How to Be Friends with SEO for Higher Education

Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, is not a topic that should be overlooked when crafting your higher education enrollment strategy. It’s no mystery students are searching for information on colleges and universities online. The challenge is making sure potential students who search online for terms such as “top colleges near me” or “accredited bachelor’s degrees” see your website as high in the search results as possible. In the SEO world we refer to this as “ranking.”


It may seem like there’s a never ending list of things to consider when working on your university’s search engine marketing. The truth is, there’s already a pretty consistent formula established that can serve as a solid starting point for your strategy:

Research phrases (keywords) that potential students are commonly using to search for information about colleges online

  • Assess potential traffic volume and the amount of competition for these search terms
  • Select keywords that have solid traffic potential, with as little competition as possible. More competition for target keywords means more time, effort and resources will be needed in order to rank well.
  • Use your target keywords strategically in your website’s content and optimize your webpages for those keywords in a way that makes Google happy; including internal and external linking, meta descriptions, logical hierarchical content structure, etc
  • Gather inbound links to your content from social media channels and other external websites. Bonus points if these links come from sites with content related to your target keywords.

Conceptually, search engine optimization is simple enough. However, if you’ve spent any time researching SEO, you already know that getting your school to rank at the top of the search results for popular search queries is easier said than done. With so much value in landing those top spots in the results, there’s a lot of colleges and universities battling for prime positioning. As we’ve already established, more competition means more time and effort will be needed in order to get your university into those top positions.

This is why crafting a well thought out SEO strategy is vital to the success of your search marketing efforts.

So What Exactly Goes Into a Winning Higher-Ed SEO Strategy?

The Research Phase

As with most strategies, the process begins with plenty of research and learning. If you’re working with a higher education SEO firm, they’ll most likely schedule several discovery sessions in the early stages of your strategic planning to make sure there is a clear direction established. One of the benefits of working with a higher-ed SEO firm is they’ll be able to help you avoid many of the bumps and bruises that can derail a SEM strategy.

If a higher-ed SEO agency isn’t in the cards, and you have the resources on campus- managing your own search engine marketing in-house is also an option. The research phase becomes even more crucial in this case since you’ll often be learning SEO tactics at the same time as developing and implementing your SEO strategy.

That being said, the basic building blocks of effective search engine optimization are no mystery. A simple Google search will reveal a wealth of generic information about keyword research, backlinking, and onsite SEO. What’s not as easy to figure out is how to sift through this seemingly never ending sea of information and funnel the right tactics back into your unique university enrollment strategy.

Keyword Research

A large part of your initial research will center around finding the right keywords, which are the words and phrases that Google will use to decide when to share your site in its search results.

The winning formula is finding keywords that have enough people searching for them, with as little competition for those top search results as possible. Strong competition means more time, effort and resources are going to be needed in order to have your school show up in the top of the results.

Writing SEO Content

With your keywords in hand, creating content becomes a little easier. It’s best to target one primary “root” keyword for a page, and weave in long-tail variations naturally. So for example “college recruitment” could be the root keyword, with several long-tail variations such as “college student recruitment strategies” or “how to recruit more college students to your university” woven into your content.

Remember, the trick with keywords is not to over saturate your pages with your chosen keyphrase, but rather use them organically in your writing with natural variations that would commonly be used in the same conversation. Google has spent millions perfecting their search algorithm, without ever revealing what exactly is in their secret sauce. One thing we do know is that trying to stuff too many keywords into your content without putting any thought into how they fit contextually hasn’t worked since the early 2000’s.

Competitor Analysis

Believe it or not, your competitors actually play a pivotal role in the creation of an effective higher-ed SEO strategy. In order to know how to rank for your chosen keywords, you need to know what the websites currently sitting at the top of the search results are doing- and you need to do it better!

  • What kind of content is on their website or landing page?
  • What keywords are they targeting and ranking for?
  • How many backlinks does their website have?
  • How long are the articles that are ranking for your chosen keyphrases?

Being able to effectively assess the SEO efforts of your competitors not only gives you a competitive edge, it could be the difference between sitting in the top position, or getting lost deep in Google’s search results.

It’s probably a good idea to mention we’re not always talking about competing colleges and universities when we use the term “competitors.” You’ll run into lots of different types of websites trying to take advantage of the traffic potential of the keywords you’re targeting; social media pages, directories, review websites, etc.

Writing Engaging SEO Optimized Content

Armed with keyword research and 007 level intelligence on your competitors, now is the time to put pen to paper and start the writing process. It’s easy to get carried away stuffing your content with as many keywords as possible, hoping to get in front of as many different searches as possible. Unfortunately, as we mentioned earlier, this tactic doesn’t work, and will actually hurt your rankings.

Google likes to see unique, well structured content with natural keyword usage. This means sticking to one of your chosen keywords per page, along with commonly used organic variations. It’s also important to remember that getting your content to rank on Google is a moot effort if it doesn’t attract and engage potential students and provide real answers to what they’re searching for online. This is why it’s so important to put thought into the strategic goals of the content you’re creating for your university’s website.

Don’t Let Your Content Sit in a Vacuum. You’ve done your research, picked the perfect keywords, and written some great content. Now what?

It’s easy to get to this point and assume your hard work is done. Unfortunately, unless you’re targeting keywords with little to no competition, that’s not the case. We need to get out there and start gaining quality inbound links, also called backlinks, to this content. Social shares, university directory sites, guest articles, review sites are all worth exploring as we start to build our backlink profile.

Regardless of how you acquire these inbound links, you’ll once again need to revisit your initial higher ed SEO strategy in order to assess competition for your target keywords and determine how many backlinks you’ll need in order to be competitive. Starting to see a pattern here? Literally every action in SEO is guided by your early research and the strategy creation process.

What Can Universities Do to Make Friends with their SEO Strategy?

The most important thing a university can do when it comes to their SEO, is do the initial research, craft an effective strategy, and stick with it. Search Engine Marketing is a long game, but the rewards are worth the investment. When your website starts climbing in the rankings along with your traffic KPIs, you’ll be glad you did.

Need a little help getting your university’s SEO strategy going? We’d love to hear from you.

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