SEO Basics for Colleges and Universities: How to Perform Keyword Research

Carnegie Higher Ed Sep 17, 2018 Carnegie Higher Ed Persona The Visionary Frontrunner

Welcome to our series on SEO basics for colleges and universities. In this series of blog posts, we’re going to share some of our closest-kept SEO techniques with you so you can learn how to optimize your website like a professional.

In this post, we’ll discuss how to do keyword research, review a list of free keyword research tools, and show you step-by-step how to find out what your prospective students are searching for on Google so you can give them the information they are looking for and turn prospectives into applicants.

But first, what is SEO?

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. Quite simply, it’s the process of editing your website to make it more appealing to Google, Bing, and other search engines. The goal of SEO is to make sure your target audience—in this case, prospective college-bound students—are able to easily find your website on Google and other search engines.

How does SEO work?

Search Engine Optimization is a decades-old practice, and it has evolved greatly over the years. Today SEO comes in two parts: technical SEO and on-page content SEO. With keyword research, we’re talking about on-page content and metadata. You want to use the right keywords in your written content so that Google—and ultimately, your prospective students—can find your website easily.

What are keywords and why do I need them?

A keyword in SEO is a word or phrase that someone types in Google to find information—for example, “Indian food restaurants near me.”

In the SEO world, we break keywords into two types: short-tail keywords and long-tail keywords.

Short-tail keywords are one- to three-word phrases that generally focus on a broad topic. Higher education examples include “MBA degree” or “online nursing programs.” These are high-competition keywords, meaning there are hundreds or thousands of websites that use them, so it’s very difficult to appear on the first page of Google.

Long-tail keywords are phrases that are four words or more. Higher education examples include “What are some careers in sports management?” or “Is an MBA degree worth it?” Long-tail keywords are your friends! Because they are more specific, there are fewer websites that target them. It’s easier to appear on the first page of Google when you focus on long-tail keywords.

Now that you know what keywords are and why they’re important, let’s get to the best part: how to do keyword research.

Step 1: Identify your topics

Keyword research begins with brainstorming. Compile a list of the topics you want your institution’s website to focus on. For colleges and universities, this often means a list of priority programs you want to promote. It may also mean a list of campus activities, clubs, financial aid resources, or admission information.

Write down all the topics you want to cover on your website. Then it’s time to get into the data.

Step 2: Use free keyword research tools to find short- and long-tail keywords

Keyword research is a data-driven process. You need to use keyword research tools to find out what terms people are using on Google. Guesswork isn’t good enough; you need to use the data.

At Carnegie Dartlet, we have three free keyword research tools that we use every time we research a new page of content:

  1. Google Keyword Planner: This free tool from Google is great for finding short-tail keywords. We recommend starting here for every page. Plug your topic idea into the page and see what comes up. For example, here is what results come in when we search for “mba degree”:

  1. AnswerThePublic: This is fantastic for finding long-tail keywords in the form of questions. We especially recommend using this tool if you are planning out a content strategy for a university blog. But really, you can use it for every page of content. Here are some results for “sports management major”:

  1. Keywords Everywhere: This plugin for Chrome is your new best friend. It’s an excellent tool for finding out unexpected long-tail keywords. As a bonus, it also gives a very specific picture of the average monthly searches for a given keyword. For example, when we searched for “social work degree”:

Once you run your ideas through these three tools, you should be able to generate a list of three to five related keywords that you can target in your on-page content. These are your “target keywords.”

So that’s it—you’ve finished your keyword research, right? Not quite…

Step 3: Identify the user intent for your target keywords

Before you start writing content that targets these long-tail keywords you’ve found, you need to understand the intent behind them. Basically, what kinds of answers are people looking for when they use these terms?

Luckily, understanding user intent is super easy. Just run a Google search of your target keywords and see what results you get. You’ll immediately notice a theme. If the theme is the same or similar to the content you want to write, great—target that keyword! If the theme is different, it might be a good idea to scratch that target keyword.

For example, let’s say you want to focus on careers with a sports management degree. Your list of target keywords includes the phrases “sports management careers” and “sports management jobs.”

When you search for “sports management careers,” you find a list of university websites and other resources that describe the different career paths for sports management majors. Great! This is the kind of information your institution wants to share. “Sports management careers” is a good target keyword.

Then you search for “sports management jobs.” This time, you get a list of job listings and recruiters. This is obviously not appropriate for your institution, and you would never be able to get your careers page to appear on the first page of Google for this term. You can erase “sports management jobs” from your list of target keywords.

Makes sense, right? When you have the right user intent behind your keyword strategy, you’ll be able to appear in Google serving up relevant information to qualified prospective students.

Keyword research strategy should guide all your content

You can use these keyword research techniques to guide all the content on your institution’s website. If you follow these easy steps to find your target keywords and utilize these keywords on your website, you’ll drive more traffic to your website, increase the top of your enrollment funnel, and ultimately find more qualified applicants for your institution.

Still feeling a little overwhelmed by this? Check out my webinar on how to combine storytelling and SEO in your on-page content for more guidance on how to write for the web.

Not sure how to write content with SEO in mind? Our Inbound Marketing team has SEO experts who live and breathe higher ed SEO. We are here to help you with everything from keyword research to content strategy and writing. Reach out to us today to talk about how SEO could help your institution!

Never miss an update.