Why SEO Strategies for Higher Education Need to Focus on Both Branded and Non-Branded Keywords

Carnegie Higher Ed Jun 23, 2020 Carnegie Higher Ed Persona The Visionary Frontrunner

In representing an institution of higher learning, you might think your brand is enough for attracting prospective students. You view the college or university as unique and see your brand as the force helping you stand out among a sea of competitors. 

Using this logic, basing an SEO or PPC campaign around your college or university’s brand makes the most sense. And the fact that you’re ranking well for your own branded keywords seems even better—especially once you look at the click-through rate (CTR). But think about this for a moment: what if no one has ever heard of your college or university?

That’s a circular conundrum many higher education entities run into. You’re expected to brand your school, but without brand recognition, your efforts get you nowhere. No traffic. No prospects. No increased enrollment.

Because branded terms consistently have a higher conversion rate, these low-hanging fruits deliver impressive metrics at a glance. However, to continue using a tree metaphor, there are far more branches to climb, and while they pose a few risks initially, getting out of your comfort zone helps you achieve greater visibility long term.

The higher branches in this scenario are non-branded keywords—terms related to your programs. They’re significantly more competitive—you and all other colleges and universities like you are vying after top ranks for similar phrases—and your school name isn’t even included. Yet, when you’re an unknown looking to get in front of an audience, no better route exists for someone to come across your programs. With time and a well-orchestrated campaign, the risks of climbing into non-branded territory eventually bolster your school’s own branded efforts.   

But where do you start? Rather than attempting to rank for every possible keyword, you should understand the basics then build your SEO campaign around a mix of branded and non-branded keyword phrases.

The difference between branded and non-branded keywords

Speaking generally, a branded keyword contains your school or website’s name or the title of a uniquely branded program you’ve developed. However, the brand needs to be specific to your college or university. If the program can be found in branded form at multiple institutions, it’s no longer a branded keyword.

Composing the bulk of your SEO strategy, non-branded keywords as a whole encompass general terms and phrases related to your departments, degrees, and programs. Speaking strictly about higher education, terms like “Bachelor of Arts,” “MBA,” “math major,” and “computer science degree” all fall within this vast and varied scope. As a rule, if you offer it, you can rank for it, and therefore, you should be optimizing your school’s website for it.

Non-branded keywords and the prospective student journey

Put yourself in the prospective student’s place. In a perfect world, you’d prefer them to type your school’s name into the search bar; however, they’re more likely to type “online MBA accounting,” “criminal justice degree,” or “law school JD.” The key factor here is matching intent. You can’t shape the search results, but you can adjust your metadata and on-page content to reflect a prospective student’s search habits, therefore increasing the likelihood they’ll come across your program.

Search habits collectively are moving toward more non-branded terms, and the higher education field is no exception. Based on Google’s “Education Insights Quarterly: Q4 2019 in Review” report, generic query volume increased 10% year over year—the largest jump since early 2017. General phrases like “certificate” and “bachelor’s” fueled much of the growth, with program and degree name terms following behind. Mobile searches for generic queries predictably outpaced desktop, surging 15% over the past year.

Searches and the prospective student journey are far more nuanced, however. Seldom is a prospective student going to come across your program page in organic search, click on the link, and, after browsing a bit, complete a request for information (RFI) form. Rather, visibility through organic search is just one portion of the journey, and that initial encounter through a non-branded organic search result may influence if the prospective student returns via a direct visit to complete that inquiry.

Don’t discount PPC for non-branded keywords in a prospective student’s journey either. Going hand-in-hand with SEO, the visibility gained through a paid ad is further likely to influence a prospective student to click on an organic listing. Simultaneously, both aspects work to strengthen your brand and authority. Learn more about how SEO and PPC work together.

Location plays another component, whether it’s a search for “[degree] + [city]” on desktop or “[degree] programs near me” on mobile. Factoring in the prospective student exploring all possible degrees close to home or within a specific area, non-branded queries can not only bring up your school’s page within the organic search results, but for additional visibility, your school’s Google My Business property may also show up, or you might land in the Local Pack. Especially if the majority of your institution’s students are within commuting distance, you need to factor location into your non-branded keywords and be sure to claim your Google My Business page. Here’s why Google My Business is essential for local SEO.

Understand that at this stage, prospective students know very little about your institution or programs—especially if you’re not local. Ranking for a non-branded term is the first step in your introduction but by no means should be the end. Instead, should a prospective student click on your school’s page in the organic results, you need to follow through with rich, detailed, informative on-page content with clear calls to action throughout, encouraging them to explore further.

The long-tail keyword phrase

Researching non-branded keywords quickly reveals one trend: the longer the phrase, the lesser the competition. Years ago, SEO clients aimed for those high-competitive, non-branded terms and placed much of their content development and PPC efforts almost entirely within this basket. But Google’s ever-changing algorithm continues to shape search habits and marketing strategies. Today, long-tail phrases and question-based queries are key to creating content that aligns with a prospective student’s intent. In fact, based on data from Moz, long-tail phrases compose 70% of all search volume

As one example, a term like “MBA” opens up a Pandora’s box of search intent possibilities. “Accelerated online MBA degree,” on the other hand, indicates a specific purpose: the prospective student is looking to earn a career-advancing credential within a shorter time frame and is seeking to do that outside of a classroom.

From here, understanding intent through non-branded long-tail phrases can shape the direction of the on-page content and program messaging, creating a stronger connection with your prospective student in the process. That connection not only enhances and adds authority to your brand, but the prospective student has a higher likelihood of filling out the RFI form.

Supporting this, research from Yoast indicates while long-tail phrases may be less competitive, shifting your college or university’s SEO strategy in this direction yields multiple benefits:

  1. Due to the specificity of the query, users are more likely to convert. 
  2. With more detailed, user-tailored content on your site, the search engine is more likely to regard your institution as an authority around this general topic, which itself assists with increasing ranks and opens up additional exterior linking opportunities. 
  3.  Long-tail phrases also drive voice search traffic.

The branded leg of your school’s SEO strategy

In researching and exploring all keyword opportunities, realize that branded and non-branded searches aren’t in competition with each other. Instead, a cyclical fluidity exists between them. Because SEO is never a one-shot deal, brand-boosting via non-branded terms may eventually draw more branded keywords into your school’s strategy with time.

At the same time, both SEO strategies run parallel to each other: approaches are similar, but intent varies. The prospective student along this path is already familiar with your school or proprietary program; perhaps they came across it in a print or TV advertisement, and now they’re entering “[school name] + [degree]” into the search bar.

Additionally, in examining other pathways, the prospective student may have seen your ad on social media or via PPC, came to your landing page but left before taking action, and is now typing your college or university’s name into organic search to find out more or return to your site. Or, as another possibility, the student has already explored your site or toured the campus and, being further along in the prospective student journey, now wants to learn more or even fill out an application.

Nevertheless, brand familiarity isn’t always an easy road. Similarly named schools can cannibalize your organic traffic: search “[state] + university” and “university of [state]” to see what we mean. In PPC campaigns, your competitors may also bid on your own branded terms if they’re competitive enough. For these reasons, non-branded keywords will automatically make up the bulk of your institution’s SEO strategy, but to additionally address branded keywords, your school’s name should always be present—ideally at the end of a title tag and in a natural amount through the on-page copy.

Supporting this strategy, Google’s “Education Insights Quarterly: Q4 2019 in Review” report found that branded queries related to general public institutions and vocational schools grew 6% and 5%, respectively, year over year. 

Getting started

If you’ve placed SEO on the backburner, work with Carnegie Dartlet to bring it to the forefront and weave it through your college or university’s digital marketing strategy. Contact us today to learn more about how SEO can benefit your school’s visibility and brand.

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