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SEO for Universities: Most Don’t Get a Passing Grade

SEO for Universities

Having worked in the world of higher ed marketing in the past, I have noticed that many universities are woefully behind when it comes to online marketing and web design.

It can be shocking to think that these huge institutions that employ thousands of people and bring in millions of dollars don’t understand some of the basic tenets of online marketing, especially when students at these schools are probably being taught some of these principles right now.

In fact, I think some of these schools would get better results putting students in charge of some website projects than they are getting from their full-time staff (and when is someone going to offer an SEO degree, anyway?).

Why Do Universities Need SEO?

I can understand why a university would think they don’t really need SEO. They probably figure that prospective students already know which schools they want to attend and will go directly to those schools’ websites.

Fair enough, but SEO for colleges is not about optimizing for the people who are seeking your school out by name. It’s for people who are looking for a specific product that you might offer.

That may be a master’s degree in advertising or an award-winning nursing program. It may be for people who are just beginning their search, or for people who have applied and are now deciding between schools.

The Chicago area alone has dozens of nearby colleges and universities, and all of them are competing for the same pool of students. Increasing your chances of winning a search over competitors could make the difference in landing another student.

University SEO Case Study: University of Illinois

Note: This school was chosen simply by virtue of being in my hometown, so there is no agenda here other than choosing a school to analyze.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is one of the top schools in the state, but they still haven’t gotten their heads around SEO for educational institutions.

Here are a few ways this fine institution could become equally fine at search.

Problem #1: Missing Schema

University Schema

If you run a page of U of I’s website through a structured data testing tool, you can see that there is no meaningful schema (also known as structured data) on the site.

Schema markups are becoming more and more important to search. In 2017 at Pubcon, Google’s Gary Illyes implored website developers to, “[Add] structured data to your pages because, during indexing, we will be able to better understand what your site is about…It will help us understand your pages better, and indirectly, it leads to better ranks.”

Even further back, Google’s developer page formerly stated, “When information is highly structured and predictable, search engines can more easily organize and display it in creative ways.” These “creative ways” of displaying information have been seen in review stars and supplemental data in product SERP displays and for recipes but has primarily been used to power featured snippets about events and showtimes, to enhance rankings for local listings and to contribute to snippets like the answer box.

There is a whole category of schema markups dedicated to universities, and the schools that start to add these markups to their sites will beat the competition at search. Additionally, course schema can be added to pages for courses, programs or degrees, to help search engines better understand and deliver these pages in search.

Local Business Schema

In addition, Schema is an important element of winning at local search. Incorporating schema into your site can help your business (or university) get into Google’s “local pack”, that exclusive selection of local business that appear in a special section at the top of search results (see image below).

Google local pack

FAQPage Schema

When prospective students compare universities, they look in three areas:

  1. University ranking websites
  2. Universities’ official websites
  3. Other 3rd party websites about universities

Locating many of these, however, starts with a Google search. Google is now changing the search landscape so that questions are answered directly in Google through the expansion of the infinitely-expanding “people also ask” featured snippet. This was in about 15% of SERPs prior to last July, and now appears in about 85% of SERPs.

where users click after searching Google

This pushes the organic position number one way down the page and also continues a trend of steadily eroding clickthroughs from search, which Rand Fishkin thinks may drop to as low as 40% this year while zero-click searches continue to rise.

Problem #2: Poor Meta Titles and Duplicate Content

First let’s look at meta titles and meta descriptions.

The meta title and meta description are those things that show up in search results. Looking at the example below, the meta title is the text that appears in blue, and the meta description is the blurb in black text.


Going back to U of I, the site has 103 meta titles that are too long. Anything longer than 70 characters will get cut off, as you can see in the Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing example. Illinois’ site also has 122 pages with duplicate meta titles. This can hurt a site’s Google rankings, as Google wants every page of a site to have its own unique meta title–a title that tells a searcher what the main topic of that particular page is.

Looking at meta descriptions, the U of I site has 176 pages that are missing meta descriptions altogether, so those pages will have no meta description to help searchers understand what the page is about (which is a no-no in Google’s book). There are also 72 pages with duplicate meta descriptions, which can lead to Google penalties; each page of a site is expected to have a unique meta description.

The site has 254 meta titles that are too long. Looking back at the the Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing example, you can see that meta titles that are too long will get cut off.

Problem #3: Headers

Every page of a website should have one (and no more) individualized H1 header that states the general idea of the individual page. On the U of I site, 172 pages have a duplicate H1, which will make it more difficult for search engines to determine the topics of each of those pages.

Keep in mind, this is without doing a page-by-page audit to see if there are pages on the site with more than one H1 or headers in common elements of the pages. On the College of Fine + Applied Arts page, i counted three H1 designates in the source code, so I will assume that some other pages in the site have the same issues.

Problem #4: Site Speed

Google puts a premium on user experience. They want to serve the best results in search to ensure that you continue to use Google. Therefore, site’s with notable operational issues, like missing pages or slow site load time can be penalized in search rankings.

The mobile version of Illinois’ homepage scores a very low 28/100 score on Google’s PageSpeed Insights, while the desktop site scores 38/100. The university should look into speeding up the load time of these pages to improve search rankings.

site speed

The Upside

That doesn’t mean that it’s all gloom and doom. The site does have a visually appealing look and a responsive design. This is important, as Google is now excluding non-responsive sites from mobile search results. The site also uses canonical URLs, which help search engines understand the structure of your site and find content more easily.

It’s Time for Universities to Embrace SEO

SEO for universities is no longer optional. Competition is increasing, and reaching the potential pool of students means getting it right online–that’s where students are today. Brochures are fine and good, but the website is a college’s front door.

Google is making it ever harder to rank in search without following specific SEO protocols. It’s not enough to have a website anymore, and universities must take the next step in web optimization to beat the competition.

I’ll look at some other Big 10 schools in a future post to see how they stack up in search engine optimization.

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