SEO strategies to increase student enrolment

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Various SEO strategies education companies can use to drive online enrolment, such as understanding keywords and search intent, promoting free courses for visibility, optimising website structure and course pages, integrating with paid search and testing different CTA combinations.

According to the 2021 Online Education & Training in the UK – Market Research Report, published by IBISWorld, demand for online education and training “is expected to grow significantly over the next five-year period” following the impact of Covid-19 on studies and rising unemployment from the economic aftermath.

Universities and online course providers have new opportunities to fulfil this demand but the needs and expectations of prospective learners have changed drastically over the past 18 months.

In this article, we look at how educational institutions can increase online enrolment with SEO.

Address Covid-19 & changing views

Covid-19 has been a disaster for students in the UK, especially those attending universities on campus. Online learning is the obvious alternative and – for many people – the ideal way to study during times of uncertainty.

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen sharp rises in searches for keywords related to online learning as lockdown measures are speculated and announced.

Google search trends for the phrase online learning

This is a complex issue, though, with the pandemic exaggerating both the benefits and challenges of learning from home. Demand for online learning is volatile in the current climate and prospective learners could be swayed between on-premise and online courses, depending on how you address the pandemic and changing views.

If you run both on-premise and online courses, you’ll want to highlight the measures you’re taking to protect staff and students at locations and highlight the benefits of online learning for those more interested in learning from home.

Make sure you have dedicated pages for Covid-19 information where relevant. The University of Birmingham has a top-level category page for coronavirus information with sub-pages providing in-depth info for different aspects of university life and how it’s been affected.

Example of COVID section on university website

If you only run online courses, the emphasis on Covid-19 may be smaller but you may decide to use this as a selling point for studying at home. However, the pandemic has revealed many drawbacks to working and studying from home that need addressing.

For example, the productivity challenges of working at home are becoming clear and they’re exacerbated in households where multiple people may be working or studying from home at the same time. Students studying from home may face challenges with space and those balancing their studies with a job could find themselves inundated with working and studying from the same home.

By addressing the challenges of your ideal students, you can create pages, content and campaigns to help them overcome their concerns with booking an online course.

Take a look at our education experience

Keywords and search intent for online studying

The search journey for online learning is very different from the path students take for attending universities. From the first search, prospects are typing in different keywords and demonstrating unique priorities that you have to address – and these have diversified even further during the pandemic.

At the earliest stage of research, prospective students may not even know what they want to study. People who are unsure about what to study or concerned about getting the best out of their course tend to reveal their concerns.

So you might see queries like:

  • “Degree with most job opportunities”
  • “Top-earning careers UK”
  • “Future-proof careers”
  • “Best degrees post covid”

Research shows that just 18% of graduates secured jobs in 2020 while the Institute for Fiscal Studies warns those entering the labour market will “find the next months and years especially difficult” in a report ominously entitled, A bad time to graduate.

Online course providers have to address these concerns.

As prospects progress along the research phase, their search intent changes and you can influence key stages along this journey by ranking content for the decisive queries, such as:

  • “Are online degrees worth it”
  • “Online degree vs traditional degree”
  • “Best UK universities for online degrees”
  • “Can you study a [discipline] degree online”
  • “What is the best online school for [discipline]”
  • “Online [discipline] degree [university/provider]”

The key advantage for online course providers is that the entire research, consideration and decisions process takes place online without open days, campus visits and external distractions like nightlife quality – it’s all about the online course.

This allows you to influence decisions across the entire funnel with organic content, which you can supplement with paid advertising and social campaigns (more on this later).

Run free courses

If you run any keyword research related to online learning, you’ll normally find plenty of demand for free courses. In fact, the top-three keyword recommendations we get from the Keyword Planner in Google Ads (filtered by Avg. monthly searches) are all related to free online learning.

Search volumes for free courses

If you want to maximise enrolment for online learning, you’re probably going to do it through free courses. The top keyword recommendation from Google Ads, above, is “mooc”- or Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – a collection of free online courses designed “for anyone to enrol”.

Universities and online learning platforms in the UK can all promote MOOCs on their website and optimise pages to capture traffic from people looking to learn for free.

MOOCs - online courses advertised on the University of London

These pages are important for building search visibility, brand awareness and domain-level rankings. They help you to cast the widest net with your organic SEO campaigns and, then, segment and nurture prospects who are willing to enrol in a paid course.

Prospects may start their search by looking for free courses only to realise paid learning will help them achieve their goals faster. And, more importantly, the learning experience doesn’t end with the completion of a free course. You can encourage students to continue their learning with upselling campaigns promoting paid courses and the benefits of continuing with their education.

Free courses help you maximise lead generation at the top of the funnel, which allows you to nurture as many of these prospects as possible into paying students.

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Optimise your website structure

Last year, we published an article looking at five SEO strategies for universities and colleges and website structure was the first topic we looked at. This applies to online course providers, too, where you have a range of related courses under a broader discipline.

For example:

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

Each course needs its own page but related courses should be grouped under top-level category pages, using subdomains, to help search engines and users navigate your site. So the courses above could be categorised under a page entitled “English Language and Linguistics”.

Here is an example of the undergraduate courses listed under “Literature, language and linguistics” on the University of Brighton website.

Course categories on Brighton University website

This page structure helps search engines understand the relationship between pages and makes it easier for users to browse and compare different courses. It also allows you to prioritise your top-level category pages for SEO instead of dividing equity between multiple, related pages.

You can use top-level category pages as lead generation pages, too, to target prospective students who vaguely know what they want to study but haven’t settled on a specific course.

On-page SEO for online course providers

As an online course provider, your most important pages are the top-level category pages discussed in the previous section and your individual course pages.

For online degree course pages, prospects can apply with the providing university or request more information. So no money is changing hands directly on these pages but the semi-transactional nature of course pages and the life impact of studying a degree puts this in YMYL (Your Money or Your Life) territory.

As we’ve explained before, Google demands a particularly high page quality from YMYL pages “because low-quality YMYL pages could potentially negatively impact users’ happiness, health, financial stability, or safety.”

This means you need to follow on-page SEO guidelines to the letter and the best template to follow for this is SEO guidelines for eCommerce product pages – because all of the same rules apply.

Above all, make sure the information on every course page is 100% accurate and always up-to-date. This is a top consideration in Google’s quality checks for YMYL pages and accuracy is crucial for prospective students, too. Make sure the following information is always accurate and easily accessible:

  • Fees & pricing
  • Key dates
  • Programme duration
  • Programme structure
  • Application deadlines
  • Providing university or organisation
  • Entry requirements
  • Clarification that the course can be taken online (where relevant)

That’s not a comprehensive list but it gives you an idea of the kind of information that must be present, accessible and 100% accurate.

The University of London includes much of this information at the top of its course pages, as you can see from this online Data Science degree page.

Course key information displayed such as duration and application deadline

It also has a dedicated Programme details section further down the page where programme structures, fees and other key information is available.

Course key information displayed such as key dates, costs, entry requirements etc

Every course page also needs unique, informative and compelling content that accurately describes the unique elements of each course. This is especially important for courses that are similar or related, such as the English language and linguistic courses we discussed in the previous section.

Aside from this, you’ll also need to make sure you’ve got the essentials covered: correct headings, keyword optimisation, clean code, optimised images, etc.

Test different CTA combinations

Your primary conversion goal is enrolments or applications but you’ll also want to include CTAs for other conversion goals that require less investment from prospects. For example, the University of London includes four different CTAs buttons at the top of its course pages.

CTAs on the University of London website

Each CTA targets action from prospects at different stages of the funnel. Visitors who are keen to get their place on the course can Apply now by clicking the primary CTA, which uses colour and size contrast to stand out from the other CTA buttons.

The university can still capture leads from people who aren’t ready to commit yet by encouraging them to make an enquiry or register their interest by submitting their email address and personal info, which is used to nurture prospects along the funnel.

Integrate SEO with paid advertising

Organic search is the ideal channel for maximising visibility and capturing leads at earlier stages of the funnel but there comes a point where high-intent queries start triggering ads in Google Search.

This is where you should supplement your SEO strategy with paid advertising campaigns to cover the latter stages of the funnel and capture high-intent leads. If you’re struggling to out-rank competitors at the top of the SERPs, paid campaigns can get you the visibility you need while your SEO campaigns build your organic ranking.

In the screenshot below, all four advertisers jump to the front of the queue above the organisations ranking at the top of the organic pack.

PPC results for online data science degree

Even if you’re ranking at the top of the SERP for target keywords, you can use paid campaigns to double your real estate on the results page. This increases your visibility and reduces the paid competition by one, further increasing your chances of winning the click.

PPC results for online data science degree

Paid social campaigns expand your reach beyond search and you can use platforms like LinkedIn to target professionals looking to study or use targeting settings on networks like Facebook and Instagram to pinpoint audiences with specific education backgrounds, interests or behaviours suggesting they’re in the market for studying online.

Want helping getting more students?

We have lots of experience helping education companies increase visibility online and ultimately get more students – check out our education marketing page to read more. Alternatively, you can speak to our education SEO & PPC specialists by calling 02392 830 281 or filling out the contact form below.

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!

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