring out how to connect with people searching for exactly what you offer. Identify relevant keywords and phrases that prospective students are likely to use when searching for colleges. 

Focus on keywords that are specific to your programs, location, and unique offerings. You can use keyword research tools to identify relevant keywords with high search volumes and low competition. We like SEMRush and AHRefs for this purpose.

Unfortunately, there’s often a disconnect between how a university describes its programs and how people search for them.

Example

One of the largest Christian universities in the nation has 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 that TESOL-related keywords are irrelevant, however. 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.

Keyword Placement Recommendations

  • 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 built, the more opportunities there are to rank for keywords important to your institution. A common problem with universities is that they try to create as few pages as possible on their websites. This is not a best practice.

Example

When we began working with a world-renowned university just outside Chicago, 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 that 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. 

Example

Let’s say that the university offers business graduate certificates in three separate fields; marketing, finance, and HR. 

Originally, this university had these housed on a single page because they considered them all part of one graduate certificate program in business. Outside the world of SEO, that’s a fair way to organize things, but in the world of SEO, this is actually a bad practice. Because there’s a lot of search volume for each of those individual certificates, and the university has plenty of unique content to describe the courses for each certificate, it’s best to create three separate landing pages.

Technical Audits for Success

One element of SEO for colleges that can be mundane, but very important to consider, are the technical considerations. Your website needs to be technically sound and provide a great user experience. There are 10 organic spots on the first page of Google, and if your website doesn’t perform, competitors will pass you by in the rankings.

Five Key Technical SEO Considerations

  1. Site speed: Time is money and users will leave if your website is slow to load. One site you can use to gauge site speed is PageSpeed Insights.
  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 you set up canonical tags 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 the 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.

Content Creation

Creating content for universities and colleges can be easier than creating content for other industries because of the built-in authority they carry. Using SEO best practices in content creation is a perfect way to utilize the expertise of professors, faculty, and other people associated with the university. 

Infographics are a great content creation tool for higher education institutes. You can create interactive graphics, eBooks, and guides, but infographics consistently resonate the most with 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.

Content can be classified in two general categories: authority and relevance.

Authority

Authority-building content can generate both qualitative and quantitative backlinks. The content might not be specifically related to an individual program, but it will appeal to large sites with broad audiences.

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 quality links from news sites across many major markets.

Relevance

Relevance-building content covers highly relevant topics to the client’s work. In the case of a university, the connection may be to a specific program they’re looking to promote. 

While a goal of SEO content pieces can be to generate links, you can expect fewer links to come from relevant content campaigns because the audience is almost always smaller.

Example

For another 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 more niche, 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 to earn links back to the content from influential sites. Inbound linking is one of the most important ranking factors in Google’s algorithm, which determines what sites to display in search results.

A benefit to creating and promoting content from higher education institutes is that journalists generally want content from universities and colleges, as the content comes from a reputable, knowledgeable source. 

A great way to earn coverage is by reaching out to top-tier publications, including major news networks and websites that host industry thought leaders, as many outlets are hungry for expert content. 

However, it’s important to consider that you don’t want coverage and backlinks from just any outlet. Consider these indicators to ensure you’re dealing with a high 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 and pitches every day. Here are a few tips to guide outreach emails:

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

SEO Challenges Higher Education Faces

While embracing SEO strategies can be beneficial for colleges, universities and higher education institutes, these organizations do come with a unique set of challenges. 

It’s important to be aware of these challenges when deciding how to construct an SEO strategy. Higher education institutes often need to be more conservative than various private companies, so there’s added pressure for the SEO work to be highly efficient and effective. 

3 SEO Challenges

  1. Branding: Universities are as stringent about adhering to brand guidelines as any private company client. 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. 

If you’re part of a university and struggling to rank well in Google, achieve better online visibility, or get quality leads, it’s time to rethink your marketing plan. 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, higher education institutions partnering with a higher education SEO agency can rank higher and appear for the right prospective students who are looking to take their next educational step.

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