SEO Guide for College Websites, Part Two
Once again, this SEO for College Websites post comes on the heels of my popular yet somewhat contentious post on top seo college websites. I'm writing a follow up to share advice to colleges that are struggling with search engine optimization (SEO). These SEO tips should give colleges some ideas on how best to optimize their websites to rank better in higher education search verticals and attract more students though search engine marketing.
In SEO for College Websites, Part One, I covered how to conduct effective keyword research and how to create killer degree page title tags for SEO. In this post, I'll discuss how to optimize your degree page content and how to acquire some quality inbound links.
Step Three: Optimize Your On-Page Content
When optimizing your content for search, there are a number of tried and true best practices I'll share with you to format your degree pages for maximum SEO effectiveness.
1) Include Target Keywords
Now, this may seem like a no-brainer to some, but many in higher ed still don't realize that including target keywords in your content creates topical relevancy. And the more relevant your content is to a searcher's query, the more likely it is to rank higher and get found.
Riffing off the target keywords tip, be sure to include variations of your keywords in degree page content, like:
- Phrase swapping (nursing degree, degree in nursing), and
- Keyword stemming (using plurals, varied tenses and gerunds)
2) Lead with Your Target Keywords
Boom! Right out of the gate, start your first sentence with your keywords, like so "The Mechanical Engineering Bachelor's Degree Program at X University is designed for students who..." Leading with your target keywords sets the tone and further reinforces that this page is about your topic.
3) Use Headlines and Sub Heads, Include Target Keywords
I recommend including your target keywords in every page title and subtitle (and adding titles and subs if you don't have them already). For example, if I were creating a degree page for a bachelor's degree program in mechanical engineering, hypothetically I'd structure the page something like this:
Mechanical Engineering Bachelor's Degree Program (title)
Curriculum Overview for the Mechanical Engineering Bachelor's Degree (sub head)
Mechanical Engineering Bachelor's Degree: Course of Study (sub head)
Additional Information on the Mechanical Engineering Bachelor's Degree (sub head)
[content, links to pages of topical relevance]
Now, you may feel this approach is repetitious (which it is), but that's the point. Frequently mentioning your target keywords and keyword variations (without being spammy: make sure it still "reads" well), especially in prominent text regions (headers and sub heads) reinforces your page's topical relevancy.
How frequently should you mention your keywords, you ask? Good question. There's really no magical one-size-fits-all "keyword density" ratio. My suggestion would be to tinker with the content for a single degree page over the course of a few months, test different versions and see which ranks better and try applying the same strategy site-wide.
4) Add Images, Use Keywords in the File Names
To further bolster topical relevancy, add images. Even if you don't feel you need them, add them anyway. This gives you even more opportunities to create thematically relevant degree pages, by including:
- File Names: Use keywords in the image file names. For example, mechanical-engineering-degree.gif.
- Alt Tags: Add alt tags with target keywords. For example, add a picture of some students and say, "Our mechanical engineering program graduate students."
- Captions: You can even add a caption to the image with the target keywords
By doing this, you're once again hammering home your point that this is a degree page about my target keywords.
Step Four: Get Links for Your Degree Pages
The biggest hurdle I see for the many college websites is an inability to acquire links. Besides having relevant, topical content, the most important ranking signal search engines use to determine your pages popularity in the SERPs are the quantity and quality of inbound links pointing to your page.
Given that it's better to show than tell, here's an example of how important links are to ranking your degree pages. I ran the basic query "MBA" and these are the first page results in Google.
Here, I'm using Yahoo Link Domain through SEO for Firefox (read more about Yahoo Link Domain functions and SEO for Firefox add-on in my post Free SEO Tools We Use Every Day) to identify the number of links pointing to a specific page from other websites (link totals are in the red boxes). Notice the ranking order correlates perfectly with how many links each site has pointing to their degree page:
- Harvard MBA: 5,210 links
- Wharton MBA: 1,070 links
- University of Illinois MBA: 350 links
Now, mind you, this is a very quick and dirty explanation of links and ranking (factors such as the quality of links pointing to your site play a large role and will trump quantity) and it doesn't always work out this perfectly, but the message to remember here is more, quality links = better rankings.
Linking Strategies for Colleges and Universities
Because of the prominence, trust, goodwill, newsworthiness, community relations, partnerships, etc. that surrounds most universities, a .edu is probably one of the easiest domains to build links for. I mean, most colleges attract links without even trying, just by virtue of being institutes of higher learning. Imagine if they actually put some effort into it.
Where to Get Inbound Links
So where can colleges and universities get links? Well, to get the ball rolling, here are some ideas where you can aquire easy links:
- Ask other universities to link to you.
- Ask all your partner/sister schools to link to you.
- Give testimonials to your vendors. "X university says this is a great product/service." Get a link in the testimonial.
- Actively promote your research studies, scholarship programs, noteworthy campus news, etc to every local and major news outlet and be sure to get links.
- Create a speakers list of internal experts on topical subjects. Promote your list to reporters. Get quoted in a story, get a link.
- Most universities engage in some form of community outreach. Ask community partners for a link.
- Donate money, get a link.
- University professors get mentioned on websites all the time for writing books, speaking engagements, research efforts, etc. Find these mentions, ask the site owners for links.
- Shoot a blast email to everyone on campus: faculty, staff, students. Ask them to link to you if they have a website.
I could go on for days. Most SEOs would love to link build for a college website. It's such a lay up. I mean, this isn't rocket science. Point being, sit down with everyone who touches your website, brainstorm ways to get links, and take action.
Now, given the natural linking order of the Web, people customarily and more frequently link to a site's home page. So you may have some difficulty getting people to "naturally" link to your deeper degree pages with specific keyword anchor text. How do you solve this issue?
Internal links - linking to your degree pages from other pages across your own site using target keywords in your anchor text (for more on the importance of internal linking, read my post on aggressive inline linking).
By implementing an aggressive internal linking strategy, you can flow and direct the juice from the "link-rich" pages (home page, top level pages) throughout your site to the deeper "link-poor" pages, like the degree, program and certificate pages. Aggressive internal linking also allows you to control and manipulate the link anchor text.
SEO University: Final Thoughts on SEO for College Websites
Okay, so go and implement these best practices and be sure to test (and re-test) your efforts. Also, when testing, I'd advise you to keep a detailed record of your actions, so you can see what's working and what's not. I explain this in greater detail in my post about creating an SEO Log.
Now, the SEO tips I'm giving out are free and are actually pretty darn valuable. Everything in this SEO Guide for Colleges an SEO company would come in and do for thousands of dollars, along with other things that I didn't really delve into, like site architecture, hierarchical navigation for keyword mapping, fixing canonical issues, etc.
Point being, when I worked for a local state university, they hired an outside SEO consulting firm (much to my objection...long story...) to come in and give a fraction of the advice I'm handing out. The consultants charged the university $15,000 for a spreadsheet of title tags for various degree pages (that didn't include implementation, mind you). For a full site audit, link building, on and on-page SEO implementation, pricing started at $90,000.
So consider this my $90,000 endowment to all of higher education. And who knows. If some university does implement these changes and sees wild success in the SERPs, maybe they'll feel compelled to name a gymnasium of something after me. Or at least give a nice link to this post.