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Colleges and universities must prioritize SEO

Why search engine optimization should be a priority for your university website
University Business, September 2013

In higher education, we love, hate, and thrive on college rankings. The annual U.S. News and World Report top colleges list—as well as rankings by other news organizations—is anticipated with excitement and trepidation. When it comes to the numbers game of college admissions, it’s important to secure a spot near the top of these lists. Improving your institution’s rank means an automatic increase in general visibility. It also often results in a better chance to convert more college-bound high school students into serious prospects and highly motivated applicants.

But, are they the only way to do so?

Prospective students turn to a variety of online, print, and human resources to build their school short list, according to the 2012 Noel-Levitz E-Expectations Survey ( Coming in second place after direct mail and brochures (but before email and college search websites), search engines proved very popular. Sixty-seven percent of the surveyed students used Google, Bing, and the like to come up with their list of dream and safe schools.

Ninety percent of education searchers don’t know which school they want to attend when they begin their search, according to the “ThinkEducation with Google” report on education trends ( And, 78 percent of people who complete a conversion on education websites are indeed influenced by search.

Can you find your website on search engines without looking for your institution by name?

The “ThinkEducation” report notes that 83 percent of all education queries begin with non-branded keywords. Yet, only a few institutions really worry about their search engine ranking placement. And, even fewer focus on how to improve their rank for top search keywords. While many resources are spent taking part in the published college rankings, almost none are allocated to search engine optimization in higher ed. For-profit schools and lead generation websites have focused on SEO for years.

Missed opportunity

So, why do most institutions ignore the benefits of a comprehensive SEO strategy?

Many institutions worry SEO will be too complex and the return on investment will be low. But “if you’re not on the first pages, you don’t exist,” says David Anderson, director of strategic digital communications for the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

True, SEO can be hit or miss compared to other digital marketing disciplines. But in SEO, the winner of the “organic search” game (results that appear naturally because of their relevance to search terms) takes all. A 2011 study by the firm Slingshot SEO found that the top organic result for a search received 18 percent of all the clicks, and the first four results accounted for more than 40 percent of all the clicks.

For the most searched terms—“top medical schools,” “best colleges,” or “best majors” for example—the competition for being first is fierce among the school rankings publishers, the lead generation websites, and the institutions. Institutions may have a better chance at ranking high for more specific, multiple-keyword queries, known as “long-tail keywords.”

Not surprisingly, many consultants and vendors in our industry have ramped up efforts to raise awareness about the importance of SEO for universities and colleges. Ithaca College in New York, Eastern Kentucky University, and others with online degree programs have created staff positions with a strong focus on search engine marketing (SEM).

SEO success stories are on the rise. At EKU, a comprehensive SEO strategy is now part of the integrated marketing mix used when new online programs are launched. Relying on proven SEO tactics for higher education, Analyst Joshua Dodson has witnessed a 327 percent increase in web visits to the police studies online program in less than a year.

Even small investments in search engine optimization have delivered measurable results in a variety of ways. For example, the University of Dayton was losing the war on graduate program searches for “(program name) Ohio” because the names of its top regional competitors include “Ohio.” A small SEO project to include “Ohio” in the page title of these program pages dramatically improved their placements in search results.

“We’ve stayed on that first page for a while now,” says Kevin Schultz, assistant director for University Marketing and Digital Innovation. “Before that we weren’t even on the first or sometimes second page.”

Karine Joly is the web editor behind, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations, and technologies. She is also the founder of