Why SEO for Universities and Colleges Can't Be Ignored

This post takes a look at the importance of SEO for colleges and universities and outline a few simple concepts institutions can adopt to help improve organic visibility and meet visitors' search intent.

Non-branded search is critical

Given that one in four prospective students rely solely on search engines when deciding which college to attend, it's important to understand students' search behaviours and needs throughout the research process.

Typically prospects begin their research using fairly broad, non-branded search terms such as ‘photography course London’, or ‘evening classes Edinburgh’ to get a sense of what's available and where. At this stage in the process, as many as 9 out of 10 searchers aren’t sure which college they want to attend, so making a positive first impression is key.

One straightforward way to help make that positive first impression is to ensure course pages include the right kinds of descriptive words and phrases. Tools like Google’s Keyword Planner, SEM Rush and Google Trends can provide valuable insight into the types of search terms prospects use when researching different courses; the number of monthly searches for a given type of course and any seasonal patterns to those searches. Use the insights from this research to weave your target keywords and synonyms into your page content.

Keyword research can also be useful in providing guidance on how to name courses and course content in a way which is consistent with how people search. Too often, colleges fall foul of using obscure internal jargon, acronyms or course codes when naming courses - none of which bear any resemblance to how people actually search. 

Content must satisfy user intent

Google is in the business of giving users the most relevant, helpful search result possible. Thanks to algorithm updates like Hummingbird and RankBrain, the search engine is more efficient than ever in doing this. Long gone are the days of keyword-stuffing and low quality link-building leading to SEOs being able to rank pages. Instead, marketers need to take the time to understand users' psychological needs, and look to answer these through well built, thorough content.

Thankfully when it comes to the education sector, some of the hard work around identifying users needs has already been done. Although different prospects will have different needs, research from the UK Government suggests that prospective learners (and those helping make the decision) tend to value a few key pieces of information when researching college or university courses:

  • Course cost information

  • Length of course

  • Descriptive content about course contents

  • Course location

Armed with this information, colleges and universities can build out content which meets each of these audience needs. Given that adult learners tend to be the group most concerned with course costs for example, you might consider foregrounding any possible funding options on pages targeted to this audience. The more you know about your target audience, the better you can shape and define your content strategy to meet their specific needs.

Going a step further, you could A/B test landing pages to improve overall usability and conversion. Even simple changes in messaging can have a real impact on conversion rate.

Try experimenting with messaging or placement of key calls to action and analyse the impact against your core KPI's. Tools like Google Optimize, VWO and Optimizely all serve this purpose well. Ultimately, all Conversion Rate Optimisation efforts should be focused on meeting the needs of the user, as opposed to artifically 'gaming' the algorithm.

Local search is more crucial than ever

In recent years, Google has significantly increased the amount of information which appears around a huge range of organisations and entities - including colleges and universities - in its search results pages. As shown in the example below, a search for 'colleges in Bristol' produces an information-rich search result, showing key information about (most notably) City of Bristol College; student reviews, notable alumni as well as information about other colleges in the area within the local 'map pack'.

Given that search engines are the second most used and third most trusted source of information for prospects, it’s vitally important colleges monitor and manage how their brand appears in search, particularly once users begin to use more qualified branded search terms lower in the funnel.

colleges in bristol

Creating and maintaining a Google My Business account should be a top priority as this will allow a degree of control over how your brand is presented in search.

Consistency is key when it comes to optimising your site for local and location-based searches, so ensure the information in your Google My Business listing is accurate and consistent with your website (and any other external sources). Inconsistent NAP data (name, address and phone number) can impact a site's ability to rank in local search, so keep an eye out for other sites and directories where your institution is listed and reach out to correct any inaccurate information. 

Gaining relevant links

Though some debate exists as to the future of links as a ranking factor, the truth is that for at the time of writing links still play a crucial role in signalling the authority of a website. While many .edu domains will likely have amassed a large number of links, the real focus for any proactive link-building should be around gaining high quality, relevant links. In many ways, good 'link building' is (and should be) indistinguishable from good Public Relations.

Instead of looking to gain 'links for links sake', educational institutions should utilise their PR resource to focus on gaining coverage from sites and publications most relevant to their target audiences. Any partnerships or tie-ins with local authorities, businesses, student publications or charities should be analysed for content and press opportunities. The focus should be on gaining credible, quality coverage, as opposed to sheer quantity. Examples of the types of places a college or university might commonly look to establish links from include:

  • Government websites

  • Local charities and partnerships

  • Student publications

  • Local press

Embrace mobile and mobile-friendliness

With the announcement of Google's forthcoming mobile-first index, it is crucial for colleges and universities to have a mobile-friendly website. Mobile-friendliness is already a ranking factor, but as the landscape around mobile optimistaion continues to shift at a rapid pace, there are a number of areas of mobile colleges and universities should have front of mind to ensure optimum mobile performance.

Mobile usage has overtaken Desktop globally (ComScore)

Mobile usage has overtaken Desktop globally (ComScore)

These insights from the ICEF highlight many of these key considerations:

  • 68% said they had viewed college websites on a mobile device;

  • 73% of students expressed interest in downloading campus-specific applications for schools on their target list;

Clearly, Mobile plays a crucial role in the overall lifecycle of the student, but another emerging area of focus is around content delivery and AMP. For colleges publishing a lot of newsworthy content, there is an additional opportunity to meet rising mobile search demands through adopting AMP; a simplified version of HTML designed to speed up content delivery. AMP is undergoing a rapid amount of change, with Google spearheading new technologies around measuring engagement. To keep up with these developments visit the AMP project site.

Colleges & Universities shouldn't ignore SEO

Hopefully this short primer on the importance of SEO for the education sector has given you some food for thought, and even some actionable insights to try out yourself. Following some of the basic tactics and approaches outlined in this article will go some way to improving your insutution's ability to rank in the right place, at the right time to capture the attention of prospects throughout their journey to enrolment.