The journey that your college or university takes with prospective students begins long before they sign up for a campus visit. Your university is competing for students, and you don’t even know who they are. The rising realization of ‘stealth’ or ‘unidentified’ student prospects is sending college marketing departments scrambling to engage online visitors earlier and nurture them longer to meet increasing institutional goals.
But, how do you get in front of prospects sooner? Your goal needs to be to catch prospective students at the time they are searching - and that means SEO.
Search engine optimization (or SEO) can sometimes be a dirty buzzword in the digital space. Sophisticated, secret algorithms are responsible for day-to-day search. Good website optimization takes time and diligence. Depending on the current state of your SEO, it could take up to a year (and several dependencies) before your website is operating optimally. To streamline this process, we compiled a list of five important lessons that we learned as part of our website work in the higher education space.
1. Create a Step-by-Step Plan
To simply state the phrase, “we need better rankings on Google’ is not enough. And while a few get lucky and great SEO just happens, for most of us, moving the needle in a positive direction can take months of hard work. To keep your organization aligned, create a plan that includes the following elements:
- Keyword Strategy (see below)
- Website section priority (will you start with About us, or another, more relevant section to your student's searches?)
- Timelines and deadlines
- Measurement (don't forget to get a baseline to track your progress!)
2. Really Get to Know Your Students
What are your prospective students looking for in a college or university?
One of the best abilities that we have as humans is the ability to empathize. We can mentally put ourselves in another person’s shoes and imagine what it would be like to be that person (if we have the right parameters to do so). Personas are fictional representations of segmented audience. Within the education space, these typically include people like traditional students (age 18, attending for the first time), parents of traditional students, ‘second chance’ students (students choosing to return to finish their bachelor’s degree later in life), military students, international students, etc. Each of these audiences has a different set of needs that would influence how they are searching for and reviewing your content. They also have different paths to accomplish the same goal (user journeys). Understanding these audiences at a detail level can help not just in SEO, but for all content marketing content being generated by your university.
3. Generate a Keyword Strategy
We’ve heard this called everything from ‘the keyword list’ to ‘our keyword universe’ - either way, its an all-inclusive list of the keywords that your university currently ranks, or wants to rank for someday. For some, this list can have thousands of records.
Best advice: start simple and targeted with an spreadsheet. Since most incoming first-year students have an idea of the topics that they want to study, or the job they want when they graduate, we typically recommend beginning with your programs and extending from there. After all, if you don’t have a student’s preferred area of study, why would they look any further? What are some of the popular search keywords and phrases? Does your website currently rank for those? Google Keyword Planner, Google Webmaster Tools and the trial SpyFu will give you a good (free) glimpse into what you need to see.
4. Campus vs. Online: Avoid A Perpetual Tug of War
For universities with traditional campus and online education methods (and separate websites), it can be a continual struggle for the same set of interested students. To avoid this dilemma (and get students to what they are looking for faster) set a clear keyword strategy for both websites. For many of the universities that we’ve worked with, this meant that the online school focused on the MBA and graduate-level keywords, while the traditional or campus website focused on the undergraduate. For schools that shared programs, we suggested a combined page that included both programs to boost rankings.
5. Know the difference between ‘Graduate’ and ‘Graduate'
Some universities face an uphill battle when it comes to higher education terminology and the vocabulary of their incoming students. For schools that have a high percentage of first-time college students in a family, terms like ‘undergraduate’ and ‘graduate’ can be difficult to decipher, let alone with you include ‘graduation’ in the mix. One school that we worked with found that in the weeks leading up to their graduation, their page for graduate degrees (simply entitled ‘graduate’) saw a spike in traffic from parents who were looking for graduation information. If this is for your university, these items should be addressed in the ‘barriers’ section of your personas.