Top SEO College Websites 2009

September 21, 2020


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 (drexel.com, the online division)
  2. University of Phoenix (phoenix.edu)
  3. Capella University (capella.edu)

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 nursingdegreeguide.org 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.

Ken Lyons

Ken Lyons

Ken Lyons is a cofounder and managing partner of Measured SEM.