Search Engine Marketing for Higher Education: Everything You Need to Know
September is not only the start of the new school year at colleges and universities, but it’s also the start of the new fiscal year, which means marketers in higher education need to start rolling out new marketing strategies. But which strategies and tactics should they use? For universities looking to succeed in an increasingly competitive environment, more and more the answer to that question is search engine marketing (SEM). In fact, according to a recent survey, 97% of students will initiate contact with a university and it is absolutely critical not only to build and maintain a relevant digital presence, but also a “robust search functionality.” In general, an overwhelming number of students have reported using online search to discover colleges and universities.
So while it’s easy to grasp why for-profit businesses need to invest in search engine marketing (SEM) to get more reach and drive sales online, until recently it was unclear if SEM really is a necessary investment for higher education institutions. In this blog post, we not only suggest that search engine marketing should be a go-to tactic for every marketer in higher education, we also provide 10 tips for super-charging SEM campaigns for higher education.
Why Use SEM for Higher Education?
SEM is actually a blanket term used to describe two different marketing approaches, organic search engine optimization (SEO) and Pay Per Click (PPC) search advertising. Both are very valuable ways to promote your school to search engine users.
PPC requires a direct financial investment — you bid on placement to get your ads at the top of search results. On the other hand, it’s technically free to optimize your website pages for SEO, but doing it effectively requires a lot of time and investment.
Simply put, search engines remain the most popular way people search for and find information on the internet. Researching potential educational institutions is no exception. Investing in SEM can help you get more visibility for your school, build prestige, attract new web traffic in the process, and help you on the path to increasing enrollment.
SEM is a multifaceted marketing strategy that can’t be learned overnight. But if you start out by following important best practices, you’ll be well on your way to deriving ROI from your investment.
SEO Best Practices for Higher Education
SEO is a long-game strategy that can build you a strong, long-standing presence in search engine results. Do it the right way, and SEO can bring you a steady stream of new traffic long after you optimize your pages. Here are the best practices you should follow:
Perform an SEO audit
Your educational institution’s website already has an organic presence in search engines, whether you’re optimizing for it or not. So the first step is to take a look at your current performance.
You’ll want to invest in a tool like Screaming Frog, Ahrefs, or SEMRush to get a deep look at your website performance for various SEO ranking factors.
These tools will also help you find issues with your website that you should fix, such as 404 errors and broken internal links.
Most importantly, you’ll get a look at what keywords your pages are already ranking for in search results. You can actually do this for free when you try out SEMRush. Just go to their home page and type in your domain name:
On the next page, under “Domain Analytics” from the sidebar, go to Organic Research>Positions:
SEMRush will prompt you to sign up (it’s free) to get 10 free queries. Do that, then you can see the report showing your rank position for various keywords.
SEO is a long-term strategy — it takes time for your new content to rank well for keywords. So it’s best to start by identifying what keywords you already rank for, then make efforts to optimize these pages even more.
Start with the technical stuff
It’s a common misconception that SEO is all about putting keywords in your content. There are also a few technical aspects you need to get out of the way that relate to your site’s user experience. At a minimum, you should:
- Test and improve your page speed
Page speed is a very important rank factor for search engines. It can also have a big impact on your bounce rate, as site visitors have low tolerance for slow loading pages.
Google has a free page speed tool you can use to test your site speed. It also offers suggestions for improving your pages’ load speed that you can follow:
- Ensure your site is mobile optimized
Google prioritizes pages in search results that are mobile-optimized. Providing a mobile-friendly site experience is also good for the many users who will visit your site from their mobile phones.
If you have a responsive site design, it should adapt automatically to the size of the device people are using. Just go through and ensure there aren’t any legacy pages on your site that haven’t been updated to the responsive design.
- Check your duplicate content
Google doesn’t like duplicate content, so much so that they will manually penalize sites that have too many similar pages.
That tends to be a big problem for higher education sites. It’s easy to end up with a lot of duplicate content if your various departments have their own blogs or news sections. Student blogs, professors’ blogs, and/or university publications can all end up under your domain, publishing the same press releases and announcements.
You can avoid the duplicate content penalty by (1) eliminating unnecessary pages, and (2) telling Google which pages to prioritize. Again, using a tool like Screaming Frog or Ahrefs will help you identify your duplicate pages so you can delete the superfluous ones. Some duplicate content is necessary, however. In this case, you should use canonical tags to indicate to Google bots which pages to prioritize in search results.
- Submit a sitemap to Google
Once your site is all cleaned up and optimized, you should create and submit a sitemap to Google Search Console. This provides a guide for Google bots, making it easier for them to crawl and index your site pages. It’s easy to do — just follow Google’s instructions for building and submitting a site map.
Stick to your value propositions
When developing your keyword strategy, targeting your competitors is a good idea. If you already use Ahrefs or SEMRush, they can help you discover what keywords other educational institutions are optimizing for. Use that as a starting point.
But most importantly, you should take your value proposition(s) into consideration when brainstorming keywords to target. Here are some examples of value propositions that users might search for:
- Location ( e.g. “Environmental science degree Portland”)
- Program length (e.g. “fast track nursing program”)
- Requirements (e.g. “electrician certification without GED”)
- Remote education options (e.g. “MBA online”)
There are also a variety of free and paid tools out there that can help you brainstorm new keyword ideas. Keywordtool.io and LongTail Pro are examples of tools that can help you find long-tail keywords to optimize for. Just type in a root keyword and they will return suggestions for other long-tail keywords:
Targeting long-tail keywords is worthwhile because they have less competition than base keywords, but can help you reach a very targeted audience.
Develop and Optimize Content
Once you’ve developed a list of keywords to target, you’re ready to start creating and optimizing your site content. You’ll want to start with your major site pages first, like department or program pages.
But if you want to really make the most out of long-tail keywords for SEO, you need to develop more related content for departmental blogs and/or resources. You can use these pages to answer common questions people have about the subject/program. Use a tool like Answer the Public to get even more keyword and blog topic ideas. It will help you come up with questions related to a root keyword you ender:
Make sure with each site page you also follow on-page SEO best practices. Here are the main places your target keyword should appear on-page:
- In the page URL
- In the title of your content
- In at least one H2 heading
- In your body text
- In the alt text of one of your images
- In the page’s meta description
Try to distribute your keyword naturally throughout the content wherever it fits and makes sense to use it. Never sacrifice the quality of your written message to fit in more keywords. That’s called keyword stuffing, and is actually bad for your SEO.
Build quality links
Link building is just as important as keyword optimization for SEO success. Your first initiative should be internal linking. Build a healthy web of links connecting your various site pages to each other. The anchor texts for these links should be descriptive, helping Google bots understand what your content is about.
The next step is to start building external links from other high quality websites. Getting your institution and its educational programs listed in high quality directories is a great place to start. You should also seek out as many links as possible from other prestigious educational institutions with a .edu web address.
Building links from .com domains is good as well, as long as they have high domain authority. Quality online magazines and news sites are great options. If your school is a research institution, it should be easy to get new studies mentioned on high authority sites. Try to get those links pointing back to your faculty and/or department pages, instead of the journal publications themselves.
PPC Best practices for Higher Education
Google Ads PPC is a great complement to organic SEO as part of your SEM strategy. It not only helps you get instant visibility in search results while developing your organic SEO, you can also target conversion-related keywords to reach people at the most important points in their school decision process.
Here are a few best practices to remember when launching your Google Ads PPC campaign:
Avoid Bidding on Branded Terms
One of the first things they teach you about PPC keyword targeting is to bid on your branded terms (e.g. your institution name). That strategy makes sense for ecommerce businesses that are trying to attract traffic from potential shoppers. But it can actually be a huge waste of money for higher education institutions.
While some of the people that google your school name might be prospective students looking for information, the vast majority will be your current students, faculty and staff using Google as a quick way to navigate to your homepage. They click on your ads because they appear at the top, then you have to pay for the conversion.
In the same vein, you should avoid targeting your competitors’ branded keywords as well. That strategy makes sense for a business that offers competitive products or services, but not for a university. You’ll end up attracting a lot of traffic from your ads that didn’t mean to navigate to your website at all.
Go for relevance
So what kind of keywords are valuable to target for PPC? You want your ads to appear for users who are interested in joining an educational program, like an undergraduate environmental science degree or executive MBA program. So you’ll want to target keywords that reflect the right points in their journey to conversion.
The more specific and relevant the keywords you target, the more likely you’ll be able to reach users who are almost ready to choose a school to attend. Think about the undergraduate environmental science degree example. You could target “environmental science,” but then your ads might appear for a 9th grader working on a science essay. Targeting more specific long-tail keywords like “environmental science degree” or “environmental science bachelors” will help ensure your ads appear for the right target audience.
To start brainstorming keyword ideas, Google Ads has a Keyword Planner tool that can help. All you have to do is type in a base keyword related to the program you want to advertise (e.g. “environmental science degree”).
Keyword Planner will come back with a list of related keywords, including important information like their average monthly searches, PPC competition, and bid range:
Deciding what keywords to target is a balance between relevance, search volume, and competition. You want to target the most relevant keywords possible. But if they don’t get a lot of search volume, you’ll be limiting your ad visibility. At the same time, relevant keywords with high search volume tend to be more competitive and expensive.
Use Keyword Planner to get an idea of what kind of keywords you could reasonably target with your budget.
Think beyond your ads
Getting traffic to your website pages is one thing. But if you want your PPC ads to actually lead prospective students to apply for your programs, you need to consider the path they take after they click on your ad.
Say you’re targeting the keyword “accelerated nursing program.” Don’t allow that ad to link back to a generic landing page or the homepage of your nursing program. The whole point of paying for clicks is so your website content can convince prospective students to sign up.
So take the time to create a unique landing page that caters to the interests and needs of the person who clicked on the ad. A landing page for the “accelerated nursing program,” for example, could highlight details about the fast-track course option.
Offer a clear overview of all the program details, then include a prominent call-to-action asking visitors to inquire about the program. Do everything you can to encourage visitors to convert after clicking on your ad to ensure your PPC strategy works effectively towards your overall marketing goals.
Test your ad copy
You’d be surprised how even the the most simple changes in your ad copy can have a huge impact on click through rate. Take a look at these top ads that appear for “masters public health”:
Phrases like “No application fee required” and “GRE not required” are examples of unique selling propositions that higher education institutions can use in their ad copy to stand out and drive clicks.
Chamberlain University’s ad also makes use of ad extensions to display their phone number, address, related links, and more. These are powerful ways to stand out as well.
Whatever information you do decide to include in your ads, just make sure you test it with your audience. Google Ads makes it easy to create ad variations where you change the headline or call-to-action, add or remove ad extensions, etc. Google Ads will automatically rotate these ad variations for you so you can identify the most relevant ad copy for driving clicks.
Adjust your strategy based on performance
When running your first Google Ads PPC campaign is that it’s easy to set it up and forget about it. But letting your campaigns run themselves isn’t going to be worth your financial investment in the long run.
If you pay attention over time as your ads run, you’ll start to realize there are certain keywords, ad types/copy and bid strategies that do a better job of helping your get inquiries into your educational programs.
For example, say you have ad groups targeting your MBA program vs other masters degrees you offer. MBA-related keywords tend to be highly competitive and very expensive to bid for as a result. After distributing your ad spend equally, you might discover that bidding more on keywords related to your other masters programs does more to drive your marketing goals. You can then reduce your investment in expensive MBA-related keywords and reallocate that spend.
Optimizing your bid strategy is another important factor that can help you minimize your financial investment in PPC ads without affecting ad performance. Wasted ad spend is granular and often difficult to track as ad competition comes and goes. But there are technologies you can use to automate the process. QuanticMind, for example, is a machine learning technology that uses data science to predict keyword performance and optimize your bid strategy for you.
The Bottom Line
No matter if you’re targeting the “back to school” crowd or the next generation of students, SEM is simply the best way to reach them with your marketing message. Everyone today uses their mobile phones to research and discover educational programs like those you offer.
Use the best practices explained in this post as a starting point to launch successful search engine marketing campaigns. As you start to illustrate results from your efforts, garner more buy-in so you can invest in tools to optimize and automate the process even more.