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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.