5 SEO strategies for universities and colleges

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Five SEO strategies for universities and colleges including course category pages, local SEO, international SEO & connecting through stories.

Education is a competitive space where it can be difficult to find new opportunities to jump ahead of rival institutions in the SERPs. Search is the first place prospective students (and parents) turn to when they need help with choosing the best place to study so this is certainly the channel where you want to find a competitive edge.

So we asked our SEO team to give us five SEO strategies universities and colleges can use to get ahead in organic search – and here’s what they said.

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

Website structure and navigation are equally important to search engines and users. Students comparing university options are overloaded with information and they’re expected to make a life-changing decision in a relatively short space of time.

The first thing a student is likely to check about a university is whether they provide the course they’ve got their heart set on.

We often see university, college and other education websites make the mistake of creating pages for individual courses without having a top-level category page. So, for example, they’ll have separate pages for the following courses:

  • English
  • English Literature
  • English & creative writing
  • Comparative literary studies
  • Linguistics

However, these should be subpages under a top-level category page called something like “English Language and Linguistics”. You may even place this category page under humanities but that opens up another debate entirely.

List of courses at Brighton University
The undergraduate courses listed under “Literature, language and linguistics” on the University of Brighton website.

Aside from making it easier for users to navigate your website, this kind of website structure helps Google and other search engines understand the information architecture of your website and rank pages with greater relevance.

More importantly, you can focus your optimisation efforts on these top-level category pages instead of splitting your efforts across multiple pages. As you improve the search ranking of these category pages, you can use them as lead generation tools for longtail keywords like “study English and creative writing at [university name]” as well as broader queries like “English undergraduate degree” to capture leads at the early research stage.

#2: Capture leads early and nurture them

Speaking of capturing leads early, universities and colleges need to understand the journey prospective students take as they consider and compare their options. At the time, choosing where to study feels like the biggest decision you’ll ever make – one that you’re told to research and plan meticulously for.

The journey from first looking into a group of universities and sending applications is long and capturing leads at the early research stage is crucial.

To influence early preferences, you have to understand the needs of students at the very start of this process and the challenges they face: information overload, choice fatigue, fear of making the wrong decision, etc. and ease these concerns.

Types of searches students carry out in the early research stages

Longtail searches like “how do I choose the right university?” or “is [degree] a good career choice?” can reveal content opportunities to connect at the earliest chance. Once you’ve introduced your institution, you need to keep it in the minds of prospective students by continuing to provide content as their needs change.

This requires a lot of keyword data and solid analysis of the actions they take along the research and application processes. The more data you have, the more effectively you can understand their changing needs and deliver the right messages, at the right times.

It also helps to supplement your SEO campaigns with paid advertising. Social advertising on platforms likes Instagram, Snapchat and Tik Tok is a great way to keep your institution’s name in the consciousness of prospective students and the targeting options on Instagram are especially effective at pinpointing the right audience.

Remarketing campaigns in Google Ads are another key strategy for showing ads to users after they’ve visited your website.

#3: Build stories the whole family can relate to

While it’s ultimately up to the student to choose where they study, the influence of family members and friends isn’t something educational institutions can ignore. It’s always going to be easier to attract applications if you can satisfy parents and other family members that their loved one is making the right decision.

Parents, in particular, can be going through their own emotional journey, especially if this is the first time they’re sending a child off to university.

Advice for parents who are sending their kids off to uni
Middlesex University offers extensive advice for parents sending their children off to university for the first time.

Parents with children starting university next year will likely have even greater concerns, depending on how the coronavirus pandemic pans out over the first half of 2021. Prospective students will also have unique worries about a repeat of this years’ prison-like lockdown in halls and the financial burden of paying for courses and accommodation they can’t access or don’t need.

Chances are, universities are going to have to work harder than ever at addressing concerns and building stories that not only ease the usual anxieties but also the new challenges of a post-2020 world.

#4: Make full use of local SEO

Local SEO plays a crucial role for prospective students and their location searches are unique from the typical “near me” experiences consumer brands optimise for. For universities and colleges, local SEO has a lot more in common with travel searches where users are looking for information in specific areas – eg: universities in cities, local attractions, transport networks, nightlife and perhaps even local Covid-19 measures.

A lot of these searches are going to lead users to local packs in Google Search and Google Maps. Which means you’ve got to have your Google Business Profile account doing everything it can to boost your chances.

Make sure you follow these steps:

  • Complete every section of your Google Business Profile account
  • Be meticulous with contact information
  • Select primary and secondary categories
  • Mark off applicable attributes
  • Write a complete “from the business” description
  • Publish Google posts weekly
  • Upload new photos weekly
  • Answer questions
  • Collect and respond to reviews
  • Add your products and/or services
  • Set up messaging
  • Maintain your Business Profile

Above all, make sure your account is 100% complete and accurate because this information is crucial for both search engines and users. With your profile complete, turn your attention to maximising engagement by posting every week, setting up messages and adding new photos that show your institution in the best light.

Answer questions in the Q&A section, manage reviews and deal with any issues people raise publicly. Treat local search as one of your most important PR channels because this is first place a lot of prospective students will engage with your institution.

Related article: Local SEO lessons from Learn Inbound

#5: International SEO

The total number of international students studying in the UK rose by 5% between 2012 and 2018, reaching a total of 485,645 students – most of whom arrived from outside of the EU.

Growth in the number of international students going to UK universities

While Brexit may have an impact on the flow of foreign students, there’s still a sizeable market of international students UK universities are competing for. The vast majority of international students in the UK come from China (86,485), generating £1.7 billion for universities in the country.

India is the second-largest source of international students (17,760) while the United States is the only English-speaking country in the top 10 sources of international students.

To maximise international applications, universities need to optimise their sites and content for these target countries. China is one of the few countries where Google isn’t the biggest search engine and internet habits are drastically different there. Likewise, the interests of international students and their families (who play an even bigger role in the decision-making process) must be reflected in your content marketing strategy.

Despite the increased reliance on international students, few universities even bother to translate their website into target languages. Yes, students are supposed to have a certain level of English skills but, let’s be honest, students don’t need to be fluent and there’s no guarantee their family members can speak English.

The good news is, there’s a huge opportunity for universities that take international SEO seriously, translate their website and localise their content strategies to meet the unique needs of prospective students overseas.

If you need help with your SEO, contact us on 02392 830281 or [email protected] and speak to our SEO experts who specialise in helping universities and colleges build a stronger search presence.

Learn more about our education experience on our education marketing page.

Adam Futer profile picture
Adam Futer

With more than 6 years’ experience specialising in SEO, Adam has in-depth knowledge of user experience and how to increase a website’s visibility and traffic from search. His motto is “You can bring all the traffic in the world to the website, but if it isn’t good enough to convert then it’s wasted traffic”. Adam joined Vertical Leap in 2015 as an SEO specialist. By analysing call to actions, navigation features and text content (to name a few of the tasks), Adam is adept at getting a firm grasp on a website’s main goals; generating audits on how a website should be changed to improve its sales/leads. The world of SEO and user experience is always changing, and Adam makes sure to research everything so that he can keep on top of this ever-changing industry and deliver the best results for his clients. Whilst living in America is always a dream, Adam has grown up and lived in Portsmouth his whole life. When he is not working, Adam enjoys all kind of sports including football, tennis, and in particular American Football. His biggest ambition? To one day watch the Super Bowl live!

More articles by Adam
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