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Search engine optimization: How to improve your academic site for search

ElizabethRose -- Wed, 01/10/2018 - 10:41am

Search engine optimization (SEO) is something we all know we should be doing, but most often it’s an afterthought (at best). And who can blame us? When you’re attempting to redesign 10+ sites at a time with a strict three-year timeline, search engine optimization isn’t necessarily the number one priority.

But now that all of our websites are launched in the new templates, we can turn our attention to search engine optimization. We’ve already had a very successful partnership with the Graduate School to improve graduate programs’ rankings. Now, with the next iteration of the sites, we’re looking to expand our SEO efforts and work with all academic sites to improve search engine rankings.

This past November, I attended the Confab Higher Ed conference and was one of six speakers to give a five-minute “lightning talk” at the close of the first day. My topic was — you guessed it — SEO.

That’s right — I had to condense all of my SEO knowledge to fit a five-minute, easy-to-follow, easy-to-execute presentation. Each slide was on the screen for 20 seconds and I didn’t get a timer. It. was. terrifying.

So I practiced (a lot) and came up with a roadap for higher education professionals who work with web content and want to improve that content for search engines. The slides are here:

The SEO Talk

The five minutes went by so quickly that I don’t remember exactly what I said. But here is the rough transcript:

Background & Getting Started with SEO

Search engine optimization is important. According to higher ed research firm Ruffalo Noel-Levitz, 87 percent of high school seniors are finding university websites via a search engine. That includes searching for terms like “program name,” “universities in + location,” “university name,” and “program name + location.”

There are three pillars of search engine optimization:

  1. Keywords & metadata (on-page optimization)
  2. Backlinks (off-page optimization)
  3. Site performance & structure (technical optimization)

As content strategists, we focus on on-page optimization because, well, it’s our jobs. On-page optimization includes static page content, URLs, photo alternative text, page descriptions, etc.

We need to start with on-site content so we can build the foundation for bigger and better SEO efforts in the future. These guidelines will not make your site shoot straight up to the No. 1 spot on the search engine results page. But they will get you closer.

Start with a single academic program. Do not attempt to optimize your entire site at once — it is overwhelming and you’ll probably give up before you even start.

Keyword Research & Planning

The key to optimizing your content is to include particular keywords that people are searching for on Google.

Make a list of the keywords you think would work with your content. Make sure they are relevant to your subject matter. They can be broad topics and niche keywords. If you need help making this list of keywords, call or email your friendly Web Content Strategist (that’s me! or 2-1626).

Now, make a spreadsheet of the pages you’re optimizing under this one academic program. Don’t work on more than five to eight pages at a time. Assign two to three keywords from your master list to each page in the spreadsheet.

In that same spreadsheet, make columns for the page topic, page title, page description, URL, photo file name, and the photo alternative text. Now, work one of those assigned keywords into each field in your spreadsheet. It’s easier to see than explain:

Revising Content to Include Keywords

Now it’s time to rewrite your content. Under no circumstances should you ever rewrite directly in the website CMS. Don’t do it. Draft your rewritten content in a Word document or a Google Doc.

The content on each page should be between 300 and 700 words in order for search engines to accurately determine what the page is about. Refer back to your spreadsheet and incorporate each assigned keyword into the page content two to three times each.

Getting the Rewritten Content Approved

You know who should see your new content before it’s posted. Make sure those people know that the content was rewritten to include specific terms that they should not remove and they should instead edit for accuracy, style, and syntax.

Have them make suggestions via revisions tracking so they don’t accidentally remove one of the keywords you worked so hard to include.

It’s important to note that you should have a member of the Web Team involved throughout this process, but it is especially important that they see the new content before it’s published.

Publishing Your Optimized Content

Make sure all other web ambassadors on your site know that you’re publishing this optimized content and on which pages. They need to know that it was impeccably crafted and they should not make edits to the content without talking to you first.

SEO On Your Site

If this is your first foray into search engine optimization, do not attempt to do it alone! Even if you’re experienced at SEO, let us know your plans and we can combine forces for an even more effective campaign.

As always, give me a call at 2-1626 or send me an email at if you have any questions or want to make some changes to your site.