5 search marketing strategies for course providers

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Five search marketing strategies for online course providers including category pages, lead generation & converting traffic into paying students.

Education is one of the most competitive industries in search marketing with the fifth-highest average CPCs in Google Ads (out of 16 industries), according to data from WordStream.

The good news for course providers is that you can tap into the continued growing interest in online learning to capture new leads, even if you’re also selling classroom courses. In this article, we look at five search marketing strategies for course providers to increase search ranking, generate more leads and turn more prospects into paying students.

Now is the time to invest more in search marketing

The biggest area of growth in the education industry over the past decade has been in online learning. People don’t need to rely on universities and traditional institutions for gaining recognised qualifications and the internet allows people to learn from anywhere.

Of course, education has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic with almost 2 billion learners impacted by school closures during the peak of the outbreak, according to data from UNESCO.

Data from Unesco showing how learners were affected by COVID

This has driven a spike in interest in online learning with ongoing uncertainty over classroom learning and job security.

interest over time in 'online courses'
Interest over time in ‘online courses’

Even if you’re not selling online courses exclusively, more people are turning to the web to find new learning opportunities, develop new skills and improve the long-term quality of their lives.

This opens up search opportunities for all course providers and the unique challenges of Covid-19 provide a new pain point for classroom course providers to capture leads by easing student concerns and showing prospects everything you’re doing to help them cope with the challenges of learning in this environment.

#1: Website structure (top-level category pages)

One of the most common problems we see on education websites is a lack of top-level category pages for related courses. We covered this in our 5 SEO strategies for universities and colleges article and the same thing applies to course providers.

Chances are you’re promoting multiple courses on the same subject with several subjects belonging to specific departments. Each course needs its own page but you want to create relevant category pages, as we see on the Future Learn website.

Example of course category page

Click on the subjects link in the navigation menu and you’ll see a list of categories acting as top-level category pages. Not only do these help users navigate your site and browse all of the courses of interest to them, but it also provides search engines with crucial information about the structure of your website and the relationship between related courses.

At the next level of navigation, each top-level category page links to specific disciplines within the broader category, allowing users to narrow down even further as they browse courses.

Example of course sub categories

Crucially, you can focus your optimisation efforts on these top-level category pages which means you’re not diluting your SEO gains across multiple pages. As these pages rank higher in the SERPs, you can use them as lead generation pages for long-tail keywords to capture new prospects at the early research stage.

#2: Capture leads early & nurture them

Building upon the idea of capturing leads at the early research stage, this is where the vast majority of your organic traffic is going to come from. To capture and nurture leads, you need a comprehensive understanding of your marketing and sales funnel – something we cover in-depth in our End-to-end optimisation of your digital marketing funnel article.

marketing funnel


With your funnel mapped out, you also need to attribute search terms and user actions to each stage of the buying process, allowing you to implement lead generation strategies at each stage and creative incentives to encourage their progression along each following step, until they commit to booking a course.

For example, during the early stages of your funnel, search terms like “business management courses near me” and “study web development online” should capture a relatively wide range of people demonstrating a clear interest in broad subjects with a clear intent to book a course, assuming they can find the right offer.

This is where your top-level category pages are a top priority but, at earlier stages of the research process, users may be using broader, long-tail queries, such as “is online learning effective” or “how much do [job title] earn”.

google search phrases that appear when you type in 'is online learning'

You need to know what your prospects’ needs and concerns are (they’ve almost certainly changed over the past 12 months, too) in order to capture leads throughout the early research process.

Your next move is to turn organic and paid traffic into captured leads so that you can nurture them along the remaining stages of the funnel.

Paid social is a great channel for building brand awareness and capturing leads at the early stages of your funnel, too. Facebook and Instagram are particularly effective for sparking inspiration with visual ads that illustrate how new qualifications can open doors to a more satisfying life.

You’ll also want to supplement your SEO strategy with paid advertising on Google Ads and Microsoft, which allows you to capture new leads showing stronger intent and target previous visitors with remarketing ads to nurture them along your funnel

#3: Maximise conversions via search

Search traffic doesn’t come easily – you work hard to bring organic visitors to your website and pay good money for high-intent traffic from your PPC ads. So it’s in your interests to convert as many of these visitors as you can into valuable leads through enquiries, signups, account creations and course bookings.

By implementing conversion rate optimisation (CRO) into your search marketing strategy, you can improve the performance of your most important pages and address issues that are presenting users from taking the next step along your sales funnel.

This is especially important for your landing pages, top-level category pages and individual course pages where the bulk of your conversions should be taking place.

Example of one of our course provider customers

We increased conversion rates for one of our course provider customers by integrating their PPC and SEO strategies with CRO and data-driven design and development improvements to their website.

By improving the UX and increasing incentive of our client’s landing pages, we achieved an initial improvement in conversion rates and came up with the core structure to use across key pages of their site – eg: layouts, core elements, CTA design, social proof etc.

Using these tested, optimised templates, we then created additional landing pages to address specific interests of their target audiences in greater detail, allowing us to really hone in on their concerns and ramp up the incentive even further. We then created hyper-relevant PPC campaigns based around the key interests, which increased the relevance of our customer’s campaigns.

Greater relevance naturally leads to better PPC performance but it also improved their quality score, which reduced the cost-per-click of their campaigns, even though we were generating more traffic and converting a higher percentage of visitors.

Now our customer enjoys higher conversions, lower CPCs, a higher return on ad spend (ROAS) and, most importantly, generates more revenue.

#4: Address the problems your students face

As with any kind of purchase, people want to feel their needs are being catered for when they book a course – especially when upfront fees are relatively high. Generally speaking, the higher your fees, the harder you have to work to justify them and ease any concerns your prospects might have.

By addressing these issues head-on, you can allay any potential fears and build trust within potential students that you’re the course provider they should choose.

Addressing these issues also provides you with some of the most beneficial search opportunities and here are some key steps you should consider:

  • Create guides for choosing courses
  • Provide content to help students study and get the best results
  • Build an online support centre to help students balance their studies with everyday life
  • Build out FAQ pages around e-learning and tips on studying remotely
  • Address the challenges of Covid-19 and showcase the steps you’re taking to deal with them
  • Publish case studies and reviews from former students demonstrating their success

If you’re selling classroom courses, make full use of local SEO and publish localised content to boost the performance of local keywords and address the needs of prospective students in individual areas (think transport, local services, local Covid-19 restrictions, etc.).

We cover local SEO for education in more detail in our 5 SEO strategies for universities and colleges article and we take an even more comprehensive look in our Local SEO lessons from Learn Inbound post.

If you’re promoting both online and offline courses, make sure you clearly separate the two on your website to avoid any confusion and create separate search marketing strategies for each.

Also, be sure to mark up relevant pages with structured data for courses.

#5: Lead generation content

As a course provider, you’ve got a unique opportunity to produce highly-effective lead generation content by tapping into your audiences’ desire to learn. By producing free learning material, free trials, teaser videos, blog posts or even some insightful social media posts, you can capture the interest of a huge audience and inspire interest in taking their learning to the next level.

  • Teaser mini-courses
  • Free lessons
  • Free trials
  • Blog posts
  • Guides
  • Podcasts
  • Videos
  • Webinars
  • Social media posts

This strategy will help you maximise lead generation but the downside is a higher percentage of these leads will only be interested in your free content. So your conversion rates for paid conversion goals may be lower but the total number of conversions should be higher and fewer potential customers are slipping away to your competitors.

You have to decide where the line is in terms of how much content to produce and how much of it will be free to access. For example, you could create an online course and make the first week of lectures free for anyone with an account to access.

Free courses offered by Coursera

Coursera (above) promotes a range of free courses and users can create a free account within a few clicks to start their learning adventure. The company also provides an extensive online community, packed full of support for learners and a blog page filled with tips and insights for people hungry to learn.

Students can also access thousands of courses by subscribing to the platform, instead of paying up-front fees, making it easy for anyone to get started for free and then make the jump to paid learning with a relatively affordable plan.

As soon as new users create an account, you’ve got a direct channel to target them with personalised offers, based on the user data they create on the back-end of your system.

The key to making this strategy work is the combination of account-based learning, which provides an owned channel for you to automate lead nurturing. By compiling data from individual users, you can deliver personalised messages and recommendations through email marketing and in-app messaging.

You can also use this data to segment leads based on the content they engage with, the likelihood of them paying for a full course and the projected lifetime value of individual learners.

Need help with your search marketing?

Check out how we helped education provider Flying Fish turn their website around.

If you’d like to speak to our education specialists, contact us on 02392 830281 or [email protected]. You can also learn more about our education experience on our education marketing page.

Gemma Scarth profile picture
Gemma Scarth

Gemma joined Vertical Leap in March 2020 as an SEO Specialist after having worked in marketing for 7 years for both in-house and agency side, where she was involved with everything from social media management, through to content development and email marketing campaigns. As a member of the ESEO team, Gemma helps to deliver strategic SEO campaigns across a range of brands on a local, national and international level. Gemma is well travelled after exploring the world for almost two years and living down under for 12 months. She’s passionate about snowboarding, fitness and supports her local football team, Southampton FC! When she’s not at work doing SEO, you can often find her on her paddle board floating somewhere on the River Hamble or indulging in a snack or two.

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