Knowledge transfer is one of the key objectives of science communication. Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is an important channel, because for most people, their search for knowledge starts Google (or another search engine).
A quest for something specific, like the best university. For confirmation, whether your child is getting enough sleep, for example. For diagnosis, whether that persistent headache is a cause for concern. Or for something trivial: who was America’s first president again?
What do these questions have in common? People search online for knowledge, preferably based on scientific research. There lies an opportunity for universities. To seize that, you need to structurally build search engine optimisation (SEO) into your science communication efforts.
Let’s dive a little deeper into the benefits of SEO for science communication.
More than student recruitment
SEO has been an integral part of commercial companies’ marketing mix for years. In Higher Education, we especially see it a lot in student recruitment.
Among the many available online marketing channels for student recruitment, SEO has perhaps the highest return on investment of all.
In Higher Education, it is not always about instant, short-term results. Universities also want to present themselves as knowledge institutions, showing their highly regarded academic research. To students, to the media, to grant providers and donors. In fact, to everyone: the general public.
Building visibility and reputation through SEO (or any other channel) takes time, but when the results start coming in, they last.
SEO helps to build authority
The key word for science communication is ‘authority’. In other words: being regarded as a reliable source of specialist knowledge.
By answering questions that people ask via search engines you build that authority. Especially when searching for expertise, ads are likely to be skipped. Therefore, proper SEO content is more valuable in science communication compared to paid content.
Moreover, attracting traffic to your website can lead to engagement with a potential grant provider, student or journalist.
Then it’s not just about the ‘moment suprême’, when the application is being reviewed or that researcher is looking for a new job. The beauty of authority built up with SEO is that you can get into the heads of your target audience at an earlier stage. They may recognise you from a blog or news item, which they found after a web search.
Simple steps for science SEO
Higher Education Institutions naturally exude a certain reliability and are often already widely referenced as a source, and tend to have lots of knowledge to share.
Small adjustments across the workflow of science communication can help you capture quick improvements in search engine visibility.
Five quick tips:
- Make sure your text is SEO optimised. This involves building awareness among your team about SEO guidelines and adjusting your texts accordingly. Apply this to new copy as well as existing online content.
- For all your content, determine relevant keywords for which this content should show up in search engines. If necessary, broaden the topic to a theme with more search volume. Use a tool for this, such as the free SEO Review Tools or the paid Ahrefs.
- Make sure that relevant keywords regularly recur in the content, especially in titles and the beginning of the text. Don’t forget to do the same for any enrichments, such as the titles and descriptions of images and videos.
- Include hyperlinks in your content. This age-old rule in SEO still applies: referencing internal and external sources provides the search engine with a better idea of what the content is about and what related content is important.
- Name or build online platforms where you specifically engage in SEO. This could be your regular news feed, a blog, evergreen content outside the main menu, or, for example, a richly featured overview page, such as this outstanding example of John Hopkins Medicine.
An example from the science communicator’s practice
Imagine that you are presented with an article about research on persistent headaches. Before publishing the story, you check for relevant keywords in a keyword tool (see image).
It turns out that people search for this topic in multiple ways. So the first lesson is to reflect those variations in your text. For instance, use persistent headache in the title and long-lasting headache in your introduction. This doesn’t just benefit your search engine visibility, it also helps in matching your audience’s diverse choice of words.
Secondly, it appears there are more search queries about specific types of headache, such as cluster or tension headache, due to concussion or in combination with nausea. Now you know it can help to include and highlight information about these types of headache in your title or text.
A third finding from the keyword tool is that people often use questions in their search query, and ask about the duration of headaches. This could just become the title of your final publication.
Maintenance of SEO Copy
Once a good amount of proper SEO content is online, make sure it is maintained. Above all, text needs to be up-to-date. A common problem in large organisations is an infinitely expanding website full of outdated and duplicate web pages.
This doesn’t just hurt SEO performance, it also irritates users. More is not always better. To keep an up-to-date and relevant repository of knowledge you need to spend time reviewing and updating existing articles, and only add to them when you genuinely have new information to share.
In the end, it’s the user that matters; whether it happens to be an assessor of grant applications, an entrepreneur in the field who wants to collaborate, a journalist looking for an expert or a prospective student.
SEO is still overlooked in science communication
The fact that universities already naturally possess authority in the field of knowledge has apparently slowed down the incorporation of SEO in science communication. Indeed, there is still a world to be won.
There are certainly exceptions. The John Hopkins Medicine and Harvard Business Review overview mentioned above are good examples.
But it’s still hard to find proper SEO initiatives in higher education. Those who focus on it now will have an edge in the future. So put it at the top of your agenda!
About the author
Roeland Segeren worked for several Dutch newspapers, where he gained experience in science journalism and online publishing. Since 2018, he has worked in science communication at Radboud University and the Donders Institute. Currently, he works as an independent communication professional.