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With the impending end of the world (just kidding), now’s a good time to get started on your college website’s SEO needs. Three months into 2012, we’ve drafted a search engine optimization checklist to follow for the rest of the year.

Search Engine Optimization

Here are some basic tips for starting an effective SEO campaign:

Define goals
Defining and establishing clear website goals is the essential first step when trying to optimize your program pages and boost your college’s online presence. Knowing what you’re trying to achieve can help guide your choices for Web design, content and keyword research, among other tactics and tools.

A competitive analysis and a full strategic website audit can help you understand where your program pages are and where they have to go. Click here to request a free website audit. 

Keyword research
Once you have clearly defined and established your goals, you will have to focus on keyword research, developing a list of keywords that will help you rank well for relevant search queries.

Clearly, the more popular the keywords, the higher the search volume. However, these keywords will also be much more competitive. A good tactic, therefore, is to focus on long-tail keyword phrases. Long-tail keywords are often less competitive than generic keywords, providing quick ranking results. They can also be better targeted to specific audiences, which can improve click-through rate and lead conversion.

Consistent, exciting content
With goals and keywords defined, the next logical step is to develop exciting and engaging keyword-rich content. With your target audience in mind, consider what topics and content are most relevant, and set out to create program pages and blog posts that offer the most representative and informative (and keyword-rich) content possible.

Remember, content does not necessarily have to be text. Use visuals, videos and audio when you can to enliven your net presence (and always follow traditional SEO best practices when doing so)

The other thing to keep is mind is frequency. The more content you produce (a blog can be a good channel for frequently updated content), the better you’ll rank. Search engines, after all, like fresh content.

Now more than ever, your school has to be involved on social media sites. From Facebook and Twitter to Flickr and YouTube, if you’re not taking advantage of major social media platforms, you’re not communicating with one of your major target audiences: prospective students. New research suggests that a majority of students will check out a school’s Facebook page when considering to apply. It is essential that your marketing and recruiting message is being communicated on these channels.

It’s important to note that a successful social media plan requires times and persistence. It isn’t enough to simply have a profile (particularly now, with Facebook’s new Timeline format giving schools the chance to pin major stories and create timelines and milestones), your college has to be present, maintaining a presence and engaging and leading a community.

Focus on quality backlinks
A backlink (also known as an Inbound link) is a link directed towards your program pages from other sites. Backlinks are among the most important ranking factors for search engines, helping to decide where to rank a web page in search results. Search engines, however, will give more credit to “quality backlinks”. This means that sites directing links to you must have content that is related to your site. If they do, those backlinks are considered more relevant. The higher the relevance of the backlinks, the greater their quality.

So, while you may be tempted to go out and get as many links as possible, it’s actually a better idea to focus on acquiring quality links. Keep this in mind: 100 niche, geo-targeted links can be just as effective as 1000 random, low-relevance backlinks. It’s quality, not quantity that works.

Look Beyond Google
Sure, Google reigns supreme, but that doesn’t mean you have to ignore other traffic sources and search engines, most especially Bing and Yahoo, whose alliance helped generate an increase in market share. Clearly, they’re not giving up on this “search engine war”, and they will continue to nip at Google’s heels, particularly now that many are displeased with Google’s new privacy policies.

A diverse SEO and link building campaign can ensure that your college isn’t putting all its marketing eggs in one basket. Your audience is scattered across the Internet, and the Net is constantly evolving. Your SEO and link building efforts, therefore, have to be diverse and varied, including blog posts and comments, social media, press releases and more.

Keep Page Load Time in Mind
As Google says, “Speed matters. Faster loading pages mean more visitors land on your site instead of waiting in frustration or leaving.” Essentially, the faster your program pages load, the more popular they will be…and the better they will rank. Google uses page load speed as a factor in how it ranks websites. Put a premium on quick-loading, user-friendly program pages and Google will reward you.

What other suggestions do you have for our SEO checklist?