7 Steps to Auditing Your School’s SEO Efforts
Date posted: April 28, 2021
How would you rate your school’s SEO efforts? Are you performing well in strategically important searches? Do you attract organic traffic from those within your target audience? Is your team regularly reviewing and maintaining the on-page and technical SEO components of your website?
If you feel like you may be falling short, an SEO audit can be a perfect springboard towards improvement. A forensic analysis of every aspect of your strategies in this area, an audit can provide dozens or even hundreds of recommendations that will instantly improve your site’s performance.
1. Start by Reviewing Your School’s Website Traffic
If you are looking to improve your SEO, it’s important to get a sense of just how healthy it currently is. A quick glance at some of your Google Analytics reports will give you an overview of your current traffic, and how well you are meeting your goals.
For a start, you should be looking at your Channel Report and seeing what percentage of your traffic is driven by organic search. For most school websites, it should be relatively high, and will often be the top channel in attracting users.
Example: The Traffic by Channel report in GA for a school. Here, we can see that organic traffic, while still the strongest channel, has decreased year over year.
You can drill down further by looking at your top performing pages in organic search. These could be anything from your homepage to blogs to main pages in specific sections of your site. This will give you a sense of how much value you are getting from various content creation approaches.
You should also try to identify underperforming pages. If a page that you would expect to rank highly —such as your homepage— isn’t performing well, that may point to it having some significant SEO issues.
While you’re doing this evaluation, it can also be helpful to look at the Location Report. Are you generating organic traffic from your target markets and regions? If not, this might be a sign that you need to create localized content to appeal to them.
Example: The location report for a Canadian college. The school is attracting large amounts of traffic from the USA and other countries. This is a good thing if it is trying to attract international students, but may point to an issue if its generally more focused on local recruitment.
The Traffic by Device report can be instructive, too. If you find that you are not attracting users on mobile devices, mobile optimization issues might be holding your site back.
Example: This school appears to be attracting a healthy amount of visitors from mobile devices.
All of these reports should be compared year over year to see if your school is growing its organic traffic over time.
This simple review will help to provide context for the rest of your school’s SEO audit, and frame your analysis in line with your school’s goals.
2. Evaluate Your Website’s Technical SEO
The technical aspects of SEO can be difficult for education professionals with limited knowledge in this area to grasp, but this is one of the reasons why an audit can be so valuable for schools. This exercise provides the chance to identify and fix numerous technical issues which might be impacting your search ranking.
To evaluate technical SEO, experts will often run a site crawl to uncover any potential issues. There are numerous popular tools available for this, such as Screaming Frog, Moz On-Demand Crawl, and Ahrefs’ Site Audit.
This process can uncover numerous things that need to be adjusted or fixed. Some of the most common issues HEM has seen working with schools include:
Lack of XML Sitemaps
XML sitemaps list all of the pages on your site that you wish to be indexed by search engines, helping them understand the structure of your site and what they need to crawl. Sitemaps should be added to Google Search Console to ensure they are found by Google’s crawlers.
Example: HEM’s sitemap in Search Console.
Many schools will not submit sitemaps, causing them to miss out on valuable SEO benefits. Schools with larger websites, which may require the submission of more than one sitemap, need to take particular care to ensure theirs are submitted and up to date.
404 Error Pages
Over time, your website architecture will change, and this can result in pages being removed and being replaced by 404 error pages. These pages can hurt your SEO, as well as the browsing experience of your prospects, so ensuring that they are redirected to other, live URLs on your site should be a top priority.
Like 404 pages, broken links can hurt user experience, and so can be penalized by search engines. Broken links will be caused by 404 pages on your own site, or by outbound links to pages that have been moved or removed on other websites.
Multiple Browsable Sites
This is a situation where more than one version of your domain—for example, http://yourschool.com and https://yourschool.com— are browsable when typed into search engines.
If you have updated your web address, any user who types in the old version should be redirected to the current version. This problem has become more common in recent years as sites have migrated from http to the secure https domain.
There are many other potential technical issues that could holding your site’s SEO back, including mobile optimization problems, page indexing issues, and load speeds (which we will discuss later in the blog). An audit should be viewed as a chance to go over these areas with a fine toothcomb and rectify them.
3. Ensure Your School’s On-Page SEO is on Point
While some parts of an SEO audit for schools can be done using digital tools, there some things that need be evaluated manually. One such element is your on-page SEO, which refers to how well the actual content on your page is organized for search engines.
There are a number of essential elements your school will to review to make sure your on-page SEO is optimal.
1. Page Titles
Page titles—the title of your page as it appears in search results— can be a huge ranking factor for search engines. A page title tells needs to communicate to both users and search engines what a page is about, and can also be an opportunity to integrate strategically important keywords.
Example: Each of these language schools has optimized its page titles for the search study English in Ireland or similar variants of the phrase.
You should make sure that you are taking this opportunity where possible, and also that your titles clearly communicate the page’s content. You should ensure they are the optimum length for search engines (about 55-59 characters), too, as longer titles will truncate in search results.
2. Meta Descriptions
A meta description is the snippet of text that appears directly underneath your page title in search results.
Meta descriptions will not directly influence your school’s search rankings. What they will do, however, is entice more web users to click through to your page, in turn having an impact on your traffic.
A good meta description will describe a page’s content in depth, integrate targeted keywords and feature a strong call to action to encourage clicks.
Example: A number of business schools which show up in a search for MBA programs in Texas. See if you can tell which of these schools have optimized their meta descriptions.
As with page titles, length matters with meta descriptions, though it is less clear-cut. This is because search engines like Google do not have a set length of characters they will display for meta descriptions. For some results, they will display a large snippet of text, while for others they will only display a line, or even no meta description at all.
Having said that, a good rule of thumb is to aim for about 140-160 characters.
3. Headings and Header Tags
Search crawlers don’t read pages like a human. Instead, they scan the page and take note of key information to get a sense of what it’s about.
One of the key elements they use to do this is HTML header tags which indicate different headings and subheadings throughout a page to denote its structure.
Header tags are organized by priority—H1, H2, H3, H4, etc.— to indicate main headlines, paragraph, headings, and then further subheadings within paragraphs and sections.
Google and other search engines reward pages that have clear, logical hierarchies, so it’s important to ensure that all of your headers are tagged correctly on your pages. Often, you will discover headings that are incorrectly labeled—such as titles that are H2s instead of H1s, or subheadings tagged as H4s or H5s when there are no H3s on the page. These mistakes can hurt your page authority, so correcting them should be a priority.
Example: By inspecting the page elements, you can see that this blog from Cumberland College uses the correct h1 tag in its title.
Moving further down the page, you can see that it’s subheadings also use the correct h2 tags, meaning the page is structured well.
Headings, particularly H1s, are also a valuable opportunity for keyword integration. Since crawlers pay particular attention to them, placing full or partial keywords within them will send a strong signal to search engines about your page intent.
Body Text, Alt Text, and Other On-Page Elements
Your school should also spend some time analyzing other elements of its pages for on-page SEO and keyword integration. Alt text in images, which search engines read in place of images, can be particularly important, and should both give a clear indication of the image’s content and integrate keywords where possible.
Your content should also, wherever possible, integrate keywords within the main body text, without resorting to ‘keyword stuffing’ or placing keywords within copy in a way that appears forced or unnatural.
4. Examine Your Backlinks and Spam Score During an SEO Audit for Schools
In addition to looking at your on-page SEO, your school should also measure the health of its off-page SEO, which covers any off-site action which might impact your search rankings. Chief among these will be the quality of backlinks leading to your site from other domains. Search engines will evaluate:
- The quantity of backlinks leading to your site
- The domain authority of the domains linking to your site
- The frequency and freshness of backlinks
- The amount of referral traffic your pages generate from these links
- The number of no follow links your site attracts (links with a ‘rel=nofollow’ tag)
There are a number of both free and paid tools available to check the authority of your backlinks from providers such as SEMrush, Ahrefs, and Ubersuggest. One of our favourites here at HEM is Moz’s Spam Score tool, which assigns a score that indicates just how many of your backlinks come from poor quality domains.
Generally speaking, a spam score under 10% is fairly healthy, and means that your backlinks are enhancing your school’s domain authority rather than attracting penalties for gaining links from dubious sites.
Example: An evaluation of a school’s website in Moz’s Spam Score tool. This particular site has a spam score of just 1%, indicating the backlinks it attracts are generally of quite high quality.
5. Checking Your Site Speed Can Impact Your SEO
Does your site load slowly? Do certain elements on the page seem to be causing it to lag? Is it quicker to load on desktop than it is on mobile?
Site speed can greatly influence how web users perceive your website, with one study revealing that the probability of a user bouncing can be increased by 32% if a site loads slowly. Because search engines understand this, they will favour sites with quick load times in search rankings as well.
The Google PageSpeed Insights tool can be incredibly useful for this part of your school’s SEO audit, as it can tell you not only how quickly your site loads but what might be slowing it down.
Example: A site which scores relatively lowly for mobile loading in PageSpeed Insights.
The tool offers further opportunities and diagnostics which indicate improvements you may be able to make to the page’s setup to improve loading times, such as removing unused code and eliminating render-blocking resources.
Making of some of these adjustments could both bolster search ranking and make browsing your site easier and more enjoyable for your prospects.
6. Define or Refine Your Targeted Education Keywords
Your SEO strategy should always be framed around targeting specific keywords. If your school has never taken the time to properly define its keyword list, an SEO audit should be a chance to correct that problem.
Those completing the audit can conduct keyword research to find high value keywords specific to your school and its programs, and provide a list that can be integrated into your website content creation going forward.
Example: An excerpt from a keyword list for a career college offering a diverse range of programs.
If you already have a keyword strategy, an audit should be taken as a chance to refine it. Certain search terms that you have targeted in the past may no longer be relevant to your school, have proven difficult to rank for, or may simply not be delivering the traffic you had hoped.
Hopefully, you will have been tracking your keyword performance over time through tools like Moz and SEMrush. If so, those auditing your SEO may take the opportunity to evaluate your targeted keywords, identifying terms that aren’t attracting large search volumes, or searches that you rank well for but don’t see a lot of traffic from.
An audit might also help you identify new keyword opportunities. Search Console can be a particularly helpful tool in this regard, as it will provide a list of search terms that your pages were found for. If you can see that keywords you weren’t targeting are generating traffic to your pages, you can begin optimizing for them going forward.
7. Consider Your School’s Content Creation Strategy
While evaluating your technical and on-page SEO can be a massive help in boosting your rankings, you shouldn’t forget that one of the biggest ranking factors on search engines is content quality.
Content that is seen to be clicked on, read, and engaged with by users will always rank higher, which means that it may be worth taking some time during your audit to review your overall content strategy.
Is the content on your site informative and engaging? Are you creating new content frequently, and updating your existing pages? Are there any ‘content gaps’ on your site that you may need to address?
If these issues aren’t tackled, any other efforts you make to improve your SEO might be in vain.
An SEO audit can be done as a standalone exercise, but it can also be a part of a larger digital marketing audit for schools. If you go this route, you can evaluate it alongside other aspects of your strategy, such as social media marketing, website UX, or even your follow-up processes, and ensure that all of these components are working to complement and augment one another. In doing so, you can get even more from auditing your SEO.