SEO for Universities and Colleges

Increase your online presence. Grow your student enrollment

Explosive Growth Brings Many Challenges

According to a Wikipedia entry, at the turn of the 20th century fewer than 1,000 colleges, of all types, existed in the U.S. Those schools together had a combined enrollment of only 160,000 students. By the time of the 2009 U.S. census, 1.6 million B.A. degrees had been awarded, with an additional 657,000 M.A. and 67,000 Ph.D. degrees also being awarded.

Recent statistics indicate that, at present there are more than 4,000 accredited schools providing higher education. This figure includes schools in the private as well as public arena.

The sheer number of schools in existence today presents a problem for those schools themselves as well as for prospective students:

  • The huge number of schools in existence today means that students planning on seeking higher education have a challenge in finding the school that is the best fit for them - not just in terms of offering degrees/majors/courses of study that match their interests, but also being affordable and offering an on-campus experience that seems attractive to them.
  • The proliferation of colleges and universities also means that, as never before, colleges and universities are competing with each other for the same pool of yearly high school graduates.

Challenge After Challenge In Education

But these are not the only challenges facing schools of higher education today…

Declining Enrollments. In 2015, 42% of schools surveyed indicated that they met their goals for enrollment. The following year (2016) that number was reduced to 37%. By 2017 only 34% of the institutions of higher learning surveyed indicated that they had met their enrollment goals.

Financial Pressures. Institutions of higher learning are grappling with the challenges of rising costs overall to operate their schools, while at the same time federal and state funding is declining, forcing schools to shift more of the financial burden to students and their families.

Smaller High School Graduating Classes. For years, the number of students graduating from high schools has been declining. As of 2017, there were fewer than 80,000 graduates than in 2016, and this trend continues, largely due to a decline in overall birth rates in this country.

Fewer International Student Enrolled. Finally, partly due to global unrest combined with changes in immigration policies and economic downturns, fewer students from overseas are registering for and attending U.S. colleges and universities.

SEO for Education Brings Opportunities for Growth

As you can see from the above summary, the higher education field faces many challenges in the 21st century - and they are significant. But there is hope for institutions that understand the shifting contours of enrollment and marketing trends.

In times gone by, a typical scenario was for a student to write or call a school and get a college catalog sent to them. They would do this for a number of schools that were on their radar as prospective schools to attend.

After reading the information and talking with family, friends and perhaps a guidance counselor, they would formulate a short list and then apply to those schools.

Today, a student - as well as their family - is likely to begin their school search online:

  1. One typical starting point would be for them to conduct searches on Google or Bing. They might input a search like "best engineering schools" or "highest rated medical schools," or even "most affordable business schools" and note the results.
  2. After running a few searches and perhaps clicking a few of the links, the websites of those schools will normally be reviewed in more detail. The student and his/her family will then contact and begin to interact with the enrollment office, request further information, schedule a tour, etc.

This likely scenario suggests two major implications for SEO for education: you must be visible to searchers and your school website itself must be effective in convincing inquirers and researchers to actively reach out and contact you.

Search Visibility is Key to SEO for Education . . .

As most school researching begins at the level of the search engines, you must ensure that your school is visible there.

The key here is to understand that there is a direct relationship between rankings, visibility and click-thru-rates.

Searchers tend to pay attention to those links displayed at or near the top of the returned results. This is why paid (PPC) ads are placed at the top, because that is where they are noticed by searchers.

Links with page snippets displayed further down are not noticed as much, and those deeply buried (beyond the first 10 or so) are hardly seen at all. And if people don't see your listing in the SERP's they won't click on it.

The rule-of-thumb is that the higher your ranking for a search, the more visible you will be to searchers, and you will get more people clicking on your entry. The SERP listings in positions 1-5 can get more than 60% of ALL clicks for that search phrase (excluding paid ads).

In other words, to get the highest CTR (click-thru-rate) you need the highest visibility, and the highest visibility goes to the highest ranked sites.

But here's the tricky part: How do you get your rankings higher? Not by trying to rank your listing higher, but by getting your website to be seen as more valuable, more important, more relevant to the search, than competing schools.

Remember that search engines (Google, Bing) are trying to emulate human valuation. They have a vested interest in displaying the links to sites that they think humans will find the most valuable.

That's where SEO for education sites comes in to play. SEO, properly understood, is not a bunch of gimmicks designed to trick the search engines to think that a crappy site has value - they are tactics that are designed to properly structure your website so that when search engines crawl and index your content, they will evaluate its content and relevancy highly for particular types of web searches.

And relevancy to a particular search phrase is key. There is no way to "automatically" get a website ranked highly for every possible search at the same time. You have to employ SEO tactics to identify the most important types of searches being done, and then deploy resources to ensure that your site ranks well for each of them.

It is entirely possible that a website may rank well for one set of search criterion ("business schools near me") and rank very poorly for another ("cheapest business schools").

The key in search visibility research is to find a balance between ranking for a search phrase that brings significant traffic, and ranking for a search query that you can afford to target.

That's because some easy-to-rank for searches don't bring many clicks, while targeting some search phrases requires a significant budget, due to fierce competition with other schools who are targeting that same search phrase.

. . . But Website Optimization is Also Key to SEO for Educational Sites

The other half of the online traffic equation is to take a good look at your website itself. Actually, this part should come first, before you begin focusing on getting more visibility in the search engines.

Why? Let's remember what we said earlier: Search engines are trying to emulate human behavior and human responses. The SE's want to "figure out" what sites people might value the most for certain types of search queries - and display those sites in the top slots. While there is a lot that can be touched on in this area, we can give you some major recommendations:

Put Analytics First. Before your site goes public you must ensure that your analytics and discovery tools are in place. Google Analytics will give you data on load times, time spent on site, the most (and least) visited pages and other metrics. As you roll out changes to your website's design, content or navigation, monitor your GA dashboard to determine if those changes are helpful - or harmful - to your site's performance. If you want some in-depth information on the kinds of searches that people are doing that caused them to reach your site, then you need Google Search Console as it will allow you to deep-dive into your site's search traffic.

By getting your measurement/tracking/analysis tools in place first, you will ensure that your SEO decisions will be driven by measurable data and not opinion, guesswork or current SEO fads and theories.

Focus on Content. You already know why prospective students visit your site - to research. They have questions in mind like:

  • What kinds of degrees do you offer?
  • What subjects can I major in?
  • Can I transfer credits from another institution?
  • What are the tuition costs? On-campus living costs?
  • What kinds of financial aid are available? Scholarships?

In addition, prospective students will may want to know:

  • How highly ranked you are nationwide
  • About notable or famous faculty members
  • If they can commute to classes instead of living on campus
  • Extra-curricular events, organizations, athletics
  • Study-abroad opportunities

The content possibilities are almost endless - but make sure that the most critical content needs are met first: begin with searches already being done to reach your site. Make sure your site has its own search tool, and track a listing of those searches as well.

And give special attention to searches being done on-site where you don't have content to address that concern, as those searchers are probably bouncing off of your site when they don't find the information they are seeking.

Freshness of content is also important. Some areas of your school website may not often change: academic course catalog listings, faculty listings, contact us information. One strategy is to place other elements on the page that will change more often such as the current academic calendar, special events, testimonials from alumni, latest scholarships availability and the like.

Address Navigation Issues. Directly related to content is the issue of site navigation. Information may be available on your site, but if it is buried somewhere and is difficult to find, site visitors are not going to react well - and neither will search engines.

Your site should have clearly defined navigational categories, and within each major section of pages, there needs to be a clearly demarcated structure in the sub-pages found there.

The use of a breadcrumb element that allows site visitors to know where they are at in your site (what page they are currently viewing, in relationship to the larger structure) can help those new to your site to find their way around, or to get back to where they need to be if they get lost.

And make sure that you continually monitor your site for broken links. Over time, as changes are made to your site - major design changes, pages added or removed, content revisions, links that were once working may not lead to an active page when they are clicked.

You should continuously monitor both links to other pages on your school site as well as links that lead to other websites (off-site links), as you have no control over how long off-site page links will stay functional, or even how long that entire website will stay online.

Wrapping it Up: Getting Started with SEO for Your Educational Site

The above discussion should in no sense be considered the last word or treated as encompassing all that makes up SEO for education. Mobile-friendless, the strategic use of social media, and reputation management could all be mentioned, as well as other aspects.

SEO is a very fluid field, and techniques that may have been effective in the past may no longer work today - or may in fact have a negative effect in today's online environment.

That is why we don't think that in-house SEO is the best option. You hire professionally-trained and credentialed faculty to teach your students. And you need professionals who know this field, and have extensive experience in helping schools of all types get more visibility and traffic.

At Posirank we don't push packages, charge up-front fees or require contracts. We develop a tailor-made strategy for you (which you will sign off on) and then use our staff resources to execute SEO campaigns that will improve your website optimization and get you organic (natural) SERP's rankings that will take your rankings to new heights.

If you already know that - and we hope that you do - we would like to invite you to reach out to us here at Posirank. Whether you pick up the phone, drop us an email, fill out our inquiry form or get right to the point and schedule a consultation with us, we'll take the time - all the time you need - to understand your challenges in today's online marketplace.

We are waiting to hear from you today!

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