Earlier this year, Chegg Enrollment Services and the National Research Center for Colleges & Universities Admissions (NRCCUA) conducted a survey of 726 high school students researching universities. Online searches ranked as the top method used by prospective college applicants to discover universities and programs. This fact makes websistes the second most popular method utilized both during and after the admissions process and clearly identifies SEO as a very important part of a website’s visibility.
Higher education faces its own set of unique challenges for SEO. College & university websites are often segmented by school, program or department. This can result in many contributors to the SEO process, often without a singular template to follow across the organization. Additionally, it’s not uncommon for the university’s IT department to own web development. This sometimes creates a backlog for technical SEO changes that need immediate attention.
Colleges & universities have unique SEO problems as compared to other industries. As Colleges and Universities begin to prioritize their higher education marketing plan and the specific SEO tactics to implement this upcoming year, here are the seven greatest challenges in SEO for Colleges and Universities, and also the areas that need the most attention.
- Perform an SEO audit
Performing an SEO audit will help to identify and prioritize tactics. That’s especially important when some of the tactics involve technical site changes that involve the IT department.
Tools like Screaming Frog, ahrefs, SEMrush and Deep Crawl provide measurements on a variety of SEO ranking factors and are helpful to ascertain the SEO health of your website.
- Think ‘mobile-first’
Google has announced that in the coming months, it will be implementing “mobile-first” indexation. Essentially, this means that the mobile version of a website, rather than the desktop version, becomes the default version for Google to create and rank its search listings (even for desktop users).
This shift to mobile first may pose a problem for universities — often, multiple websites and content management systems become pulled together under one overarching domain. That often means that some parts of the university’s website become mobile-ready, while others are not.
Remember, too, that Google’s mobile-friendly testing tool works on a page-by-page basis. So don’t trust that just because one page of a university’s website reveals mobile-friendly. Make sure mobile becomes prioritized for the website this year.
- Review your keywords and how you’re integrating them into site content
While there are many areas of the university website that may be outside a webmaster’s control, most marketing departments do control the site’s content.
Consider reviewing the keywords on the website’s pages. Even if the branded degree is “B.S. in Human Communications,” you can write content that incorporates important keywords that define the degree, Other programs and degrees may need regular keyword review because the terminology changes over time. Google reported that 15 percent of queries last year were queries that had never been seen before. That’s nearly a million new, unique queries every day! Consider reviewing and revising your keyword list annually.
- Remedy duplicate content
Websites often inadvertently create duplicate content, but it’s important to recognize duplicate content and indicate to Google which version of the content you want displayed in organic search results. There are three common culprits on university websites that create duplicate content: secure protocol, URL parameters and blogs.
Google has indicated that using secure protocol can give a website a slight edge in the organic search rankings, so many sites have already implemented it. However, some sites forget to redirect the non-secure version (HTTP) to the secure version (HTTPS). HTTP and HTTPS appear as two different URLs to Google; thus, if it finds both versions, then both may be indexed and ranked, creating duplicate content.
- Address page load speed
Page load speed is a ranking factor for Google and has been for many years. One of the more common issues affecting page speed is image size. It’s not uncommon for university websites to have multiple people adding content, including images, to the site. However, not everyone who is uploading images is also optimizing them for the page.
Taking the extra step to resize images can go a long way to help improve page load time, and it’s something that university marketers often can control. Free online tools like compressor.io can resize images quickly and easily without sacrificing image quality.
Also try Google’s newly revised Test My Mobile Site tool, which tells you how fast your mobile pages are loading and how you compare to others in your industry. Google will even send you a report with specific recommendations on what to fix to improve mobile page load speed.
- Optimize your linking
Inbound links are typically the most difficult type of link to attain but can hold great value. Unfortunately, when sites are redesigned or degrees or programs are changed or removed, it can create broken links. External links that once pointed to a live page are now broken, and those inbound links become lost.
- Measure, assess and understand SEO value
SEO requires a lot of effort and addresses many aspects of a website. Analytics will provide intelligence regarding SEO. It’s important to measure beyond the pageview if you can examine how organic traffic is responding to calls to action on your site. Set up goals and review how organic traffic meets those goals.