7 most important SEO focus areas for colleges and universities

July typically means a new fiscal year for colleges and universities, bringing with it new marketing plans and goals for the upcoming educational year. Where does SEO fit into your higher education marketing plan this year? Hopefully, right at the top.

Earlier this year, Chegg Enrollment Services and the National Research Center for College and University Admissions (NRCCUA) conducted a survey of 726 high school students researching universities. Online searches ranked as the top method used by prospective college applicants to discover universities and programs, and the second most popular method used both during and after the admissions process.

However, higher education faces its own set of unique challenges for SEO. University websites are often segmented by school, program or department. This can result in many contributors to the SEO process, often without a singular roadmap to follow across the organization. Additionally, it’s not uncommon for the university’s IT department to own web development, sometimes creating a backlog for technical SEO changes that need to be made.

I’ve worked with many colleges and universities on SEO, and the problems can certainly be unique compared to other industries. I recorded a webinar about those challenges earlier this month, and I pulled out the primary points to share. As you begin to prioritize your higher education marketing plan and the specific SEO tactics you’ll tackle this upcoming year, here are the seven top areas that I see as some of the greatest challenges in SEO for universities, and also the areas that need the most attention.

1. Perform an SEO audit

Before you can improve on your organic rankings, you have to first understand what needs to be done. Performing an SEO audit will help you to identify and prioritize tactics. That’s especially important when some of the tactics involve technical site changes that involve the IT department. Often a university IT department will have a backlog of requests and site changes.

Tools like Screaming Frog, ahrefs, SEMrush and Deep Crawl provide measurements on a variety of SEO ranking factors and are helpful to ascertain the SEO health of your website.

2. Think ‘mobile-first’

Google has announced that in the coming months, it will be implementing “mobile-first” indexation. Essentially, this means that the mobile version of a website, rather than the desktop version, will be considered the default version for Google to create and rank its search listings (even for desktop users).

This shift to mobile first may pose a problem for universities — often, multiple websites and content management systems are pulled together under one overarching domain. That often means that some parts of the university’s website may be mobile-ready, while others are not.

Remember, too, that Google’s mobile-friendly testing tool works on a page-by-page basis. So don’t trust that just because one page of your university’s site is mobile-friendly, all of them are. Make sure mobile is prioritized for your site this year.

3. Review your keywords and how you’re integrating them into site content

While there are many areas of the university website that may be outside your control, most marketing departments do control the site’s content.

It’s not uncommon for colleges and universities to name a degree or program with a brand name that might not match the search keywords a prospective student will use in a search query. And while Google is getting better at semantics, it’s not perfect. Help Google learn the connection by integrating keywords and brand terms.

For example, my own degree is actually in “Human Communications” from James Madison University. What does that mean? Over the years, I dropped the word “human” from the degree on my resume because it confused so many people. The intent of the university had likely been to separate mass communications (journalism and the like) from other communications (public relations, alternative dispute resolution). But if I were a student today searching for a degree in public relations, would I know to use the term “human communications?” Would Google know that human communications and public relations degrees are the same?

Consider the terms you’re using on the page. Even if the branded degree is “B.S. in Human Communications,” you can write content that incorporates important keywords that define the degree, such as “The Bachelor of Science in Human Communications is a degree incorporating public relations and corporate communications.”

Other programs and degrees may need regular keyword review because the terminology changes over time. Google reported that 15 percent of queries last year were queries that had never been seen before. That’s nearly a million new, unique queries every day! Consider reviewing and revising your keyword list annually.

4. Remedy duplicate content

Websites often inadvertently create duplicate content, but it’s important to recognize duplicate content and indicate to Google which version of the content you want displayed in organic search results. There are three common culprits I find on university websites that create duplicate content: secure protocol, URL parameters and blogs.

Google has indicated that using secure protocol can give a website a slight edge in the organic search rankings, so many sites have already implemented it. However, some sites forget to redirect the non-secure version (HTTP) to the secure version (HTTPS). HTTP and HTTPS appear as two different URLs to Google; thus, if it finds both versions, then both may be indexed and ranked, creating duplicate content.

Another problem with URLs is parameters. Here’s an example of JMU’s donation page:

Notice how the URL is the same except for the “dids” parameter. Google identifies each URL with a unique parameter as a unique page. In this case, JMU is using the dids parameter to determine the program that the donor specifies that the donation is given to. It’s the same page with just the donation recipient changed. Dids 288 is the Future Fund while 188 is Finance and Business Law Department Endowment and 426 is the Wolla Scholarship.

This can become a problem if one of these URLs ranks above all others; it could unfairly skew how donations are received by various recipients. By identifying parameters to exclude in the Google Search Console, this problem can be easily fixed, or even avoided altogether.

Blogs, too, can lead to duplicate content. Take this example from UVA’s Darden School of Business. Darden has 10 blogs — some run by the school, some by professors, and some by students. Sometimes blog posts might be copied and used on multiple blogs on the site because each blog has a unique audience, and a piece of content might resonate with multiple audiences. For example, a piece titled “UVA Darden Strategic CFO Roundtable Tackles Impact of Trump Administration First 100 Days on Business and Society” appearing on the Institute for Business in Society blog at Darden also appears on the news section of the Darden site, creating duplicate content:

In this case, the canonical tag should be used to identify the piece of content that should receive the SEO benefit and be the version ranked by Google.

5. Address page load speed

Page load speed is a ranking factor for Google and has been for many years. One of the more common issues affecting page speed is image size. It’s not uncommon for university websites to have multiple people adding content, including images, to the site. However, not everyone who is uploading images is also optimizing them for the page.

The example above shows two images. The image on the left is only 194 pixels wide. It’s the actual image size of the image file that loads on that page. The image on the right is 783 pixels wide and has a file size of 143K. If the image were resized to fit only the 194 pixels needed, the file size would be reduced by 88 percent.

Taking the extra step to resize images can go a long way to help improve page load time, and it’s something that university marketers often can control. Free online tools like Compressor.io can help you resize images quickly and easily without sacrificing image quality.

Also try Google’s newly revised Test My Mobile Site tool, which tells you how fast your mobile pages are loading and how you compare to others in your industry. Google will even send you a report with specific recommendations on what to fix to improve mobile page load speed.

6. Optimize your linking

Inbound links are typically the most difficult type of link to attain but can hold great value. Unfortunately, when sites are redesigned or degrees or programs are changed or removed, it can create broken links. External links that once pointed to a live page are now broken, and those inbound links are lost for SEO. Or are they?

I recently wrote an article about link reclamation — reclaiming your broken inbound links. Link reclamation represents an incredible opportunity for many sites to regain valuable inbound links quickly by just fixing the broken links. What impact can it make? I recently ran a broken links report for Virginia Tech using Ahrefs. While Virginia Tech boasts nearly 8 million inbound links, it also has over 400,000 broken inbound links. By reclaiming its broken backlinks, Virginia Tech could increase its inbound links for SEO by 6 percent.

7. Measure, assess and understand SEO value

SEO requires a lot of effort and addresses many aspects of your site. How do you know if your efforts are resulting in positive outcomes? Analytics is a great place to start. It’s important to measure beyond the pageview if you can and examine how organic traffic is responding to calls to action on your site. Set up goals and review how organic traffic meets those goals.

With university sites, it’s not uncommon to find many third-party tools, such as application processing, integrated with the website. In most cases, these third-party tools don’t allow for Google Analytics tracking code to be added to the pages within the tool, such as pages of the online application process.

Consider creating an event goal in Google Analytics to track when a visitor begins the application process and tracking a pageview goal for the page the applicant returns to on your own site once the application is submitted. This will allow you to parse how many applicants start the application process and how many finish and even allow you to provide retargeting ads to those that do not initially complete the process.


Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.



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