SEO for Higher Education

Last Edited August 22, 2016 by Garenne Bigby in Search Engine Optimization

seo higher education

The Opportunity for Search Engine Optimization

Colleges and universities can improve their search engine rankings by focusing on a proper website structure, good content development, and a strategic use of keywords.

Search engine optimization is the process used to manage website content in a way that will elevate the ranking in search engines. The most predominant place that people research information and make their informed decisions are search engines. In relation to higher education, potential students may be researching schools, the academic community will be researching topics, and Web users will be looking for academic information on Google as well as any other search engines. The impact that searching on the web has on higher education is quite important. Education accounts for a very high percentage of web traffic that is generated by search engine referrals. Because of this, it is vital for colleges and universities to achieve higher rankings for popular search terms.


SEO is a place where winner takes all—there is little to no benefit of being listed as number 11 or 12 on a SERP (search engine results page). It is vital to focus on optimizing important web pages like a home page or admissions page while using keywords or phrases that are popular but have a sort of limited competition. When you optimize these niche terms, the organization can have the highest chance of success. That being said, in the sector of higher education, there is equal or greater value in optimizing websites for searching without driving all of the content toward these strategic keywords. It has been said that about 80% of a search engine's referrals will come from the bottom 20% of a higher educational institution's most popular keywords. To those in the search engine optimization field, this is known as the long-tail, a combination of the thousands of keywords or phrases that are indexed in various search engines and will drive traffic to a particular website. When you choose to follow good content development and management practices and processes, higher educational institutions can raise their content in search engine rankings and generate a noticeable increase in their search engine referrals from the long-tail keywords and terms.

SEO for Google

In regards to SEO and search engines, Google is the boss. This search engine has the majority of search engine traffic and needs to be the basis for any program for search engine marketing. Yahoo and Bing are rising in importance, but they still only grab just a handful of the search engine traffic. The three levels of Google's technology are: 

  • The “spider” or “bot” will crawl through the web and will index web pages
  • The index that contains all information about a web page
  • The search query where end users enter in a search engine to find content


A search engine optimization plan that is successful will take all of these factors into account by ensuring the web pages are not only accessible but easy to index. This can be done by having good content and metadata that is indexed, and also by understanding the search terms that the prospective audience will use to find the content—and taking action to optimize your pages to match those search terms.

Google will index pages on a fairly frequent basis. One way to ensure that pages get indexed is to register an XML sitemap that contains instructions on how often a site should be indexed as well as what content to index. Some programs allow automation of indexing, as well as the addition of headers to a web page to tell the search engine how a specific page should be indexed. Google will return web pages during a search in the order that their page ranks for a specific search term. They do this by employing a proprietary algorithm to calculate the pagerank. The specifics of this algorithm are closely guarded, but it is known that Google will look at 4 factors to establish the rank of a page:

  • The popularity of a web page is roughly measured by the number of sites that it links to
  • The authority of a web page is measured by: the age of its domain (older domains are considered to have more authority), the TLD (top level domain) and .gov and .edu sites carry the most authority, and the popularity and authority of any external pages that link to the web page.
  • The relevance of a web page is based on its contents as well as the metadata, along with the relevance of the inbound links that point to the page as seen in the anchor text of those links.
  • The location of a web page is based on where it lives in relation to the total information architecture of the website and how well it is able to be indexed by a search engine spider or bot.


An SEO program that is successful will need to account for all of these factors when managing and developing their web content.

Approaches for SEO

When working with SEO programs, there are two main types of optimization that can be done: on-page and off-page.

On-page optimization is a process that will require writing web content and managing a website with the intent of raising the search rankings. The auxiliary benefit of on-page SEO optimization is that the same practices are also good for content management. It does not matter if your content is accessed through a search or directly from your own website, you want the content that is important to be clear, described well, and prominent in your website architecture. On-page SEO optimization will aid in achieving these goals.

Off-page optimization is focused on creating external links to a website. Be mindful, though, that achieving top rankings is not enough. The links will need to be from trustworthy websites, ideally websites that have similar content to your own and use relevant anchor text. Anchor text is the text that is enclosed in a link to a website. This is the text that you read in content that will lead you to a link. This plays a key role in search engine optimization by telling the search engines the topic of your content. When you promote links to your own website, do ensure that there are multiple variations of your anchor text. If you use the same anchor text with many external sites, it could be interpreted as spam. When going through the process of off-page SEO, your website's popularity is not just increased by the number of websites that link to you, but the type of sites these are. More weight is carried by websites that have a lot of popularity and authority. The strongest links are those that end in .edu. Universities and colleges can build their own rankings to be stronger when they link to each other. On the contrary, some links can hurt rankings. There are automated submission programs that will offer to put your website into many search engines—these are called “link farms” and are a huge red flag, as they are blacklisted by Google.

On-Page SEO Factors

Search engines are not capable of seeing web pages the same as end users. They will not see the aesthetics of it. They will basically process the raw text of each web page. A search engine will then analyze the web page by using an inverted pyramid bias. This means that it will assume that the most important content and information is at the top of the page. Because of this, when optimizing the content of a website, it is vital to write good meta data—this ensure that the relevant content will be placed toward the top of the rendered HTML, and will make sure that the data on the page indeed matches the search terms that were intended. What are these on-page elements and their recommendations?

  • URL: in order to be search engine friendly, the URL needs to be descriptive yet concise. When there is a longer descriptive, it is best practice to hyphenate the phrase in the link, such as www.school.edu/graduate-admissions-requirements.html so that it is easy to read and comprehend. You must also work to avoid any special characters within a URL—search bots stop indexing when they reach a special character and assume that there is not any valuable information after it. This includes question marks “?”.
  • Page title: this is what is displayed in the browser's title bar and might possibly be the most critical piece of information that determines how well a web page will rank. The title should be 65 characters or less, never more. Variation is key in title pages. Each should be unique—if they are repetitive then their value is diminished in rankings for search engines.
  • Meta descriptions: this describes the content of a page and does play a role in its ranking. Even more so, when Google lists a web page in its results, it will often times use the meta descriptions in the abstract. This is why it is so important to take the time to write good meta descriptions that do include keywords, but also a user friendly description of the web page. Here it is not necessary to stuff keywords into the description. It should sound natural.
  • Meta keywords: these are not used by search engines with ranking algorithms anymore. The only exception to this is Yahoo which still indexes keywords but the hold very little impact on the overall ranking of the content. SEO experts give an ultimatum: only use meta keywords on pages that are highly optimized, or totally abandon the component entirely.
  • Google Bot instructions: Google accepts instructions on how their bot should index your page. As an example, <META NAME=”robots” CONTENT=”noindex,notfollow”> would indicate to Google that the content should not add a page to the index and should not follow any links from the page. But why would you not want a page to be indexed? For starters, if it is a duplicate page, it will hurt the search ranking. The term “nofollow” is generally used to increase the percentage of internal web links within a site, and will retain what is known as link juice.
  • Headline: this is the most prominent piece of content on a web page. It carries the weight of indexing, and should use keywords or phrases that you have targeted specifically for your web page.
  • Copy: this is the text or body of the page. You should aim to keep your target keywords toward the beginning of the copy, and then repeat them in several places throughout the page. How many times the keywords are repeated is known as the keyword density. There is no precise science behind this, but too much repetition will signal to the search engine that the web page is spam, yet if there is too little then the page will be seen as irrelevant. Authors need to focus on the integrity of the page. Good copy will have the keywords repeated in a way that flows naturally, while bad copy will seem forced. For content that is highly optimized, the keyword should be repeated 2 or 3 times within the first half of the copy.
  • Alt-text: this describes the images on a web page. It is vital for web accessibility and compliance with 508a. For best practice, when you are optimizing a web page for a specific search term, include that keyword as part of the alt-text.


Looking at an Optimized Higher Education Page

Research from onlinecoursesearch.com states that “Sitemap generation add-ins or plug-ins are available for university and college content management systems.” They also recommend the use of one or more of these types of applications to help with website indexing. Additionally, the title will have target keywords such as the name of the college and the type of college that it is.

The target keywords will be scattered about the copy in a manner that is not obvious to the user. Terms like “liberal arts” “undergraduate” graduate” and even the location will occur naturally throughout the text so that the search engines will pick it up and it will rank higher. In short, you should know how to balance your aesthetics with your content.

Garenne Bigby
Author: Garenne BigbyWebsite: http://garennebigby.com
Founder @dynomapper
Garenne Bigby is freelance Chicago developer and founder of DYNO Mapper with over 10 years experience in both agency and freelance roles in design, development, user experience, SEO, and information architecture.

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