On the heels of my popular yet somewhat contentious post last week on the Top College Websites for SEO , I thought I'd do a follow up to give advice to those colleges that are struggling with search engine optimization (SEO) . These SEO tips should give colleges some insight into how best to optimize their websites to rank well in higher education search verticals and attract more students though search engine marketing.
NOTE: This SEO for College Websites is the first in a two-part series.
SEO University: Best practices for optimizing college degree pages
Most college websites publish a bunch of content under a variety of topics: from administrative pages, to course catalogs, to campus news, to research lab micro sites, and so on. But the real bread and butter for universities are their degree and certificate programs. Universities are in the business of selling education and degrees are their product offerings.
Now, whether you're trying to rank your personal blog or the Organic Baby  Onesie page for your local children's clothing store, the fundamentals of SEO are virtually the same. Put simply, you need content and links. The same holds true for college degree Web pages. So here's a detailed guide to help college's better optimize their existing degree pages for SEO.
Step One: Do Your Keyword Research Homework
It's been said before, but it bears repeating: keywords are the foundation of all your search marketing efforts. Do a bad job here selecting your keywords and everything else will fail, from your title tag strategy, to content creation, to your link building  efforts.
Now, there are few different approaches you can take to performing effective keyword research:
- Keyword suggestion tools (good): Using third party keyword generator tools  to suggest keyword ideas
- Competitor site analysis (better): Finding which keywords work for your competitors is another tactic, is another common approach, but it's somewhat flawed. Just because keywords are working for your competitors, doesn't mean they'll also work for you.
- Actual keyword or query data (best!): Mining your keyword analytics  or your server log files for proven results
Now, the reason I advocate using keywords from your actual data is because we at WordStream believe that "keyword research should be personalized and based on real data."  Rather than guesstimating which searches may or may not drive prospective students to your website, your private search data gives you the actual searches that brought users to your site. That way you can optimize your existing college degree pages to better reflect the traffic driving keywords. Or you can use it to prompt the creation of additional, topically relevant content.
Now, to back up for a second, I'm not totally disparaging keyword suggestion tools. They do have their place, including helping with:
- Initial keyword research  - for a new site with no search history
- Keyword discovery  - for keyword stemming or keyword modifiers for content creation, title tags or link building, all of which I'll cover in the following sections.
With that in mind, we've created The FREE Keyword Tool , so feel free to bang on it for some new keyword ideas for your own keyword research.
For more on best keyword research practices, check out these articles and videos:
- Keyword Research Guide 
- How to Conduct Effective Keyword Research for SEO & PPC 
- Using SEO & PPC Keyword Research Data to Maximum Effect 
Step Two: Set Up Your Title Tags
Title tags are a critical component of good, effective SEO. Having your keywords positioned in your degree page HTML title tags without a doubt will give your pages a huge boost in the search engine results pages (SERPs).
One example of a college using title tags for SEO pretty effectively is the program page for the Stanford University MBA program page. Let's take a look at how they're structuring their title tags.
Now, the reason I say "pretty effectively" is because Stanford's approach is good, not great. There's certainly some wasted real estate here and missed opportunity. For example, repeating "MBA Program" twice is pointless. Duplicating keywords  offers no ranking benefit. In fact, keyword duplication hogs up valuable space that could be used for additional keywords prospective students may be searching on.
My title tag suggestion for Stanford's MBA degree page would look something like this:
So why is this title tag better than Stanford's current tag? Because this title tag format (which removes duplicates and adds two new related terms) creates more ranking opportunities for additional MBA program-related queries while still being able to rank for the primary query "Stanford MBA Program," including:
- Two-word queries: MBA degree, business degree, graduate degree
- Three-word queries: MBA degree program, MBA program Stanford, MBA graduate program, MBA graduate degree, graduate business degree
In short, my recommendation for universities is to develop and test a variety of SEO title tag formulas, choose a winner (one that boosts rankings and traffic on a variety of queries) and apply it to all site-wide degree pages. For more on this approach, read my blog post on HTML title tag formulas for SEO .
Obviously, each page should have it's own unique title tag that reflects the page content theme/topic, be it a Ph.D. degree or associates program. For colleges specifically, my SEO title tag formula suggestion would be:
[Degree]: [Secondary keywords, keyword variations] | [University name]
Now, many in academia will disagree with back loading the brand here (ie, the school's name). But I contend if your goal is to rank well in the SERPs, it's much more effective to lead with your primary keywords. Also, if your school name is too long to fit within Google's 70 character limit, I'd suggest front loading it in the meta description (like Stanford does in the example below), so you still get that element of branding, which can be of particular importance for popular universities.
And though Google truncates title tags after 70 characters with an ellipses, up to 95 characters will get indexed for searching. So even if it gets clipped, your brand will still get factored into the ranking signals and subsequent query algorithm.
But again, the best advice I can give is to experiment and test. If you're adamant about keeping your school name first (like Stanford), don't just do it because you're self important. Have some evidence to back up your stance. Try testing pages with brand in front and brand in back. See if it changes your ranking and/or click through rate . That's the only way to be certain which formula works for your particular degree pages.
Final Tip: Add Geo Modifiers to Degree Page Title Tags
If you're a state school, a community college or local commuter school, be sure to use geo-targeted keyword modifiers in your titles to capture local queries. For example, I've added the geo modifier "Boston" to this Regis College listing:
Now, that's not the current title tag for the Regis College undergraduate nursing program page. It's this:
So rather than using a more useful and frequently searched geo modifier like "Boston," Regis mistakenly opts to include the college's physical location "Weston, MA" in the title tag, which nobody is searching on and is a waste of real estate. "Boston nursing degree" is a much more popular query, as evidenced by the fact that Regis is willing to pay to rank for it:
Note to Regis: It would be a whole lot cheaper to just include "Boston" in your title tag, sprinkle mentions of "Boston" in your page content, build some links to your page with "Boston nursing degree" as the anchor text (which I discuss in detail in part two), so that way you can stop paying for clicks. Whether or not you're physically located in Boston is irrelevant because geographically you're close enough.
And besides, this isn't about where you're located on a map, it's about where you're located in the search results.
SEO Guide for College Websites, Part Two:  Get the lowdown on optimizing your college degree page content for search and learn more about the importance of inbound links and where to get them.