SEO for University Websites

online education

Search engine optimization isn’t a priority for most nonprofit universities, but it will be soon. Demand for education is rising while public funding is decreasing, and online courses are significantly cheaper than courses taught on campus. As students start to study online, they’re going to start searching for their schools online as well, and SEO will be an important part of marketing.

If you’re responsible for the SEO for a university, there’s a good chance your job title isn’t officially “SEO”—it’s probably Webmaster or Program Coordinator or Professor. Kudos to you for realizing that your school’s website needs some TLC! But it’s tough to keep up with the constantly changing trends in SEO if you aren’t "in it" 8 hours a day.

The good news is, just by having a .edu website and working for a university that’s well respected, you’re ahead of half of the web. Search engines know that you’re trustworthy, and they love that. The problem is, other schools (your direct competitors) have the same advantage. Set yourself apart by making a few easy tweaks to your website.

Make the Site More Readable to Search Engines

Most school websites were made with people in mind, not search engines. That’s not a bad thing (in fact, that’s exactly what Google wants), but search engines don’t read sites the way people do. There are tons of things SEOs recommend you look at, but here are a few mistakes that most university sites make that are easy to fix:

1. URLs

A. Nix Subdomains

Schools love to use subdomains to separate each department, but search engines can’t always tell how closely a subdomain is related to the main website (think of all of those blogs that are subdomains of but have nothing to do with the WordPress main site). If at all possible, keep all of the school’s sites under the same domain, so search engines are sure that your English department and Math department are a part of the same school.

B. Write Out Page Titles

If you’re using a content management system, there’s a good chance that your URLs end in something like: index.html?param=123. URLs need to be permanent to prevent broken links (you’re making sure your URLs are permanent, right?), so search engines interpret the words in the URL as a good indication of what’s on the page. Put the title in the URL, with dashes separating words.

2. Title Tags

There’s a good chance you never even notice a title tag when you’re on a page: it’s the text that goes to the top of your browser, or is displayed on the tab. But search engines use your title tags as the linking text from their results pages to your college’s site. Not only do search engines pay a lot of attention to page titles as an indication of the page’s content, it’s also your opportunity to convince the searcher they want to click on your page. In my experience, people are more likely to click on a search result if they see that it has the content they want (the page title) and a recognizable brand (your university’s name). Think of which result you would be more likely to click on:

The title Math Department alone versus the title Math Department | Harvard University.

An easy format to follow is Page Title | University Name.

3. Redirects

When you have new classes rolling out every semester or quarter, you’re going to have a lot of webpage turnover, but you don’t want half of your traffic ending up at a 404 page. Whenever you delete or change the URL of a page, make sure that you set up a 301 (permanent) redirect to the new URL or a related page, and change all internal links to point to the new page. If you want to go above and beyond, reach out to whoever was linking to that page externally and ask them to change their link. Webmasters don’t want broken links on their site, so they’ll appreciate you giving them a heads up!

4. Text vs. Images

Make sure that all of the text on your website is actually text, rather than images. Search engines can’t read images. Many webmasters make headers and titles images so that formatting won’t vary by search engine, but changing those back to text will really help search engines understand the purpose of the page.

If you can’t change the image to text, make sure that the text in the image is in the alt tag.

It may be tricky to convince your supervisor that these near-invisible changes are worthwhile, but these are one-time changes to affect the lifetime of your site. I made them on a university website, and organic search traffic increased by about 50% in a year. The difference to your site's traffic may not be as large

Use Search-Friendly Language

Most content on a university website is going to be written by professors, or people working closely with professors, so the site uses the words and phrases that other professors (and perhaps grad students) would use. But the best way to rank for and communicate with potential students is to use the same vocabulary they do.

Webmasters trip up with this most often when it comes to referencing their degree as its acronym rather than its full name. It’s harder for search engines to match acronyms to search queries since acronyms could be used for completely different things. If a searcher types in “MBW,” are they looking for your Master’s in Basket Weaving, MBW Motorcycles, or MacBreak Weekly? They’ll have to retype the search, using “Master’s in Basket Weaving” to narrow it down, and if your page doesn’t include Master’s in Basket Weaving, the search engine won’t list your page in their results. Try to write out the entire title of the degree at least once on every webpage it is relevant to.

That doesn't mean that you're off the hook for acronyms like MSW and MBA that are used almost exclusively as a name for their degrees. There are always going to be people writing out the full name of the degree, and you don’t want to miss out on a search for “business masters” because you only targeted MBA.

Reach Out

As an SEO at a university that has no budget or resources devoted to outreach, it can be challenging to build links. The trick is to find sites that are interested in the resources you already have.

1. Publish Research on More Popular Sites

Professors are required to come out with research on a regular basis, but that research is published in academic journals that take a significant amount of time and insider knowledge to understand, and are probably stuck behind a paid firewall. If you have time (or a student worker), distill their message down to two or three paragraphs that would be interesting to someone outside the genre. There are a myriad of magazine websites and online newspapers that would be interested in publishing a cutting edge article about what your faculty found. Just make sure that you include citations that link back to your website.

2. Find Sites that Specialize in Your Subject(s)

There are millions of blogs out there that specialize in lifelong learning of particular subjects. If your school is hosting community lectures or webinars, or offering classes to be taken individually, there are tons of blogs that would be happy to spread the word. Take some time (or, again, a student worker’s time) to find them and tell them.

3. Let your Faculty and Students Do the Work For You

Universities have one of the best advertising systems set up: they let their professors and students do it for them. Whenever a professor publishes research or is quoted in an article, the school they work for is billed. Whenever a student looks for a job, the college they graduated is listed on their resume, and possible employers get a sense for the quality of students that come out of different universities.

How can you bring that word of mouth online? Give your faculty and students free space on your website to publish their portfolio. Faculty can link to the books they’ve published, the articles they’ve written, and can even start up a blog if they’re so inclined. Students can save the work they create at school in an easy to locate place, which they can share with future employers. Then, when professors and students promote themselves, they’ll be promoting your university's website too.

Get Free Or Discounted Tools

You might feel alone as an under-funded SEO in a large university, but it’s amazing how much free help is online if you look for it. Nearly every SEO problem you can come up with has been discussed online somewhere, so just Google it!

There are also resources that will give you information about your site specifically. I recommend you get these ASAP:

  1. Google Analytics is a completely free tool that will answer 90% of those “I wonder if/how many people __ on our site?” questions that come up in meetings. There’s actually a chance that someone in your university already set it up and never looks at it.
  2. Google Webmaster Tools will help you catch functional errors on your site.
  3. SEOmoz, a suite of SEO tools, has a significant nonprofit discount. They have an amazing Q&A section that’s frequented by many of us from Distilled, so you can get a lot of your questions answered there.

You Can Do It

It’s intimidating to dive into SEO, but a lot of the basics involve cleaning up your website and reaching out in a genuine, thoughtful way.

Any questions? Anything I missed? Let me know in the comments below.

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