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How SEO and SEM Can Work Together For Colleges

By Snap Agency April 5, 2016

When searching for a potential college or university, most people will spend hours upon hours researching, comparing and investigating the variety of options that are out there. With over 2,400 4-year institutions, plus another 1,600 2-year options throughout the United States, the initial thought of making the right pick can be daunting.

Executing a successful SEO or SEM strategy for a an educational institution can be just as challenging. Both are targeting search queries that are being conducted and are fighting for position. They also work best when they are working together, and see the importance of utilizing the two components of digital marketing in a complementary way. From the number of internal departments to athletics and student life, there are a lot of moving parts within a college or university, but our goal with this post is to provide you with insight that will allow you to approach SEO and SEM with confidence.

Targeting the Strengths of Your School

Your ability to truly identify the strengths of your institution will greatly influence how far your SEO and SEM efforts will carry you. Identifying opportunities and “low-hanging fruit” will allow you to take action. If those opportunities are not clear, taking the time to research and dig into the digital data will allow you to make decisive decisions moving forward. This should include identifying weaknesses on your own site, an analysis of your competition, as well as keywords to focus on both in SEO and SEM.

Conducting keyword research will provide value for both mediums. When looking at keywords, instead of focusing on keywords you aren’t currently ranking for, focus on increasing your rankings for keywords you are ranking for. Moving from position No. 25 to position No. 5 will equate to significantly more traffic than going from not ranking to the No. 45 position in search engines.

There are two major measurables that can determine the likelihood of your page being displayed in search results, and those are your domain authority and page authority.

Domain Authority – How a site will rank within search engines by taking into account things like linking root domains, number of links, MozRank, MozTrust, and other factors to create an overall score (on a 100-point scale). This domain authority is developed by Moz and is utilized by a ton of third-party sources as well.

Page Authority – The overall authority of a single page. Many of these same metrics are taken into account, but instead of looking at the whole site, page authority looks at each page on a site. This means that a page that is on a site with a low domain authority can still rank well by developing a strong page authority.

With these two distinctions in mind, a college or university has an opportunity to rank for the targeted strengths they identify. These can be things like Alumni resources, undergrad majors, graduate programs, athletics or any other portion of the institution you want to focus on. Through this refining process, you will attract traffic that will be ready to convert.

Optimize with Targeted Groups in Mind

The current targeting options available within SEM through social media ads and geographic ad targeting, as well as local search optimization and the targeting you can do through content creation, are more advanced than ever. Know what the people within your target audience are searching for and pursue it hard. If the strength that you’ve identified is your graduate program, find out what those searching for a graduate program are looking for and optimize site content and paid search efforts for this targeted group.

When targeting with SEO, content should be created with a very specific target group in mind. For example, if your primary goal is to demonstrate the validity of your nursing department, you can create a landing page that highlights strengths and attracts traffic through well-optimized content. If you’ve been able to identify searches that are being conducted at a high volume on a regular basis, you can create a blog post with that search included in it.

Cover Your Bases

Creating site content that is targeting a particular group with an objective is priority No. 1, but there is more to making sure your site is fully optimized than just having good content. There are over 200 ranking factors that make up search engine algorithms. Trying to take every single one into account can be overwhelming, but there are some SEO components that you will want to make sure are fully optimized for a higher education audience like:

  • Old domains are the best domains — as a general rule, the older the domain, the better, so sticking with what you have will help search engines view your site as an established resource. You’ll also want to make sure your domain is registered for as long as possible to avoid it expiring.
  • Get some backlinking attention — increasing the number of links pointing to your site is the most important tactic to increase your rankings in search engines. Developing and executing a backlink strategy is not for the faint of heart, but it is extremely valuable because the higher your rank within search engines, the more traffic you will drive to your site.
  • Be technically sound — optimizing the technical elements of your site will build a firm foundation for your site while providing search engines a clear picture of who you are and what you do well. If you’re looking for a how-to guide for technical SEO, we’ve published an article about why technical SEO is important, so check it out!

Utilizing SEM to Point Content to Key Landing Pages

In order for search engine marketing to be most effective, the pages it sends traffic to need to satisfy the expectation the visitor has when they view the ad. Sometimes this means sending people to the home page of the website, but more often than not, you will need a targeted landing page that is configured to match and exceed said expectations. Here is an example of what I mean:


Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 11.58.10 AM

This ad is directing traffic to a landing page that is ready to educate Next Stepsthe visitor and is equipped with a variety of “Next Step” options. When looking at this example ad from an SEM perspective, most of the components are utilized. There are also a few opportunities that can be capitalized on, like adding more ad copy to create intrigue and attract more clicks. A call-to-action can also be added to provoke engagement.

The content that is displayed within an ad should coincide with the page title, heading tag and meta description of the page they are targeting. In this case, no meta description is established, and the ad copy that is there doesn’t tie closely to the content published on the page, which simply means there are some opportunities to improve from both an SEM and an SEO side.

Technical SEO CheckWrapping Up

Colleges and universities have a great opportunity to become a web authority through different tactics like targeting geographic locations or in highlighting certain strengths of the institution. The key is to identify where your opportunities are and then utilize those strengths, cover your bases by making sure your site is technically sound, and go after those within the targeted audience with tenacity with strong content working hand in hand with SEM campaigns to create conversions.