Neil Patel

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SEO for Colleges and Universities

A graphic that says "SEO for Colleges and Universities."

With college enrollment rates decreasing, the hard truth is that colleges cannot afford to miss out on recruitment opportunities. One often overlooked opportunity is organic search traffic. After all, 53 percent of digital traffic comes from organic search. 

So, what if you’re not optimizing your college’s search results with search engine optimization (SEO)? You’re giving away traffic to your competition!

In this post, I’ll discuss the importance of SEO for universities. I’ll share the steps you can take to implement SEO best practices for higher education and include a real-life university SEO success story you can take inspiration from.

Why SEO for Higher Education Matters

SEO for universities is crucial as it directly impacts their online visibility, brand reputation, and student recruitment efforts. In an era where prospective students predominantly use search engines to gather information, universities must ensure their websites rank high in search results.

Just look at the monthly search volume of a few college-related searches:

College SEO keywords.

If you’re not optimizing your content to include search terms relevant to your college’s programs and offerings, then you’re missing out on potential traffic from those searches. This is especially important for local search terms where you likely have improved odds of ranking highly.

SEO also enhances a university’s website, making it more accessible and relevant to search engines. This, in turn, increases the likelihood of being discovered by potential students.

Can SEO Benefit University Visibility?

Effective SEO strategies can increase the number and positions of pages ranking on search engine results pages (SERPs), resulting in increased visibility and potential to reach a wider audience of prospective students.

With improved visibility, your institution can quickly become an authoritative source in the field. Of course, it’s also a great way to gain a competitive advantage in attracting the top students to your school.

A Real-Life University SEO Success Story

At my digital marketing agency, NP Digital, we help websites refine and revamp their digital marketing strategy. That’s why Client A, a technical college with campuses across the country, came to NP Digital when its organic rankings dropped seemingly overnight.

Note: You don’t need to work with a higher education SEO agency to complete the work outlined below, but it’s often a great step toward achieving your marketing goals.

So, what happened?

In Q2 of 2023, Google started prioritizing local “map-pack” results above Client A’s campus pages, similar to the screenshot below:

University near nyc search results.

This pushed national organic rankings for the college down the results page and often below the fold (i.e. only visible when you scroll down the page). As a result, the college saw major decreases in organic sessions and a significant decline in new student inquiries from organic traffic sources.

Client A came to us with the two following requests:

  1. Recapture the lost organic search visibility, sessions, and inquiries for their core programs; and
  2. Increase search awareness and consideration for all new programs and campus expansion efforts.

Our goal was to develop a holistic SEO and local content strategy. Here’s how we did it.

Our approach included the use of a content audit to optimize existing content. This included on-page SEO efforts, technical SEO optimizations, and local link building.

We also used ChatGPT to identify target cities (prioritized by population and driving distance) surrounding each of Client A’s campuses. The goal was to create local content targeting major cities that were previously not included in the client’s content. This led to the creation of more than 200 new local pages.

Finally, we claimed and optimized the Google Business Profiles for each of Client A’s campuses. This allowed us to gain control of the content, update inaccurate or outdated information, and add new information where necessary.

What were the results of the above optimizations?

In under three months, total organic sessions and inquiries bounced back above pre-Google update levels.

Our focus on local SEO results and their dedicated pages increased organic search inquiries by more than 18 percent year-over-year. 

When looking at the campus location and program pages that were hit the hardest, we saw session increases of more than 75 percent from their lowest levels in April of 2023.

Our holistic approach to local strategy also increased the number of non-brand position number one rankings—that is, ranking in the top spot of SERPs for non-branded queries—on Google by 20 percent.

Don’t forget that Client A also asked us to target new program expansion efforts! The locally-focused strategy outlined above did the trick. Despite a lack of awareness in the market, organic search sessions increased by 411 percent year-over-year.

SEO for universities case study.

What Can We Learn from This Case Study?

Many elements of SEO are outside of our control. So while Client A could not have prepared for the Google update which impacted them so greatly, they did take control of the situation by reaching out to NP Digital for help.

By implementing the technical SEO updates and content optimizations we recommended, they were able to not only recover but even surpass pre-update organic results.

So what can you learn from this case study?

With local SEO becoming more of a focus for Google, businesses must prioritize content localization. This is critical for capturing local intent and making up for any organic traffic losses seen from national search queries.

This is especially important for location-based facilities, like universities.

An additional takeaway is the use of generative AI technology for mundane, but crucial, research and writing tasks. The use of ChatGPT to supplement my team’s work with Client A meant that more time and energy could be spent elsewhere. Namely, on strategy.

Client A has since adopted the use of AI more widely, and it’s completely transformed its content strategy. It can do the same for your university’s content team.

SEO Best Practices for Universities

Now that you’ve seen what SEO can do for a university, how can you replicate it? The answer is content but, more importantly, highly relevant and targeted content. Let’s dig in.

Potential Keywords for University Enrollment

Choosing the right keywords is crucial for universities aiming to optimize their SEO and attract prospective students.

So where do you begin?

Firstly, universities should conduct keyword research to identify relevant terms and phrases potential students might use during their search. Take a look at tools like Ubersuggest, Google Keyword Planner, and Ahrefs.

These can be used to evaluate keyword rankings for your domain as well as competitor domains. You can also use these tools to find new keyword ideas.

For Ubersuggest, head to the Keyword Ideas tool and search by website.

It will produce a list of keyword ideas, including monthly search volume and SEO Difficulty (SD). You can even narrow by page 1 ranking potential!

SEO best practices ubersuggest.

You can then incorporate these keywords naturally into website content, including program pages, blog posts, and landing pages. This enhances visibility on search engine results pages.

Start by focusing on program-specific terms tailored to your institution’s offerings. For example, “business administration degree” or “computer science major.” Include location-based keywords like “universities in [city]” to capture local search traffic.

Also consider terms related to admission requirements, scholarships, and campus life, ensuring a comprehensive approach.

Long-tail keywords like “best affordable engineering colleges” or “top-ranked medical schools with research opportunities” address specific search queries, enhancing visibility for niche interests. Stay apprised of trending industry keywords, incorporating terms related to emerging fields of study or innovative programs.

Of course, regularly review and update keyword strategies to align with evolving educational trends and student preferences. This ensures your university remains competitive in the ever-changing landscape of online enrollment.

Building the Best Content for SEO

Building the best content for SEO for universities involves a strategic approach tailored to the unique needs of educational institutions.

Secondly, universities should focus on providing value to their audience. Engaging, informative content not only attracts visitors but also keeps them on the site longer, positively impacting SEO rankings. 

Universities can leverage various content formats, such as videos, infographics, and interactive elements. Here’s just one example of such a campaign as done by City University of New York:

Instagram post from Cuny.

The benefits of this strategy are two-fold. One, it diversifies the content making it possible to appeal to people with different media preferences. Two, it enables universities to utilize various social media platforms to reach a wider audience.

Once you’ve created the content, it doesn’t stop there. Regularly updating content ensures relevance and demonstrates to search engines that the website is active and trustworthy. You can use the same tools as above to track your page rankings on search engines and make updates as necessary.

The Importance of Local SEO For Universities

Local SEO is crucial for universities to enhance visibility and attract prospective students within specific geographic regions. By optimizing online content with location-based keywords, institutions can rank higher in local search results. This ensures that when students search for educational opportunities in a particular area, the university’s offerings appear prominently.

Don’t stop with the city the university is in, though! Like in the case study above, you can utilize ChatGPT to create a list of nearby cities to prioritize based on population and driving distance. You can even use this data to create content specifically for students who might live on campus versus commute based on distance:

Local seo for universities.

A strong local SEO strategy ensures universities connect with local communities, fostering engagement and facilitating easier access to information crucial for enrollment decisions.

As the case study above clearly outlined, local search results can drive significant organic traffic to your website.

How to Measure Your University’s SEO Performance 

Before you make any changes to your current content strategy, you want to collect baseline data. As changes are made, you can then look back to see what’s working and what’s not.

So where can you get this data?

That’s where tools like Ubersuggest come in!

You can utilize Ubersuggest’s various reports, including Rank Tracking, Site Audit, and Traffic Overview to gain an understanding of where your site currently stands:

Traffic overview UCLA from Ubersuggest.

For more keyword-specific performance metrics, check out the Keywords by Traffic report which breaks down your top keywords by volume, SERP position, and more:

Keywords by traffic UCLA ubersuggest.

After you make changes to your content, return to these reports to gauge your progress. You’ll want to be sure to determine which key performance indicators (KPIs) to track. These will depend on your overall goals, though position and visits are some obvious ones here. 

Ask yourself the following questions as you build out your comparisons:

  • How many keywords did we rank for initially, and how many keywords do we rank for now?
  • How much organic monthly traffic are we receiving now versus when we started?
  • What percentage of keywords ranking position increased from 11+ to within the top 10?
  • What is the breakdown of organic traffic driven from local versus national keywords?

As you continue to adjust and see progress, you’ll find it easier to draw insights from the patterns you’re seeing in your data.

FAQs

How can SEO benefit your university’s online visibility?

When Google favors your website, you rank higher on SERPs. So how do you become favored by Google? SEO is the only intentional way to do that. By implementing SEO best practices for universities, you increase your SERP rankings and improve your university’s online visibility.

What are the key SEO strategies for higher education institutions?

The key SEO strategies for higher education institutions include meticulous keyword research, relevant and diverse content creation with a primary focus on local SEO, regular content updates, and building authoritative backlinks.

How does SEO impact student recruitment efforts?

Successful college recruitment involves meeting your prospective students where they are. This includes holding positions on search results pages for students Googling “forensic science degree” or queries related to your programs. An effective SEO strategy will increase your visibility for a variety of keywords. This should include recruitment-specific keywords that target academic offerings, social life, scholarship opportunities, and the like.

Are there SEO techniques for specific academic program promotion?

You will want to stay attuned to trending industry keywords for the fields of study that your university offers. The keywords and optimizations you use will differ based on such factors and they should always be taken into consideration when optimizing academic program content.

What role does content marketing play in SEO for universities?

Your content marketing team can support your SEO efforts and generate positive media attention by crafting quality content, building quality backlinks, and tailoring content delivery to the appropriate channels (e.g. blog, social media).

Conclusion

There are many higher education recruiting and enrollment factors that are simply out of your control. By controlling what you can, though, you greatly increase your chances of hitting your targets.

One of those factors within your control is SEO for higher education. With the best practices outlined above, your college can be well on its way to ranking favorably on SERPs.

You don’t need to hire an SEO agency for higher education. By performing keyword research and building the best content for SEO, you can be well on your way to improving your SERP rankings. However, if you feel like the extra support would be beneficial, there are many higher education SEO firms to choose from, including NP Digital

What is your biggest obstacle when it comes to SEO for universities?

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