Higher Education SEO Marketing Best Practices for Colleges and Universities

SEO Tips for Colleges, Universities and Higher Education Institutions

SEO or “search engine optimization” is a set of techniques higher education marketers deploy to improve their institution’s natural or organic website rankings on Google, Bing and other international search engines.

30 years of experience and research have shown us that Google page rankings are more trusted, command the lion share of clicks, generate more quality leads, and result in formation of more new partnerships and major donors than any other marketing effort.

In serving over 100 colleges and universities, we have not found a more dependable and reliable way to ensure predictable enrollment and reputation growth than securing Google page one rankings for a college’s academic programs, thought leadership, and brand ideals. The students and partners who “discover” the college on Google tend to be relational, and go on to become brand ambassadors, long-term donors and allies.

Top search engine rankings have always mattered, but in the age of AI, search engines like Perplexity and Google AI snippets are elevating top five results even higher.

The following best practices have proven to grow enrollment (undergraduate, transfer, graduate, online, adult and international student), reputation and endowment for colleges and universities we have served:

1. Know The SEO Ranking Factors

Over 100 ranking factors can be grouped into five broad buckets:

  • URL factors: such as keyword rich and country specific domains
  • On-page factors: including meta-data and keyword-infused copy and images
  • Off-page factors: like number of inbound links from reputable websites to your website
  • Social factors: including number of social conversations and social shares
  • Location factors: including city, region and country name signals

2. Start by Identifying Your Goals and Objectives
Here are a few common goals:

  • Grow enrollment in undergraduate, graduate, doctoral, or online programs
  • Strengthen Brand Reputation locally, regionally, nationally — in new areas of expertise, strategic priorities, and centers of excellence — all in service of positioning the institution as a school of consequence
  • Expand Fundraising to serve students, secure high caliber students, secure talent, or to fulfill the vision of the strategic/master plan
  • Improve External Relations with trade groups, foundations, corporations and government partners
  • Recruit talented faculty, administrators and staff

Tailor your tactics to match your chosen goals.

3. Establish a Multi-Year Attack Plan

Take the long view. Develop a plan that goes after the lowest hanging fruit first (local and regional rankings), then harder-to-achieve national rankings, and finally the hardest-to-achieve international and reputation rankings. Slow and steady wins the race.

It takes several months to achieve local and regional rankings, and a year or more to achieve national and international rankings. Higher education marketers who have the patience and determination to achieve Google rankings create an enduring rising tide of rankings and are able to reduce their paid marketing spend as SEO rankings are achieved.

4. Create a Keyword Lexicon

Craft a Keyword Lexicon that contains clusters of keywords and phrases spanning your academic programs, brand ideals, and areas of thought leadership, innovation and intellectual capital. Laying claim to the keywords begins with an intentional plan. Categories in the lexicon should include academic program keywords, brand positioning keywords, reputation keywords, decisioning keywords, and location keywords.

Know that prospects use different clusters of keywords at each phase of the decision funnel. e.g. they’ll use reputation keywords during the awareness phase, category keywords during the consideration phase and branded keywords during the preference/purchase phase.

5. Use .edu Instead of Using .com, .org and Other Domains
Since each college and university can be awarded only one (and occasionally two) .edu domains, search engines generally rank .edu websites higher than other domain extensions. Use only your .edu domain and subdomains for websites, landing pages and microsites.

6. Make Your Website Responsive, Secure and Fast

Google rewards responsive websites – ones that auto-adjust gracefully on smartphones, tablets or desktops. Google also ranks higher websites that load fast and are running in secure mode.

7. Infuse SEO into All Content Assets

Embed SEO smarts, tactics and strategies into the architecture, design, copy and programming of all your website pages including:

  • Academic programs, especially signature programs
  • University magazines
  • Faculty experts
  • Faculty research
  • News and events
  • Academic, presidential and admissions blogs
  • Social media
  • YouTube
  • Community relations programs
  • Landing pages and microsites

8. Infuse SEO into All Existing Digital Assets

Because Google serves up a mix of copy, images, videos, maps and tabular data on a search results page, make sure you optimize copy, images, videos, PDF’s, tables, links, and meta-data on every website page. Search engine bots also review assets on social media channels, so ensure these assets are also optimized.

9. Facilitate Social Signals 
Since social signals (a webpage’s shares, likes and social media visibility) impact organic rankings, add the ability to share every page of your college website.

10. Energize Local Rankings 
Since search engines give preferential treatment to local and regional brands, embed location and reginal signals in your content.  

11. Build Quality Site Links

Use link baiting to secure quality inbound links pointing back to your website. Create and leverage great thought leadership content and jointly promote it with partners.

12. Create Fresh Content to Secure and Sustain Top Rankings for Important Keywords

Because Google rewards websites with fresh content, develop a content strategy to create new content (microsites, blogs, magazine articles, etc.) for various parts of the decision funnel. Inform all content with the Keyword Lexicon.

The more competitive a keyword, the more high-fidelity the content (infographics, videos, quizzes, etc.) you’ll have to create to secure and sustain page 1 rankings.

13. Embrace Voice Search

We have entered a new era of “natural language”, “sentence based” and “question based” search with the advent of voice-activated search on mobile phones (like Google Assistant, Apple Siri, Microsoft Cortana and Amazon Alexa) and gadgets like Amazon Echo, Google Home, Apple HomePod and others. Since 50% of searches are now voice driven, take the following steps:

  • Get responsive. Speed it up. If your college website isn’t responsive yet (i.e. auto-adjusts gracefully to all devices), make it responsive, ensuring it’s fast, fully SEO-optimized and running in secure mode.
  • Write colloquially. Since people won’t change their speaking habits for the computer, write new content using everyday vernacular.
  • Write page summaries. Write short, persuasive, 29-word page summaries above the screen fold on long-form pages. These summaries act as pop-up snippets served up by voice searches on mobile devices and home gadgets; they also appear as answer boxes on desktop search results.
  • Build social shares. Run social share campaigns because the more shared the page is on Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), LinkedIn and other social channels, the more likely it’ll surface on voice search.
  • Think globally. Act locally. Since more than 20% of searches are local, add phrases such as ‘near me’ into your copy, especially if your college is a local or regional brand.
  • Rank high on desktop and mobile search. It’ll automatically increase the chances of your website ranking high on voice search.

14. Monitor and Protect Keyword Rankings

Measure keyword rankings to ensure your college ranks on Google and sustain your rankings. Watch your college competitors for signs of encroachment, and counter their moves on an as-needed basis.

Remember that leads generated from high-fidelity content out-convert paid advertising leads by three-folds (which, again, out-convert purchased names by three-folds). The best prospects prefer to “discover” the college of their choice through word-of-mouth on social media and via “accidental finds” on Google page one.

15. Measure Impact of SEO Efforts

Evaluate snapshots and trends for the following metrics:

  • Percentage of traffic from search engines (ought to be 60-70%)
  • Percentage of inquiries, visits and applications attributable to organic search (organic out-performs paid by 3X)
  • Brand visibility on search engines (should trend upwards)
  • Branded vs. non-branded traffic (a healthy ratio is 40/60 but 30/70 is preferable)

16. Measure SEO ROI with Marketing Automation Software

To quantify the SEO return-on-investment, connect the dots between SEO efforts and conversions by deploying marketing automation softwares like HubSpot or Pardot.

Done well, these best practices will grow student recruitment, reassure parents, engage lifelong learners, invite working professionals to up-skill, grow corporate partnerships, attract funders and foundations, and build new allies.

If you are too busy to defeat the SEO Goliaths in your space, review our high performance SEO services and higher education marketing capabilities, and consider partnering with us.