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SEO for Universities: Five Ways to Improve Google Visibility for Academic Program Pages

Your university is competing for students. Online, this means you’re up against other universities, online colleges, and college ranking websites.

Search engine optimization—which describes everything you can do to improve the visibility of your university’s website to search engines—can give you a significant competitive advantage by bringing more student prospects to your site. This increased traffic will lead to more “Request Information” form completions and, ultimately, student applications.

The good news? Most of your competitors’ websites aren’t optimized for search engines. So if you follow the advice below, you’ll move ahead of the pack.

We’ll start with simple tactics and move to the more time-intensive efforts. The more SEO you pursue, the greater the results.

Set a Benchmark

Let’s start with a little test: Perform Google searches for your top dozen (or so) academic programs and look at the results closely.

If, for example, your criminal justice program page isn’t in the top three results for a search term like “criminal justice degree program” potential students in your geographic area probably can’t find you, either. (As Brian Clark put it: “The best place to hide a dead body is page two of Google search results.”)

Record what you find. This way, you’ll know where you’re starting and so, when you jump up in the search rankings, you can prove the value of your SEO efforts.

1. Retitle Existing Academic Program Pages

Google wants to send searchers to pages about what they’re searching for, and there are many pages on the Internet that Google can offer them. Including keywords in the following fields in your content management system (CMS) can boost the visibility of your academic program pages.

  • Page titles: Normally the H1 heading at the top of the page.
  • Page subtitles: The smaller text under the title. Google doesn’t pay special attention to subtitles, but it’s a way to emphasize other important keywords at the top of the page.
  • Page title tag: This HTML element is important for SEO and is often included as the clickable link in Google search results. Most website CMSs provide the ability to include custom title tags on pages. Include the most important keywords at the front of the text, within the first 60-65 characters.

Main Academic Program Pages

  • Page title: If, for example, you have a main pharmacy tech program page that links to all relevant pharmacy tech degrees and certificates you offer, title this page “Pharmacy Technician Degree Programs” instead of the simple (and SEO-unfriendly) “Pharmacy Technician.”
  • Page subtitle: There is often a lot of search for “schools,” especially for associate’s degree and certificate programs. Consider including something like “A Premiere Pharmacy Tech School in Texas” in the page subtitle.
  • Title tag: The page title tag could look something like “Pharmacy Technician Degree Programs | Pharmacy Tech School in Texas.”

Degree pages

  • Page title: If you have a page about the specific finance degree you offer, title the page “Finance Bachelor’s Degree Program” or “Finance Master’s Degree Program.”
  • Subtitle: Include the degree name in the subtitle: “Bachelor of Science (BS) in Finance.” Searchers rarely look for uncommon degrees like BSBA or MAcc.
  • Title tag: If the program is accredited, the title tag could look like “Accredited Finance Bachelor’s Degree Program | BS in Finance in Texas.”

Tracks and Concentrations

  • If your school offers a graphic design concentration, retitle the page “Graphic Design Program” and include the official concentration name in the subtitle. Searchers aren’t looking for “Bachelor of Arts in Art - Graphic Design Concentration.”
  • If you have a program for future math teachers, retitle the page “Math Education Program” or “Math Teacher Program” because searchers aren’t looking for “Bachelor of Science in Mathematics - Teacher Certification.”
  • If you offer programs for pre-med, pre-law, pre-pharmacy, and pre-vet, etc., retitle the page “Pre-Med Program” (or create a new, dedicated page) because searchers aren’t looking for “Bachelor of Science in Biology - Pre-Professional Plan.”

2. Create New Relevant Content

Searchers aren’t searching by degrees only. Additional content can help drive more traffic.

Majors pages

There is a lot of search for “degrees” and “majors.” It is unlikely that a single, lonely psychology program page will rank well for both terms. If you can, create a page for each of your psychology degrees and a separate page with unique content about your “psychology major.” You could see traffic for both types of searches.

Career pages

People also search for what they want to become after graduation. If you have an academic program page for “Sonography Degree and Certificate Programs,” you could also link to dedicated subpages about your “Ultrasound Tech Program” as well as your “MRI Tech Program,” with more information about these career paths within sonography. (In this case, there is more search for terms like “ultrasound tech programs” than “sonography programs.”)

“How to become…” pages

Searchers also try to find more information about careers. Consider creating pages that answer five common questions searchers ask about careers.

For example, on your Ultrasound Tech Program page, link to subpages with the following titles:

  • “How to Become an Ultrasound Tech” - this could be an overview page speaking generally about the process.
  • “How Much Does an Ultrasound Tech Make?” - includes salary details, preferably for your region.
  • “How Long Does it Take to Become an Ultrasound Tech?” - include alternative timelines for full-time and part-time students, and stories from your students.
  • “How Much Does it Cost to Become an Ultrasound Tech?” - include average costs for the relevant university program.
  • “Ultrasound Technician Education Requirements” - admittedly, the answer to this question could be 1-2 sentences, but include on a separate page if more can be said.

Snippets

If optimized correctly, you may even be discovered in the featured snippet at the top of the search result page, which is usually the text Google reads when responding to voice searches on mobile and home devices. Here’s a snippet:

screenshot of a google search for "how long does it take to become an ultrasound tech"

As you can see above, rating and promo sites often dominate on these searches, and it’s difficult to become visible nationwide for most academic programs. Consider making the content specific to your state, because people are searching for “How Much Does an Ultrasound Tech Make in Texas?”

3. Home page link to programs

The way a university organizes its academic program content impacts the visibility of its programs on Google. Many universities make the mistake of organizing academic program content online the same way they’re organized within the university—i.e., by college and departments. This method of organization often means that student prospects must click five or more times get to relevant pages: For example:

Academics >> College of Arts & Sciences >> Department of Communications >> Undergraduate Degrees >> BA in Communications

The degree page is so buried within the website that Google considers them less important. And besides, many student prospects won’t have the patience to click five times to get to these pages, especially on mobile devices. For students who are in the process of selecting a school, it’s not as important for them to know the relevant colleges and departments for programs that interest them.

One option is to redesign the homepage to include a dropdown with links to their academic programs, like the example below from Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU):

screenshot of Southern New Hampshire University website showing a drop down of all degree categories

For this to be SEO-friendly, Google needs to see linked URLs in the homepage code directing users to program pages. Most “Search For a Program” tools are not SEO-friendly because they do not provide direct links to program pages.

4. Create an “All Degrees and Programs” page

Other universities make the mistake of including every conceivable program, track, and concentration on a single “All Degrees and Programs” page that goes on forever (what we call the “long page”). The long page example included in the image below provides a number of challenges:

  • Few people search for complex or creative department names (“Curriculum & Instruction”) or program names (“Mind, Brain and Education”) so these pages won’t ever receive much search traffic.
  • There is no single page that best addresses the university’s “Teaching Degrees,” so it is unlikely that any of these pages will be visible for this search.
  • It is not important for a student prospect to choose between a BAIS degree or a BSIS degree at this point in the decision-making process.

We are currently designing an alternative to the long page, which links to main academic program pages within an accordion, like you see in the image below. The Main Academic Program page is linked with an orange button at the left with specific degrees and tracks included in links at the right.


5. Include All Programs in the Menu

Our ongoing SEO research with universities has led us to the following conclusion:

Universities with the best visibility on Google link to their academic program pages in the main menu so they are visible on every page of the website. This is a significant user experience challenge for universities that don’t want their menu bloated with too many links.

Here are a few examples of university websites with excellent architecture and strong visibility on Google.

University of Phoenix

Phoenix.edu offers a limited number of degree programs, which are all linked within the Degrees & Programs menu shown below. There are a number of reasons why this strategy works well for University of Phoenix, as well as Capella University.

  • Tabs at the left allow you to view by program type: Bachelor’s, Master’s, etc.
  • Organizing programs within categories like “Business” and “Education” helps users find groups of related programs quickly, and these pages can be optimized for terms like “Business Degree Programs.”
  • Specific program pages can be optimized for terms like “Business Administration Degree Programs” and “Early Childhood Education Degree Programs.”
  • These links are in the menu and are therefore on every page of the website, demonstrating to Google that they are important.
screenshot of Phoenix.edu showing the main menu with a degrees submenu
  • On mobile devices (below), notice how this organizational structure allows the school to keep most or all of their program types, program categories, and specific programs on one screen as they navigate through selections.
  • Notice that they display all of their calls-to-action at the bottom of every screen: chat, call, request info, and apply.

screenshot of Phoenix.edu showing the main menu with a degrees submenu on a mobile device

Rasmussen College

Instead of organizing program categories by College of Business, College of Nursing, etc., Rasmussen College links to their academic programs in the menu through seven program categories called “Areas of Study”: Business, Design, Education, etc. Clicking on a program category in the menu opens up links to related programs in a submenu.

screenshot of Rasmussen College showing the main menu with an Areas of Study submenu

Southern New Hampshire University

Consider the strategy of Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) as an alternative. They include only 14 of their most important programs in their menu and provide a link to “view all degrees.”

screenshot of Southern New Hampshire University showing the main menu with an Academic Programs submenu

Get Help!

Depending on your ability to invest in changes to your website, consider reaching out to us for help with any of the following:

  • Keyword Research: Learn how searchers are looking for your degrees, programs, careers, tracks, etc. so you can optimize content for the best terms.
  • Competitor Analysis: Learn how your website and the websites of other competing universities are visible on Google for the academic program terms most important to you.
  • Website Analytics: Learn how people engage with your website and complete the actions you want them to take (complete the Request Information form, schedule a campus visit, etc.).
  • SEO Strategy and Implementation: We will help you develop and implement a strategy to improve user experience as well as search engine visibility.
  • Digital Advertising: Drive more Request Information form completions by increasing your online visibility to students interested in programs you offer.
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