Among the online marketing channels available to Universities for student recruitment, SEO offers arguably the best return on investment. That is, if you look at the long term.
Yet it’s probably one of the less talked about and applied online marketing tactics. At least, SEO and content marketing are getting less attention than they should. There’s a number of barriers that Universities face before they can reap the full potential.
In this article, I’ll cover:
- SEO’s potential as a marketing tool for Higher Education
- Barriers that prevent Universities from doing SEO effectively
- How to make SEO happen – despite everything
Let’s get started!
SEO’s potential as a marketing tool for Higher Education.
Hardly any promotion approach will pay off as handsomely for education providers as a well-executed long term SEO strategy. In my view, there are 3 reasons for that:
Reason 1: Search brings in high quality traffic
Most advertising channels, whether traditional or online, are based on approximation: You put a message in front of an audience, and see who responds. If the message is compelling, and the audience is large enough, some people will bite.
This applies to radio ads as much as to social media advertising. You can pick the station, you can pick audience demographics and interests, but in the end, the principle is the same: You’re putting out a message which you hope is relevant to a small portion of the receiving audience.
Search is fundamentally different. When your institution shows up in response to a search query, you are responding to someone’s question. You get to talk to them when they are looking for answers, not when you are looking for more students.
If your articles show up in response to relevant queries, and you have fitting answers to offer to at least a portion of the searchers, each person who clicks through will be many times more likely to actually want to engage with you.
In search, you are responding to questions instead of sending out a message and waiting for a response. That makes for a very different kind of audience.
Reason 2: You don’t need to pay per click
OK, I know this sounds obvious, but bear with me! My previous point was about the advantages of search (whether paid or organic) in comparison to other promotion methods.
Now let’s look inside search marketing. You can do Paid Search or SEO (or both).
Paid Search (aka Google Ads or Google AdWords) is quicker than Search Engine Optimisation. You pick the keywords, make your bid, write your ad, and BAM, you’re visible. This quicker timeline can be a lifesaver to speed things up.
On the flip side, the second you stop paying Google (or Bing, you get the picture), your results from paid search drop to zero. No matter how polished and optimised your campaigns have become, it’s pay to play all the way.
Search Engine Optimisation takes a lot more work up front. But when results start to arrive, you don’t need to pay for every click.
This makes it a lot more scalable in the long run. You can steadily continue optimising your webpages and put out more helpful evergreen content, while the work you did last month and last year keeps bringing in a steady trickle of highly engaged visitors.
Further on this point:
Reason 3: SEO allows you to reach more people
To further the comparison of paid search & SEO, you also can’t run ads for every keyword that is potentially relevant. The keywords you advertise on need to be searched by people who are somewhat likely to enrol as students in the short to medium term – say 1 to 2 years.
That, however, only represents the tip of the iceberg of keywords you could potentially become visible for. And the competition for these “commercial intent keywords” is intense, both within the ads and in the organic search results.
With paid search, you can only realistically reach people in the consideration and decision stages of the customer/student journey. And even for those terms, people are still more likely to click organic search results than ads.
With high quality content that’s SEO optimised, your institution can already become visible in the awareness stage, where the vast majority of people sit.
My son, for example, is 12 years old and spends a lot of time watching science videos on YouTube. It’s a long way off, but it’s highly likely that he’ll end up enrolling in a science related programme after secondary school.
So far, though, I haven’t seen any Universities show up on his radar yet.
I know, few Universities have been successful with integrated marketing communications. But exactly because of that, there’s a huge opportunity to get in peoples’ radar by picking a few topics that aren’t directly recruitment-related and really digging in. For example, are you making use of SEO in your science communications efforts?
Barriers to implementing a Higher Education SEO strategy
To be sure, some Universities have invested in SEO, and they are enjoying the results today. But far more institutions should be shifting their attention there.
Why haven’t they?
I believe there are two, interrelated barriers for SEO: time and complexity.
While they’re universal, these barriers may be even higher for Higher Education Institutions
Barrier 1: Time
I already touched on the “time” dimension when comparing SEO to paid search.
SEO done well is largely handwork. Once the technical fundamentals are in place, it’s a matter of laying out a content calendar and updating existing content with keywords in mind.
Optimising tens, hundreds of pages (tip: prioritisation is crucial!)
From the moment you start executing on this, it will take anywhere from 1-3 years before you’ll be able to point to significant results.
You can imagine what this means for budgeting: you’ll essentially be paying people to do work this year for results that will emerge in the years after.
SEO offers a much better return on investment than online advertising, but you’ll need to create a runway – those in charge of the budget need to buy into the effort and trust that the results will be forthcoming.
If you don’t free up the time and budget for the up-front effort, you may still be able to carve out some resources to do some SEO work here and there, but the results will be underwhelming, so it remains hard to make the case for going all in.
Barrier 2: Complexity
Complexity is another formidable barrier that education providers face when implementing an SEO strategy. At the same time, this complexity is also an opportunity – more about that in the next section.
The key reason why SEO is complex is that it requires contributions from many different people within the institution. And as more people get added, projects become more complex.
Compare it to car racing. It’s the driver that wins the race, and you surely can’t win a race without a good driver. But the best driver in the world won’t be able to win if they don’t have a fast and reliable car. And during the race, the driver relies on an extensive support team for strategy. None of the people involved can win the race alone.
I’m using this particular example because just like in car racing, successful SEO also requires both technological and human excellence. You can have the best student-focused, helpful, keyword optimised content, if your website doesn’t allow for META Titles and descriptions, it’s going to be a hard game to win. And vice versa.
In a University context, this means you need input from many people and you may well run into a wall (“Our new website will only be ready next year”).
How to make SEO happen, despite the barriers?
So far, I’ve made the case for SEO as a high return marketing strategy for HEIs and talked about the very real barriers that Universities face when implementing it.
Let’s talk about how to make it happen, despite everything.
As said, doing SEO as an education provider usually requires getting buy-in from a lot of different people.
The good news is that once you have a strategy in place (“What do I want to be found for?”), a lot of the SEO work can be integrated into day-to-day efforts.
You’ll need these four things:
- A long term vision for SEO;
- Support from senior leadership;
- Someone who is ultimately responsible for SEO;
- A modest dedicated budget for SEO.
You can use this modest budget as a lever in many ways. For example:
- Is a new website on the way? Don’t take the builder’s word for it – hire an SEO expert to review the proposals and make sure the new site supports SEO and is built with the future in mind.
- Run training sessions in SEO writing for anyone who publishes on your university website. And when you do, make sure your institution’s content strategy is included.
- Build a dashboard to track and communicate progress and share it widely.
The above scenario is assuming a limited budget and broad buy-in. If, instead, buy-in is the hard part and you have a substantial budget at your disposal, you can of course go the opposite way and “buy” support by making available budget for initiatives on the condition that SEO is taken into consideration.
Creating high quality content that enables you to become visible in the organic search results is hard work. Especially when you’re getting started. But the effort is worth it.
Writing this article, for example, took me over 7.5 hours so far over the course of a week. And I still have to insert fitting images!
Before getting started, I surveyed the existing search results for “SEO for Higher Education” and saw mostly articles with tactical tips so far. Those will undoubtedly be useful to many people, but the best tactics won’t help you if you can’t stay the course.
You have the choice of hiring outside help for almost any aspect of SEO or doing it yourself, but you can’t outsource the internal advocacy, and you’ll need to be deeply involved in the strategy. No outsider can do that for you.
If you’d like to make SEO a priority for your institution, I’m happy to think along with you and provide support where needed. You can get in touch with me via my contact page.