SEO STRATEGY FOR EDUCATIONAL WEBSITE

Matthew Carter
Hello friends, my name is Matthew Carter. I’m a professional link builder for a large SEO agency in New York City.

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Google reports a dismal number of organic search keywords to your site within Google Analytics or the Search Console. We recommend you use your internal site search results to give you an idea of what your website visitors are looking for, and use this data to inform content and architecture decisions.

Colleges and universities must invest to improve in their organic search rankings to not only stay competitive, but to ensure that their audiences can access the web content most relevant to them and when they need it most.

Wikipedia is now an “official” source of content, as millions of users flock to Wikipedia for information and statistics. The link to your university’s Wikipedia page appears at the top of organic search results AND is a source of content for the Google college search feature. Good news is that you can contribute to this content and correct any inaccurate data on this page. But keep it factual — no marketing speak allowed!

4. Use the Google Analytics Site Search report and Landing Pages from Organic Search to provide insight into what your website visitors are looking for.

Don’t forget to use incognito mode to keep your search history the most “generic.” After compiling a list of the the top terms, audit these pages to ensure that the content is relevant and up-to-date.

Google Trends is a free tool that is effective in starting to understand how your competitors’ websites are doing in attracting organic traffic.

Research common questions for both your brand and your degree programs using aggregation tools like Answer the Public. This is also a great way to research new content opportunities.

Again, since Google does not report organic keywords, you can see which landing pages your audience tends to visit from organic search. These pages will tell you which pages your users tend to search for, and also which pages have very strong search value. And these results may surprise you!

Today, organic search is the number one driver of website traffic, particularly in higher education (and healthcare). Google dominates all search engines, and search is now a critical element of your visitors’ journeys.

Outside of Google search, YouTube is the 2nd most popular search engine. You know that video is an important vehicle to communicate brand messaging to your audiences, but consider how it can help answer your users’ questions and provide more depth to their search queries.

1. Use Google search recommendations for insight into the most common search terms, queries, and questions for your college or university.

This helps with paid search efforts, but also can be used for organic search analysis.

Amp up your accessibility: add subtitles and closed captions to your video, as well as transcribe the video in the video description.

Broken links won’t just impact your organic search strength, but broken URLs are just horrible for users. Regularly monitoring attempted pageviews of broken links will allow you to quickly set up redirects and prevent this interrupted user pathway. Learn how to set-up and effective 404 page.

You don’t need to burn through your marketing budget to improve search engine optimization (or SEO) for your higher ed website. Here’s a rundown of 10 higher education SEO tactics to help your college or university website content to rank higher in organic search results.

7. Set up a 404 report using Google Analytics or a tool such as Siteimprove to identify any broken links.

Apply user-centric keywords to the tags and video description.

Use search-friendly titles for your videos.

You have limited control over what data appears in the college search feature, as it is primarily based on official reported data from the last few years and scraping publications and other “official” sources, but the more accurate your business profile (which appears through other Google properties like Google Maps), the better. We’ve written a full article on how to promote and protect your school’s brand on Google.

But you don’t need to be an SEO expert or invest in expensive SEO tools to conduct these simple hacks to audit your organic search rankings and improve your results.

Conducting some light user research can help with this — ask students, staff, faculty, and alumni what questions they might use Google to search for. Bring a team together internally to brainstorm common questions.

Inbound links are typically the most difficult type of link to attain but can hold great value. Unfortunately, when sites are redesigned or degrees or programs are changed or removed, it can create broken links. External links that once pointed to a live page are now broken, and those inbound links are lost for SEO. Or are they?

Also try Google’s newly revised Test My Mobile Site tool, which tells you how fast your mobile pages are loading and how you compare to others in your industry. Google will even send you a report with specific recommendations on what to fix to improve mobile page load speed.

SEO requires a lot of effort and addresses many aspects of your site. How do you know if your efforts are resulting in positive outcomes? Analytics is a great place to start. It’s important to measure beyond the pageview if you can and examine how organic traffic is responding to calls to action on your site. Set up goals and review how organic traffic meets those goals.

Another problem with URLs is parameters. Here’s an example of JMU’s donation page:

For example, my own degree is actually in “Human Communications” from James Madison University. What does that mean? Over the years, I dropped the word “human” from the degree on my resume because it confused so many people. The intent of the university had likely been to separate mass communications (journalism and the like) from other communications (public relations, alternative dispute resolution). But if I were a student today searching for a degree in public relations, would I know to use the term “human communications?” Would Google know that human communications and public relations degrees are the same?

5. Address page load speed.

While there are many areas of the university website that may be outside your control, most marketing departments do control the site’s content.

Notice how the URL is the same except for the “dids” parameter. Google identifies each URL with a unique parameter as a unique page. In this case, JMU is using the dids parameter to determine the program that the donor specifies that the donation is given to. It’s the same page with just the donation recipient changed. Dids 288 is the Future Fund while 188 is Finance and Business Law Department Endowment and 426 is the Wolla Scholarship.

Before you can improve on your organic rankings, you have to first understand what needs to be done. Performing an SEO audit will help you to identify and prioritize tactics. That’s especially important when some of the tactics involve technical site changes that involve the IT department. Often a university IT department will have a backlog of requests and site changes.

Blogs, too, can lead to duplicate content. Take this example from UVA’s Darden School of Business. Darden has 10 blogs — some run by the school, some by professors, and some by students. Sometimes blog posts might be copied and used on multiple blogs on the site because each blog has a unique audience, and a piece of content might resonate with multiple audiences. For example, a piece titled “UVA Darden Strategic CFO Roundtable Tackles Impact of Trump Administration First 100 Days on Business and Society” appearing on the Institute for Business in Society blog at Darden also appears on the news section of the Darden site, creating duplicate content:

Remember, too, that Google’s mobile-friendly testing tool works on a page-by-page basis. So don’t trust that just because one page of your university’s site is mobile-friendly, all of them are. Make sure mobile is prioritized for your site this year.

Page load speed is a ranking factor for Google and has been for many years. One of the more common issues affecting page speed is image size. It’s not uncommon for university websites to have multiple people adding content, including images, to the site. However, not everyone who is uploading images is also optimizing them for the page.

July typically means a new fiscal year for colleges and universities, bringing with it new marketing plans and goals for the upcoming educational year. Where does SEO fit into your higher education marketing plan this year? Hopefully, right at the top.

However, higher education faces its own set of unique challenges for SEO. University websites are often segmented by school, program or department. This can result in many contributors to the SEO process, often without a singular roadmap to follow across the organization. Additionally, it’s not uncommon for the university’s IT department to own web development, sometimes creating a backlog for technical SEO changes that need to be made.

Google has announced that in the coming months, it will be implementing “mobile-first” indexation. Essentially, this means that the mobile version of a website, rather than the desktop version, will be considered the default version for Google to create and rank its search listings (even for desktop users).

This shift to mobile first may pose a problem for universities — often, multiple websites and content management systems are pulled together under one overarching domain. That often means that some parts of the university’s website may be mobile-ready, while others are not.

6. Optimize your linking.

Taking the extra step to resize images can go a long way to help improve page load time, and it’s something that university marketers often can control. Free online tools like Compressor.io can help you resize images quickly and easily without sacrificing image quality.

Earlier this year, Chegg Enrollment Services and the National Research Center for College and University Admissions (NRCCUA) conducted a survey of 726 high school students researching universities. Online searches ranked as the top method used by prospective college applicants to discover universities and programs, and the second most popular method used both during and after the admissions process.

In this case, the canonical tag should be used to identify the piece of content that should receive the SEO benefit and be the version ranked by Google.

With university sites, it’s not uncommon to find many third-party tools, such as application processing, integrated with the website. In most cases, these third-party tools don’t allow for Google Analytics tracking code to be added to the pages within the tool, such as pages of the online application process.

Tools like Screaming Frog, ahrefs, SEMrush and Deep Crawl provide measurements on a variety of SEO ranking factors and are helpful to ascertain the SEO health of your website.

I’ve worked with many colleges and universities on SEO, and the problems can certainly be unique compared to other industries. I recorded a webinar about those challenges earlier this month, and I pulled out the primary points to share. As you begin to prioritize your higher education marketing plan and the specific SEO tactics you’ll tackle this upcoming year, here are the seven top areas that I see as some of the greatest challenges in SEO for universities, and also the areas that need the most attention.

Google has indicated that using secure protocol can give a website a slight edge in the organic search rankings, so many sites have already implemented it. However, some sites forget to redirect the non-secure version (HTTP) to the secure version (HTTPS). HTTP and HTTPS appear as two different URLs to Google; thus, if it finds both versions, then both may be indexed and ranked, creating duplicate content.

4. Remedy duplicate content.

Consider creating an event goal in Google Analytics to track when a visitor begins the application process and tracking a pageview goal for the page the applicant returns to on your own site once the application is submitted. This will allow you to parse how many applicants start the application process and how many finish and even allow you to provide retargeting ads to those that do not initially complete the process.

This can become a problem if one of these URLs ranks above all others; it could unfairly skew how donations are received by various recipients. By identifying parameters to exclude in the Google Search Console, this problem can be easily fixed, or even avoided altogether.

Websites often inadvertently create duplicate content, but it’s important to recognize duplicate content and indicate to Google which version of the content you want displayed in organic search results. There are three common culprits I find on university websites that create duplicate content: secure protocol, URL parameters and blogs.

Consider the terms you’re using on the page. Even if the branded degree is “B.S. in Human Communications,” you can write content that incorporates important keywords that define the degree, such as “The Bachelor of Science in Human Communications is a degree incorporating public relations and corporate communications.”

I recently wrote an article about link reclamation — reclaiming your broken inbound links. Link reclamation represents an incredible opportunity for many sites to regain valuable inbound links quickly by just fixing the broken links. What impact can it make? I recently ran a broken links report for Virginia Tech using Ahrefs. While Virginia Tech boasts nearly 8 million inbound links, it also has over 400,000 broken inbound links. By reclaiming its broken backlinks, Virginia Tech could increase its inbound links for SEO by 6 percent.

Other programs and degrees may need regular keyword review because the terminology changes over time. Google reported that 15 percent of queries last year were queries that had never been seen before. That’s nearly a million new, unique queries every day! Consider reviewing and revising your keyword list annually.

The example above shows two images. The image on the left is only 194 pixels wide. It’s the actual image size of the image file that loads on that page. The image on the right is 783 pixels wide and has a file size of 143K. If the image were resized to fit only the 194 pixels needed, the file size would be reduced by 88 percent.

It’s not uncommon for colleges and universities to name a degree or program with a brand name that might not match the search keywords a prospective student will use in a search query. And while Google is getting better at semantics, it’s not perfect. Help Google learn the connection by integrating keywords and brand terms.

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