Digital marketing and SEO are becoming a higher priority now that universities are finding that they live in a much more competitive environment.

Historically universities haven’t prioritised ranking their courses highly in search engines.

Many are now starting to realise that, as students move from traditional methods of gaining course information to online, a high ranking in Google is crucial to be seen as a leading provider. 

In this article I’ll discuss the main areas of SEO that universities should be looking out for, and throw in a few hints and tips from my experience working with universities.

Let’s start with an overview of SEO:

The three pillars of SEO

The basic concepts of search engine optimisation are quite simple to understand, although the analysis and implementation of these pillars can be very complex. 

Note: I use Google as an analogy to search engines as Google has over 90% of the search market. Virtually all the points listed below apply to other search engines such as Bing.

1. Content (on-page) optimisation

First things first, Google wants to deliver its users the best possible search result, so you have to make sure that each of the pages that you want to rank answers the search query and intent better than your competitors.

2. Links (off-page) optimisation

Links are one of the most important ranking factors for websites, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.

What is changing is the ability of Google to measure the quality of a link and allocate link equity from one website to another.

More and more only the best quality links are being counted and other links are becoming less important and can even hurt your ability to rank.

3. Technical optimisation

The many technical aspects of the website that affect SEO include the ability for Google to crawl and index pages, the page download time, and whether a website works in mobile browsers or not. 

Right - now it is time to get into the detail - I’ve broken these pillars down into the major subcategories that apply to university websites. 

Content (on-page) optimisation

So you know you have to create better content than your competitors. How exactly do you do that?

Page content

The first thing you should do is look at the top three competing pages ranking for each of your courses and analyse what content they have, and how they differ from your course pages.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What information do they have on the page?
  • What keywords are they using in headings and titles?
  • Are they using images? If so, what type?

Once you have completed this exercise you will have a good idea as to what content you need to develop for your page. Aim to do something better than the others!

Tip: Make sure that all your text is readable by Google. Don’t use images or video without having the content included on the page itself (Google can’t read images and video!).

Navigation structure

Navigation structure (and the way that pages are designed and laid out) is one of the crucial elements that should be assessed and incorporated into the design of the website from the get go.

At the very least, each subject needs its own comprehensive landing page, and preferably these landing pages need to be near the top of the navigation.

I have come across many university websites that don’t have dedicated landing pages for each of their courses which makes it nigh on impossible to rank for non-branded search queries.  

Universities should consider using tabs and accordion design elements to control the content on their course pages to keep them to a reasonable length.   

Keywords

Keywords are crucial to getting your page to rank well - and you need to ensure that the words that you use to describe your courses are the words that people are using to search for them.

The rule of thumb is easy to remember - if the words aren’t on your page, your page isn’t going to get found for those words.

In my experience there are two main areas where universities run into trouble with keywords:

  • Using abbreviations instead of full course names + abbreviations; for example, universities using: “MBA | University” instead of “Masters of Business Administration (MBA) | University” in their title tags.
  • Using branded course names instead of generic course names (often in combination with abbreviations); for example universities using: “University MBA | University”  

There are a range of free tools that you can use to check what people are searching for - the most popular is the Google Keyword Planner.

It’s extremely useful, but like most SEO tools you need to be aware of its limitations - from a keyword research standpoint it is important to realise that not all keywords are in the Google database, including some quite high search volume words.  

Tip: Note that keyword density is so noughties - it has no place in a modern SEO strategy.

Make sure your main keyword is in your title, URL, H1 and on a couple of places on your page including a subheading if possible.

And use a few synonyms and other variations of your keyword as well so it ranks for a wider range of search terms. Your most important priority is to make sure your page reads properly!

Titles

The meta title is the single most important part of the page to get right - if you get this wrong it doesn’t matter how good the rest of your page is, your page won’t rank.

While the title is not shown on the actual page itself, it is the blue clickable link that shows in Google search results, and it is also shown in the tab of your browser.

Google uses the title to determine the main subject of the page for indexing purposes. 

Tip: Do two separate searches for “MBA courses” and “Masters of Business Administration courses” and look at the results.

Do you see the same websites appearing or are they all different? Ideally you want to appear for both searches as the searcher intent is identical.

Description

While the title tag is the blue clickable link in Google results, the meta description is the text underneath the title.

Just like with titles, you will see that any words in the description that match the search query are bolded so it is important to use keywords in the description as well. 

Descriptions are no longer a search ranking factor, but they are important to encourage people to click through to your result and should describe what people will get when they click through to your page. 

URLs

URLs are used for ranking by search engines, so it is important that you use static URLs that contain keywords.

A good URL should be very similar to the title of the page, and you can omit joining words such as “to”, “and” and “the” to make them more succinct.

Moz have recently produced a great article on best practice URL structures which is well worth a read. 

Tip: URLs should make sense in isolation - if someone reads the URL they should be able to tell what the page is about.

Ensure that your website doesn’t use parameters or random letters and numbers - that doesn’t make sense to users and will affect your ability to rank for search engines.

Headings

Headings and subheadings are important as they indicate to users and Google the structure of the page and the different subjects that the page covers.

In the case of more powerful websites this will help the page rank for a wider variety of keywords than just that targeted by the title.

Tip: Your main page heading should be the same (or very similar) to your title. If they are significantly different it will confuse Google (and your users!).

Remember that when someone clicks on your link in a search result they will expect to see a page on the same topic.

Images

Image file names should contain descriptive keywords - for example your logo should be named “university-logo.png”, not “logo.png”. 

Images should always have unique alt text that describes the image, and if the image has words, the alt text should include these words.  

Tip: Photos should be saved as JPG files, while graphics such as images should always be saved as PNG files.

And make sure you use Photoshop to save all your images for web - this will ensure that your image file sizes are kept to a minimum and won't slow down your website and affect your ability to rank. 

Internal linking

Internal linking is one of the most overlooked areas of SEO. The basic concept is that Google spreads link equity through your site via internal links.

By identifying your most important pages on your website and linking to other a) relevant or, b) important pages you indicate to Google which other pages you think should be ranking.

Links (off-page) optimisation

Once you’ve got your on-page SEO sorted it is time to get serious about your external links - this is the most difficult element to get right because the links themselves are out of your control.

You can design and implement a link building strategy but you are still relying on other other people to write about you and your courses and link back to your website.   

External linking

The quality and quantity of the links coming into your website are the biggest contributor to your courses ability to rank highly in search. 

It is important to understand that the link landscape has changed markedly in the last few years.

Quality is of the utmost importance - these days it is unlikely that you will see any benefit from links from low quality guest blogging.

So what kind of links should you be aiming for? Here is a list of the usual suspects:

  • University websites
  • Government websites
  • News websites
  • Professional websites
  • Course directories

Finding these link opportunities is key to improving your rankings against your competing universities and gaining additional traffic, applications and enrollments.

It is really important to split link building up into two separate areas - brand and courses.

Google looks at both the overall number of links coming into a website and also the number of links coming into each individual page. 

Here are some basic scenarios to illustrate these concepts:

  • A webpage can rank because the overall authority of the website the page is on is greater than competing websites, even if the page doesn’t have as many links as the competition. 
  • A webpage can rank because it has more links pointing to it than competing webpages, even if the overall authority of the website is less than the competing websites.

Basically you have two general approaches to building links: Building links to the homepage (which will generally be brand related links) and building links to the individual course pages (and any other pages that you want to rank) which will generally be course related links.

And as I’m sure you have already guessed - you need to do both!

Technical optimisation

There are many technical aspects that need to be checked as part of SEO, mostly to do with speed and the indexing of the website. You want to ensure that your website is built well, and is hosted on a good server to ensure that the website is served quickly and doesn’t get penalised for slow download speeds.

Hosting

Your website host is important - I’ve come across many instances of an expensive website being hosted on an inferior host.

Hosting really is a specialist area, and you need to invest in a good host to make the most of the investment you have made in your website. 

Tip: When you are hosting your website internally ensure that your IT team has the skills to do the job properly, and make sure you have a Service Level Agreement with them that they are monitored against so that you are able to identify and solve issues quickly. 

Subdomains

From an technical SEO perspective the widespread use of subdomains in place of subdirectories for departments and courses is the biggest issue for many university websites. 

What is the difference between a subdomain and a subdirectory?

  • Subdomain examples: blog.university.ac.uk; mba.university.ac.uk 
  • Subdirectory examples: www.university.ac.uk/blog; www.university.ac.uk/mba

This is a major issue because search engines treat each subdomain as a completely separate website. This means that you are splitting your link profile between many websites instead of concentrating them all on your primary domain which affects your ability to rank highly in search engines.

The rule of thumb is never use subdomains for any pages that will generate links to your website wherever possible, and where you do have to use a subdomain, create the landing page to access the information on the subdomain on your main site so people are able to link through to the main site.

For instance you can create a landing page on your main domain: www.university.ac.uk/mba/apply which sends applicants through to the application form on the subdomain: apply.university/mba.

Once you have done this ensure that all your link building and promotional activities link to www.university.ac.uk/mba/apply. 

Redirects

University websites usually have a large turnover of webpages that no longer exist. Many of these pages will have had external websites linking through to them.

A link that points through to non-existent page on your site doesn’t pass any link equity and doesn’t help your website rank. This is a really quick win and typically the first thing I do is identify any lost links and create a redirect file to recover them.    

Tip: If you have any old domains that have acquired links in the past, ensure that you hold onto them and redirect them back to your current website when appropriate.

Once you have lost control of them, you are unable to benefit from any links that these websites have build up in the past.

So...

These are the main areas that I believe are important to getting your university to rank highly in search engines.

Do you have any questions or additional thoughts about university website SEO? Share them below and I'll get right back to you!  

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Published 26 October, 2015 by Damon Rutherford

Damon Rutherford is a freelance SEO Consultant at Digitator and a contributor to Econsultancy. 

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Lynn Plant, Managing Director at Motif 8 Limited

Thanks for sharing this, you have given me a lot of information. I was wondering if there was any difference in traffic between paid Google Ads at the top of search results and normal/non-paid rankings in Google?

almost 2 years ago

Simone Kurtzke

Simone Kurtzke, Lecturer in Digital Marketing at Robert Gordon University

Great overview! When my Uni (RGU Aberdeen) launched our MSc Digital Marketing last year, the first thing I did was implement on-page SEO on the course landing page. We pretty quickly climbed the SERPs and have ranked position 1-2 for a while now, with a decent amount of high-quality organic traffic (the gift that keeps on giving ;) ).

While there are competitors (other Unis offering MSc Digital Marketing), many don't follow SEO best practice. Reasons might be varied - either they don't know, and / or they don't have access to the CMS (in my case - I'm a lecturer on the course - I have access to a web editor who I've been mentoring on SEO, and I provide him with copy and SEO optimised content, meta tag / alt tag copy etc. ).

He's been applying on-page SEO across our School's course portfolio, although certain keywords / courses are much more competitive (the MBA example in your post).

The other challenge is the increase of UX (quality signals) as a ranking factor. Many Uni websites are still clunky and have a terrible UX; this includes course landing pages. What they'd need is a full website redevelopment, which is probably beyond their in-house expertise and may also be beyond their (financial) means - or this may simply not be a priority.

almost 2 years ago

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Damon Rutherford, Freelance SEO Consultant at Digitator

@Lynn Plant: A very good question and one that is often asked!

Google don't release any official data, but there have been many experiments to try to work our approximate click through rates (CTR) for both organic and paid search results.

Generally a good rule of thumb is that 30 to 40% of clicks are for the top organic search result, and 60 to 70% CTR for the top three organic results combined.

The rule of thumb for an average PPC click through is around 6 to 7% for the top result, with a click through rate of around 2.5 to 3.5% for the second paid result.

As you can see from these numbers, organic results get far greater click through rates than paid results - this is the main reason that SEO is still really important to reach students still shortlisting potential courses and universities - lots of prospects appear to avoid clicking on paid results.

almost 2 years ago

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Damon Rutherford, Freelance SEO Consultant at Digitator

@Simone Kurtzke

Thanks for your kind comments – it’s nice to hear from someone in the trenches!
You make a very good point in saying that different courses will have different levels of competitiveness, mainly depending on:

a) How many competing pages there are;
b) How well the competing pages are optimised;
c) How powerful the competing websites are.

With many clients I find there are a number of courses were we can get rank improvements pretty quickly with onpage SEO only, while others require a great deal of offsite SEO to get results.

You also make an excellent point regarding website development. In my experience the vast majority of web designers and developers have only superficial knowledge of SEO and how the design and build of a website can affect its ability to perform in search. To avoid this I like to be involved during the briefing and development stage of a website build just to make sure that none of the decisions made are going to adversely affect the websites ability to rank in Google.

Another UX related point is that many university websites are still non-responsive to mobile devices. Google is cracking down on desktop only sites appearing in mobile search results and this is likely to get worse over time. Any university that doesn’t start taking steps to make their website fully responsive opens itself up to the possibility of losing over 50% of their organic traffic overnight.

almost 2 years ago

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Dani Vilu, social media account executive at 7thingsmedia

Very insightful article on SEO practices. In terms of user experience, how important is this for overall rankings? For example, is good quality traffic (low bounce rate, high pages/view) coming from social media taken into account at all?

almost 2 years ago

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Damon Rutherford, Freelance SEO Consultant at Digitator

@Dani Vilu

Thanks for your comment!

While successful social media engagement doesn't directly effect a websites abilty to rank (Google doesn't measure social shares, comments etc), it can drive organic traffic to the website, and also can get the article in front of people who may link to it from their websites. These links will help the article/website rank.

Bounce rates, dwell time and page views are believed to be incorporated into Googles ranking algorithms - this makes sense as these measurements are all indicators of how well a page matches a search query. Google has Chrome and Analytics to source this information for their algorithms.

If a page is designed well and the content of a page is a good match for the targeted keywords, these factors should take care of themselves. Just to be clear, these aren't just content factors - it is absolutely crucial to build "website stickability" into initial design of a website onwards. Great content on a poor to middling website will not be as successful as great content on a well designed website.

almost 2 years ago

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