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It is common for small to mid-size colleges that offer really excellent programs to struggle as they compete against larger colleges’ in an attempt to reach prospective student audiences online. There’s never a lot of marketing budget to invest in one single program and the sheer momentum of a larger competitor’s website, SEO, PPC and social media activities can easily overwhelm your program’s rankings, leaving you with minimal traffic, low leads and even fewer registrations. So what can you do to raise your program’s rankings and get your fair share of traffic, leads and students without investing a fortune?

One effective strategy is to invest your time and money into “the long tail of search”, specifically developing long tail keyword tactics with PPC campaigns and SEO for your priority program. Let’s start by defining exactly what a long tail keyword phrase is in search engine marketing. Photo Credit: C 2007 Elliance, inc

In this example “logistics management software case studies” is a long tail keyword phrase, occurring on the green section of the curve. The position on the curve indicates it has low cost and medium search frequency. The farther to the right a term appears the further out on the “ long tail” it moves, having lower cost per click and lower search frequency. Here’s another way to look at it.The bottom row of this table represents a long tail keyword phrase. The competition for keywords in the MBA market is quite fierce so you don’t get quite the same curve on the CPC but your get the idea. (This example was created using Google’s Keyword Research Tool.  It also demonstrates the biggest problem with the tool which is that once the search volume drops to too low a level it no longer reports any of the data.) 

As your keyword phrase gets longer and more specific, the phrase’s total search frequency drops, along with it the competition for that phrase and the approximate cost per click. So if the searches are so scarce and the numbers are so low, why should you pursue them? Well, firstly because not many others are targeting them so they’re generally more cost effective to acquire, (and remember you have very little money to promote this specific program). And secondly, because these searches align  more closely with your program they generally turn out to be higher quality prospects and convert at a much higher rate than the average. If we can agree that these are people that we would like to have visit our site how do we improve the odds that we are seen by them and that we hopefully get clicked on? So how do we apply this in PPC and SEO.

Let’s look at the PPC side of things first.

As you know, pay per click ads are targeted at specific keyword phrases. You identify the keywords in your campaign settings and control which keyword searches see your ad. As you can see in the example above, the main variables affecting PPC campaigns are specificity of keyword phrase, the volume of searches and cost per click (CPC). Long tail keywords target traffic of well-aligned searchers, that are generally of lower CPC, and that will generally convert at a higher rate. So that sounds great but if that is the case why isn’t everyone doing this?

Well, the problem is related to volume of search queries. Because of the very low search volume on these terms, most people skip over them and concentrate on ones with higher volume, which are easier to manage,  can get a 2 or 3% conversion rate and be happy with that. It’s more work to run a long tail campaign because to make it successful you need to research and find many more long tail phrases to get your volume up to a level where it starts to produce a reasonable number of conversions. Yes, it converts at a higher rate (say approximately 4-6%) but you still need a large number of searches to make the numbers work.

So the key to this strategy is that you must research, identify and pull together hundreds of long tail keyword phrases, drop them together into a campaign, monitor, maintain, cull and add new ones on an ongoing basis, to get a really great result. This takes time and patience but in the end you will have created a PPC campaign that will tap the best keyword phrases available for your program, at the lowest cost and with the highest conversion rates.

So how do you go about identifying long tail keyword phrases that might work for you? Here are a few strategies and sources to get you started;

  • Start with your Adwords Search Query Report for any general campaigns you are running, identify and pull out the long tail keyword terms.
  • Use the AdWords Keyword Tool and research keyword volume and costs
  • Add qualifying terms (i.e. part-time, full-time, online) to your keyword phrases
  • Add a localizing terms ( i.e. Toronto, Chicago) to your keyword phrases
  • Identify keywords being used by your competitors and incorporate them into your keyword phrases
  • Check your traffic reports in Google Analytics for new keywords
  • Check your internal site search for new keywords

Because the Cost Per Click on your long tail keywords is generally low you can quite economically develop a campaign that you grow over a period of time that will become a valuable lead generation asset for your ongoing recruitment needs. It will take take time and energy but the results can be well worth it.

Now let’s look at the organic search side of things and see how long tail keywords can be applied there.

As you know the search engines rank your pages highly if your content is of high quality and if it closely matches the search intent of the searcher. So how do you get your priority program to rank highly? It is not going to happen if you just produce a couple of static pages and wait for searches to find them, especially, if your main competitors at the big colleges down the street are doing even an basic job with their competing pages. To set yourself apart you must have a strategy to develop long tail, keyword rich pages around the central topics of your priority program so that it won’t be overshadowed by your competition. So how do you do that? The answer is fairly simple but again not necessarily easy to implement.

You must incorporate content on your site that uses these long tail keyword phrases. You must blog about it, publish questions and answers about it, or include a forum about it. You must generate lively, engaged discussion about your program topics and the long tail keywords you are seeking will end up on these pages. As your content grows and improves, your organic ranking for these long tail keywords will naturally improve. But certainly don’t leave things to chance.

Now take what you’ve learned from the keyword research you did to put your long tail PPC campaign together and start to incorporate those keywords into more content on your site. The aggregate effect of this “organic” engagement with your audience, along with your use of targeted keywords gleaned from your PPC campaign experience, will position yourself highly for the long tail terms you have prioritized.

Have you developed long tail keyword phrase campaigns in the past? How successful have they been? What other strategies have you used to best leverage your SEO and PPC activities?