Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is, in its most basic form, a concerted effort to optimize the pages on your higher education website to be more visible to search engines such as Google. It’s not an overnight solution but rather a long-term comprehensive strategy that can help you attract high-value users, such as prospective students or engaged alumni, again and again.
The foundation of optimizing your site for SEO is building trust with your audience. All of your efforts should aim to optimize your pages for search engine algorithms and human users. SEO no longer involves stuffing your page with high-volume keywords; that was years ago. Today’s search engine landscape is much more about connection and becoming a trusted source for reliable, comprehensive, and informative content for stakeholders.
With this, you cannot consider your college or university’s site fully optimized if you spend one day doing a little keyword research, rewriting a few of your important pages, and never thinking about SEO ever again. Instead, a successful SEO strategy is one that is “always on,” with enhancements being made on a monthly basis, at the least.
So you’re telling me SEO isn’t “one and done”?
That’s exactly what I’m telling you. Organic search is a moving target, and the algorithms are regularly updated and refined. This requires anyone who maintains a website for a college or university to be vigilant and keep a pulse on the landscape of search engine results pages (SERP). With this, SEO needs to be a long-term strategy for your website if you want to continuously attract high-quality users, like prospective students and their families, with your content. You can’t “do SEO” once and wipe your hands clean of it.
Another reason you need to keep SEO top of mind? Your competitor institutions are regularly optimizing their sites, and in doing so, they’re making their content more user friendly and attractive. This signals to search engines that they have healthier, more well-maintained websites that have rich, fresh content for their users. With enrollment marketing efforts as competitive as ever, having a sound SEO strategy for your website ensures you aren’t falling behind fellow institutions in gaining the attention of prospective students.
Stay in-the-know for SEO
As we mentioned, organic search is ever-evolving and looks much different than it did in the past. Search engines—Google in particular—release upgrades to their algorithms to ensure they’re bringing their organic search users the most useful, relevant, and comprehensive content available on the internet.
So how can you stay on top of SEO developments?
- Read Google’s algorithm update releases; when Google does anything significant to their search algorithms, they announce it, and it’s important not to ignore it. In the past, they’ve only announced these updates after they’ve rolled out. More recently, they gave site owners a warning months in advance of their January 2021 Page Experience algorithm update.
- Subscribe to higher education marketing e-newsletters, like Carnegie Dartlet’s, that provide major updates and analysis on Google rollouts as well as expert advice on how to harness the power of SEO for your institution’s site.
- Test out updates and new platforms; don’t wait because you think it’s not necessary to jump on it just yet. Get ahead of the competition and see how your site will be affected—positively or negatively. Being proactive can place you at the front of the field.
Audit and prioritize pages for optimization
In the world of higher education, the majority of prospective students are using search engines as an essential tool in their college search. They’re going to Google, Bing, Yahoo, and other search engines to find out more information about where and what they’ll study, and the majority have no idea which institutions they’ll include on their list.
Unfortunately, higher education websites are notorious for being huge and riddled with outdated content because the majority of them originally came into existence two decades ago. In addition, many pages aren’t written for the web and are just copied and pasted from catalogs and viewbooks. However, your site doesn’t have to fall victim to these perils if you keep SEO in the mix for your strategy.
When auditing your site, if you find your list of pages that need to be refreshed is quite long, don’t fret. Step back and categorize these pages, because chances are not every one of them is intended for an external audience. Aim to first work on revising content for pages focused on this external audience who’s likely less familiar with your brand and is landing on your site via organic search rather than direct traffic. In higher education, these are most often academic program, admission, financial aid, study abroad, and campus life pages.
Find the tools that work for you
To keep up with your organic search strategy, you’re going to need the support of tools that help you organize, plan, execute, and measure your SEO strategy. There are numerous softwares, plugins, and websites—free and paid—available to use for keyword research and performance measurement. It’s all about finding the right mix that works for your goals and budget. Here are a few of our favorite free tools that are essential to SEO work:
Google Search Console
Google Search Console is going to be your bread and butter. It will provide you endless insight into how your site is currently performing in organic search, including the queries users are searching that result in your site appearing in the SERP. This data is instrumental in your keyword research and content revisions.
If you haven’t already, set up Google Search Console for your site. It’s free, and once you get your property set up, Google will start collecting data on your site.
Keyword research should always be done when you’re updating content on your site—you cannot assume you know what keywords are important or highly searched. Rely on research tools that reflect current organic search behavior and intent, aka why someone is searching and what information they are seeking.
In addition to Google Search Console, check out these two free tools:
- Google Keyword Planner is a free Google tool created for PPC (Pay Per Click) paid search advertising and is also great to use for SEO. It helps you find keywords related to your page’s topic as well as their average monthly search volume.
- Keywords Everywhere is a Chrome plugin that appears beside your organic search results, providing related keywords and similar searches. This tool is extremely useful in helping you think outside the box and find long-tail keywords that reveal user search intent.
Can’t keep up? Build a content calendar
Every day is a flurry of activity and projects for marketing and enrollment professionals. We get it; we really do. If you have a large site or one that is rapidly growing, it can seem daunting to maintain your site and keep up with SEO optimization efforts.
If you find yourself falling behind in your content benchmarks and goals for your site, carve out some time to build a website content calendar. This tool is an excellent way for you to check in on your pages with some level of regularity depending on the type of content.
For example, if your college regularly hosts admission events or has rotating application deadlines, it’s best that those pages, which are of high importance to an external prospective audience, are routinely updated to avoid outdated content. In addition to time-sensitive content, you should also build in time to refresh pages that are of high importance to an external prospective audience, such as academic program, admission, and financial aid pages.
This includes performing keyword research to identify new target keywords that can be woven throughout your content as well as an examination of on-page user experience. For example, you can ask yourself: “Are my header tags properly coded and using keywords that match search intent?”
Important milestones to have in your calendar for an evaluation of content include a website build, redesign, or site architecture overhaul. Are these newly launched or relaunched pages written with SEO in mind? Catching any SEO needs on these pages early on helps increase their organic visibility from the start.
Lastly, with a calendar in place, you can start to get ahead of your SEO efforts and not simply work to revise older pages. With the structure the calendar provides, you can plan ahead for new dynamic content that can be regularly added to your site. This is particularly important for thought leadership and blog content that shows your institutions’ expertise on a topic and makes a reader excited to learn more about being a student. By adding thought leadership content to your site, you also benefit from the fact that search engines love new content that answers users’ questions; it will make your college or university’s site an organic authority.
Always keep in mind that your site is a vital tool for you to attract a prospective student audience. Having a calendar helps you prioritize maintenance and not let SEO get put on the backburner.
Don’t give up! Stay the course with SEO
SEO supports and integrates with all of your higher education marketing efforts, allowing your website—your best asset in the college search process—to shine. It has lasting benefits when consistently maintained and should be considered part of your long-term integrated marketing strategy.
Not sure where to get started optimizing your college or university’s site for SEO? Reach out to the Carnegie team to see how we can support your goals.