Recruiting Students Abroad with International SEO
Higher Education Marketing

Recruiting Students Abroad with International SEO

Date posted: March 23, 2016

international SEO for schoolsIn 2014, 274,439 students from China enrolled in Universities in the US. Enrollment from Brazilian students increased by 22.2%, helped in no small part by the Brazilian government, who spearheaded initiatives aiming to grant 100,000 scholarships to students to study abroad. Meanwhile, Nigerian student enrollment has increased by 25% in the last five years. Three very different countries. Three different languages. One market.

Universities can no longer afford to simply talk about preparing for a more globalized recruitment market; it’s already here. The international market is bringing thousands of bright, eligible prospective students to English-speaking degree programs each year, and it’s imperative that schools become more proactive in reaching out to students abroad to take full advantage of these opportunities.

Why is SEO so Important in International Student Recruitment?

Research from marketing company Big Choice Group found that about two-thirds of international students begin research for study abroad through internet searches. During this discovery stage, these students will know very little about the colleges in the country they are looking to study in, and have been found in many cases to favour broad search terms like ‘MBA Europe’ or ‘MBA USA’.

Even global, recognizable brands like Harvard and Yale have had to intensify their recruitment efforts to attract applicants from overseas, holding seminars and offering financial aid in countries like China. Essentially, the international student market has levelled the playing field somewhat, and a good search engine optimization (SEO) strategy could be a deciding factor in your school’s future growth.

Auditing Your School’s Current International SEO Reach

Before developing your plan of action in international SEO, it’s worth doing an audit of your current organic reach in other countries. This will give you a starting point to work from, and help you set realistic targets for increasing your visibility. You might even be able to identify places where your school is already experiencing some organic traffic, helping you pinpoint potential growth areas.

Tracking international SEO isn’t much different from analyzing general SEO. The ‘Geo’ reports in Google Analytics will show the traffic to your website by country, while you can also filter search query reports by location with Google Webmaster tools. With a little time, you should be able to compile comprehensive data on your organic visibility, CTR and conversions, and decide which countries to prioritize.

Which Search Engine Do Students Use in Your Target Region?

Of course, depending on the region you’re targeting, Google might not be the main search engine you should be focusing on. Other local search engines have maintained popularity in certain countries, while access to Google is restricted in markets such as China. Here are just a few of the bigger regional sites, and a few examples of how their SEO practices differ:

  • Baidu:  China’s most popular search engine, Baidu accounts for about 63% of all search traffic in the country. Baidu favours sites with local IP addresses that use Chinese characters. It also prioritizes a site’s loading speed as a ranking factor, and is unable to effectively crawl JavaScript and Flash, so the design of your site or landing page may have to be reconsidered.
  • Yandex: Yandex has 62% of the market share in Russia, and is also popular in a number of other eastern European countries. It follows similar SEO best practices to Google, although it only indexes content a few times a day, in contrast to the near-constant updates of Google’s crawlers. There are also a number of small differences in how it indexes content. For instance, it counts outbound links to authority sites in its indexing.
  • Naver: The most widely-used search engine in South Korea, Naver boasts a 70% share of that market. Among its unique features is its very different SERP layout, which is split into different sections such as Naver Encyclopedia, Naver Knowledge, and the social media platform Naver Cafe.

Example: Here is a typical excerpt of Naver’s sectioned search results page translated into English. You can see the section devoted to Naver Cafe results for the search term ‘study USA’. Interestingly, Shepherd University, a medium-sized state school in West Virginia, has managed to achieve the top result in this category.

international SEO for universities

As you research different regions for international SEO, you can expect each to present its own unique surprises, challenges, and opportunities. Researching your targeted countries thoroughly will help ensure you don’t make any mistakes or focus on the wrong sites.


International Keyword Research: A Unique Challenge for Universities

Conducting international keyword research is possibly the most difficult part of international SEO for universities. Finding relevant keywords in another language, or even for another English-speaking country, can take a lot of time and effort and should ideally be done with the help of a professional familiar with your targeted region.

Keyword research can be conducted with Google Keyword Planner, or using Bing’s or Yandex’s keyword research tool if you’re targeting a region where Google isn’t as popular. You can also use tools such as UberSuggest to identify long tail keywords around your more basic suggestions, and SimilarWeb to identify competitors in the region and their practices.

Internationalizing Your College Content: Translation and Localization and Targeted Content

Once you’ve identified the regions or countries you wish to target, you should be looking to create content specifically for those students. Providing international students with content in their own language helps foster the impression that they are a priority for your school, and that their interest will be welcomed and nurtured. How you choose to go about this will depend largely upon what segment of the international market you wish to target.

Translating Existing Content

If you’re targeting students that speak a language other than English, translating your existing website content is naturally very advantageous. Be careful about simply feeding content into an electronic translator, however, as this will inevitably lead to grammatical and contextual errors. If you have the resources, it is worth investing in professional translation services, which will ensure that your content makes sense to native speakers of the language.

Alternate language versions of existing pages need to be organized using Hreflang tags. Hreflang tags are metatags which show search engines the relationship between the different language versions of the same webpage. They are written as html in the form of “Rel=”Alternate” Hreflang=x”. The ‘x’ in this code is the language that the search engine user is querying in. A typical long form Hreflang tag looks like this:

<link rel=”alternate” href=”” hreflang=”en-us” />

Hreflang tags also serve as a solution to the problem of duplicated content in International SEO. Numerous duplicates of the same page in different languages cause crawlers to waste time, but Hreflang tags send a clear signal about the purpose of the alternate language page, allowing them to index it correctly.

Localizing Content

When targeting specific regions, it’s important to consider not just what language they speak, but how it is spoken. For example a prospective student in Spain speaks Spanish quite differently from one in South America. Recruiters need to ensure that their content is not only translated but localized. Even if you’re targeting a region that speaks English, creating localized versions of your existing content is advantageous, as each region will have its own linguistic idiosyncrasies.

This is another area where Hreflang tags are extremely useful, as they can be used to provide search engines with indications of the regions a specific page is intended for, as well as the language. For example, a Hreflang tag which is intended for English speakers in the UK would be written as:

 <link rel=”alternate” hreflang= “en-GB” href=>

Whereas one which served users in Canada would be written as:

  <link rel=”alternate” hreflang= “en-CA” href=>

Hreflang tags can seem complex, but all follow the same basic format, and there are a number of great tools to generate Hreflang tags for your web pages available, such as

Creating Region-Specific Content

While most schools will stop at producing localized versions of their existing pages, you can make your international recruitment campaigns stand apart from your competition by creating blog posts, landing pages and admissions information that speak directly to students from a specific region you’re targeting. Not only will this make a great impression with potential students, but it will also help your SEO. After all, search engines prioritize relevant content, so a page from your website which specifically mentions the end user’s location will rank higher in that region.

On Page SEO: Getting Your School’s Site Architecture Right

The principles of an on page international SEO strategy for schools are fundamentally the same as regular SEO. Recruiters need to make sure their pages are relevant, crawlable and indexable. As mentioned before, using Hreflang tags for your international content will help, as will translating SEO elements such as titles, alt-tags, and menu and navigation elements. In addition, you will also need to carefully consider the architecture of your international pages.

When choosing how to structure the alternate language versions of your site, much will depend on whether you have chosen to target prospective students by language or by country. If you are focusing on a particular country, building the site using a separate country code top level domain (ccTLD) might be ideal.

A ccTLD is a domain which is associated with a specific country, such as .ca for Canada or .fr for France. Using a ccTLD can help ensure that your international site ranks higher in your targeted country, and users have also been shown to view these domains as more trustworthy, which can result in higher rankings and click-through rates.

 However, building authority for multiple ccTLDs can be very time consuming, and since it is an independent domain from your school’s existing site, you will essentially be starting from scratch in developing its popularity.

If already have a popular site with a Generic Top-Level-Domain (gTLD) address, such as a .com or .org site, using sub-directories for your international site might be a better alternative. Sub directories are basically separate folders within your existing website which contain your alternate pages.

Sub-directory pages inherit the popularity of your existing site and are much simpler to set up and maintain than a separate domain. You can also create pages that target by both region and language. A typical example of a sub-directory address can be seen on the French language version of the University of Ottawa’s site below:

international recruitment campaigns

The drawback with this approach is that sub-directories don’t have their own specific IP addresses, resulting in weak geolocalization signals for search engines, and making it harder to increase your ranking in specific countries.

The other option is to create the international site on a sub-domain of your current site, for example:

A sub-domain is treated as a separate site that’s affiliated to your URL. This can make it easier for search engines to index your content, and also allows you to have a separate IP located in your targeted region. Unfortunately, this requires you to have a separate SEO strategy for your sub-domain sites, and it can be difficult to build as users tend to browse locally.

Example: Peking University use a sub-domain for the English version of their website.

international SEO strategy for schools

Whichever approach you use, you can detect the location and language of users through their IP address, and suggest they visit the most relevant version of your site.

Off Page SEO: Earning Inbound Links for Your Colleges International Website

Building strong inbound links to boost your site’s SEO authority can be arduous even on a local level, and can be even more daunting when you’re attempting to break into an unfamiliar region. Having content relevant to your prospective students will be key, and this is another reason why you might want to consider creating original content for your international pages rather than simply duplicating your existing site.

You can promote your content and build inbound links organically using blogs, social media and other social bookmarking sites such as Reddit and StumbleUpon. Again, the important thing is to research the region thoroughly, so you can target your efforts towards sites that will reach prospective students in that market.

Example: In addition to doing most of their browsing on Yandex, Russians also use different social networks, with VK being the most popular. Any school looking to drive traffic and build links in this region would need to bear this in mind, and countless other regions have market-specific quirks like this that recruiters need to be aware of.

international student recruitment

Understanding International Students: A Final Word on International SEO

Getting international SEO right takes time, and schools will spend a lot of time tracking and refining strategies with Analytics and Webmaster Tools before finding the perfect formula. The human side of your strategy cannot be overemphasized: you are aiming to capture the mindset of international students, what they are looking for from a school, and what their particular concerns might be about studying abroad, and these can be difficult things to quantify. Any insights you can gain into the personas of prospective applicants will inform your keyword planning, international content and site architecture, and form the basis of your SEO strategy.

Attract More International Students to your School