SEO for higher education and universities

Posted on 13/12/2022 by Stanley Dunthorne

Higher education is a competitive sector when it comes to Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). Highly authoritative educational domains are competing with each other on Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) for coveted applications from potential students.

We’ll be taking a look at how universities and other higher education establishments can improve their SEO to increase organic visibility and traffic, going beyond the generic SEO advice that could be applied to any website. Instead, we’re going to look at what universities specifically can do to improve their organic visibility and conversions, and we’ll include examples from a number of university websites.

What needs to be considered in an SEO strategy for higher education and universities? 

One of the main aims of a university’s marketing strategy is to get new student applications, which comes as no surprise considering students generate the majority of their revenue.

 So, we’re sharing a few different ways universities could make SEO improvements to increase course applications.

How are university domains different? 

Authority

Universities are hugely authoritative websites thanks to their .ac.uk domains.

These domains are regarded as trustworthy – a backlink from a .ac.uk domain is a cause for celebration in the SEO world. Universities will naturally pick up quality links as a result of their often global presence and marketing efforts. 

This high level of domain authority is a double edged sword. The downside is that competing university domains will likely be equally as authoritative.

However, the benefit is that fairly basic changes to on-page SEO elements like title tags, headers and copy are likely to have more of an impact than on less authoritative sites, particularly if that optimisation is lacking in the first place, thanks to the foundation of authority the domain already has.

Large number of URLs

Universities offer hundreds of courses and in addition to providing supporting content relating to each course, their websites will have plenty more pages covering things like university facilities, staff profiles and information for current students.

This means that university domains can be quite large in terms of their number of pages.

The larger the URL, the more issues you might have with crawl budget, but it shouldn’t be too much of a concern unless a website is updated very regularly or has millions of pages. 

University domains should keep on top of making sure all pages they want in the index are being crawled and indexed effectively, and that the pages in their index are high quality. It’s worth getting rid of outdated or legacy content by auditing content and reviewing their content strategy regularly. 

The importance of on-page SEO for universities

For many universities, competition in terms of SEO may be very similarly matched when it comes to off-page SEO and domain authority.

For example, we can see that Nottingham, Manchester, Birmingham and Warwick universities all have very similar domain ratings:

domain ratings for warwick, nottingham, manchester and birmingham universities

With domain authority incredibly strong, fairly evenly matched and it being increasingly difficult to improve domain rating once these high levels of authority are reached, we can look to other arguably easier on-page methods as a way of gaining organic visibility over the competition.

Where can universities start with on-page SEO?

With such large websites in terms of number of URLs it can be difficult to know where to begin when it comes to on-page improvements.

I’d initially focus on the pages which drive conversions, which in this case will be course pages on which users start their application process, like this Mathematics BSc page:

screenshot of mathematics bsc course page

1. Improving keyword targeting on course pages

A quick look at the page highlights a few areas that could be improved to increase its organic performance and improve visibility for the target keyword ‘mathematics bsc’, which has a UK average monthly search volume of 260.

First of all, outside of the heading, which SEOs call the H1 and is a crucial place to put the target keyword, the term ‘mathematics bsc’ isn’t actually used anywhere in the copy on the page.

It’s a basic thing, but still important to get right. It’s not always necessary to pay attention to metrics like keyword density, but it is important to use the target keyword related to the topic of the page at least a few times on that page.

An effective way to do this is by clearly answering users’ questions, either in subheadings or in an FAQ section.

Birmingham University have effectively done this, allowing them to use the target keyword in a H2, which also answers an important question for users:screenshot of why study mathematics bsc at birmingham

2. Improving internal linking on course pages 

Nottingham University has a block internally linking to related courses, which is useful both for users and for SEO.

It gets link equity flowing between URLs and helps Google understand the relationship between different pages.

However, a quick tweak would be beneficial here, as the anchor text for every related course link is simply ‘view course’:screenshot of more details on birmingham university's mathematics course page

Whilst it’s clear for users, we could help Google understand the topic of the page it links to by using keyword-focused anchor text.

In this case that’d simply be including the course name in the anchor text, as Birmingham have done:

List of other mathematics degree programmes

Course pages tend to be very information-rich, with lots of information on aspects such as entry requirements, tuition fees and career prospects.

Whilst it’s important we link between different pages, on detailed pages like this it’s useful to have a table of contents and link to the different areas of the page using internal jump links.

UoN’s Mathematics page isn’t doing this currently, but Imperial’s is:

screenshot of imperial university's course page

As well as being useful for users, Google likes jump links. In some cases, when a user clicks from the SERP the browser will scroll directly to the relevant piece of text, and jump links can help this. 

3. Breadcrumbs

Effective use of breadcrumbs is important for higher education websites – as it is on any large website with tens or hundreds of thousands of URLs and lots of subfolders.

I like how Imperial’s use of breadcrumbs links to more pages in the hierarchy rather than just to ‘all courses’ as in Nottingham’s case, as this allows link equity to flow more effectively to those deeper subfolders:

Still, Nottingham’s doing a better job than Kings, where I couldn’t spot any breadcrumbs at all on their course page!

Kings university mathematics course page

4. Structured data improvements

Universities should implement course structured data on relevant pages to help Google understand the content of the page and make the URL eligible for rich results.

I checked a number of different Mathematics BSC course pages from different institutions and a surprisingly high number didn’t have this structured data in place. 

For universities that are using this markup, make sure it’s valid. In Nottingham’s case, they’re using this course structured data, but it’s missing the description field which invalidates the markup:nottingham university invalid course structured data

If you remember just a few key takeaways, make sure it’s these:

  • Conduct some keyword research and use the target keyword on the page – a basic point but one that many institutions seem to be overlooking. This can be done by ensuring your page content answers the questions users are asking in a clear way.
  • Internally link between related course pages using keyword-focused anchor text.
  • Use a table of contents that contains jump links on detailed course pages to help users navigate their way through the information. This also clearly signals to Google where certain content is on the page.
  • Use effective breadcrumbs to get link equity flowing to deeper subdirectories.
  • Ensure course structured data is in place on course pages and is tested and working.

How to prioritise which pages to improve

It’s all well and good suggesting that we make course pages a bit more SEO-friendly, but with hundreds of course pages, how can we know where to start?

Using a tool like Semrush, we can look at pages ranking in the top positions, and to get an idea of non-branded opportunities, we can exclude ‘nottingham’ or other branded search terms.

Tons of people search for degree+nottingham, but those search queries aren’t such a concern as UoN will rank for them without effort. 

Here’s where your value lies: terms like ‘neuroscience degree’ (search volume of 1600), ‘law degree’ (search volume of 2900) and ‘ba history’ (search volume of 260) are all low down on page one.

They’re also presumably searched for by users who aren’t yet set on an institution and are at the early stages of their decision making process – the perfect time to get them into the funnel.

I’d start by looking at URLs in either positions 4-10 or on page two. These URLs are already ranking on page one or two, just not very high. It’ll be easier to get them into the top three than a URL ranking on page 7 or 8.

Develop content that relates to course pages

It’s important that universities and other higher education institutions develop useful content relating to their course offering. This will:

  1. Help the visibility of those course pages – as a hub of content built relating to the course, it will all nicely internally link between its different pages.
  2. Target long tail informational queries and attract users at the top of the funnel.

We can start off by using Google’s features to search for inspiration. Auto-suggest, people also ask and related searches give us ideas straight away of the sort of content that people are searching for and might be useful to create in relation to a particular query.

For example, if you search for ‘history degree’, Google comes up with the below:

history degree keyword suggest on google

‘What can you do with a history degree’ jumps out as a decent question a university would want to clearly answer to attract that top of the funnel traffic.

With a content idea in mind, it’s useful to check the search intent and look at the content currently ranking for it and what other terms it’s ranking for. 

Whilst there’s quite a lot of careers sites and other publications on page one for this term, Plymouth University is in the top three with an informational page titled What can you do with a history degree?’. It’s a detailed informational page with career prospects, advice after a history degree programmes and Plymouth’s data on their graduate’s career destinations.

It’s working well for SEO as it’s got page 1 rankings for lots of decent informational searches like the below:

history degree keyword research on semrush

Now we’ve seen what’s working for Plymouth, all we need to do is make a better version of that content.

But, what constitutes better? That could be things like:

  • Providing more detail and better insight – perhaps more detailed data on where graduates have gone or interviews with graduates
  • Create more up-to-date content – Plymouth’s ‘What can I do with a Maths degree?’ blog is using data from a 2017/2018 survey
  • Providing a better user experience
  • Looking at competitors – whether that’s through better on-page keyword targeting or better internal linking. For example, Plymouth isn’t linking to this specific blog article from their History BA course page.

Once you’ve got the template down and know how to make a better version than your competitors, a pillar of a university’s SEO strategy could then be to roll out these supporting informational career prospect pages for every course, starting with the most popular courses.

When we consider that universities offer hundreds of courses, the organic potential here is huge!

Plymouth have done this to an extent, with the /careers-and-employability/degree-subjects/ subdirectory ranking for 74 keywords and gaining nearly 1000 sessions a month – ranking well for lots of nice terms across their course offering.

Plymouth university current keywords and organic research on semrush

These are users who are in the early stage of their decision making. They’re unsure about what degree to study and where to do it, so getting in front of them at this early stage can be hugely valuable.

Informational pages relating to careers is just one area your content could cover.

Understand what your prospective students’ most common questions or concerns are and make sure you’re answering them in a way that’s clear for both them and Google to understand, and you’ll be in business.

Always keep on top of your content quality and regularly auditing your content and removing or improving anything that’s out of date or needs updating.

To summarise

With already hugely authoritative domains, universities and other higher education establishments can look to on-page SEO tactics improvements to improve organic traffic and revenue.

Focusing on the conversion-driving course pages, a few fundamental things to get right include:

  1. Keyword targeting on the page.
  2. Ensuring effective flow of link equity through methods like internal linking between and within course pages, and using breadcrumbs.
  3. Correctly using relevant structured data.
  4. Targeting top of funnel users with supporting informational content related to these course pages.

If you’d like some further advice about SEO for higher education and universities, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.


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