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Colleges, universities, and prospective students love to look at rankings. US News & World Report, The Princeton Review, and Forbes have what are probably the most popular school ranking lists. But there is another important ranking that schools should consider: their SEO Rankings.

Prospective students turn to a variety of online, print, and human resources to build their school short lists, according to the 2011 Noel-Levitz E-Expectations Survey. Second after direct mail and brochures (but before email and college search websites), search engines proved very popular. Sixty-seven percent of the surveyed students used Google, Bing, and the like to come up with their lists of dream and safe schools. The top organic result for a search received 18% of all the clicks, and the first 4 results accounted for more than 40% of all the clicks. The exact term “Nursing Schools in NYC” is searched 2900 times a month. Eighteen percent of that is 522 visitors a month. That’s not even counting all the variations on the keyword, variations we call “long tail”. If you are not on the first page then you don’t exist.

So why are there still some Colleges and Universities that don’t pay much attention to SEO?

  • Marketing Savvy – Many universities, especially the not for profit and large universities, use brand power to attract prospective students. They tend to leave marketing to the for-profit universities who are more savvy. And this is one of the reasons for the huge growth of the sector.
  • Competitors – If they don’t see their competition doing it, then many schools aren’t interested in doing it. One of the best ways to demonstrate the importance of search engine rankings is to show universities how their competitors are taking advantage of SEO.
  • Old School Thinking – Many colleges simply think that they don’t need to advertise, that the prospective students will find them. Or they are overly reliant on techniques such as mailing brochures. In the time it takes a prospective student to recieve a brochure, he or she might have seen dozens of ads for other schools online. A school that doesn’t put enough effort into search engine rankings might be outside the running before the race begins.
  • IT Department Overload – The job of managing the websites and SEO usually falls to the IT department at a school, and the members of those departments are usually overloaded with other tasks.

What to do when optimizing content for searches

1) Include Target Keywords

This is SEO 101 but this is probably the area where most university sites are lacking. Take a few minutes and do some research into what exactly users are searching for. The Google AD Planneris a good place to start.

Including target keywords in content creates relevancy. The more relevant the content is to a searcher’s query, the more likely it is to rank higher and get found.

Be sure to include variations of keywords where possible.

Make sure to lead with the high volume target keywords, as this helps the search engines to learn immediately what the page is about. It also helps to hold the readers’ attention if they see the keywords they searched for front and center on the page.

2) Use headlines and sub headings to break up long and boring program descriptions

Make sure to frequently mention targeted keywords and their variations without being spammy. The text should still read and flow naturally to users.

How frequently should you use your keywords, you ask? Good question. There’s really no magical one-size-fits-all ratio. The key is to use your keywords as much as possible without making the text sound artificial.

3) Link Building

Link building is the backbone of SEO, and without page building links, a page simply won’t rank. Everyone wishes that Google and Bing could come up with some other way to find and show the proper content to users, but until then, links rule.

Because of the trust, goodwill, research, sports, and community relations that most universities have, it is relatively easy to build links.

Where can schools get links? Opportunities include other colleges; partner schools if part of a larger system; press around research studies; scholarships; sports; community service; and fraternities and sororities. Universities can promote their professors who are authorities on their particular subjects; in particular, universities can promote the list to news channels. Those faculty members can get quotes as experts and the schools will get links — a win win for all!