Higher ed’s (updated) guide to SEO


With shifts in leadership and constant unsteadiness at companies like X (formerly Twitter), Meta, and TikTok, there’s a familiar place where higher education institutions can reinvest time and money to reap gains in the coming years.

Did you guess SEO? If so, ?! If that wasn’t your first guess, we kinda don’t blame you. Search engine optimization can feel generally uncool in marketing, especially next to flashier social media trends, AI, and direct-to-consumer tactics. But it hasn’t gone away or become less relevant by any means, nor will it in the future. Don’t just take our word for it.

SEO has been around for decades — literally, since 1991 — and it set the foundation for the digital landscape as we know it. That’s right, SEO is a full-fledged millennial, rocking a side part, skinny jeans, and a questionable affinity for reality television. Despite its age, it’s been quite a shapeshifter in the world of digital marketing, even as technology and user behavior have changed. Think about it: Today’s prospective college students have grown up with technology as an integral part of their daily lives, asking Alexa questions since they were in grade school. They’re savvy, and they’re less likely to have immediate brand loyalty. And for them, it’s second nature to whip out a smartphone to search for answers to, well, anything.

All of these factors play into search engines’ ever-evolving strategies to categorize and display search results that now extend far beyond text-only answers. These days, you’ll find shopping links, images, videos, and even “perspective” pieces in your results, making search more human and accessible than ever before. So if you’re not prioritizing SEO in your digital marketing and web strategy, you’re probably missing out on valuable opportunities for market share.

What is SEO?

SEO abbreviation
a: search engine optimization

To understand SEO, you need to first understand Google: at least, as much as someone who isn’t a Google engineer can. Ultimately, Google’s primary goal is to provide the most relevant search results possible for individual users. And before all of you Bing users out there start in about how there are other search engines besides Google — we know. The same theories apply, but we’re just going to talk about Google here because they’re calling the big shots.

So what does it mean to be relevant on Google? Really the question should be: Does Google trust you? In any good relationship, time and consistency are a winning combination for gaining trust, and the same is true here. Authority, experience, and expertise are key for any website attempting to gain Google’s trust. Basically: Are you who you say you are? Are you providing reliable information to users? And have you been doing it for long enough to show that you’re not a fraud?

Does this apply to higher ed websites? Absolutely. As we discussed in our most recent article: Due to generational differences between your audiences, what worked in the past might not work now, and the content your current audience is searching for, if it exists, needs to be optimized to be front and center.

Talking SEO strategy.

strategy noun
a: a careful plan or method : a clever stratagem
b: the art of devising or employing plans or stratagems toward a goal

While there are a ton of nuances to SEO, and the actual algorithm is shrouded in mystery, what we do know is that there are some definitive actions you can take to improve your website’s overall ranking, as well as the rankings of individual pages within the site. You can think of SEO as three major components that will help you decide where you can make the most impact for your institution:

  • on-site optimization
  • content optimization
  • local optimization

Let’s take a deeper look at each of these.

1. On-Site Optimization

For these activities — often referred to as either “on-site” or “technical setup” — the overarching theme is that your website’s nuts and bolts should be in good working order. Mainly, your site should be “readable” to search engines. Remember, search engines see your website like Neo sees the Matrix, so it’s not enough to have a pretty website if half of it is practically invisible to Google. (Though we’re totally on board with pretty websites.)

You’ll want to focus on some key things with on-site optimization:

  • Page Speed
    Google and other search engines judge your website’s quality in part by its first impression: load time. A few seconds sounds like nothing in the real world, but in the digital world — especially on mobile devices — it’s an eternity. With ever-decreasing attention spans and a myriad of options to review, it’s important to lower this barrier between your audience and your website. This will help not only your site’s conversion rate, but also your overall SEO performance, which means that many more prospective students can find you.
  • Navigation and Sitemap
    Search engines crawl your website just like a user would, following links and clicking buttons along the way. So if your site is cluttered, full of pop-ups, or difficult to navigate, it’s that much harder for Google to award you an optimal SEO ranking. To help streamline the indexing and categorizing process, you can include a sitemap file or a robots.txt file — or both. This also allows your “messiest” pages (like internal logins and privacy policies) to go unindexed, meaning they won’t count toward your overall SEO performance.
  • URL Structure
    Simple is smart. Not only is this one of our Ologie values, but it’s also a good motto to live by in the world of websites. (We’re not even that biased, really.) When it comes to your URL structure, keep it short and simple. Include as little as possible past your primary keyword for each individual page, and avoid a long, complex string of keywords. The search engines that read and categorize your website will reward you.
  • Duplicates and Broken Links
    Just like Google will reward you for the good things within your website, it will also penalize you for things gone wrong. A simple way to clean up your site’s SEO fast is to remove broken links (both internal and external), as well as duplicated content. This includes duplicate site titles, meta descriptions, and alt tags. (Not sure what those are? Don’t worry, we’re getting there.)

2. Content Optimization

One of the most reliable ways to build a website’s SEO value is to consistently add relevant content. “Content” is the umbrella that search results fall under, whether they’re webpages (like news releases or blogs), videos, photos, and so forth. It’s all information, and it’s all content. Your website’s content is what will show up in search results when your prospective students type in things like, “the best school in my state for nursing” or “how much does tuition cost for XYZ University?”

Here are some ways you can optimize the content within your site to rank higher for certain keywords that are most relevant to your institution’s goals:

  • Keywords
    Keywords and SEO go hand in hand. If you see one, you’ll likely find the other. That’s because a good keyword strategy is key (literally) to understanding your target audience and, ultimately, to helping your website rank higher for that audience’s search behavior. For example: In higher ed, it’s not really useful to show up for a search such as “where to find a therapist,” right? But a search like “where to get a psychology degree” would be applicable, yes? If the theme here is “therapy,” you can see how a slight variation of that keyword phrase can unlock a completely different result. If your keyword strategy is too broad (or too narrow), you’ll miss the “Goldilocks zone” of people who are actually searching every day for what it is you’re offering. If you do good keyword research for every page of your website (yes, every single page) to find out what keywords you should be competing for and how best to implement them, that can go a long way.
  • On-Page SEO
    I know what you’re thinking: didn’t we just talk about this? Nope, you’re not seeing double. What we’re talking about here is on-page SEO versus the on-site SEO we discussed in the section above. Just as each page should be optimized for keywords, each page should also have a unique and equally optimized meta title and meta description (you might also see these called meta tags, SEO tags, SEO titles, SEO descriptions, you get the idea). This helps Google categorize your page more effectively for search results. Think of it like a preview or a synopsis of the full content that page contains. It’ll show up in search results and further validate your authenticity.
  • Image Names and Alt Tags
    Remember how we told you search engines only see your website in code? That goes for images, too. To optimize your site even further, you can add unique and keyword-friendly image titles and alt tags, so Google can see what the heck that image is and better understand what your site is all about. (Pay attention to that word “unique.” Do not just copy and paste the same image title for every photo on your site — that will do more harm than good.) Bonus: This will also help make your site accessible to more users.
  • Link Building and Backlinks
    Backlinks are simply hyperlinks from one website to another — in this case, back to your institution’s website. These can come in many forms, but typically in higher ed, we see examples like guest posting, press releases, and blogging. Publishing thought leadership, tapping into your alumni and faculty network, or partnering with authority websites in the industry are some ways you can implement this practice into your overall website SEO strategy.

3. Bonus: Local SEO

Local adjective
a: of, relating to, or characteristic of a particular place : not general or widespread
b: primarily serving the needs of a particular limited district

Up to this point, we’ve only really been talking about strategies for optimizing your website rankings in search results. Local SEO, while it has similar principles, is a bit of a different ballgame in the search engine world. Or at least, it’s playing by slightly different rules. However, since nearly half of all search queries are local (using a specific city or state, or phrases like “near me”), we’d be remiss if we didn’t dedicate a little time to discussing it here.

Ultimately, if you’re a school with a very localized reach (such as a trade school or a community college), or you happen to attract mostly in-state students, local SEO optimization is an important step for ensuring that students can find you effectively. While local and website SEO work in tandem, local optimization is based almost entirely on, you guessed it, location.

Optimizing for local rankings for higher education comes down to several key things:

  • Google My Business
    The primary element of local SEO is having a local listing, in this case, a Google My Business listing. This is essentially a “front page” introduction to your school, with necessary information such as address, phone number, and website URL. It also can (read: should) contain additional content such as photos, a description, and any additional attributes that apply. Often for higher ed business listings, Google will additionally automatically pull in reviews from places like Niche or Facebook to further validate your listing, as well as any tuition information, school rankings, and graduation statistics it can pull from across the web.
  • Mobile Responsiveness
    Google and other search engines will judge your website’s ranking partially by its user experience, which includes the mobile experience. This especially comes into play when we’re talking about local SEO optimization, since localized searches are done primarily on mobile devices. If your website doesn’t respond to a variety of mobile sizes appropriately, if it lacks an accessible menu, or if it’s simply cumbersome to navigate, that can hurt your local SEO rankings.
  • Local Content
    To optimize your website for local searches, include local markers within the site (for example, using the full physical address of your school on every page footer, and including the city and state in site titles). To further build authority and authenticity in Google’s eyes, if your institution has a blog or news page, you can tap that space to speak to your local community, using localized keywords.
  • Backlinks
    I know, you’re getting déjà vu because in the section about, we just talked about backlinks within your website. But plot twist: your local rankings also benefit from these links. It’s a wise investment to include a strategy to attract backlinks from other local educational institutions or local businesses, especially leaning into your school’s blog and news page.

Whew. Did you get all of that?

The good news is that SEO can be tackled in bite-size, manageable chunks that make optimization less of a chore and more like an integrated part of your overall website strategy. Which, after all, is kind of the point.

Not sure where to start? We’d love to help you jump-start your SEO strategy.