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Six steps for optimizing search keywords for college webpages

Stephanie Geyer

Vice President, Digital Marketing and Creative Services

September 19, 2014

Co-written with Jennifer Croft. Jennifer is an SEO consultant with 30 years of marketing experience who has worked on more than 500 websites, including 50 higher education websites.

Over the past 20 years, search engine optimization (SEO) has transformed how organizations can get users to their web pages via search engines. Many successful strategies, metrics, and tools have been developed to help colleges and universities connect web visitors to relevant webpages. At its core, though, SEO is still all about keywords—the words and phrases users type into Google and other search engines to find links to websites. Each time someone types a search query, the search engine strives to understand the intent of the words, search a giant library of trillions of webpages, and deliver the most relevant results (all in a split second).

How does the engine know which links to put at the top of the search results? By matching the user’s query to the keywords on those webpages. To get your institution’s pages to the top of the search engine results, you need to understand how to choose the most effective keywords and where to put them on the page for maximum SEO impact.

We discussed some key strategies in our SEO 101 blog. The following six steps can further help you research and execute an optimal SEO strategy for your institution’s webpages.

1) Conduct keyword research

To attract the most clicks to your school’s website, you’ll need to include the words and phrases on your webpages that prospective students are most likely to type into a search engine. For example, few people search for “accountancy degree,” but thousands search for “accounting degree.” The keyword phrase “law and society degree,” is rarely used, whereas “criminal justice degree” is one of the most popular degree search terms. Sometimes the difference between a popular and unpopular term can be just a few characters, but without researching you’ll never know.

By performing keyword research, you can uncover the most popular phrases. You can also use keyword research to:

  • Compare phrases to each other
  • Provide a framework for what to include on a page (including answers to questions people might have)
  • Spark ideas for new pages
  • Discover emerging trends
  • Set the foundation for SEO strategies

There are a variety of keyword research tools available. Noel-Levitz uses a highly advanced SEO intelligence platform for its SEO consulting, but there are a number of others available that can provide good initial keyword research.

2) Gather information on competing programs at other colleges and universities

Thanks to advanced SEO tools, keyword research can also be used to gather intelligence on competitors. For example, using the SEO software that Noel-Levitz offers as part of its dynamic SEO services, you can pick a competitor’s page and instantly get a list of the keywords on the page that are ranking at the top of Google, as well as their monthly search volume. This is enormously beneficial to campuses that are trying to not only optimize pages but improve their recruitment competitiveness in their markets.

The screenshot below shows results from a college page focusing on a bachelor in accounting. The keyword phrase, rank on Google, URL, and monthly search volume are shown.

 Six steps for optimizing search keywords for college web pages
This screen shot shows the search volume for key phrases as well as the search rank this campus has for the terms. This type of research can help institutions optimize their pages for the terms that will generate the best qualified traffic from prospective students. (Click image to enlarge.)

3) Choose the right mix of keywords, both short and long

Once you’ve completed your keyword research, the next step is to compile a list of five to ten keyword phrases to repeat throughout the content of your page. Ideally, you should focus on short, broad phrases that attract a higher volume of clicks (known as “head phrases”), as well as longer, more specific “long-tailed phrases.”

  • Example of a broad (short) phrase: marketing degree
  • Example of a long-tailed phrase: bachelor degree in marketing, with social media concentration

Because of their popularity and higher search volume, it might seem like a good idea to only include broad phrases on your webpages. But there is far more search competition for broad phrases than their long-tailed counterparts, and the clicks that result from them are often less qualified. The more words a user types into a search engine as part of a query, the easier it is to discern the true intent behind the search. For example, if a user is looking for “marketing degree,” the intent is less clear than if that same person queried, “marketing degree programs at Colorado colleges.” For best SEO results, use a mix of broad and specific phrases in your writing.

4) Write for your visitor

After you’ve chosen the keywords and phrases you want to emphasize on a page, you’ll need to sprinkle them throughout the copy, all the while keeping your copy engaging and natural. At one time, the SEO process involved writing copy and then stuffing one or two keyword phrases repeatedly throughout the writing. Google has never liked this practice, but last year, with the release of its “Hummingbird” algorithm, Google became more aggressive about favoring conversational writing. The algorithm change came about in direct response to the dramatic changes Google has witnessed, not only in the explosion of mobile devices, but also in the increase of people speaking rather than typing search queries.

The other reason to have a natural flow to your copy—as opposed to stuffing keyword phrases everywhere to elevate search results—is that you want your page to be appealing to visitors who do click on a link to your site. It does no good to attract a click and then lose that visitor because of awkward copy that attempts to game the search results with unnatural keyword use.

5) Insert and format keywords for maximum effectiveness

As you blend keywords throughout your copy, pay special attention to H1 and H2 headings. These are the headline tags for a page that create headings and subheads. Google gives more weight to the words and phrases it sees formatted with these H1 and H2 headings. It also helps to include keywords as part of the hyperlinked anchor text of links (for both internal links and external links). Add keywords strategically to other page elements, too, such as the metatag descriptions for pages, the alt tags for images, the title tag for a page, and even into the URL itself. To see all of these elements in action, take a look at these before-and-after examples for improving SEO.

6) Proof your copy one more time

To ensure that you’ve reached the perfect balance of optimized copy and engaging copy, read your page aloud before uploading it. If the writing seems too stilted, or a few sentences seem too clunky, you might have too many keywords on the page. Edit out a few keywords, restore the writing to a more natural flow, and no one will ever know that you’ve optimized the page!

Take a look at SEO examples in action, and join me for a free webinar on SEO for colleges

This college and SEO strategies page features real-world examples of how you can greatly enhance your search rankings for your key webpages. You’ll see how you can use strategies such as alt text for images and putting keywords in your page headings.

I also invite you to join me for a free webinar, Attracting More Prospective Students Through Search Engine Optimization. I also welcome your questions, just email me and I will be happy to answer them.


About the Author

Stephanie Geyer directs digital marketing projects and oversees the creative services team for Ruffalo Noel Levitz. In more than 20 years as a higher education consultant, Ms. Geyer has served more than 350 institutions in the...

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