Stairway to Higher Ed Website Heaven: Seven Steps to Engage Prospects and Students

May 2nd, 2019 by Ariel Tusa

Universities have a leg up in search rankings thanks to “.edu” domains and brand recognition. However, many university websites aren’t set up to make the most of these advantages. So, what’s an educational institution to do? Harness the power of your university’s brand with our seven tactics to improve your search visibility among prospects and students.

It’s important to understand the buyer’s journey, or in the case of higher education, the student journey, when marketing any product. Search is a critical part of the student journey in your marketing efforts, and they assist students in their journey down the path to conversion and application, so your web presence on search engines cannot be ignored.

According to a Google Study, 58% of students use search engines to begin their research for higher education.

Now, let’s dive into our seven steps! We’ll take a look at some examples from our client, the Tulane School of Professional Advancement.

1. Mobile Experience: Mobile Experience on Par With (or Better Than) Desktop

Beginning in the summer of 2018, Google slowly rolled out their “mobile first” algorithm, making your mobile site more important than ever. Often, designers and developers are editing your university’s site on a desktop withou testing it on both a desktop and a mobile device. This highlights a big disparity between the people who are developing the site and your audience, the majority of which will only visit your site on a mobile device. For Tulane SoPA, mobile traffic has increased from just under 43% in 2016 to nearly 75% in 2019.

Many websites end up with a user experience that looks like this on the left, when their design focuses on desktops. When you set your sights on improving the mobile version of your site, you’ll end up with something more like what’s on the right.

Tulane School of Professional Advancement mobile responsive site improvements from Search Influence in New Orleans, LA

Creating parity between your mobile and desktop versions is a critical factor to success in ranking, in addition to having a great mobile user experience.

PRO TIP: Google offers a free Mobile-Friendly Test that reviews the size of graphics and technical elements to assess if they provide a good user experience on mobile devices. The full assessment is something you can easily pass on to your web development team to review and update so that your university website passes the test.

2. Site Speed: Site Loads Quickly

Keep more of your visitors on your site by solving the most common speed issues for university websites.

Spinning page load graphic on a mobile device

No one wants to see this when trying to load your website. And if your prospects and students don’t want to see it, then neither does Google. Google wants to provide a seamless experience and answer a user’s query as quickly as possible, so we know that they are beginning to pay much more attention to site speed when determining website rankings in search results.

This chart illustrates just how important your site speed is to user experience. A study by Google equated the cognitive load of waiting for a slow mobile website to be on par with solving a math problem and watching a horror movie… and worse than standing on the edge of a cliff!

Cognitive load associated with stressful situations

On a more positive note, sites with load times under 3 seconds garner the most sessions and peak conversion rates, showing that load time has a real impact on user experience and, therefore, conversion. The ideal load time is 3 seconds or less. Even just by going from 3.3 seconds to 2.4 second load time, you can increase your conversion rate by 27%.

Correlation between conversion rates and site load times

And there’s another free resource from Google—the Mobile Site Speed Test, which can also show you how your university site compares to others in the industry. The report estimates how much you’ll speed up your load time with the “top fixes.”

3. Content: Instills Confidence in Prospects (and Search Engines)

Often universities think of their website as a tool for current students and less about prospects, which is why they may be missing critical information that prospects are searching for. When planning your content strategy, think about where users may be in the student journey—their decision making process—and speak to them at all levels:

  • Some are just starting to search for answers to everyday problems
  • Some might be further in their journey, researching options at your school
  • Some may be even further in their journey and are ready to take action and need to find a way to contact you QUICKLY!

Many universities lack specific content for programs, degrees, and courses, requiring prospects to speak to an advisor to get details. Instead, break down barriers for prospects by assuring this info is accessible on site. When we look at the ideal content for a page, whether a homepage or internal page, think about the different ways people consume content. Consider a concept used in museum exhibit design to plan page content—the idea of “skimmers, swimmers, and divers.”

  • Skimmers read the headings and bullets, key stats, and quickly make a decision on how to move forward.
  • Swimmers may read some of the sub-content and watch a video, and click onto a deeper page.
  • Divers will read all of the content on the page, watch a video, and most certainly would go to other pages on the site.

Having a dedicated page for a topic makes it more accessible to search engines, which helps prospects find the information without digging through your site. When building content for your university’s website, use this content checklist:

✓ Does your site have dedicated pages for each program/degree?

✓ Is content crafted to speak to “skimmers, swimmers, and divers” (mix of bullets, infographics, and paragraphs with details)?

✓ Are online and on-campus options clearly stated?

✓ Do you have one-pager downloads that require visitors to input their email address to download, to build a prospect pool for email marketing?

✓ What are the top five questions your front desk or advisors are asked?

4. Optimize for Branded Searches

Branded search is a term used to describe when prospects are searching for your school by name. They may search by name only or by a combo of your name and a degree, major, or academic program. Optimizing for branded search supports your prospects who are in the consideration and decision phase of their journey—they’re already familiar with your school and searching for it by name, as it makes it easier to find the information that they are looking for to make their decision.

Help prospects and students find information more easily when searching for specifics like “Tulane SoPA Tuition” or “Parking on Smith campus” by optimizing for branded searches. Think of your branded search result another version of your homepage.

Graphic of Tulane School of Professional Advancement appearing on branded searches

When performing a branded search for your own university, you should see your website, and if your site is established, you’re also likely to see “sitelinks,” which are Google’s top suggested pages to your user. The Knowledge Panel on the right offers location information from Google My Business, Wikipedia, and reviews from around the web. Of the many parts of the SERP (search engine result page) there are pieces you can and cannot control.

What you can control:

  • Your own website
  • Info on Google My Business (photos, accurate location data, posts)
  • Content you’ve produced on other websites, like YouTube videos
  • First party reviews

What you can’t completely control, but can work on:

  • Third-party reviews, including Google
  • Third-party mentions
  • Wikipedia (more on this later)

5. Earn Backlinks Relevant to Your Target Student Body

Links to your website from other sites are like votes, as far as Google is concerned. Earning backlinks can be a challenge, but it should definitely be approached with a quality-over-quantity mindset. To earn the best links, a strong PR strategy is critical to get genuine, valuable links. Building links supports your university’s website ranking by building two things: authority and relevance.

Google uses the links pointing back to you to judge if you are a trusted source and if you are relevant for a given topic. Which websites link to your site is more important than how many. Authoritative national sites, like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, linking back to you gives you national authority in Google’s eyes.

Any credible school should also pass the “notability” test and be listed on Wikipedia. If you are established, you likely already have a Wikipedia page. You may not know that Wikipedia can be edited for accuracy and provide a link to your website. The references are critical to this effort and must be third-party references to support updates to specific details on your page. The language has to be strictly factual and cannot lean promotional at all.

Authoritative local sites, like your local newspaper, linking back to you, gives you local authority.

Sites that are both relevant and authoritative, like an educational list of the Top X schools, support both your relevance and authority even when you are just present on the list and there is not a direct “link” back to your website! Being present on such an authoritative and relevant site is a strong signal to Google and to prospects that you are trusted. Many of these lists require pay for inclusion. The key things we look for when considering if it is worth paying:

✓ It a reputable website?

✓ Does it rank well on Google when you search for the program?

✓ Does it include a link back to your website? (Remember, if not, that is okay)

✓ Do you get to approve the content that will be listed about your school or program?

6. Press and Media Give Maximum Impact to Search Results

Media mentions are one the best sources of links and branding, too. Universities are fortunate that they should receive media attention with little PR effort, and you likely already receive press. But, how can you get the most out of those mentions? Local media sources are your best opportunity for your desired reference.

The key is finding a strong PR partner—someone already who has relationships in the industry and a process. Often, a publicist may have the excuse for a smaller brand that you are not newsworthy. With a college or university, there should be enough going on that there is always a story to tell. With a dedicated PR effort for Tulane SoPA, they are earning an average of five to six real media appearances per month. To be successful, you must commit to frequent communication with your PR team as well as committing time and availability of your staff for interviews, to provide quotes, to get on camera, and more.  

Here is a checklist that your higher ed marketing team can use to prioritize link and media sources:

✓ Wikipedia

✓ Top Lists

✓ Partner Community Colleges, Universities, High Schools

✓ Scholarship search websites

✓ Scholarship Partners

✓ Local Directories

✓ Local Media / News

✓ National Media / News

PRO TIP: When responding to quote requests, be sure to include what specific page should be linked to (not always the homepage).

7. Technical Elements Support Search Success

Key technical settings on your site help Google better understand and process the info on your site, which leads to a stronger search presence. There are four key elements to master to assure you’re set up for success.

  1. Your site is considered “Secure” and you are able to have an “HTTPS site” when you have purchased and properly installed an ”SSL certificate.” This provides confidence to Google and to users that any information a user inputs on your site, such as their name, email, or phone number, is being transmitted securely and privately across the internet. With Google’s most recent version of Google Chrome, which is 2018’s most popular web browser, non-secure sites are being called out more strongly by making the text red, instead of the subtle gray warning on the left.
  2. The robots.txt file is the first file that Google crawlers read when they visit your website. It provides a directory of sorts, telling the crawlers which pages you want to appear in the search results and which you do not. If not configured properly, your prospects and students may see this when they see your website in search results. There’s a technical check your web developer can do to assure this setting is accurate.
  3. An always-updated sitemap hands your list of URLs to Google on a silver platter. HTML sitemaps are good for users and search engines. XML sitemaps are more technical and exist primarily for search engines. While this may sound redundant to your robots.txt file, you want to take advantage of all of these elements to make it as easy as possible for search engines to find and index all of your important website pages. Your developer can list your sitemaps within your robots.txt file, which, again, hands Google what it needs to know on a silver platter.
  4. Schema is a technical tactic for labeling your data on the backend of your website to help Google better understand the content. Google is very intelligent when it comes to understanding and parsing content, but this helps avoid any ambiguity. The simplest example of schema is labeling your address and phone number data. On the front end, it looks the same to the user. On the backend, you are saying “Hey Google, I have three distinct locations. This is location one, and this is the address and phone number,” and so on. Things get really interesting when you start to mark up more niche types of content on your website, like your course information. is your source for the details you need to do this. This can improve your rankings for niche keyword searches, as Google is able to better understand very specific details about your offerings. Leveraging schema markup language can also help you achieve “rich answer results”, which is when Google serves up the answer directly to the user in the search result, citing your website as the source.

Here is an example of a very specific search, for which a “rich answer” shows—this is also often referred to as “Position Zero.” Google is beginning to show more and more of these types of answers. Schema markup is the first step to earning “rich answers.”

PRO TIP: Once you have the above four technical elements complete, create a custom 404 Page for your university’s site. When a user lands on a page that no longer exists, what happens? Ideally they’ll be taken to a page on your site that helps users find the information they’re looking for when they have navigated to a page which no longer exists. It also provides other helpful content and encourages them to explore your site further, rather than “bouncing” or leaving the website.

With our seven key steps to search success, you and your higher education marketing team now know what good marketing looks like, how to check for these elements on your site, and specific tactics for each area. You’ve officially graduated! Now, go forth and engage prospects and students with a powerful search engine presence.

If your online marketing requires more than just a crash course, contact the digital marketing experts at Search Influence. We have extensive experience in education marketing and can help your school reach its goals.

This blog post is based on a presentation from the 2018 AMA Higher Ed Conference. Thank you to Paula Keller French, Alison Zeringue, and Will Scott on the Search Influence team for their contributions! And thank you to Christa Payne with Tulane SoPA for collaborating with us!



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