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higher education marketing

How often do your review your SEO strategy? While certain SEO best practices-such as well indexed, quality content, and strategically integrated keywords- will always help ensure good visibility on the web, search engine optimisation at a more advanced level is far more nuanced, with marketing professionals having to constantly tweak and refine their approaches to keep up with the updates and algorithm tweaks that Google and other providers implement on a regular basis.

The past year has seen a number of different changes to way that search engines read, understand, and rank content, with technological advances including artificial intelligence, new mobile platforms, and the rise of voice search all contributing to provide a more intuitive experience for web users. For those in student recruitment, keeping track of the latest SEO developments is especially important, given that many prospective students fall into younger, more tech-literate demographics.

So what should your school be considering in order to make their SEO more efficient? Read on to find out.

1. What is RankBrain and How Does it Affect SEO for Schools?

An artificial intelligence system which was incorporated into Google’s search algorithm Hummingbird last year, RankBrain is now the company’s third most important ranking factor, according to Google Senior Research Scientist Greg Corrado, with only links and content having more bearing on where your site shows up in search results pages.

So why is RankBrain so important to Google? The system uses machine-learning technology to understand not just the words in a search query, but their relationship with each other, allowing it to gain a clearer idea of user intent. In the past, Google had issues with queries that used overly verbose, ambiguous or colloquial language, and also had problems with unique queries that had never been searched before, which the company estimates makes up around 15% of its daily searches.

You’ve probably already seen RankBrain in action in your daily lives if you’ve been looking for an answer to an ambiguous query, such as trying to find the name of a celebrity based on a description of them, or searching for a particular word that had escaped you by typing in its meaning. RankBrain analyses these kinds of queries in order to provide you with more useful answers.

Example: You can see some elements of RankBrain working here to answer an ambiguous query. The search “Which university was Facebook invented in?” would previously have been quite hard for Google to understand, given its casual wording and the potential to confuse the meaning of certain terms in the sentence. Using RankBrain, Google can immediately connect the query with pages detailing the history of Facebook, and scan the articles to highlight Harvard as the correct answer.

SEO for schools

While RankBrain has created considerable waves among SEO experts because of its importance to ranking, optimising your school’s online student recruitment initiatives for the system shouldn’t require a massive overhaul of your strategy.

Since RankBrain is looking for the best, most specific answers to questions, it tends to favour niche sites with well-researched and focused content, which actually makes it ideal for schools, and could make it easier to connect with leads, rather than harder. Nonetheless, it is likely that certain search terms your school might previously have experienced success with will take a small hit, particularly certain long tail keywords.

Recruiters should also be prepared for click-through rates (CTRs) to become a much bigger factor in their organic searches. RankBrain rates pages for relevance using similar technology to Google AdWords Quality Score system. Consequently, it rewards pages with higher than average CTRs, recognising it as a signal that the content is more relevant to the intent behind the search.

While RankBrain won’t change many SEO best practices, it’s probably worthwhile conducting a systematic review of your current keyword strategy with the technology  in mind. One of the most efficient ways of doing this is through semantic keyword research, which involves dividing your keywords into three specific groups:

1. Core Keywords– These are the most basic keywords which describe your school’s content and services in the clearest way.  You can find semantic keywords by looking for variations on phrases that aren’t much different from the targeted phrases and their meanings.

Example: ‘Study engineering in Australia’ would be a good example of a core keyword for universities offering engineering programs in the country. As you can see from the search results page, Deakin University has targeted the phrase for a PPC campaign, recognising its strategic importance.

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2. Thematic Keywords– These are less specific phrases that have some thematic relationship to your services, addressing the underlying motivations behind the search. Returning to our core keyword example, a good related thematic keyword might be ‘study engineering abroad’ in order to address international students.

3. Stem Keywords– These are more specific long tail keywords, and possibly the most important in relation to RankBrain. Stem keywords are more specific queries and require a nuanced understanding of how internet users ask questions. Assembling a list of stem keywords will allow you to deliver more targeted content, such as blog posts, which speak to specific queries and zone in on your targeted personas more effectively.

Example: This post from, a guidance website for international students, details the advantages of studying engineering in the country. It’s informative and answers a very specific user query, and probably commands a fairly high CTR. As a result, it’s one of the top results for stem searches such as ‘how to choose an engineering program in Australia,’ ranking fourth in the overall search list. Focused content like this is only going to become more important as a result of RankBrain.

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This approach can help you ensure your keyword strategy is as finely tuned as possible, limiting any potential negative effect RankBrain might have and allowing you to refocus both your SEO and content development.

2. The Importance of Optimising for Voice Search to Reach Today’s Prospective Recurits

Another factor which may have a dramatic impact on the future of SEO is the rise of voice search applications. Recent figures from Global Web Index indicate that one in every five users aged between 16-64 regularly use voice search on their mobiles, with even higher percentages of 16-24 year-olds:

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Not only that, but voice search is moving away from being  a mobile-only feature, with Google, Microsoft, and Apple all pushing systems for use on desktop devices. In addition, voice search can be incredibly important in large international recruitment markets, such as China, where mobile users tend to favour voice search tools because many mobile keyboards aren’t particularly well suited to typing in their language.

This has the potential to be a huge game-changer for SEO in all fields.  Shifting away from typed queries to speech fundamentally alters the language users employ while searching like nothing before it. At a very basic level, recruiters may need to look to adopt a more conversational tone. In addition, since voice search platforms function based on questions or commands, pages which answer specific queries will stand a much better chance of achieving top results, just like with RankBrain.

Example: This blog post from the MIT School of Engineering ranks high for the question-based search term “How do I choose an engineering major?” as a result of its conversational title. This sort of query-based content is needed to rank highly in post-voice search SEO.

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Blogs posts like these shouldn’t be the only place you focus on optimising for voice search, however. Your program pages and student support information may all need to be focused on providing more direct answers to queries. Another part of your website which could become increasingly important is your ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ pages. Voice search apps are likely to identify FAQs as a good source of answers to searches involving your school, so ensuring these are as detailed as possible will become more crucial.

Example: The University of Nottingham’s FAQs section is not only detailed, but extremely well laid out. It covers more common general queries, but also has dedicated subsections for undergraduates, postgraduates, and students at specific campuses. When properly optimised using SEO best practices, this layout makes it much easier for web crawlers to read and understand.

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However, optimising for voice search isn’t as simple as adopting a more conversational tone. One important tip for recruiters looking to generate more student enquiries from voiced-based services is to consider which voice search apps your students are likely to be using. At present, there are three main voice search systems on the market, each with their own different SEO needs:

  1. Siri– Possibly the most famous voice search app, Apple’s personal assistant system is available on all iPhones and iPads, and is being rolled out on the company’s latest Mac operating system later this year. Designed to be as intuitive as possible, Siri is perhaps the best voice search app at understanding natural language, making it ideal for conversational long tail keywords. One important thing to note when optimising for Siri is that, since 2013, the app has used  Microsoft’s Bing as its default search engine, making it increasingly important to devote more attention to SEO for Google’s chief competitor.
  2. Cortana– Microsoft also has its own voice search app, which uses Bing as its default search engine too. While currently less sophisticated than Apple and Google’s offerings, Cortana does have potential to grow, chiefly because in addition to being available on all Windows phones, Android, and iOS, the app is also a default feature on Windows 10, making it ideally placed to gain more of a market share as voice search moves to desktop.
  3. Google Now– Google’s system may be the most strategically important in the current market, chiefly because, as the main voice search app for all Android systems, it’s currently on 83.7% of phones worldwide.  Google Now is also available in the company’s Chrome internet browser, giving it a foothold in the desktop market. For recruiters, the app also offers a number of strategic advantages. Google Now uses the vast reservoir of specific data its parent company’s other applications collect about user preferences and demographic information to refine its searches, meaning it’s more likely to rank your school’s results highly with existing leads, making it a potentially valuable remarketing tool.

In addition to these points, you also need to focus on inbound SEO to maximise your visibility in voice searches. Social media platforms, in particular, such as Facebook and Twitter, are often more likely to be used to answer user queries on voice search than direct websites, so getting your content shared regularly on these platforms will be vital to ensuring your school doesn’t fall behind.

3. Optimising Your School’s Website for Google’s Latest Mobile-Friendly Update and Beyond

Most professionals who are actively involved in SEO for schools will be familiar with the much talked about ‘Mobilegeddon’ update to Google’s algorithm last year, which incorporated the mobile-friendliness of a site as a ranking factor for the first time. The change sparked some panic in the online community, with one survey showing that 40% of sites would be affected. So naturally, similar concerns arose when Google announced it would be boosting its mobile-friendly algorithm in May of this year.

The 2016 update is less drastic, and the company has stated it will have no effect on sites which are already mobile-ready. Nonetheless, the change does increase the importance of being mobile-friendly in the rankings even further, make it even more imperative to ensure that your mobile pages are on point.

While most institutions have created some form of mobile version of their site at this point, it’s still possible for small problems such as faulty redirects or internal links to your desktops pages to be missed in the process and bring your ranking down. Simple content errors, such as using small font sizes or including video content which uses platforms that are unsupported on mobile – such as Flash- also detract from your mobile-friendliness and can indirectly affect your SEO.

Google themselves offer a useful list of the most common mobile site design mistakes, and you can also use their Mobile-Friendly Test in Webmaster Tools to run a quick scan of your pages in just a few minutes:

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It may also be worthwhile to work proactively in preparing your school’s website for anticipated changes in Google’s algorithm. One update which is expected sooner rather than later involves the Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) Project, which is an open source initiative introduced by Google and a number of large publishers  in order to create mobile versions of web pages with almost instant loading times, similar to Facebook’s Instant Articles.

AMP links are already displayed prominently on mobile searches, and while it is currently not a ranking factor in Google’s algorithm, the web giant has indicated that it will become one at some point in the near future. With that in mind, creating AMP pages for your site would be a wise move, helping you stay ahead of the curve while also improving user experience for prospective students checking out your school on mobile devices. Best of all, it’s relatively easy to implement, with most top publishing platforms offering simple plug-ins for AMP creation.

Example: WordPress offer an AMP plug-in that will automatically generate AMP versions of every post you create.

SEO for higher education

Depending on the nature of your recruitment activities and current SEO practices, some of these developments will affect your school more than others, and it’s always important to continue tracking your online performance using analytics in order to quickly identify problems and keep your inbound marketing initiatives running smoothly.

And while keeping up with the constant refinement of search engine services requires a lot of effort, all of these changes are done with end user experience in mind. As a result,  evolving in line with changes in SEO best practices will not only help your school maintain online visibility, but will also contribute to a better, more intuitive experience for your prospective students looking to engage with your school.

Need to Refine Your School’s SEO Strategy? Talk to Us!