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How a college with a strong sense of place leveraged SEO to connect to the world

Matt Herzberger

Executive Consultant, Digital Marketing Services

March 16, 2017

Note: This is the second post in a two-part series of blog posts about the Sterling College website SEO project. This post covers the Google Analytics and Search Engine Optimization results accrued by the college’s new site. The first post examined how the Ruffalo Noel-Levitz Web Strategy Services team partnered with the college and outside vendors to deliver an on-time, on-budget website that reflected the soul of this environmentally focused institution.

One year ago, Sterling College in  Vermont unveiled a cutting-edge website to market the college’s down-to-earth education in environmental stewardship.

More high-touch than high-tech, Sterling teaches people to live sustainable lives whether they are running organic farms or contributing to regional transportation discussions. While the college wanted its website to reflect the deeply experiential nature of its education, it also wanted a best-practices tool to attract more people to its virtual front door.

Building a distinct digital presence

“Sterling College is deeply rooted in the working landscape of Northern Vermont,” explained Beana Bern, Sterling’s chief enrollment officer. “The experiential nature of the curriculum and place-based education model make Sterling a one-of-a-kind college, and I wanted to replicate that authentic individuality and practical elegance in our website. Our place in the digital realm needed to convey our unique character to prospective students the same way our town, Craftsbury Common, does when they arrive on campus.”

Sterling College contracted with the RNL Web Strategy Services team to develop the Sterling site strategy, rebuilding it as a flexible, recruitment-focused portal designed to extend the digital reach of this tiny 130-student college.

College website SEO strategy focused on “marquee” pages

To attract more eyes and boost Sterling’s page rankings—that is, to elevate where the college shows up when someone searches for“environmental bachelors Vermont,” “outdoor education majors,” or other likely phrases—RNL used Google Analytics and a sophisticated SEO platform to conduct research and create SEO web page blueprints (keyword maps) for a copywriter to follow.

Because RNL wanted to give Sterling the best return on its investment, the college website SEO work focused on marquee pages such as the home page, academic program pages, financial aid and scholarships and “visit” pages, and other key pages that speak to the college’s unique mission, including “Sustainable Sterling,” the “Sterling Kitchen and Food,” and “Life at Sterling.”

With SEO blueprints in hand, RNL’s copywriter combined the critical keywords and phrases from those thematic blueprints into engaging copy that not only articulated Sterling’s value proposition, but also contained enrollment-oriented calls to action and included a host of outcome examples that everyone agreed were important to highlight for this niche institution.

Sterling results

What do the data say about all this work?

It can often take 90-120 days to start seeing results from college website SEO changes, plus results aggregate over time. Since we are now a full year post launch, we decided to dive into Google Analytics and our other research platform to see how Sterling’s pages were performing year over year.

Overall, Sterling College has enjoyed a healthy boost in traffic from its new, optimized site. Organic page views increased 10 percent while organic page entrances (meaning that the visitor went straight from a search engine to the page) grew 36 percent. On the academic program side, the Outdoor Education program page saw year-over-year entrances from organic traffic grow more than 300 percent.

Before and after: Sterling College’s top 100 Google page ranking results

Type of phrase January 2016 January 2017 % change year over year
All phrases 1,306 1,825 40%
All phrases, non-branded 1,260 1,729 37%
College phrases, non-branded 231 534 122%
Bachelor phrases, non-branded 0 15
Degree phrases, non-branded 34 116 241%
Environmental phrases, non-branded 12 72 500%
Sustainable phrases, non-branded 59 110 86%

Prior to the SEO work,the Sterling site didn’t have many school- or degree-related phrases ranking high on Google. Afterward, their market share on key higher education phrases increased significantly.

Sterling now has its own pride of place on Google with phrases like “best sustainable agriculture programs,”“outdoor college majors,” “sustainable food systems degree,” and “outdoor education majors” ranking in the top 10 positions. In fact, environmental keyword phrases that are ranking well in Google have improved 500 percent since last year and degree-related phrases have increased 241 percent.

Though it’s hard to tie enrollment figures directly to website performance, enrollment at Sterling is at an almost historic high. Before the new website debuted last winter, Sterling had 125 students. This year, 131 students matriculated. The college’s goal is to top out at 150 students—an increase of 5 percent.

Considering a website project at your college or university?

Contact us to begin a conversation with us about your goals, vision, and plans for website development. We’ll be happy to discuss how RNL may be able to assist you, your campus personnel, and any off-campus partners you may have. Many campuses like Sterling have used us for web strategy services, and as we’ve seen, strong college website SEO makes a difference!


About the Author

Matt Herzberger supports clients working through web development initiatives with expert consultation in information architecture, content strategy, search engine optimization, and web site governance and management. Matt has nearly 15 years of experience working with...

Read more about Matt's experience and expertise

Reach Matt by e-mail at matt.herzberger@ruffalonl.com.


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