Top 10 Search Engine Marketing Mistakes Made by Colleges and Universities

Appeared in University Business in 6/1/2008.

Just how popular is online search? More than 113 billion core searches were conducted in the U.S. in 2007, according to comScore, which maintains databases that provide real-time measurement of the internet’s use. That’s about 310 million searches per day. No wonder Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary has added “google” as a verb.

Savvy higher ed leaders realize they need to add search engine marketing (SEM)-everything from site optimizations, to the management of paid listings, to submitting sites to directories-to their overall marketing plans. But several common mistakes can hinder efforts. When a potential student searches for a program your school offers, will you appear on a search engine’s first page? Avoid these top 10 search marketing blunders to have a better chance of answering yes.

1. Not using geo-targeted search

Do all of your students come from within a 30-mile radius of campus? Probably not. It makes sense to use different keywords to reach different geographical locations.

Say you’re a business school in Pittsburgh. Your local keyword phrase could be “Pittsburgh business school.” To attract applicants from the broader region, use “East Coast business school.” To reach prospective students anywhere in the nation, a phrase like “U.S. business school” would be effective. Optimizing for the keyword phrase “top business school” would attract global applicants.

2. Using copy not based on research

There are two things to consider when writing the actual copy for your website.

First, is the copy rich with words people type into search engines? It should be. If your business school’s proper name is the Herman Fischel School of Business but people search for “business schools Albany New York,” include both the school’s name and those keywords on the same page. Second, while it’s important to address the needs of search engines, never forget that an actual person will read the copy. Search marketing gets the person to your site, but compelling copy keeps them there and prompts them to take action.

3. Using a dot-com domain instead of dot-edu for a microsite

While microsites can do a great job of giving students depth of information about specific programs, too many colleges put microsites on a dot-com. Since just one dot-edu can be obtained by each institution, search engines automatically rank dot-edu’s higher. Schools that put microsites on a dot-com completely miss out on the opportunity to get a boost from the credibility factor of a dot-edu.

4. Not optimizing your microsites

Many higher ed institutions take a do-it-yourself approach to search engine optimization and will send all visitors to the home page. Bad idea. When people search for information, they want to land directly on the page that has exactly what they want. If you send visitors to the home page, there’s a greater chance prospective students will just click off the site, rather than take the time to click on a number of links to find the specific program. In other words, the home page isn’t the only door into your site. Think of every page as its own entry point.

5. Not optimizing all of the site’s pages

For institutions that don’t have microsites, should only the home page be optimized? The answer is no, for the same reason listed above. Visitors can always navigate through the rest of your site, but initially prospective students should land on a page where they can find the specific topic of interest that drove them to click.

6. Putting too much content on a page

Along the same lines as the importance of optimizing each page, it’s important to spread information throughout enough pages on the site so you can target each page for specific keywords. The higher up on the page, the more credence search engines will give your keywords. Make sure you take into account different aspects of your school or program that will appeal to prospects, and capitalize on that by honing your site with specific pages.

7. Only using pay-per-click advertising

Pay-per-click (PPC) advertising can be effective, but there are reasons for caution. First, natural search results are more trusted than PPC. Search engines call out the PPC ads with a different color or by putting them in a separate column with the phrase “sponsored link” above them. This clearly delineates the paid from the organic listings. Second, realize that PPC advertising puts a college in the same league as for-profit schools. So before creating a PPC campaign, ask yourself if it will have a negative impact on how your school is perceived. Finally, remember that PPC is best for short-term goals. It can end up being expensive to use paid advertising on an on-going basis.

8. Not optimizing your images

In May 2007, Google unveiled universal search, which takes vertical search category results from areas such as videos, images, news, and maps and merges them into a single set of results. So optimizing images is an easy way to improve your ranking. If a search is for “Boston universities fencing teams,” an optimized image could help the visitor land exactly where he or she wants to be.

9. Not taking advantage of video search

The use of videos is exploding on websites, and adding videos is a great way for prospective students to take a virtual tour of campus. From a search prospective, compelling video content can open the door to site traffic, targeted visitors, and increased brand awareness. Plus, you can then upload the video to video-sharing sites such as YouTube and Blinkx.

10. Not monitoring the metrics

On which pages do the most visitors land? Where do visitors abandon the site? Tools such as WebTrends, Omniture, Google Analytics, or ClickTracks can perform path and keyword analysis to identify the content that’s bringing applicants to your site. This is the most effective way to evaluate the ROI of your site.

Abu Noaman is CEO of Elliance, recognized as one of the world’s Top 10 interactive agencies by IMA. The Elliance Higher Education Marketing practice team challenges college presidents and cabinets to embrace a highly integrative approach to achieve enrollment, advancement, and reputation goals in the interactive age.