Top SEO College Websites 2009


The Top SEO College Websites ride the cool bus

In honor of "Back to School," I thought it would be fun to do some SEO sleuthing and determine which colleges are doing the best job at optimizing their websites for organic search.

Before joining WordStream, I worked in the web office for a major university, so I spent a lot of time checking out other college websites. What I realized was the vast majority of college websites have not yet embraced (or even acknowledged) search marketing, be it paid or organic, as an effective marketing channel.

So why are most colleges clueless about SEO? Well, there are a number of reasons:

  • Brand recognition - Many universities rely on brand power to attract prospective students, and are plenty satisfied if their site shows up first for a branded query. They're not overtly concerned with keyword rankings.
  • Herd logic - "If our competitors (other universities) aren't doing SEO, why should we?" are the exact words I'd hear time and again.
  • Behind the curve - Marketing departments at many colleges are slow to evolve, and are still focused on old school, outbound "interruptive" marketing techniques, rather than inbound marketing efforts, like SEO and PPC. The wheels of change tend to move pretty slow in academia.
  • Webmaster overload - Most colleges relegate all "web stuff" to webmasters. Trouble is, most webmasters running college sites are wearing a bunch of different hats and don't really comprehend SEO or have the bandwidth or desire to learn about it.

That being said, the competition is definitely heating up among universities that offer online degree programs exclusively, as well as the online divisions of universities. These new elearning universites realize they need visibility in the search engines to reach their target market. Many are active in pay-per-click marketing, but they realize they also need to get into the SEO game too.

College Websites With the Best SEO:

Top SEO College Websites: The Definitive Rankings

The goal of this post is to identify those universities that have implemented and are excelling at SEO, by identifying competitive terms (queries that a school would want to rank on) and seeing who ranks well for these terms.

  • Root keywords - First, I chose the most popular majors (according to MSN Encarta) as my SEO keywords, which were business, psychology, education, biology, nursing, communications, computer science, political science. I also sprinkled in popular higher ed terms, like MBA.
  • Relevant modifiers - Then, I added modifiers {degree} and on every other term {online}. So for example, queries for psychology were "psychology degree" and "psychology degree online." Online is an important modifier in my opinion, given the growing market for distance learning.
  • Hostname frequency - Finally, I ran a series of queries to determine domain frequency in the top 10, 20 and 100 results, using the Ontolo Hosthame Occurance Counter (hat tip to Garret French).

With these parameters, I ran a total of 20 queries, expanding the volume to 100 results, some 2000 potential SERP positions were analyzed. So without further ado, here are the Top College Websites for SEO. I've identified universities that offer only online degrees and certificate programs.

 Top SEO College Websites top 10 results

 Top SEO College Websites top 20 results

 Top SEO College Websites top 100 results

Top SEO College Websites: The Big Winners

So who are the big SERP winners in SEO? It's pretty clear from the results that three universities dominate the search verticals for queries related to higher education, the top three being:

  1. Drexel University (, the online division)
  2. University of Phoenix (
  3. Capella University (

Drexel's dominance to me is pretty impressive, considering they top the test results in all three lists, yet they're the only university with a day school program in the top three, meaning their focus is not exclusively on distance learning. Also, I'm well aware of the strong PPC presence that the University of Phoenix has, but I was surprised at how adept they are at SEO too. Finally, it's clear from the results that Capella Univerisity gets SEO, and has figured out how to outrank traditional degree programs in the SERPs at will.

And Now for the Losers

So who loses? Pretty much everyone else. If I had to give out grades for SEO, most college websites would get a big, fat "F."

What this study proves to me is what I've suspected all along: most colleges don't practice SEO or, if they do, they practice it poorly. It's interesting to note that even when I expand the SERP results to 100 listings for the 20 queries (a potential 2K ranking possibilities), the majority of college websites still don't have any SERP visibility. On the flipside, if you're a webmaster or marketer at a university, this to me presents a clear opportunity to ramp up your SEO and take advantage of the lack of competition in the SERPs because they're pretty much wide open if you have a clue.

What I found to be completely bewildering is how the bulk of college websites are outranked by aggregate degree guides, affiliate marketing websites or business news sites. As such, they have to resort to paid search to get listed in the SERPs because they're inept at SEO. Seriously, college websites (because of their .edu status) are branded, trusted, authoritative, powerful domains and should be able to outrank sites like with ease. Yet even with this clear advantage, they still come up short.

Back to School means Back to SEO for Most Colleges

So kudos to the top SEO college websites: Drexel University, University of Phoenix and Capella University. These schools are at the head of the class and get high marks for optimizing their sites effectively for search.

This poor little guy's school didn't make our list of Top SEO College Websites

As for the rest...well, if you're like this poor little guy and your school didn't make our list, don't fret. It's not the end of the world. Hit the SEO books for the next two semesters because you'll have another shot to make our 2010 list.

Cheer up, and better luck next year, pal.

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College Search
Sep 01, 2009

This is a great report and list of the top colleges that are doing SEO. I'm always wondering how these tops sites don't rank for basic search terms and figure that they just weren't doing it, but this post really proves it. Being a marketing graduate of UOP online, I know the power of of the web, marketing, and searches, but I'm surprised that many colleges are not in line with this same strategy. I was being told almost 10 years ago when I first starting going to college online at UOP that this was the way of the future, and yet almost 10 years later they are still the one of the only players in the market that get it. Thanks for the interesting report and now I'm going to check out the Drexel site for some SEO ideas.

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Barb Chamberlain
Sep 02, 2009

You've chosen a specific competitive market to test: the online degree world. I'd expect universities that have a big (or exclusive) online component to do better because they're using the word "online" in their content.

Students seeking a face-to-face learning experience presumably search somewhat differently, though, and often include a geographic modifier because they want to learn and live in a specific state or location. You won't find the word "online" on those types of program pages at all, if there isn't an online component, so they're disadvantaged under some of the parameters you chose.

Did you run tests to see how live classroom programs rank, without the word "online"? What were those results? Or is your final list the aggregate results of searching these terms with and without "online"?

The frustration I have with those aggregate guides is that several I've tried to update are slow or nonresponsive, or--worst of all--decide my comment form is being submitted by a spammer despite having an email address that ends in .edu (can't figure that one out *at all*). They have the advantage of repeating a word like "nursing" over and over on one page, to boot, so I'd really like to improve their accuracy.


Ken Lyons
Sep 02, 2009

Barb, thanks for commenting.
The results I ran included both day school degree program queries, like "MBA degree" and "political science degree" etc., as well as the same queries with "online" as the modifier: "MBA degree online." Clearly, colleges without distance learning programs won't have content about online degrees, so I ran half the queries without the "online" modifier.
As for geo targeted queries, I feel that's certainly true for commuter schools (like community colleges and many state schools), but I can say from experience that the majority of commuter schools do poorly in geo targeted searches as well because they don't get SEO either.
And your frustration with the degree guides is shared. But I feel that most aren't concerned with accuracy. They're primary objectives are ranking well, driving lots of traffic and effectively monetizing their sites.
Take care,

Sep 03, 2009


I have to agree with Barb, you've got some significant bias in your results because of both the words "online" and "degree". For example, if you just search for "MBA", the top result after the wikipedia entry is... Stanford's graduate school of business. Ditto for political science -- in the top five results, you'll see both Stanford and UCLA's departments of political science.

Plus, if you actually were to base your sample queries on real data, for example, Google Trends, you'd see that the volume of searches on mba is many orders of magnitude greater than mba online or mba degree:

I think this is a fun little project, but the sampling matters when trying to draw conclusions like these.

What would be another fun project would be ranking the quality (both from a usability and an SEO perspective) of various college websites. In my experience there is a very wide range, and I would also not be surprised to see online universities do well there, but I think it would be a more correlated with the quality of the education (commitment to quality should show up across the university's efforts, website being one such potential indicator).


Ken Lyons
Sep 03, 2009

@William, thanks for commenting.
You're right. The study does have bias...bias against colleges that are inept at SEO :) Funny, none of the schools that made the list said it was biased.
Kidding aside, I chose to use more targeted queries in this study, specifically so it would be easier for colleges to rank and would weed out the Wikipedia-type entries. In search, the longer the query (the more stemming terms or modifiers you add) the less competition there is in the vertical typically, the easier it is to rank. Also, the longer the query, the more relevant it is to searcher intent.
For example, it's not really fruitful for a college to target the query "political science." It's too broad, too hard to rank for and isn't speaking to their target audience, ie one looking to get and education in political science. However, "political science degree" is a longer tail query, targets a much more specific audience and is easier to rank on than "political science." Point being, if I were handling SEO for a university, I'd start my SEO efforts by focusing mid to long tail queries rather than head terms and author individual pages of content for those keywords. Now, I'm not saying that ranking for the query "political science" is a bad thing. It's just that you're going to get more qualified traffic (prospective students looking for degree programs in political science) with a page targeting the query "political science degree" or "political science master's program" etc. Think quality not quantity.
I'd also point to the number of paid search ads to back up my argument. Run a search for "political science" vs. "political science degree" and see how many sponsored ads show up for each query on the right. Point being, pay per click advertisers target the terms that generate the most traffic (and money), and the paid ads in the search verticals for "political science degree" dwarf the ads for "political science."
But long story short, you're right. It was a fun project and thanks for your feedback. I'll definitely take everyone's suggestions into consideration for next year's study.

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Although I know the focus of this article was website SEO optimization it would have been nice if some of the websites in question had done a better job of validating thier code. Drexel for example showed 157 HTML errors when I just tested it. Again, not the focus of the article but still...

Frank Pipolo
Jan 23, 2010

I am pretty close to this subject as I am the Director of Internet Strategy for U.S. News University Directory and I can tell you that there are many more "on-campus" universities embarrassing SEO and/or Internet marketing in general. Universities like Indiana, Northwestern, Temple, Penn State, and Stanford have done a very nice job in achieving top positions in the SERPS. That says a lot given the amount of competition in the industry from all of the lead gen sites and online schools like Phoenix, Regis, Capella, Florida Tech, and more. I would stick with the online modifier as the majority of potential students online are looking the online modifier in their queries. A lot of the others do searches for "best" or "top" as the modifier as they are looking for the rankings that U.S. News, Princeton Review, and other ranking publications. I think what we are seeing with higher education starting to embrace Internet marketing is just the tip of the iceberg and there will be a lot of growth for Internet marketing services both paid and non-paid. The big challenge will be to change the mindset of the university in terms of their marketing strategy. Frank Pipolo

Arvind Chayal
Mar 07, 2010

Thanks for such a nice post.