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Direct mail, high school visits, billboards and the like -- years ago, getting your institution’s brand in front of prospective students was fairly straightforward. Today, most leads come via student search partners or media campaigns. But what if you could also find prospective students and convert them into inquiries at one of their most-visited spots: The Google search bar?

Developing search engine-optimized content around topics that prospective students are looking for can position your institution as a valuable resource and introduce them to your brand. This new content can manifest itself in the form of program pages, infographics, white papers or even an institutional blog.

Organic search results are responsible for 53 percent of all website traffic, according to a new BrightEdge study. Once you start ranking for keywords, your organic search traffic can grow exponentially. One of the biggest benefits of investing in content to build your organic search presence is that there’s no associated media cost, and the time spent can pay off for years to come. And rather than pushing your message out, you’ll be pulling prospective students in.

As you embark on a search engine optimization journey for your institutional website, keep three Ts in mind: time, tools and targeting.

1. SEO Takes Time

It’s quite possible it will take as much as a year to see the full benefits of your work. In a 2017 Ahrefs study of two million pages, the SEO experts found that only 5.7 percent of all newly published pages made it to Google’s top 10 search results within a year. So plan for content success in quarters and years, not days and weeks. Your content should have a cumulative effect, where you see your hard work compounding over the months.

2. Find the Right Tools

From simple and free to complex and built for the enterprise, a number of SEO tools are available for keyword research. SEO authority Brian Dean keeps an exhaustive list updated on his website, Backlinko. If you’re just starting out, try a few different options. You might need more than one in your tool kit to maximize success.

View the complete list

3. Target Long-Tail Keywords

As you’re developing new content, a popular SEO technique to consider is targeting long-tail keywords. They are traditionally more than three words and receive less search traffic than shorter, high-volume keywords. Your first instinct might be to aim for a high-volume keyword like “M.B.A.” But some quick research reveals “M.B.A.” is highly competitive, and the chances of landing in the top spot are slim.

Pivoting to long-tail keywords has a number of benefits: there is a better shot of making it to the first page, and people searching for more specific terms are often more sure of what they’re looking for and more likely to click through. Using “M.B.A.” as an example, you could consider a long tail keyword such as “what is an M.B.A. degree” instead. It has decent search volume, and your content can answer a question. Google loves relevant and helpful content.

Another benefit of long-tail keywords -- they're especially useful when it comes to voice search. A Forbes article says, “By 2020, 30 percent of all website sessions will be conducted without a screen.” As devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Home continue their descent into people’s homes, this shift in search is not surprising. Long-tail keywords align with voice search because people often ask their smart devices questions and speak in sentences. Again, ranking for a question like “what is an M.B.A. degree” will prove valuable.

Using the three Ts to define and refine your SEO strategy will set you on the right path for pulling prospective students in with rich content. As overall organic search traffic continues to climb, you can become the SEO star of your institution.

Jonathan Shearer is the executive director of marketing and communications at Elmhurst College in Illinois.

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