Search engine algorithms are meant to be your friends – not your enemies.
While it’s undoubtedly difficult to constantly keep up with search trends and update your website, these algorithms are not intended to hurt your organic traffic – they are meant to deliver the most helpful, user-friendly, and relevant web content for each query.
By uncovering what these algorithms want, and optimizing your school’s site accordingly, not only will you raise your search ranking, you’ll also improve your website functionality to the benefit of your prospective students. A robust search engine optimization (SEO) strategy may take a while to implement, but you will continue seeing a return on your investment for years to come.
Does your school want to stand out online? Read on for a comprehensive SEO guide for schools.
SEO for Schools: A Primer
Did you know that Google’s search algorithm uses over 200 factors to rank websites?
That means there are hundreds of ways you can update your website to be more relevant for search queries. SEO is all about uncovering those factors and turning them into tactics to increase your school’s online visibility.
With so many elements that contribute to SEO, it can be difficult to determine where to start. However, there are a few well-known factors that your school should pay attention to:
- Image Use: The use of compelling visual elements on your website, such as video and images, will work wonders for your search ranking.
- Keyword Integration: By naturally integrating relevant keywords into your web content, you increase the chances of your pages being found in relevant searches.
- Page and Domain Authority: The more people view your website and web pages, the better your online reputation becomes, and the greater your domain authority grows.
- Content Freshness and Frequency: The faster you create content, and the more new content you have, the higher you will rank.
- Page Architecture: Each search engine has its own indexing system, and uses crawlers to evaluate the organization of your content. It’s important to use elements like page titles and header tags (H1s, H2s, etc.) on your website to show these crawlers that your content is comprehensively structured.
- Content Quality: Don’t lose sight of your audience during the optimization process. Aim to create quality content that your prospects will find interesting and helpful. Your prospects and the search engines will thank you for it.
- Content Length: With the average length of a top ranking blog post on Google being 1,890 words, search engines clearly favour longer content. Long-form blogs are a great way for schools to include lengthier content in their overall SEO strategy.
- Mobile Friendliness: If your site isn’t optimized for mobile, your search ranking will pay the price.
Here are some other kinds of optimization that don’t explicitly relate to SEO for higher education websites, but impact your school’s online visibility all the same:
- YouTube and video optimization
- Google My Business optimization
- Social media optimization
While accounting for all of these factors might seem daunting, it’s important not to fret if you feel your school falls short in these areas. Search engine optimization is a marathon, not a sprint, a process of continually updating existing content and working to create a strategy for future SEO success.
Optimizing Content for SEO in Higher Education
Creating SEO-friendly content is all about finding the right keywords and placing them in strategic areas. This practice shows search engines that each aspect of your content provides the information a query is looking for.
With a never-ending list of education keywords available, finding the phrases your target audience uses to research schools will require work. But considering the foundational role that keywords play in your SEO strategy, the time you spend on this step can generate a significant return.
Like the start of many new projects, the keyword research process begins with good old-fashioned brainstorming. Make a list of the phrases you think your prospects are searching, and use a tool like Moz Keyword Planner, pictured below, to assess their monthly search volume. The Keyword Suggestions menu in Moz can also help you find related phrases to grow your initial list.
Throughout this process, be sure to look for keywords of all different lengths. OptinMonster advises websites to strategically choose keywords based on where they are to be located in your content. They have found that phrases of one to two words with a high search volume work best for headings, so make sure to find some shorter, more general keywords. Body keywords are usually two to three-word phrases with a medium search volume, so keep an eye out for those as well. You’ll also want to find many longtail keywords – phrases of over four words with low search volume – as these are less competitive and therefore tend to generate a lot of web traffic.
Once you’ve got a diverse mix of keywords, you can use Moz to create a keyword list and track your rankings over time. This unique feature allows schools to keep a close eye on their search performance.
Integrating Keywords into Your Content
Once the research is done, it’s time to put your keywords into action by including them in the following areas of each webpage:
- Page title
- H1 tag
- The first 100 words (or first paragraph) of content
- Meta Description
- Image file names
- Image Alt Tags
You will also want to include some keywords throughout the text, as well as in header tags (h2s, h3s, etc.) – but don’t overdo it. If search engines suspect you of “keyword stuffing” – i.e. trying to arbitrarily add as many keywords into your content as possible – your rankings will take a hit.
Instead, try to integrate your keywords as seamlessly as possible. The purpose of adding them should always be to increase the value of your content. Never compromise your website’s trustworthiness for a higher search ranking – after all, search engines value content quality over keyword quantity.
Once your keywords are in their rightful places, your web page should look something like this blog post from Canadian Automotive Training Institute (CATI):
It’s evident that CATI chose “automotive schools” as one of their keywords since it’s included in the URL, page title, and header image alt text. The school also incorporated longer keywords like “automotive mechanic schools, “automotive schools,” and “car mechanic training” in the tags to make sure their content also reaches prospects with niche queries.
If your school’s blogs don’t look like the example above, don’t fret. Optimizing your website content doesn’t require you to create entirely new material – you can also update pre-existing posts with SEO in mind. The process of renovating past content is called historical optimization. This highly effective SEO technique involves freshening up dated material and optimizing it for search. As a result, historical optimization enables your school to offer its prospects more relevant resources – while simultaneously increasing your website traffic.
Additional Content Optimization Tips
Beyond keywords, there are a few other ways to improve your school’s search ranking through content creation.
One of those involves changing your school’s approach to URLs. When it comes to search algorithms, shorter URLs are indeed sweeter. Try to include as few words as possible beyond the keyword in your URLs, while still differentiating each page. You can do so by eliminating short, non-descriptive words such as “the” or “an.”
Example: Although the title of this SE Career College of Health blog is “How the Power of Positivity can Benefit the Health of Your Clients During Your Personal Support Worker Career,” the author shortened the URL to “positivity-in-your-personal-support-worker-career,” leaving the Personal Support Worker Career keyword intact.
To further improve your school’s search ranking, you can also optimize your multimedia content, such as video. Optimizing video content for SEO involves the following tactics:
- Adding meta data in the forms of titles, descriptions, file names, schema tags, and thumbnails.
- Creating unique web pages for your videos
- Optimizing for YouTube by adding tags and actively trying to boost engagement on your videos
- Adding YouTube cards to your videos to invite prospects to subscribe, direct viewers to your website, and more
- Including transcripts and closed captions in your videos
If you want to improve your school’s online visibility from all angles, you will need a content strategy that checks all the SEO boxes. While these extra steps may add time to your current digital marketing routine, the extra traffic you generate will be well worth it.
The Role of Links in SEO for Higher Education
Links are another crucial component of building domain authority. Incorporating links into your web pages shows search engines that your content is comprehensive – and if other websites link to your content, it affirms that stance.
Therefore, it’s imperative that schools understand the three types of links that search algorithms evaluate: internal links, external links, and backlinks.
Internal links are hyperlinks on your school’s website that direct users to other pages on your site.
Example: This John Cabot University blog about tutoring services seamlessly (and conveniently) links to the school’s math tutoring center page.
It’s also important to include outside sources in your content through ‘external links’. These links show search engines that your content is well-researched, and thereby worthy of Google’s first page. However, don’t just link to any old site: make sure your external links direct users to reputable, authoritative websites. If you bring visitors to non-reputable sites, Google may penalize your school by association.
Example: This University of Columbia Student Life blog about studying under pressure links to a Harvard survey about memory and exercise to back up its claims.
Last but not least comes the king of hyperlinks: backlinks. Backlinks are created by someone else linking to your content on their website. As you can imagine, they help improve your website’s credibility significantly, and are thus an integral part of SEO for schools.
Example: Getting featured on a reputable website is practically SEO gold, so the University of Maryland team was probably thrilled to find out that their site was included in HubSpot’s college web design article.
Although backlinks are the most authoritative, they are also the most difficult to generate.
As a result, some people have resorted to paying other websites to feature their site. This technique – aka “black hat SEO” – isn’t recommended for many reasons, including the likelihood of search engines recognizing your scheme and blacklisting your site. Companies may think they are smart for buying links but trust us: Google is smarter.
Instead, if you want to build backlinks, you’re best to do so organically. This means creating quality content that others will want to share.
To speed up the process, you can also analyze your competitors’ backlinks to identify what kind of sites could also be sharing your content, and reach out to them. If they find your content valuable, they’ll share it – no payment required.
Technical SEO: Improving Your School’s Website Performance
Search engines want to ensure that when someone clicks an organic search result, they aren’t disappointed when they get there. Top ranking websites must be easy to navigate so visitors can quickly find the information they need.
With that being said, it’s important that your school strives to make its website as organized and glitch-free as possible. By improving your technical SEO, not only do you increase your search ranking – you also provide prospects with a better user experience.
To make sure your website is technically sound, there are a few factors your school should be measuring, fixing, and creating in order to keep it in tip-top shape. The chart below summarizes them for you:
Now let’s dive deeper into each element.
What to Measure
When it comes to website monitoring, there are a few metrics that provide insight into how Google sees your website navigation:
Bounce rate: The amount of people who left your website after viewing a single page and not taking any further action.
Dwell time: The length of time people stayed on your site. As you can imagine, the longer the dwell time, the better.
Page speed: How fast your site loads. You can use the Google PageSpeed Insights Tool, pictured below, to assess your success regarding this SEO factor. If you are given a low score, you may want to consider simplifying your page design or condensing your images.
What to Fix
There are also a few technical issues that will hurt your site’s search ranking, so it’s important to mitigate these factors as much as possible:
Dead links: These links send visitors to a nonexistent page. If something inconveniences your visitors, it hurts your technical SEO score.
Broken redirects: These direct users to a resource that may no longer be there – or at least can’t be found. Talk about a deflation of visitor expectations.
Duplicate content: Pages containing identical or very similar information are called “duplicate content.” It’s nearly impossible for search engines to determine which of the pages they should display in search results, so often none are shown. This is where creating quality content comes in: make sure your pages each offer something different and don’t try to recycle old content in order to post more frequently.
What to Create
To optimize your site for technical SEO, consider creating a sitemap and robot.txt files to make it easier for search engines to assess your site’s architecture.
A sitemap is simply a file that contains all your site’s URLs, which search engines use to index your site. On the flipside, a robot.txt file contains the pages you don’t want to be indexed – i.e. pages you don’t want to appear in search – such as specific policy pages.
By creating these files yourself, your school shows search engines that its website is well-organized – and by extension, easy for visitors to navigate.
Local SEO for Schools
As location-specific searching grows, so does the importance of local SEO for schools. When your prospects are looking for schools in a certain region, you want to make sure they come across yours.
Unfortunately, some local ranking factors are out of your control. If someone makes a non-location specific query, search engines will often prioritize results from institutions that are closer to the person searching.
However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t helpful local SEO strategies available.
The first method, as with many SEO tactics, involves optimizing your keyword use. Make sure to include location-specific keywords in your content, following the best practices of keyword integration we mentioned earlier.
Here are some examples of location-specific keywords for schools in different parts of the world:
Another way you can improve local SEO is through NAP (name, address, and phone number) consistency. Obviously, most schools will have this information on their site – but they may not have it written out in the format that Google prefers.
Search engines want schools to have a web page that includes all their contact information. This doesn’t mean you can’t include these details on other pages – but rather, you should have at least one page that includes your school’s information in full. In other words, if you have your address on your school’s ‘About Us’ page, but your phone number is only listed on your ‘Contact Us’ page, you’re missing the SEO mark.
You can also optimize your NAP page by using the full name and address of your school. That means no acronyms or abbreviated road names like ‘ave’ or ‘blvd’.
Here’s what the right and wrong NAP listing would look like for us:
Although many people call our company ‘HEM,’ Google prefers full names as it’s easier for them to differentiate you from another unrelated business that goes by the same name.
Multilingual SEO for International Student Recruitment
If your target audience is spread across the world, speaking numerous languages, you should try to incorporate multilingual content in order to make your website more accessible to a larger audience.
Search engines also favour websites with content in various languages – but in order to truly reap the benefits of multilingual SEO, there are a few things you should know.
Although it’s good practice to translate as much content from your main site into a new language as possible, search engines will reward you highly if you create new, original content for your second language website as well.
After all, one article that reads beautifully in English may not convey the same meaning when translated. There also may be certain topics that are especially pertinent to one linguistic segment.
Example: WU Executive Academy creates unique blog posts in both English and German.
You should also create a keyword strategy for each of your school’s targeted languages – just as you did for your main site – and optimize your on-page SEO accordingly.
Mobile SEO for Schools
In 2015, Google announced that there were more mobile searches than those on desktop – and since that point, SEO has never been the same.
If your school wants to reach the increasingly large number of prospects who research schools on their phones, you must pay close attention to the mobile version of your website.
Many mistakenly believe that if their site uses responsive design, as many education websites do, then it’s automatically mobile-friendly. But that isn’t necessarily the case. Even if your website uses responsive design, that doesn’t mean it is optimized for the device at hand.
To improve mobile SEO, you can manually edit your mobile site to improve user experience. Here are some recommendations from Search Engine Journal on how you can make sure your mobile site meets search engine standards:
- Scale images for mobile users
- Create a clickable, easy-to-view navigation with only 4-8 pages. If you need more, use a hamburger menu.
- Be cautious about pop-ups
- Reduce copy above the fold
- Create custom mobile CTAs
Example: This blog post from John Cabot University fits perfectly on a mobile device. Notice how there are two hamburger menus at the top of the page, leaving more space for the blog post, while making it easy for students to browse the mobile site.
In addition to design, you should also make sure that your mobile site functions perfectly.
Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test is a helpful resource for schools looking to get started on optimizing their mobile sites. This provides a general analysis of your website’s mobile version and points out any glaring technical errors.
Example: This mobile friendly test revealed 8 elements that couldn’t be loaded on the mobile version of a school’s website.
Optimizing Your Site for Voice Search
As more and more people speak their search inquiries instead of typing them, a contemporary SEO strategy should also include optimizing your school’s website for voice search.
The key to voice search SEO is making sure that your website content explicitly addresses your prospect’s questions, as voice search queries often come in that format. While one may search “Esthetician Certificate Lausanne” on desktop, they will likely ask Siri “where can I study esthetics in Lausanne?”
Optimizing your website for voice search requires you to go through the keyword process again – but this time, find queries in the form of questions.
Then, you can begin optimizing your site for voice search by including answers to these questions within your content. For best results, include succinct answers of around 29 words to specific questions in your longer blog posts and pages. This will increase the chances of your web pages becoming a featured snippet.
A featured snippet is a short answer to a user’s query, which is displayed at the top of Google’s search results. When someone makes a verbal search, this is the only result read back to them – so schools should strive to get their site in this ‘zero’ position for relevant queries.
Example: This Times Higher Education featured snippet answers the following question: what are the best schools for computer science?
Optimizing your website for voice search doesn’t mean you should abandon your original keywords – after all, regular search isn’t going anywhere – but rather, you can enhance your current content strategy with a variety of keywords.
Monitoring SEO for Schools
Search engine optimization isn’t a one-time thing – it’s a lifetime project. Since search algorithms change with internet trends and user activity, you’re never done optimizing your site.
With that in mind, an important aspect of SEO for higher education is having a robust strategy in place to monitor your website’s search rankings. That way, you check up on your site, identify any pitfalls, and ensure that everything is performing how you’d like it to.
But how do you measure SEO? HubSpot suggests that you pay attention to these metrics in order to assess the effectiveness of your strategy:
There are also a few tools that can be helpful for checking in on your school’s SEO health. On the technical front, you can use tools like Beam Us Up or Screaming Frog’s SEO spider tool to evaluate the indexability of your pages. You also may want to regularly perform some of the tests mentioned earlier in this blog to assess your site loading speed, your website’s mobile-friendliness, and more.
With the integral role that search visibility plays in student recruitment today, SEO should always be at the forefront of inbound marketing for schools. And while you can never fully know how Google’s mysterious algorithms work, there are plenty of resources, tools, and intel to help you to make your website as prominent as possible to those that are researching schools online.