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Keywords are very much at the heart of digital marketing. They help shape the content created for web pages and blogs, influence the way that professionals approach advertising, and effectively dictate the likelihood that your institution will be able to reach the audience it desires. By using the right SEO keywords for education, your school can better attract – and consequently – engage its target audience.

But how do you know which keywords are worth targeting? Finding effective keywords is a perennial concern of digital marketing professionals everywhere, and can be a point of confusion for student recruitment professionals who are new to the area.

To make things easier, here’s a step-by-step guide to keyword research for schools.

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1. Brainstorm Some SEO Keywords for Education Ideas

The best keywords should match search queries sent by users. This helps ensure that your web content or advertising appears before a receptive audience.

The very first step in choosing education keywords is a little unscientific, but it works. It involves just taking a look at your institution—its course offerings, its location, the type of school that it is, etc.—and then thinking about the kinds of search terms that users might use to try and find it. For example, if your school offers an MBA program, “MBA school” would be an obvious keyword to consider targeting.

It’s important to note, however, that broad keywords like this are hugely popular, and therefore competitive. In the case of our above example, business schools and other organizations all over the world are likely also targeting the “MBA school” keyword. Only a select few will achieve a high ranking in search, which means it may not be a good idea for smaller institutions to pour much time into trying to optimize for that kind of broad keyword.

Example: The top three organic search results for the keyword “MBA school” are all third-party pages discussing top MBA programs for students to consider. The school with the best ranking is Harvard, in seventh position. Smaller schools may have a very difficult time breaking into the top rankings.

results showing MBA schools for schools conducting education keywords research

Instead, the goal for most schools should be to target “long-tail keywords.” This is a term for a keyword that is more specific. Doing so allows for two things: first, that there will be fewer searches made for that keyword. Second, that there will almost certainly be fewer institutions competing to rank for that keyword.

You can create a long-tail keyword by combining different important elements from your institution into a single keyword. For example, if an MBA school is located in Montreal, it might incorporate its location into the long-tail keyword “MBA school in Montreal.” This keyword likely receives enough searches that it will be useful for your institution to rank for it, but isn’t so outrageously competitive that it would be impossible to reach that point.

Example: The top three organic search results for the keyword “MBA school Montreal” are different from those pulled up from “MBA school.” For the schools represented in those results, optimizing for the long-tail keyword can help with capturing a smaller, though significant, search volume.

results for MBA schools in Montreal for schools conducting education keyword research

Ideally, you’ll want to have a number of long-tail keywords to target with your online content and advertising, but they don’t need to all be completely different. For example, “MBA school in Montreal,” “MBA program in Montreal,” and “MBA courses in Montreal” are all good, long-tail variations on a similar theme. Apart from location, some schools or programs can also benefit by creating keywords for queries directed toward beginning an eventual career—”become a photographer,” for instance.

2. Take Some Cues From Your Competition

Many schools likely operate in the face of competition, and it’s important to take the opportunity to learn and borrow from this competition whenever possible. In the realm of search marketing, this means that it is worth taking a look at keywords being targeted by your competitors that your school could target as well.

As a start, select a few competitors that you want to include in your analysis. Stick to just your 3-5 main rivals to start, but consider taking a look at more institutions over time as your resources allow. After selecting your schools, you will want to make use of SEO competitor analysis tools, which can help you get a read on the keywords that are most important to competitors’ organic and paid initiatives. Tools like SpyFu or SemRush are good starting options, as they offer some free utility before you are required to pay for unlimited access to the data you are after.

Using these tools is as simple as entering the competing website’s URL and then taking a look at the list of keywords the tool pulls up. If you see any that you think apply to the school or program you are trying to get keywords for, note them down!

Example: A SpyFu search for a private career college in Ottawa, Canada turned up these lists of the top keywords the school ranks for in both organic and paid searches. Competing schools could use these lists to pick out good additional keywords to target.

Higher education keyword research using the SpyFu tool

Adding these keywords to the list of potential keywords you came up with in the first stage should provide you with a decent amount of ideas to bring forward into the next steps of the keyword research process. If you’re unsure how to best proceed with this process, then consider our service offerings for SEO for educational institutions.

3. Verify the Effectiveness of Keywords With Google Keyword Planner

Once you have put together a list of potential SEO keywords for education, it’s time to do some testing to make sure that they will be worth targeting. Mainly, you want to ensure that there is adequate search volume, but not so much that you will have a difficult time getting results from targeting those keywords.

You will also want to see which kinds of websites also rank for your chosen keywords, both for organic results and advertising, to gain a general idea of the keyword’s popularity. If you see a couple of competitors ranking, odds are this is a keyword that will be worth putting some effort into. If you see a great many ads and competing websites in the results, it might be a sign that your keyword will be too competitive to target initially. Making note of these differences can even be a way to improve the SEO keyword strategy for colleges and other educational institutions.

A good tool to help you complete this process is Google Keyword Planner, which was made to help with keyword evaluation for Google AdWords advertising. With a little extra effort, GKP can also be an excellent tool for selecting keywords for website content. Note that Keyword Planner is not meant to replace the manual steps outlined in the paragraph above, but rather to provide assistance in the keyword research process.

Example: A search in Google Keyword Planner for ‘ESL schools’ in the UK. The bar chart at the top of the page indicates the search volumes for the term in the last twelve months on both mobile and desktop.

Using Google Keyword Planner to determine search volume for education keywords

After inputting a keyword into GKP, you will be provided with a list of additional keyword ideas that are related to your input, an estimated range of the number of monthly searches for those keywords, and a basic readout of the level of competition present for that keyword—low, medium, or high.

Example: A searching for the keyword “Engineering school” in GKP provides a lengthy list of additional suggestions and estimations of the level of competition for them.

Using an education Keyword planner to identify suggestions and level of competition

It is worth noting here again that there are a couple of shortcomings to this tool. First, the estimated level of competition is only directly applicable to AdWords advertising. You can expect this to provide a decent idea of their popularity in organic search optimization, but understand that the information will be somewhat at a remove.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the tool has a reputation among some search marketing experts for occasionally underestimating the volume of searches that keywords receive. Generally speaking, you can expect keywords to be a bit more popular than GKP tells you. Remember, this is a tool that is meant to help, not to do all the heavy lifting of keyword research for you.

Finally, it’s good to take into account the cost of keyword bids for advertising when choosing your keywords. Lower is better, of course, and if you can find a relevant keyword that offers similar reach at a lower price, that will be the one to go for.

At the end of the day, the ideal is to find higher education keywords that have a significant search volume but low levels of competition, and preferably that aren’t too costly to bid for in advertising. This should grant you the best chance of gaining a good return on your marketing efforts going forward.

4. Evaluate the Success of Your SEO Keywords for Education

As with most areas of digital marketing, developing advertising and SEO keywords for education is not meant to be a one-time activity. Rather, schools should continuously monitor their performance for keywords and make adjustments to the specific keywords that are being targeted as time goes on.

Don’t forget, though, that success nearly always takes time. Realistically, most schools cannot expect to see amazing improvements in their search rankings until at least 4-6 months have passed, and ad results similarly take some time to achieve. Striking a balance between the patience necessary for allowing good keywords to net their results and identifying those that require replacement or elimination is important for this process.

Keyword tracking tools like Moz can very useful for this, as can Google Search Console, a tool that ties into Google Analytics to offer insight into the queries that most consistently drive users to your website. You can see this information both generally and for each “landing page,” which is any page that users arrive to first on your website. This allows you to drill down into which keywords are netting real results, and could even provide you with some new ideas for keywords to target. Sometimes, your site might rank for something you hadn’t even thought of, and putting a little extra effort into creating content or advertising that addresses that query could help you get even better results.

Example: The search traffic screen in Search Console will allow you to analyze the top queries that are driving traffic to your site, and analyze them by clicks, impressions, position, and click through rate (CTR).

A dashboard view of Google's Search Console for researching higher education keywords

For advertising, you should be able to evaluate keyword performance through the advertising tool you are using. With Google AdWords, for instance, you can see information like the number of clicks you received from a given keyword, the overall click-through rate, and other important data indicative of a keyword’s performance. SEO keywords for education that regularly fail to produce enough value are likely candidates for elimination from your ongoing campaigns. Just remember that it is important to take a long view when it comes to keywords. Web traffic and user behaviour data will fluctuate daily and weekly, so it is critically important to look not for isolated incidences of poor performance, but rather a lasting trend of subpar results.

Example: This screenshot shows the basic view of the Google AdWords keywords tab. Here, you can see the cost and performance of each of your keywords, as well as specific campaigns and ad groups.

A basic view of the Google AdWords keywords tab for schools researching keywords for education

Keyword research is a hugely important process for schools engaging in organic search optimization, important both in the initial stages of your campaigns and as a part of an ongoing process of continuous improvement. It can even be a way to improve your school’s online visibility, increasing traffic to your school website. In taking the time to thoughtfully brainstorm keyword ideas, conduct competitor analysis, and apply industry-standard tools to evaluate the suitability and effectiveness of keywords, schools of all sizes can develop a list of SEO keywords for education that offer the best basis possible for their ongoing digital marketing efforts. 

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