4 Reasons Why Higher Ed Institutions Must Invest in SEO

Date posted: April 12, 2013

When we begin working with a college or university on their online marketing we usually start our process with a thorough audit of their current web ecosystem to diagnose potential problems and establish a baseline for future improvement. This audit involves reviewing website design, content, architecture, SEO, PPC, social media, recruitment optimization and analytics. Probably the most common weakness that we find, which has the biggest impact on recruitment results, are poor search engine rankings for a school’s priority (self-identified) keywords.

It never fails to surprise me a bit when we find this situation because effective SEO practice is fairly easy to understand and apply, but more importantly, it provides a huge ROI on minimal investment of time and money.

Here are four simple reasons why I believe you must invest in SEO:

Reason 1: SEO Will Give You Competitive Advantage

In the 2012 Noel-Levitz E-Recruiting Practices Study it was reported that 42 percent of four-year private universities, 34 percent of four-year public universities, and 21 percent of two-year colleges are investing in an SEO process to improve search results. Simply put, this means that:

 60 % – 80% of the higher ed market, (depending on the type of school),

Clearly, if you are looking for an opportunity to rise above your competitors in your target markets, search engine optimization can help you do that. With the rise of “Content Marketing” in the last year, I think that these percentages will fall in 2013 but there is still a large gap to take advantage of.

Reason 2: Prospective Students Rely Heavily on Search to Find Schools

Prospective students use many means to identify and narrow down their top school preferences. But what most of the research on the topic seems to have in common is that students are using search engines as a primary “discovery” tool in this process.

search stats

 Source: 2012 Noel-Levitz E-Recruiting Practices Study

2/3 of the prospective student population uses and highly values
search engines to research colleges.

There is a confusing inconsistency here between what students are doing to find colleges and that schools are NOT investing in SEO to improve their likelihood of being found by students.

To Recap:
– Two thirds of students rely heavily on search to find schools
– Colleges must appear in the search engine rankings to be found.
– At least two thirds of schools don’t invest in SEO to improve their rankings.

     So why is that?

The best reason I have been able to come up with to explain this is that many marketers don’t understand the difference between branded and unbranded term searching. They must be assuming most students are doing branded searches on their college’s name and therefore they are always going to be found. And once they are on the home page they can draw them into their program pages and move them into their recruitment funnel. I am sure this does happen that way in some cases but my bet is that it is rare and getting rarer. It probably works for the Harvards of the world put given the super competitive nature of things at all other levels in the market it is assuming a lot to think that high rankings for you brand will mean success in non-branded competitive program areas.  It is much more likely today that students are searching on something like “best green architecture program on east coast”. Without a serious SEO effort you are not going to get found for these kinds of search terms. Conversely, a college that has invested in SEO for key distinguishing search terms like this will have a much better chance at being found by a prospective student.

If these higher ed specific stats above are not enough to convince you, let me throw a few other arguments in here. These stats are general and not specifically for higher ed but they indicate some pretty important behavioral characteristics of search that I am pretty sure prospective students will also have.

Reason 3: You Must Rank Highly on Page One of the Results Pages to be Found

The research on this topic is pretty conclusive.

75% of seachers never scroll past page one results.
Source: Marketsharehitslink.com, Oct 2010

Assuming this applies to students, this means that 75% of your prospective students will never get to your website unless your website search results gets to page 1. Sobering, right?

Even more sobering is that you have to get to the top 3 organic listings to really have a chance of being clicked. You’ve probably all seen examples of eye tracking studies on how people interact with search engine results pages, like the example below.

eye tracking

The red area indicates where people’s eyes tend to focus.

60% of the clicks go to the top three results.
Source: Marketing Sherpa, 2007

Reason 4: Search Generated Leads Close at the Highest Rate

The quality of prospective student leads that you generate (or purchase) is relative to their source. You know this if you track conversion rates of different types of leads through your recruitment funnel. Search generated leads (also known as in-bound leads) are likely the highest quality leads you have, converting to registered students at the highest rate. This is a general market stat, and not education specific, but research indicates that:

14.6% of SEO generated leads will close, while outbound leads, (such as direct
mail or print advertising generated) have a close rate of only 1.7%.
Source: SearchEngineJournal 2012

So clearly if you want to increase your leads and registrations, focusing on SEO to produce them is a high return-on-investment option.

If you are part of the higher ed community that is not currently investing in SEO, I hope that these arguments will get you thinking about how you can increase your marketing ROI by investing some of your resources into search engine optimization.

SEO is non-glamorous, operates in the background, and is sometimes slow to have impact but it may still be the best investment you can make to improve your school’s recruitment performance. We end up doing some SEO work with almost every new client we start working with. And it works.

I’d really love to hear back from some of you who have specifically chosen not to invest your marketing budgets into SEO and get your reactions to my arguments. What other marketing channels are you using in lieu of SEO and what kind of ROI are you getting with them?