How to Optimize Higher Education Websites for Google’s AI-Powered Search Generative Experience

Kate McGowan May 22, 2024 Kate McGowan SEO Content Associate Persona The Adventurous and Caring Advisor

Google’s new Search Generative Experience (SGE) and AI Overviews promise to be a major development in Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and we have spent the past year analyzing the potential impact of AI-powered search engines on higher education content marketing.

In this blog, I share some of the strategies we’ve learned from this analysis to help you future-proof your website content, ensuring it consistently appears in organic search results, no matter how AI changes the search game. For a deeper dive into this topic, you can also watch my recorded webinar on Optimizing Your Webpages for Google’s AI Search Generative Experience.

What is Google’s Search Generative Experience (SGE)?

Google’s SGE provides “AI Overviews” in response to certain keyword searches in the form of interactive bubbles above traditional organic search results. These AI Overviews source information from various websites, offering panels and snippets designed around the user’s search intent.

AI algorithms have subtly influenced Google’s ranking mechanisms for years, but SGE brings this technology to the forefront, making it visible on the search results page. Initially available to a select group of beta testers in Google Labs, SGE has undergone continuous testing, leading to broader releases in more countries and for more queries throughout 2023. As of May 14, 2024, Google announced that AI Overviews are being rolled out to all users, with billions of searchers being served AI-generated answers to their Google searches by the end of the year.

While not all queries trigger an AI Overview, studies show that SGE appears in some form for 98% of education-related searches.

How “AI Overviews” Appear in Search Results

SGE’s AI-powered search result bubble, called the AI Overview, is a full-width feature that appears above traditional search results. Typically, the AI-generated search results include:

  • A quality warning: “Generative AI is experimental.”
  • The generated answer result, which includes text paragraphs, lists, or both.
  • Clickable thumbnail panels to relevant web pages presented in a horizontal carousel.
  • Links to source websites within the answer bubble, seen if citation carrots are expanded.
  • Suggested follow-up questions for users to click.
  • A chatbot-style interface that expands if a follow-up question is selected.


The Most Valuable SGE Components for Higher Ed SEO

For higher education marketers, the most compelling aspects of SGE are the carousel feature and citations. These components link back to your website, helping to increase your brand’s visibility and draw more organic traffic. When pages like those for academic programs, marketing, and admissions, or blogs show up in the carousel or as citations, it makes your institution more visible and showcases your expertise and reliability.

For example, a search query about the value of an associate degree in business could return career paths and job titles, accompanied by clickable panels linking directly to sources, including your blog “Benefits of an Associate in Business Administration.”


Ordered and unordered lists are also really helpful for making college and university websites more visible. Instead of just text-based answers, the AI search engine result can produce a structured list of school logos and names, often accompanied by location and map components or short snippets of information for each entry.

For example, for a search term like “colleges in Pennsylvania,” a list is returned with large school logos and school names, with location and short snippets of information for each entry.


Types of Higher Ed Content Appearing in SGE

Different components of the AI Overview frequently feature content from higher education institution websites, often in response to searches related to a topic of study, degree path, or career field. We’ve noticed that the kind of information shown and how the AI Overview is organized can change depending on where someone is in the enrollment funnel.

Academic Content

When prospective students use general search terms such as unbranded, short-tail keywords related to academic degrees, programs, and majors, it can help them discover your college or university for the first time.

If the academic content on your website, including department and program pages, is effective, helpful, and optimized for SEO and web writing best practices, it may be cited in the AI Overview. This could be within a text answer, within the panel carousel, or within a structured list of brands.


Admissions Content

Prospective students often have questions about admission requirements, deadlines, applications, costs, and financial aid. The SGE AI Overview consistently cites higher education admissions content from pages such as undergraduate, transfer, and graduate admissions home pages, blogs, and academic program pages. Using clear headings and internal links on your pages can make it easier for this information to show up in SGE searches, providing users with a seamless experience.


Evergreen Thought Leadership Content

Early in undergraduate and graduate students’ research stages, it’s common to search questions like “What can you do with a biochemistry degree,” “Should I get a graduate degree in accounting,” etc. The AI Overview often supplies citations to comprehensive, long-form blogs and articles on evergreen topics. Creating blog content that answers these questions can help widen the funnel of prospective students who can benefit from your knowledge and become familiar with your brand.


Biggest Implications for SEO in Higher Education

SGE introduces profound implications for SEO in higher education, emphasizing a shift towards more conversational, context-aware search experiences. Key takeaways include:

  • Conversational and Contextual Search: The “Ask a follow-up” chat box remembers past queries to offer personalized results and suggestions based on earlier interactions.
  • Question-Based Searches: SGE impacts how users search by influencing search behavior to take on a longer-tail, complex construction.
  • Impact on Student Recruitment: Sources in SGE often differ from the top organic search results, giving colleges and universities a new avenue to outshine competitors and directly connect with prospective students.

AI Optimization Strategies for Your School’s Web Presence

Keeping up with detailed keyword research and following SEO best practices like optimizing metadata and using headers is still crucial. However, as AI-powered search engines evolve, it’s becoming more important than ever to be seen as an authority on your topics. Your content should radiate expertise and trustworthiness, emphasizing your institution’s expertise in specific areas.

Create Expert-Driven Content

Creating authoritative content builds on foundational SEO principles of Expertise, Experience, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness (E-E-A-T). Publishing thought leadership content that showcases perspectives from faculty or other subject matter experts significantly boosts the credibility of your higher education website.

Whether faculty members write blogs themselves or the marketing team creates content based on their insights, it’s crucial to focus on your institution’s key areas of excellence. For example, if your institution is renowned for its School of Nursing and Health Sciences, concentrate on producing content in that area and other main pillars of expertise. Highlight the latest advancements in nursing or explore career paths in health sciences to showcase your institution’s strengths.

Optimize for Long Tail Keywords and Conversational Search

AI-powered search engines respond accurately to complex queries, such as “small colleges with internship programs in the New York City area with no application fee.” Pivot your keyword research to identify question-based, long-tail search terms and use them to enrich your content.

Reviewing question-based and long-tail searches in Google Search Console (GSC) tells you what your prospective students are searching for and what information matters most to them or other audiences.

Tips for Keyword Research Strategy for SGE and Generative Search:

  • Use Google Search Console: Apply the query filter to find keywords and phrases with question words like how, where, when, what, and why.
  • Leverage Third-Party Tools: Tools like Answer the Public help identify questions your target audience is asking.
  • Monitor Follow-Up Questions: Pay attention to follow-up questions in the AI Overview and the “People also ask” section for valuable insights.
  • Assess Content Needs: Identify content that answers the uncovered question-based keywords and determine if it exists on your site or needs to be created.

Optimize Site Architecture and Linking:

  • Logical Structure: By organizing your website logically and using links effectively, you can make it easier for people to find detailed information, like application steps and tuition costs, that might be buried deeper in your site.
  • Optimize Internal Links: Use link anchor text and H-tagged headings to help AI search engines find and display important information.

By focusing on long-tail keywords and organizing your website’s content, you position your institution to be cited by AI-driven search engines. This enhances visibility in specific, conversational searches and establishes your site as a resource for prospective students navigating the complexities of higher education options.

Pay Attention to Local SEO and Social Media

SGE’s AI-generated answers often integrate social media posts, maps, business reviews, and user perspectives with traditional web results. For higher education searches, AI Overviews can showcase logos, photos, and detailed information from your Google Business Profile. User reviews can also be featured, especially in local searches listing college and university brands.

Strengthening Local SEO:

  • Incorporate local keywords into your web content to boost local SEO, making your institution more discoverable in “near me” or location-based searches, like “colleges in Minnesota.”
  • Embed your full brand name and relevant keywords into social media profiles and captions—not just hashtags—to improve visibility and ensure recognition across search and social platforms.

Maintaining Online Profiles:

  • Keep your Google Business Profile, Wikipedia page, and profiles on platforms like CollegeXpress up to date.
  • Check for outdated information, respond to reviews, and optimize your Google Business Profile with campus photos, current information, and relevant categories. Tip: Use the “products” feature for academic programs.

Optimize Images and Videos for Search

Nearly all web pages featured in the AI Overview carousel panels include images, and YouTube videos can also appear. As more users get their answers right on the search results pages, grabbing their attention with images or videos is key. This visual appeal can help combat lower click-through rates, making sure people still engage with your content.

Optimizing Images:

  • Use strategic, descriptive alt text.
  • Ensure file names are relevant.
  • Optimize file sizes for fast loading.

Optimizing Video Content:

  • Embed keywords in video titles, descriptions, and your YouTube channel overview to improve discoverability.
  • Link to relevant web pages from video and channel descriptions to drive traffic and reinforce the relationship between your video content and your institution.

Embedding optimized YouTube videos on your website can increase views and further elevate the chance of your institution’s videos appearing in SGE and traditional organic search results on Google and YouTube.

Face AI-Powered Search Engine Features Head-On

As generative AI and search engine technology rapidly advance, higher education marketing, communications, and enrollment professionals must keep pace. AI-enhanced search in higher education is teeming with potential, poised to change the way institutions connect with prospective students forever. It’s crucial to focus on improving visibility and brand awareness to deal with possible drops in website visits and click-through rates.

Higher education marketers who embrace the unique capabilities of Google’s AI Overviews and other emerging AI search engines like Perplexity are equipped with a powerful resource to enhance their institution’s online presence and discoverability. This not only amplifies the reach of their content but also opens new avenues for connecting with potential students in meaningful and impactful ways.

Stay tuned for further insights and analysis as we explore the unfolding story of AI and its role in shaping the future of higher education marketing and search engine optimization.

Start a conversation today to learn how our team of expert strategists can help your institution navigate these changes, future-proof your website with SEO for AI search engines, and enhance your online engagement strategies to attract more prospective students.

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