By Kamilah Lewis
Although the student journey to college looks unlike any other this year, there are some things that remain the same. Just like every year in recent memory, students are turning to search engines and college websites to identify their right-fit school.
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But few prospects look beyond the first page of search results. That means you’re only accessing a small percentage of your potential audience if your webpages aren’t optimized for search engines and listed on the first page of search results.
Just this year alone, we’ve done SEO comparative analyses for more than 150 colleges and universities across the country. SEO, or search engine optimization, is the process of growing the quality and quantity of your website traffic by increasing the visibility of your university’s website in search results on a web search engine, like Google or Bing or Yahoo. Through our analyses, we’ve discovered that the top trends impacting our higher education partners have one word in common: search.
Here are five aspects of digital strategy you can’t ignore as an enrollment leader, marketer, or creator.
1. Search rankings
Before you can improve your SEO ranking, you need to know your starting point. How much of your site’s content actually shows up, or ranks, on the first page of search trend results? And more concerning: how much of your site’s content is buried on page two or three or four?
Our testing and analysis tell us schools are losing rankings for several reasons, including:
- Competition from keyword-heavy aggregate and list-based sites such as US News and Niche. These sites are keyword goldmines, full of program names, cities, tuition, acceptance information, and other items prospects frequently plug into search engines. As a result, search engines prioritize these pages as an authority, and they nibble away at .edu rankings.
- Google is moving to a zero-click environment. Search engine users, including your prospective students, want to access information as quickly and easily as possible. To cut down on the number of clicks necessary to access key information, Google offers users zero-click results. You’ve probably seen these results in the form of Quick Answers, Knowledge Boxes, Featured Snippets (often of news stories), and Top Stories. These results are designed to get you the information you need all from the first page of search results, without navigating away from Google.
- Google algorithm changes are prioritizing pages with a voice and mobile strategy. With so many searches performed on mobile devices, mobile compatibility is increasingly important as Google shifts its focus to mobile-first sites. And considering the growing percentage of voice-originated searches on mobile, Google is prioritizing content that is more amenable to the growing voice search volume.
2. Keyword research
Keyword research is the process of finding words and phrases (aka “keywords”) that people commonly plug into search engines in order to optimize content and rank for those terms. Knowing what words students are using in their search activity is the first step in keyword research. From there, understanding how your keywords are performing (and how your competition’s words are performing) is critical. It’s also important to know your search engines results page (SERPs) status and how keywords have been trending over the past two years or so.
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You’ll also want to look at keywords to determine if they are even the keywords prospects are searching for—and why they are plugging those terms into a search engine. As a digital marketer, I’m always reminded that it’s the job of higher ed markers to anticipate and solve for prospect search intent at every touchpoint. Continue to ask yourself, “What is a prospect hoping to learn more about by searching for this particular keyword?” And “What does the keyword indicate about where the student is in their journey to enrollment?”
Finally, develop a content strategy plan to address issues you find, especially if you’re seeing that your competition is outranking you for especially important keywords. You’d be amazed at how many sites have a “set it and forget it” mentality. Instead, embed a process for regularly analyzing keywords to ensure your website continues to evolve to meet student intent.
3. Website search
Students cite a college’s website as their first stop when researching colleges. But are prospective students and their families satisfied with their search experience on your site? Can they maneuver through the site easily and find the content they’re searching for?
If a user cannot find what they’re looking for on your site—you can forget about that user. Their search experience can make or break their decision as an applicant. You don’t have long with young prospects to keep them engaged. After all, we’re raising a generation of scrollers who are looking to connect quickly or move on.
Conduct a user experience (UX) assessment to make sure you’re engaging your audience on page one and your content satisfies search intent. At EAB, the assessments we conduct for our Agency Services partners include everything from an Above-the-Fold Analysis (or a review of the content that appears on the page before a user has to scroll down) to assessing your interactive content (such as virtual tours) and looking at continuity (or lack thereof) across your subdomains.
- Navigation nightmares
- Unused page real estate
- Not solving for search intent
- Not optimized for mobile
- Technical errors
- Lack of social proof
- Not optimized for voice
- Search-dependent web pages
- Poor landing page experience
4. Voice search
Voice search is a speech recognition technology that allows users to voice a command or ask a question to search the Internet, a website, or an application. Fifty-five percent of teens are voice searching, so voice search will be an increasingly important part of the student search journey and one that institutions need to be ready and optimized for.
Making sure your content is optimized for newer trends and algorithms such as natural language processing, mirroring the language of prospects, using long-tail keywords (or more specific keywords usually four or more words long), and creating content to help people answer questions quickly is also important.
5. Paid search
Paid search itself isn’t a trend, but there is a clear upward trend in how much institutions are spending on paid search ads and prioritizing paid search in their digital strategy. In the past three to five years, you’ve probably noticed the amount of page real estate devoted to paid ads has increased dramatically. Depending on who you believe, paid ads are now anywhere between 20 to 50% of search results! Simply put, in 2020 and beyond, paid search gets you ahead of organic search results and puts your page first on mobile and desktop.
We know that roughly 65% of student users who click on a pay-per-click ad intend to convert. So paid search clickers are worth the investment, and paid search is a critical component of any digital campaign.
From search rankings to paid search, continue to think about the intentions of students on the other side of the screen. Putting student intent at the center is the first step in a comprehensive digital strategy to recruit today’s digital-first students.