With the turbulence existing in Higher Ed right now, shakeups at OPMs and declining enrollments hitting many programs, we thought we would put together a quick list of tips to help you harness the power of your website and generate your own leads and enrollments.
There are so many ways to market college programs: LinkedIn Ads, AdWords, Instagram, Events and more….but I am going to talk about my personal favorite, Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Many people we talk to have tried it and found it wanting. There are a lot of reasons why this may happen, but ultimately, for your school or website to show up in the search engines, you have no choice but to do SEO. In fact, if you don’t do it, you can guarantee competitor programs are, and then you are doing a disservice to potential students by not making sure your programs are there for them to find.
Here are some of the main culprits that will answer the question, ‘Why doesn’t my website show up in Google?’
There are three main parts to SEO: Technical SEO, Digital PR (linkbuilding) and Content – I like to call this the SEO Trifecta. In my experience, you need all three to really rank.
For this article, I’ll focus mainly on the technical components, because these are things you can fix quickly and see rapid change if done well.
Your on-page (technical) SEO is a mess (sorry!)
This could be anything from pages not indexing, lots of 404 errors, your site map isn’t submitted to Google, or you have duplicate content. With higher education sites, there are sometimes thousands upon thousands of pages to analyze, so you must start with an audit to determine if there are any issues going on with your site that could be holding back its performance in the search engines.
Let me dive a little deeper into some of the main technical issues we see on large sites:
Your site should have a sitemap that is like an online file folder with everything ‘live’ on your site on this virtual document. Depending on where your site is built (is it a custom HTML site, do you use WordPress, etc.), your sitemap may be a little bit different. Sometimes these are updated automatically, every time a change is made to your website, while other times each change will need to be submitted. A good technical SEO will know which is the case with your site, and if the appropriate things are happening to get all of your pages indexed.
Your Google Search Console will tell you how many pages are on your site vs. how many are in Google’s index. From there, there could be any number of issues affecting your indexation.
Indexation bloat is when a website has pages within the index that should not be there – this could be pages that should have been taken down, internal pages like staff photos that pull from a certain place on your website that don’t need to be in the public domain – all of these things are “bloat” or “extras” that take extra time and space and energy from Google crawling your site to find what it really needs, which is information about how to enroll, get students excited about school, etc. See more on this in ‘crawl budget’ below.
There are a ton of other issues with indexation that need to be assessed with your website. The bigger the website, the bigger this issue gets, and the more important it is to fix.
Creating multiple pages with the same content on your website may seem like a way to save time, but in fact, this can create more issues than you want to experience. You may knowingly put a duplicate page on your site, or you may not even realize you are doing this through your actions.
Duplicate content could be as simple as:
Unless you have what is called a canonical tag set up to direct one URL to the other, these will actually show up as duplicates to Google.
When Google sees duplicate results on your site, it will at best, filter these pages out, and at worst – give you a penalty and affect your rankings. With duplicate content, it’s better to just trim it down and let Google use the power of your website more effectively.
Did you know that Google crawls your site with spiders? Think about it like little robot spiders crawling all over the internet. These spiders crawl on pathways through the internet, to your site, and then through and around your site. You have inadvertently created these pathways by telling the spiders where to go. They start on your site and then use the menu items, sidebars, and any internal links in the site to work their way around.
The thing with spiders is they get tired. If there are too many paths spewing out every which way, they may very well take the path they want and leave the rest. What this means to you is that page you worked so hard on to promote your program? Well, Google may not even find it based on the way your site is using up its crawl budget due to its internal link structure. A deep technical audit will find all of these issues, and then you need a plan to remedy them. A good SEO team will work with development to address these issues.
Here’s a complex guide from Google, geared toward developers, if you really want to read up on Crawl Budget: Google Crawl Budget Management
You are not taking advantage of the strength of your domain
As a college or established business, you are so lucky to have strength behind your domain. Contrary to a startup or a new business, your school has likely “owned” their domain since the internet began. You have inadvertently had every kind of good, high-quality SEO signal already sent to your site, with every community event your school is involved in, every press release, each alumni event, and a long history of educating students. What this means is your site with a .edu domain has a strong Domain Authority, or DA.
However, the above mistakes can make it so you are not harnessing the full power of the strength of your domain, which can be easily remedied through knowledgeable technical SEO and strategic linkbuilding, which I’ll discuss in a future post.
Here’s some reasons we hear for why people don’t do SEO (and why we think they should)
1. You think the web people are ‘handling it.’
No shade on web developers or web administrators, but their job involves far more than (and usually does not include) ranking your pages in the search engines. They may not even be aware that something they are doing or are not doing is affecting how your website is showing up in search.
With any project that is technical in nature, it is key that everyone get on the same page. This may look like trainings or conversations to make sure you have insight into what is going on with your website from a technical perspective, since that is the foundation from which every other part of your marketing will come from.
2. You think you can’t compete because you don’t have a behemoth budget
This is probably the biggest mistake of all, in that it stops many deans or marketing managers from even trying SEO. SEO is actually one of the leanest ways to conduct internal marketing, if done strategically and well, and once you get started with SEO, it is like a flywheel – it will keep rolling and growing and building on yourself so your website is a marketing machine. SEO is not like paid marketing – if you stop paying for paid ads, the faucet of leads turns off immediately. With SEO, the foundation you build has benefits for years to come.
Working with a company experienced in Higher Education will get you more bang for your buck. Then, you can have a customized program, tailored to your specific goals and students, instead of a templatized, one-size-fits all program that costs more than the annual budget for your entire school combined.
3. “We tried this and it didn’t work”
As an educational institution, giving up should never be an option. Just as much as switching majors might bring someone more success or happiness, switching tactics or even companies when it comes to marketing could bring you the results you need. The most important thing to remember when looking for a higher education SEO company is to keep the end in mind.
Ultimately, you need more students enrolled in your programs, and you need someone who understands the ecosystem of education, the lifecycle of a student, and the enrollment and retention process to really be successful. This will inform so much, including your keyword strategy, that having someone in your corner who really understands higher education is key.
Haven’t you ever heard of, if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again? More than likely, you worked with an agency who sold you a templated ‘product’ for SEO, when really, SEO is an organic process (this is why it is referred to as Organic Traffic as a source in Google Analytics).
This means your marketing program should also be organic, your site should be audited and analyzed, and a custom program should be built based on your school’s needs, but also stemming from what is going on with your site. If underlying issues are not addressed, you are not really doing SEO. In addition, if your keyword strategy doesn’t include conversion/enrollment terms, then you don’t have someone on your side who understands what you are all about.
The thing is, you know the schools and websites who are doing SEO because they are simply everywhere. If you see a school/website ranking in search, it is not by accident. There have been many smaller schools and websites that have been able to surpass other, larger schools or websites in search through their strategy. What would it mean for your programs, school and all of the students you could help if you were everywhere too?
Sarah Gilbert has 1.5 decades of experience working in the Higher Education industry, first as an Enrollment Counselor for one of the largest online universities, then as a Content Strategist, working in Search Engine Optimization and Content Strategy across millions of site visitors. She has worked with universities, small specialty colleges, OPMs, aggregators and more.