Jonathan Saipe

5 SEO Essentials For Universities

2 December 2013, Jonathan Saipe

University Mortar BoardsCompared to when I was at University (over 20 years ago!), the current University landscape has evolved into a highly competitive sector. This is not only due to recent increase in student fees, but also the fact that most acquisitions will be driven through online channels rather than more traditional marketing methods.

Equally, the SEO landscape has evolved, with Google Panda arriving in 2011, Google Penguin in 2012, and this year the Hummingbird update. And whilst we’d like to think that the non-profit or education sectors are immune to these updates, unfortunately that’s not the case.

Below are 5 essentials considerations universities and colleges should consider when planning or managing SEO campaigns.

1. Agree your objectives and KPI’s

The first and arguably most important step to a successful SEO campaign is to agree your objectives and KPI’s. Clearly, all education establishments will want to achieve a high rank for target keywords, but with Google personalising search results, rank is fluid and continually fluctuates which means it isn’t the best metric to rely on.

Other objectives, such as visitor volume might be of significance, but more importantly, are you engaging those visitors, and do their visits result in outcomes?

Metrics such as time on (key) pages, average pages visited and bounce rate can indicate successful engagement. And of course outcomes such as leads (applications), phone calls, email subscriptions, social shares etc will more than likely be the real acid test of a successful user journey.

Importantly, deploy the right web analytics tool to measure the above. No doubt you will need to configure funnels and goals to get the best out of the analytics tool you deploy. And a final word on analytics tools: with Google Analytics now publishing organic keywords from Google as ‘(not provided)’, relying on keyword level metrics will almost certainly lead you down a cul-de-sac.

2. Understand your competitive landscape

As with any search marketing campaign, having an understanding of your competition will enable you to compete more effectively. In the vast majority of sectors, including education, you will be competing with some new competitors not seen previously.

Whilst some of your terrestrial competitors will appears in SERPs (search engine results pages), a search for a head term such as “university courses” will reveal new competitors such as aggregators, or possibly news sites if something is trending at the time. On the other hand, you may find that longer tail searches, specific to course names or course categories will reveal more traditional competitors.

In either case, try to understand your competitor’s content strategy in addition to their backlink profile (using tools like Moz, Majestic SEO or Raven). You will then start to understand where to focus your own SEO efforts.

3. Optimise your content architecture

Having run many SEO workshops in the University sector, a ubiquitous issue that keeps appearing is that of duplicate content. A typical scenario is where a course description appears on more than one page across a single website. If more than one page contains very similar content, there’s a chance that only one page will be indexed. Since Google announced the Panda update in 2011, duplicate content has been often discussed in the same breath.

The best recommendation is to avoid duplication through effective content architecture. If this isn’t possible, then try implementing canonical tags  to indicate your preferred page.

4. Have a point of difference

Successful SEO campaigns are built on two core fundamentals: building authority through quality links and the creation of unique, interesting, topically strong content (coined “linkbait”). There’s a symbiotic relationship here, as it’s quality content that helps generate authority links.

When developing a content strategy, consider what content will maximise audience engagement. Even better what content will delight or fascinate your audience. The chances are that this content will attract links from other sites be they blogs, social channels, communities and forums. Having a point of difference is key here as you will stand out from your competitors and earn the respect of your audience.

5. Create a content marketing strategy

With the effects of Google Penguin still being felt by the SEO community, the phrase “link building” has almost become a dirty word. Links should be naturally acquired or earned through effective content (as mentioned above) and content marketing is the logical add-on to content strategy.

With students as your core audience, you have a highly tech savvy target market living and breathing digital. Successful content marketing is about reaching out to your audience through the channels that best engages them.

What social networks or online communities are they using? Are mobiles preferred to desktops? Are there sites that will most heavily influence student behaviour or attitudes? And are there influencers in the education sector? And what is your hook?

The answers to the above will steer your content marketing efforts. Successful content marketing will create engagement and also positive SEO results through the sharing of your content and the generation of links and thus authority. And it’s authority that is usually the deciding factor when it comes to improved organic search performance.

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