How to build a university SEO strategy that adapts

Higher education websites reside at trusted, authoritative, powerful domains.

But even with this clear advantage, some institutions have been losing ground to third party websites in recent years, and are being outranked by the likes of aggregators and degree guide sites.

As a result, some institutions are having to resort more often to paid search to get listed prominently in Google's search listings for relevant phrases because the SEO initiatives have been outperformed by sites elsewhere.

Whilst PPC is a very effective conversion channel, institutions that don't adhere to best practice in SEO could be turning away thousands of 'free' clicks each month, including queries from prospective students.

Thankfully, it's a battle that can be won with content, investment, and strategy.

Smart SEO strategies for higher education institutions

We've identified three areas where universities can target their SEO efforts to gain maximum benefit. Whether you have a content team that has one eye on SEO or an SEO specialist workstream tasked with optimization for search ranking these are quick-to-read tactics to factor into your activities.

#1 Taking control of brand orientated information and optimizing for featured snippets

Google has realigned its pages to better support voice search, and to provide richer results in the form of featured snippets.

An example of this is the 'people also ask' featured snippet. This went from appearing in around 15% of search results eighteen months ago to more than 85% at present. These undeniably useful response boxes feature prominently above organic search results and also feed voice assistants like Google Home.

Universities need to optimize and develop content so that the most prominent queries relating to their institution are served in snippets in Google from the website rather than third party sites.

You should start your activity with keyword research using question-type search queries that contain words like 'what', 'why', 'how'. Some keyword research tools can help with this by showing immediately whether a query triggers featured results.

Once you know what the key questions are from relevant audiences for each target page of content, you can optimize your answers so they provide clear, logical responses accompanied by attention-grabbing images. Adding questions posed by your audiences as article sub-headings and immediately following the question with a one-paragraph answer can also be beneficial.

Lastly on this, Google loves numbers, lists, steps, and facts. Ensure your content is well structured and answers plenty of the key questions posed by your audiences in these formats and you stand a better chance of being featured prominently in Google search results.

#2 Optimising on-page content for search result success

Despite all the recent changes in search, many traditional principles still hold weight. It's important, therefore, to review data and use audience insights to produce content that ranks, engages and attracts links.

Program pages are particularly important and whilst the content should be well structured and include information for visitors to the site, you should also account for the various words and phrases searchers might use relating to each course. Building content for both on-page visitors and for search ranking success is now imperative.

Backlinks also remain a primary ranking factor, acting as a vote of confidence in the quality of your content from other high authority sites.

Each year, new content is added to institution websites to attract the latest students and to support those currently studying. Many start afresh, but deleting the outdated pages can be a mistake.

Before deleting any content, the team should check for backlinks and ensure that any found are redirected to another page using a 301 re-direct avoid losing the rankings boost from links.

For events and activities which recur each year, it makes the most sense to update the page content rather than creating new content as the page will accumulate 'link juice' which can be passed onto other important pages through internal links.

Finally, also consider local search. A huge number of institution-related searches originate from local queries each year with phrases like 'business degree near me' or 'nursing program near me'. Local search can provide a significant number of leads so using geographic keywords in content can also really help to feature in local search. This is particularly important if you have competitors in the local area with directly competing courses.

#3 Consolidate and rationalize domains

As much as feasible, institutions should avoid using multiple domains as this results in splitting up links and authority among multiple domains. In theory, you end up creating multiple weaker sites rather than a singular strong entity in terms of domain authority.

This takes discipline to achieve this in organizations the size of a university but through clear guidance and policies it's achievable and a program of rationalization will be beneficial from an SEO perspective over the longer term.

Creating and activating your centralized SEO strategy will pay dividends in organic traffic and leads

The way we market to potential students continues to evolve in line with digital advances. With search engines playing a big role in the research phase, and mobile becoming even more important, marketers in higher education have to work hard to keep up.

University websites are often large, decentralized online resources. As a result, institutions can sometimes find themselves behind the curve in terms of SEO.

However, the institutions that cement the foundations that apply to SEO and incorporate the latest SEO practices now will start to see benefits in terms of rankings. And they can reinvest PPC budgets to other important areas or to further strengthen their positioning.