Academic program pages are vital to the success of a college or university website, and on a larger scale, integrated marketing and enrollment efforts. A higher education website is a living, breathing tool to attract prospective students to the institution, connecting them with the information and resources they need.
Many students begin their undergraduate or graduate college journeys by conducting a Google search related to their academic and professional interests. They search for these areas of interest to develop their list of institutions from the organic search results. The driving force behind those results? Academic program pages. Unfortunately, colleges and universities often fail to realize this and end up neglecting their academic program pages — failing to optimize the content or not regularly refreshing them.
Search engine optimization (SEO) for program pages must be a focus for every higher education marketing team. The team should tap the knowledge of faculty subject matter experts while developing program page content. Then create pages that are marketing-focused and optimized for search in order to connect with the prospective student audience and ensure success for the website and all marketing and enrollment goals.
Why are academic program pages so important to a college or university website?
Academic program pages are a significant driver of organic traffic and are frequently the entry point for users into your college or university website. Why is this? Most prospective students will not go to your homepage and then neatly navigate to your program pages. That’s too much work and not how tech-savvy students operate. They want to put in a search phrase and have a tailored set of organic search results appear that cater specifically to their area of interest.
Last year, Carnegie conducted an undergraduate student survey and a graduate student survey, aiming to understand how SEO factors and where a site appears in organic search results impact their likelihood of clicking through to a website. The students also shared how website structure, design, and content affect where they decide to apply and ultimately enroll.
We learned many students do not know the college or university they want to go to and are more likely to only know their program of interest. Organic search is the most important pathway that connects you to these prospective students who have yet to form a solid list of institutions in their college search journey, and, SEO-optimized academic program pages are the most powerful tool to make that connection.
How to Get Started Optimizing Your Academic Program Pages
Be Proactive, Not Reactive
In higher education, it is common for a college or university to find themselves in a cycle of having a reactive content strategy for their website. This means they are only updating site content when it is absolutely necessary or prompted by an external occurrence, such as a new program launch, an upcoming event, or when someone outside of the institution accidentally comes across an error. SEO and the needs of students are ever-evolving, a wait-and-see approach puts your website and marketing goals at a disadvantage.
The most effective approach is to have a proactive content strategy that consists of regular reviews of the site’s performance and content quality. Being proactive also means committing internal resources to plan what content your marketing team will be responsible for creating or revising in the coming three, six, and twelve months. Simply put, the content on your site’s program pages must be a strategic institutional priority.
Audit the Site’s Content
You cannot know how to upgrade your pages if you do not know the quality of their current content and how they are performing. Start by reviewing for outdated and irrelevant information that needs to be removed or replaced with new, updated resources.
Once the outdated information has been removed, examine opportunities where your content could be more engaging and better meet the needs of prospective students. Connect with your internal stakeholders and subject matter experts to collect the best and most up-to-date information about the programs. This includes not only the standard, must-have details about credit requirements and course sequencing but also the benefits of the programs that are unique to your institution. Always look to answer the question: what makes the program special and stand out in a highly competitive market?
After your qualitative content review, examine the data for your academic program pages in Google Search Console. What is their benchmark performance in clicks, impressions, CTR, and average ranking? What queries are driving impressions and traffic? Furthermore, what pages are the queries pointing to? It is often the case that sites with reactive content strategies see queries driving traffic to irrelevant pages on the site. This reveals a misalignment in the page’s ideal SEO-optimized, purpose-focused content and the low-value content currently on the page.
Lastly, combine the quantitative information with your assessment of content quality to understand the pages that are most in need of immediate attention and SEO. Ideally, every program page is a priority but it’s important to be realistic about workloads, especially if lots of pages need updates. Rank the pages in order of highest need and then get moving to optimize them all!
Must-haves for Your Program Pages
Now that you have conducted the audit of your program pages and have your marching orders of where to get started, it is time to start rewriting. You’ll want to focus on ensuring the content accurately communicates program details, reflects your institution’s unique offerings, and, most importantly, meets the needs of your audience.
When you are thinking of optimizing your program pages for SEO, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking algorithm first and allowing your audience to fall by the wayside. It is imperative that you keep your audience at the forefront. How well your program page services their needs will ultimately determine the page’s SEO performance.
The prospective student audience for academic pages is seeking comprehensive answers to their questions about their program of interest. This includes but is not limited to:
- What does the program curriculum entail?
- Are there learning opportunities outside of the classroom?
- Does the institution offer any unique benefits for studying with them?
- What can I do with this degree after graduation?
- Are there any specific requirements I must meet before entering the program?
- Why should I even pursue this field of study?
Separate Pages for Separate Programs
One common error on higher education websites is to take a kitchensink approach to academic pages, throwing information about a mix of program types and levels all onto one page for the sake of institutional convenience. This causes pages to be poorly organized and confusing to understand, creating a negative user experience that frustrates prospective students and causes them to exit the site in favor of a competitor’s SEO-optimized site.
Therefore, it is important to have separate pages for each program, including for different degree levels and modes of delivery. There should never be a program page that mashes together information about a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, even if they are for the same area of study. These two-degree levels have two entirely different audiences with unique needs, and the language on the page should be crafted to speak directly to either an undergraduate or graduate audience.
Another common error is to combine the information for the online version of a program on the same page as the on-campus version. Again, these program formats have two different audiences, who are most likely to be interested in only one version of the program. There should be separate pages for the online and on-campus versions of the program with tailored content that highlights the benefits and specific requirements of each format, providing a higher-quality user experience. Furthermore, “online” related keywords have significant monthly search volume on Google; optimizing your program page with the “online” keyword ensures the content is aligned to appear in the search results among other online program competitors.
Spell Out the Full Program Name
A small but key SEO need is to include the complete name of your degree (e.g. Bachelor of Science in Nursing) on your page. It helps to ensure that you are appearing in organic search results for those programs, getting in front of your prospective student audience, and increasing the likelihood that you land on their list. It also helps students to understand the degree they will receive upon graduation and differentiates between undergraduate and graduate programs in the same field.
In addition to the full degree name, rely on keyword research to understand the program name variations you should include (e.g. Bachelor’s in Nursing or BSN). It improves your quality of writing by varying your word choice throughout while increasing your keyword density for that program. Not every student will search the program the exact same way; variations of the full program name capture that variance.
Details to Include on Undergraduate Program Pages
Examine your program page content to ensure it includes the following details that are important to a prospective undergraduate student searching on Google to make their college list:
- Credit requirements with a link to the course catalog for a complete list of required courses in a program
- Concentrations, tracks, or specializations (if applicable)
- Hands-on learning opportunities—both required and optional ones that set the program apart from competitors and advance student skill development
- Special academic campus facilities for the area of study
- Student life opportunities related to the program (e.g. student organizations)
- Career outcomes and outlook in the field, including graduate school placements
Details to Include on Graduate Program Pages
Review your program page content for the following must-have details that a prospective graduate student is looking for to put your institution on their list:
- Program-specific admissions requirements and prerequisites
- Tuition, funding, and financial aid opportunities
- Program format and delivery of coursework (e.g. synchronous vs. asynchronous)
- Average time to completion
- Career outcomes and advancement opportunities
- Concentrations, tracks, or specializations (if applicable)
- Unique hands-on learning opportunities
- Partnerships with employers for internship and job placement
Don’t Gatekeep Information
Too often students have to do heavy lifting to find the information they need about an academic program. In these instances, details about the program are unnecessarily split across too many pages or exist in more than one place with one of the places not properly maintained. It should not be difficult to find information, and modern students will not stay long on your site if it is.
Avoid the urge to lock information behind requirements to call an admissions counselor or submit a request information form. Program details should be well-organized and readily accessible on the page. Students are highly perceptive to cloaked enrollment efforts to increase conversion numbers and will exit if they feel they are being forced to take a step they are not yet ready for.
Make Sure the Technical SEO Foundation is In Place
The quality of your program page content will always be the most important organic search ranking factor. However, to ensure strong, long-term organic performance, establish a strong technical SEO foundation for your program pages. This includes scanning the site for errors like broken links, improper header tag usage, indexing issues, low word count, slow page speed, and missing or improperly formatted metadata (title tag and meta description). These are some of the top errors that directly relate to content quality and user experience.
That being said, there are dozens of more technical SEO factors to be on top of. If you and your competitor both have great content but your technical SEO is not up to a high standard, you will inevitably see your competitors outpace you in organic search results. In this case, you may want to consider a full technical site audit to address all these factors.
Don’t Forget to Check In Again (and Again)
Content marketing and SEO are long-term strategies for your site; they aren’t set-it-and-forget-it or one-and-done tactics. You need to take special care of your academic program pages and make a conscious effort to place them on your marketing calendar to check in on the quality of the content and their performance in search. Use the insights from performance monitoring to make adjustments to the content as needed.
It is recommended to optimize and re-optimize these pages at least once a year. And please, don’t put them on the calendar and then let them fall through the cracks in lieu of other pressing campaigns. This regular review ensures that the page contains up-to-date information, does not have technical errors, and meets the ever-evolving needs of prospective students—all working together to make sure your program pages are continuously the highest-performing pages on your site.
Optimize your Program Pages for Optimal Higher Education Success
Academic program pages are vital to the success of every college or university website, connecting the institution to prospective students making their college list in the organic search space. A thorough examination of content quality to ensure it meets SEO best practices and addresses the unique needs of the page’s audience sets your institution up for long-term success.
Explore Carnegie’s SEO services to learn more about how our comprehensive offerings, including Web Copywriting & Optimization, can transform your program pages into the highest-performing pages on your site, delighting prospective students and achieving enrollment goals.