SEO Basics for Higher Education Marketing

By , Posted April 26, 2016

Why SEO is crucial for higher education

You’ve invested a lot of time and money into your marketing. You’ve launched a brand-new website. You’re on social media and you have marketing collateral that you’re proud of. Yet, your volume of website visitors seems to be a bit lackluster and the traffic you do get doesn’t seem to be converting into inquiries for your school.

If this sounds familiar, don’t worry. This is a common situation that a lot of higher ed institutions are facing nowadays—they know they need a website and engaging marketing collaterals, but are having trouble getting the engagement and numbers they’d like to see on their website.

The good news is that while it’s a common problem, it’s also one that can be solved. The solution? Great search engine optimization (SEO).

What is SEO?

At its core, SEO is the practice of ensuring your website is friendly for both users and search engines alike. This allows you to show up for relevant queries in the search results (like in Google, Yahoo! or Bing) and attract visitors to your site.

The main idea behind SEO isn’t just to bring organic traffic to your website though; it’s also to engage and convert those visitors once they arrive on your site. That’s why a good SEO team won’t just promise you more traffic, they’ll help you generate that traffic strategically so that it moves the needle for your school by turning traffic into students.

Why SEO is important for your college or university

Today, 70% of education website visitors are referred by a search engine and 1-in-3 students use video to research schools. (YouTube is actually the second largest search engine!) Additionally, four in five consumers conduct localized searches (e.g. “nursing schools near me” or “mba degrees in kansas city”) in order to find a business or school near them.

What these stats mean is that your potential students are on search engines, and if your school’s website isn’t showing up, you run the risk of not only missing out on generating highly qualified student inquiries for your institution (in general, organic leads have a 14.6% close rate, compared to a 1.7% rate from “outbound” sources like print advertising and direct mail), but you also risk losing that traffic to your competitors who may be showing up for those same terms.

Therefore, the more you can drive quality, targeted organic traffic to your higher education website, then the higher chance you have to reach more potential students where they’re at online and generate qualified leads that ultimately help increase enrollment rates.

The fundamentals of SEO

The discipline of SEO is a complex web, made up of more than 200 ranking factors, or activities, that can help your site rank better within the search engine results pages (SERPs).

That said, we like to break those 200 ranking factors down into four essential categories of optimization: Content, Usability, Technical, and Off-Page. Understanding these SEO basics can help you improve your school’s organic performance in the search engines.


Today, content is the backbone of SEO, as Google clearly favors sites with unique and quality content over those that don’t invest in fresh content. In fact, some would argue that you can’t really do SEO anymore without content! Content can come in many different forms, including blog posts and articles, infographics, videos, eBooks, web pages and more.

The key is to have a content strategy that pulls all of your content and related assets together for a cohesive look and feel, and consistent messaging so that your audience remains engaged and fulfilled by what you have to say and offer. Of course you’ll also want to make sure keyword research is performed and that those key terms are integrated into all content; this helps to ensure that not only are you producing great pieces for your school, but that they’re able to be found by your target audience, as well.


One of Google’s main goals is to create a web that is user-friendly across all different types of devices. That’s why user experience (UX) and optimizing for mobile are so important to SEO; if your website isn’t user-friendly and mobile-friendly, you are going to have a difficult time getting your institution’s website to rank for relevant queries that can bring in that quality traffic.

So, ensuring that your website follows UX best practices is crucial to having good SEO. Some practices to consider are ensuring that your main navigation is easy to use, that your site and pages load quickly, that there is interlinking between internal pages so that users can easily find related topics, and that there are contact forms and call-to-actions throughout the site to help visitors get ahold of your school and desired content.


As with all disciplines, there are certain standards that need to be met in order to qualify for the “next level” benefits. Take social media for example. You aren’t going to be able to get very far with your Facebook strategy if you don’t have the basics in place like a profile picture, cover photo, or the “About” section filled out. SEO is the same way. Even with great usability and content, you still may not get very far if your website isn’t structurally sound. So, make sure you work to analyze and optimize elements like your site’s meta data, URL structure, page load times, page redirects, technical documents like the xml sitemap and robots.txt files, and coding syntax to ensure that you’re passing search engines’ technical requirements with flying colors.

Off-page SEO

So far we have discussed what are called “on-page” tactics; those activities that are done on your own website. However, there are “off-page” factors that are just as important and should be addressed as part of an ongoing SEO strategy.

Off-page tactics include things like ensuring there is a social media presence for your brand, generating links from other websites pointing to your school’s site (aka “link building”), and optimizing your local listings profiles so that you show up for localized key terms such as “best colleges near me” or “grad schools in kansas city”.

These practices are part of creating and maintaining your overall digital footprint, and are looked at by Google as indications of your brand’s online trustworthiness, site quality and thought leadership within the industry. Ultimately, all of these off-page tactics can help to improve your domain authority and lead to improved rankings and increased site traffic.

How to measure the ROI of SEO

As with any marketing tactic, being able to measure the ROI of your SEO efforts is critical to your continued marketing success. As we discussed before, in higher education you don’t just measure the effectiveness of SEO campaigns by the number of visitors you bring to your website; you also measure it by the number of inquiries (or leads) that your site is able to generate from those organic visitors.

There are so many different ways to measure the effectiveness of an SEO campaign (and other digital efforts, too), and what you’re looking at can vary based on the analytics platforms available to you (these can range from simple visitor metrics in Google Analytics, to more sophisticated tracking through specific ranking and heat map software). In general though, some metrics to keep an eye on when measuring SEO for higher education are:

Overall, with the right strategy, SEO can be a great complement to your current online marketing efforts. It can help drive more traffic to your website, ensure that your website is optimized for users and search engines alike, and it works hard to generate measurable ROI (in the form of inquiries and engagement) that ladders up to the overall goals and objectives of your school or institution.

If you’d like to learn more about SEO for higher education websites, we’d love to talk to you. Learn more about our SEO services, or give us a call today.

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