SEO Strategies That Help Your College Attract More Students Online

John SammonAuthor: John Sammon
Updated on 03/01/2024

Looking to boost enrollment for the undergraduate or graduate programs at your college or university? Or even for your trade school or community college?

Search engine optimization is an incredibly valuable and effective tool that can help you reach these goals by allowing your school’s programs to be found online.

The experienced SEO team at Sixth City Marketing got together and assembled our best insights and tips and added them below in our official Higher Education SEO guide.

If you are either starting out, trying to get over the hump of ranking higher for your terms, or looking for an SEO partner, feel free to contact our team for guidance or help.

“John and the Sixth City team are wonderful to work with. They are extremely knowledgeable about SEO, digital marketing and website optimization. The team goes above and beyond to help clients reach marketing goals and is accessible to answer questions via phone, email and in-person meetings. They are true professionals and I would highly recommend their services to anyone looking for a digital marketing firm that will help take their business to the next level.” – Joni Bowen, Kent State University

High Education SEO Guide: FAQs to Help Your University in 2024 and Beyond

Table of Contents


What Is Higher Education SEO?

seo for higher educationSEO for higher education specifically includes implementing a diverse array of SEO best practices to increase search ranking, traffic, and leads on your school’s website.

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What Are Typical SEO Goals?

When applying these strategies to your college or university’s site, a common goal is to attract prospective students to either inquire about a specific program or simply apply to the school right then and there.

Other goals for SEO campaigns for higher education organizations can include:

  • Increasing awareness of your organization in a specific area of the country
  • Driving sales for your online store
  • Improving visits and impressions for timely news about achievements, research, or faculty
  • Increasing awareness and sales for your athletic program

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Establishing a Baseline for Data and Statistics with Your Website

As you embark on launching a new or adjusting a current SEO campaign, you’ll want to record data that provides you with a “starting point.” This is a point to reflect back on as you make adjustments that will hopefully show your overall progress.

Set Up Google Analytics
Before jumping into things, it’s key to understand how you are doing right now in terms of drawing prospective students to your website. One of the first things that you’ll want to do is set up Google Analytics if you haven’t done this already. (Everything moved to Google Analytics 4 in 2023 so if you haven’t touched your analytics in a while, you may want to prepare to troubleshoot and set up everything in GA4).

Make Sure Analytics is Added to Every Page
Higher education organization websites can be massive in size. Please make sure that Google Analytics is added to every page of your website. Pages or areas to add it to include:

  • Subdomains
  • Third-party websites that list your course catalog or process applications
  • Program pages and course catalog pages (on your main domain)

Things to Note in Google Analytics (once it is set up)
Google Analytics starts recording data when you set it up. I would wait at least 4 weeks to establish a baseline of where your website is at. Once you have a baseline note:

  • Sessions from search engines
  • Overall sessions
  • Contact form and call conversions

Set up Google Search Console
Google Search Console is a free tool that provides you with additional critical data on your website related to what Google is recording or seeing. We look at this tool pretty consistently (at least monthly). Once you have it set up, here are a few things to look at:

  1. Search impression and visit data
  2. Recent search phrases that brought people to your website
  3. 404 error data that Google is seeing
  4. URLs that Google is seeing, listing, and not listing
  5. Not found or 404-page report
  6. Security issues report

Higher education websites are typically very large. It’s critical to monitor this data as the bigger the website is, the more changes it has happening to it (such as pages being deleted or websites being completely redesigned). We often find a large amount of 404 errors that need to either be redirected or no-indexed in order to show a healthy website.

Keyword Positions
Once you find the keywords that you want to rank well for, you’ll want to find a third-party software program to track them. There are many out there to choose from (unfortunately, most are paid):

There are many other features available with each of the software solutions listed above. We subscribe to all of them.

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SEO Keyword Research Tips

The first step in keyword research is asking yourself a few questions about your goals and target audience.

Is your target audience local or national?
In many cases, higher education organizations (when focusing on enrollment) have a dual focus depending upon the program of focus. If your focus is national, you won’t have to worry about a regional focus. However, if you are trying to target students in a region or city, incorporate the following into the copy of the page:

  • Add the city/region in the page title, main header (h1), and in the sub-headers on the page
  • Mention some things about the city of focus in the copy – perhaps tying it into some things that stand out about your campus or city
  • Add photos of the city/ campus on the page and include them in the alt descriptions of the images

Program or Class Keyword Research
You’ll want to itemize the courses of programs you want to rank for in order of importance. When doing research add a variety of phrases, such as:

  • Programs offered (with or without a specific city name)
  • Classes/courses/certifications offered (with or without a city name)
  • The type of school (trade, community)
  • The type of programs offered (bachelor’s, master’s, etc.)
  • Location of school (city and state)
  • Adding in programs/classes offered with variants of online (e.g. online MBAs)

You’ll definitely want to take search volume into account. The search volume definitely helps in terms of driving traffic if you are ranking for it. We typically value relevancy over search volume when picking out keywords.

The ultimate test in deciding between variants of keywords or even including keywords is to actually Google the term to see if your competitors are either running Google Ads or ranking for the term in organic search.

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Limitations on Paid Digital Marketing Options to People 18 and Under

The landscape of digital marketing for higher education institutions has changed dramatically over the last few years. Paid social platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have limited the ability to market to people under 18. Google has also adopted these same policies for its ad platform. One channel that hasn’t been limited is organic search engine listings via Google, Bing, and Yahoo.

When marketing to potential undergraduate students, organic search becomes an even more vital tool for your school. Prospective students still in high school will be searching for programs in a wide variety of ways, and you want to ensure your programs stand out from an organic perspective to ensure you’re capturing this audience.

Want to learn more about what higher education SEO is, and how it can benefit your college or program? Let our team help you by answering some frequently asked questions, as well as providing some tips on how to implement these strategies in your own higher education programs.

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The Importance of Local SEO for Higher Education Campaigns

Local search engine optimization combines various strategies implemented for businesses that serve customers or other companies in a specific region, which are all designed to help them gain better visibility online and get more leads. We recommend implementing local SEO into your higher education strategy because it can help you connect to a local community by targeting a specific region to attend your institution.

For example, some of the things you can do to increase local SEO for higher education include the following:

  • Google Business Profile optimization
  • Local link building
  • Landing page creation
  • Local citation management
  • Google Maps monitoring
  • Review recommendations
  • Schema implementation
  • Page speed testing
  • Design for conversion
  • Mobile optimization
  • Internal linking
  • Metadata analysis

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SEO Trends for 2024

The turn of the 2022-2023 year for the SEO industry brought a ton of change. Google continued to release updates to counter the release of ChatGPT and other AI marketing tools. The major update was called the “Helpful Content Update” which impact really hit in January of 2023. Major algorithm updates were released regularly throughout 2023. Here are things that we’ve found that Google values as a priority to address with your website:

  1. Authors and Experience of Authors – We recommend adding author bios to your website and even listing the author of pages and posts throughout your website
  2. Quality of pages – You’ll want to plan to do an inventory of all content Google sees and eliminate content that is either lean (pages with under a certain amount of words), outdated, or is unhelpful to the visitor.
  3. Inner linking – Make sure to take inventory of what pages you are linking to most. You’ll want to increase inner links to pages that you want to rank higher.
  4. Website Schema – Schema is like hidden information behind the scenes of a webpage that consolidates and tells Google about the information on a page. It’s similar to how the meta description of a page works. However, there is an extensive library of schema classifications. The schema allows Google to understand the page more quickly.

What does this mean for the higher education industry? Unfortunately, some tedious review of your overall website presence. However, it will pay off in the long run.

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What Does SEO Encompass?

There are various types of SEO that exist: on-page SEO, off-page SEO, technical SEO, and local SEO. These all utilize different strategies and approaches that are then customized to a specific client to grow leads and see new results – in this case, an increase in qualified applications and enrollment in key programs.

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Why Does Your School Need SEO?

With the rise of digital marketing and all the advancements that come along with it, SEO is extremely important when it comes to growing an online presence for your school. Overall, SEO can help bring more prospective students to your website and entice them to fill out a form, call you, or contact you through a chatbot. Tactics such as writing new, optimized content helps target prospective students and can lead them to convert to becoming enrolled.

Let’s take a look at some statistics that may convince you of the importance of SEO:

higher ed seo stats

  • Search Influence found that 84% of school marketing departments see SEO as a core part of their marketing strategy, but only 47% have a set strategy in place
  • 67% of users turn to search engines as their first source of information for colleges, according to tSunela
  • Nielsen Norman Group says 2% of teens and younger persons are more likely to abandon slow-loading sites
  • According to Chegg, 80% of students use their cell phones to visit a school’s website, and 37% of those students go on to schedule campus tours

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How Long Does it Take to Rank on Google?

When it comes to SEO, it’s more of a marathon than a sprint. Most SEO work is part of a long-term goal, but there are tactics that can show early results for your rankings, such as uploading new content, which helps keywords, or getting backlinks indexed. It might take time to get there, but SEO is long-lasting and can show results for many years to come.

The answer that we always give to clients is that you typically will see movement on keywords when you upload content to the website. The full impact of the work will come in roughly 6 months. However, you should see a graduate progression in improvement.

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Need Someone to Do the SEO Work for You?

As an organization, our main goal is to help our clients with their SEO and digital marketing initiatives. So when it comes to SEO for higher education institutions, we want to share our vast and vetted knowledge with individuals looking to increase student enrollment and brand awareness through search engines.

We have extensive experience in marketing colleges and universities to prospective students, and through our 100% custom higher ed SEO strategies, we can help you achieve the following for your own school:

  • Gain more qualified leads from prospective students
  • Increase applications and enrollment through various channels
  • Improve your school’s overall online presence
  • Match leads (with a specific lead source) to enrollment for true ROI data
  • Boost your website strength and make it last for years to come

If you want to learn more about our specific strategies and tips to help boost enrollment for your college or university in 2024 through proven higher education SEO tactics, please contact our team directly. We are happy to help you start your SEO journey, as well as provide advice on the best approaches for your school.

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SEO Strategies We Recommend for Colleges

One of the best parts of SEO is that it includes a variety of strategic tactics that all work together in a unique formula to help your website rank better on search engines, increasing your ability to be found by users on the web.

With that in mind, here are some of the best SEO strategies that our team recommends for your school:

  • Keyword analysis – One of the key processes of good SEO is to first research the terms you wish to rank for. From a higher education perspective, students are looking for your programs in a wide variety of ways; they may not always be searching exactly how your programs are named, which presents many potential keyword and content opportunities moving forward. You can then determine which has the most search volume traffic and see what opportunities for improvement there are on your website to implement these terms. Down the line, be sure to examine long-tail keywords that are more niche and supplement those with unique blog content.
  • Content optimization – Through a mix of adding to your current website copy and incorporating new landing pages to help users find what they need, taking the time to thoroughly optimize your content is one of the strongest ways to quickly improve SEO.
  • Design for conversion – When people come to your site, if there is no easy and noticeable way to reach out for more information on the page, you could be losing out on potential students who leave your site out of confusion or frustration. Do research to understand the fundamentals of user experience, which will allow you to make strategic adjustments that go hand in hand with SEO tactics to improve the conversion rate on your site’s pages.
  • Metadata optimization – Ensuring that the metadata on your website is properly written to focus on your key terms, while also appealing to the user through captivating language, is no easy feat. Be sure to include key terms and important information in titles and descriptions to help not only rankings, but your click-through rate.
  • Blog writing – Not only does blog writing open the doors to targeting more niche, specific keywords, but it also can help you gain more overall site traffic through exposure on search engines and potential backlinks from external sites.
  • Competitor research – Examining competitors’ content, backlinks, website speed, and more can all provide valuable insights. You should regularly look at the sites of your main competitors in search engine results pages, and anyone else you consider competition, to see if there are opportunities for improving your site.
  • Link building – To help prove your site’s authority and further build its organic foundation (this is especially important when we start talking about specific internal departments and degree programs), the tactic of gaining more links from other authoritative sites can be tremendously beneficial to your SEO. As a school, one great way to get more links is to look for unlinked mentions of your college and its professors.
  • Guest posting – As a type of link building, guest posting includes a mix of content writing and PR, and involves dedicated time and effort to write quality content that other websites will want to share. This is a great way to gain additional exposure and control the narrative of your institution.
  • Local approach – Depending on your type of school, compared to other colleges and universities, you may be primarily focusing on getting more students from your local region. If this is the case, lean into local SEO strategies to help you improve your rank in those desired cities.
  • Technical adjustments – In some cases, the one major thing holding your website back from SEO success is how your website was built and is currently structured. From not being secure (HTTPS) to having a slow load time to lacking mobile-friendliness, there are numerous aspects to assess and address to make sure your site is in the best position possible to rank better on the web.

Our Experience with Higher Education Institutions

Ohio University
Kent State
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The Results We’ve Delivered for Schools Around the Country

Since 2010, we’ve had years of experience in implementing higher education SEO strategies alongside additional services (such as pay-per-click) for numerous colleges and universities. In our work for them, we have been able to show worthwhile and ongoing results.

Here are some examples of the work we conducted for Kent State University’s College of Business back in 2017:

  • Spent time on an aggressive content marketing strategy
  • Implemented a custom strategy tailored toward their ideal audience
  • Increased presence on search engines by targeting relevant keywords
  • Refined site messaging and targeting
  • Adjusted the design on key pages to increase the rate of conversion
  • Created and uploaded custom landing pages

Through this effort, along with paid social media ads, compared to the previous year, we were able to improve SEO leads by 38% and increase overall leads by 135%.

The Sixth City Approach to Higher Ed SEO

The first thing our higher ed SEO agency does for clients is sit down and discuss their unique goals. We can design and implement a specific strategy tailored to your higher education program needs, and our in-house team has years of marketing experience in many different fields. We will work with you one-on-one to ensure your SEO campaign gets you the leads you need.

Some of the things that set us apart from our competitors include:

  • Unique strategy – We know that no two colleges are the same. Given that, we have the ability to create a tailored strategy that aligns directly with your goals. There are no cookie-cutter approaches from us!
  • Varied portfolio – At Sixth City, we provide many digital marketing services to ensure that your school is receiving the conversion rates you want, and we would love to expand your current agreement anytime throughout your campaign by introducing other marketing channels.
  • Long-term focus – SEO is a marathon, not a race, and you can be sure that there are no shady shortcuts with us. We’re dedicated to developing a steady, quantifiable improvement in your higher ed SEO.
  • Results-driven – Our team is data-driven and committed to seeing the numbers that will continue to make your higher education programs grow exponentially.

Why You Should Choose Us for Higher Education SEO Services

Our inspired team of digital marketing experts work hard to create a specialized marketing mix that will suit your school’s specific online marketing needs. At Sixth City, we are a higher education SEO company that is extremely concentrated on providing top-notch campaign insights that will yield actionable takeaways and outcomes for your institution. Not to mention, our services stand out and have been recognized by various establishments across the web.

When we first meet with our clients, we like to go over their top-line campaign goals and build out our recommended digital marketing tactics from there. We also leverage our client’s target audience and location data for their school.

Throughout the duration of our digital marketing campaigns, we keep in close contact with clients and the school’s internal marketing team to go over what tactics are working and what is not through ongoing data discussions. From there, our own savvy higher ed team can pivot to make campaign updates and modifications to ensure more success.

Other Ways We Can Help Colleges Outside of SEO

Not only is SEO important for higher education institutions, but a complete marketing campaign will help your school to be even more successful.

At Sixth City Marketing, our other higher ed marketing services include:

How Sixth City Produces Results for Higher Ed Institutions

The one essential thing we can provide to your higher education SEO efforts is traceable results. Anything in the digital marketing realm can be measured based on performance, and our emphasis is placed on measurement so we can guarantee effective marketing techniques.

How we show our results:

  • Improved keyword ranking for SEO campaigns
  • Changes in website traffic based on Google Analytics metrics
  • Overall lead increases both online and via phone tracking through Google Analytics
  • Matching leads obtained through SEO to students who have enrolled in your programs

At Sixth City, we curate monthly reports to summarize how well your higher education SEO campaign is working. The report will consist of the work that was completed during the month, traffic changes, and the success of our overall SEO efforts.

: “I am extremely pleased with Sixth City Marketing, the college’s website traffic has increased substantially along with a significant increase in the quality of our admission leads. Plus, within a short period of time Sixth City’s SEO efforts have catapulted our Google rankings taking us from a buried page to top listings on Google. Sixth City has made a significant difference in the business college’s rankings and admissions.” – Michelle Parrish Manning, Kent State University College of Business Administration

Get to Know Our Higher Education SEO Agency

There are a lot of things that make our agency stand out from the rest. And we think that getting to know our team a little bit better can help further illustrate the quality of work we do for our clients. Here are some facts about our company that may interest you:

  1. We have 25+ years of collective experience within SEO, PPC, and web design
  2. Our average increase in leads from SEO is around 39%
  3. Traffic from SEO has an average increase of around 490%
  4. Our entire team is in-house and collaborates on every project
  5. Our team holds a variety of degrees in the fields of marketing, communications, business, creative writing, and design
  6. Company culture is important to us, which helps our team grow stronger and produce better work
  7. We’ve helped B2B and B2C businesses in more than 20 different industries over the past 12+ years
  8. Our experts’ knowledge has been featured on a variety of websites
  9. Assisting our community is of high importance, and we have done our part to work with other businesses through various philanthropy efforts
  10. We are headquartered in Cleveland, but also have offices in Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Chicago, and Columbus

Need Effective SEO Services for Your School? We Can Help

We know the goal of your higher ed SEO investment is to improve online leads and inquiries from your website. Where we come in is designing a plan to make that happen for you!

Let us help you get started with a free website evaluation; our team can show you how we can boost your higher education marketing efforts. Contact us today to learn more about our services and all we can do for your school!

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