Intelligence
Our SEO Philosophy
Our SEO Philosophy

Intelligence

Our SEO Philosophy

May 24, 2021By Daniella Nordin

Three Tenets of SEO for Higher Ed

You’re a social media manager, a digital marketer, a content producer. One of your most important tasks is to identify the great stories at your institution: “The best four years of your life.” “An 80% chance of landing your dream job with your business degree.” “Alumni who bleed your college colors around the world.”

And because you’re a storyteller, you’re a publisher. That means, like every publisher, you need people to find your content before they engage with it. There are myriad ways to get your content in front of the right people, such as email, advertising, social media, and earned media. While these digital marketing tactics can all generate traffic to your website, the majority of online traffic is driven by search engines.

That means that learning how search engines work and how to influence them will enable you to get your content in front of more people and ensure that more of the people you want to influence will interact with it.

One way to improve your search results is to proactively create content about your institution that’s relevant to both people and search engines. Producing this kind of content increases the quantity and quality of organic traffic to your .edu. This is search engine optimization, or SEO. SEO is also one of the only online marketing tools that, when used correctly, can continue to pay dividends over time. If you provide a solid piece of content that deserves to rank for the right keywords, your traffic can actually snowball over time. Yes, digital advertising can also drive traffic to your website, but it needs continuous funding over time to be successful.

Often, though, the challenge with SEO is that higher ed marketers — and agencies — focus on the search engine and forget about people.

The Power of Us

SEO hasn’t evolved as much as everyone likes to think it has. What has changed over the years are the tactics marketers use to affect rankings in search results. As Google, Bing, and other search engines have evolved, marketers have had to find new ways to manipulate search results.

A few years ago, Google did something big. Instead of trying to determine what should rank by its own measures, Google began looking to you and me to tell it what should rank. Shifting its focus to the user experience meant carefully measuring differences between visitors who could find what they were looking for on a website and those who couldn’t.

Because of this shift, SEO is no longer about conforming to algorithms — it’s about satisfying searchers and search intent. Google now uses these behaviors to prioritize rankings. All of a sudden, satisfying users is satisfying search engines.

And just like that, SEO changed forever.

A User-First SEO Mindset

Today, nothing is “good for SEO” unless it is first good for the user. And what makes a good user experience? We’re glad you asked. At mStoner, the user experience (UX) lies at the heart of every decision we make and every project we undertake.

We start with a strategy. For most of our clients, student recruitment is the most important goal. So we map out a student journey. We look for the thoughts, feelings, and emotions that drive the complex decision-making process that goes into choosing a college or university. We are a team of fearlessly creative user-experience designers. We gather data, conduct user interviews, run design sprints, and test digital experiences with real people in the spirit of curiosity, empathy, and cultural awareness. The idea is to think about UX not narrowly but as a broad framework for understanding each other as individual human beings.

Then we take a user-centric approach to content strategy and information architecture so content is compelling, has the right message, and is organized for people. Remember: When it comes to SEO, content reigns supreme. Next, we develop a keyword strategy — and a well-structured site makes that a lot easier to do. We create content that incorporates keyword research and satisfies search intent.

We put it all together in a pretty package, yes, but there’s a lot of careful thinking and execution that lies below that surface. The best approach to SEO is to make it an integral part of your website design (or redesign) process. Your site should be focused on making users happy and should be built for search marketing and lead generation.

SEO + .EDU

If you’ve gotten this far, you understand that we think of a website as the foundation for a complete digital marketing program for an institution. And given that point of view, we build it with a plan in mind. Of course, your website needs tending: a tweak here and content updating there will help increase your visibility among your most important audiences. Again, for most of our clients, this means attracting prospective students and bringing them into the admissions funnel.

How can you ensure your .edu lays a solid foundation for your digital marketing efforts? Invest in the three following areas to improve your SEO.

On-Page SEO

You can optimize individual web pages in order to rank higher and earn more relevant traffic in search engines.

  • Start with a site scan. You’ll get a baseline measurement of your SEO landscape by analyzing page titles, metadata, URLs, and other key elements on your homepage and department and/or school pages. A site scan can assess how effectively search engines are able to discover, crawl, and index your web pages.
  • Conduct keyword research. Cross-reference organic search terms in your Google Search Console with your priority keywords to create a targeted keyword list. Keywords can include your academic programs, degrees, faculty, and your brand. Research search volume, competitor ranking, formats, and costs to create a list that you can use strategically in your content.
  • Optimize your content. Using the personalized keyword list, develop a keyword strategy for content development and proper page hygiene (titles, metadata, alt-text for images, internal and external linking structures, etc.). Start with the top-level pages of the site: academics, admissions, and student life. Check them against our 15-point on-page SEO checklist, and then work your way through the rest of your site.

Off-Site SEO

Off-Site SEO refers to actions taken outside of your own website to impact your rankings within search engine results pages (SERPs). Optimizing for off-site ranking factors involves improving search engine and user perception of a site’s popularity, relevance, trustworthiness, and authority. This is accomplished when other reputable places on the internet (pages, sites, people, etc.) link to or promote your website, effectively “vouching” for the quality of your content.

  • Analyze your SERP (search engine results page). Look at the top ranking websites in the SERP and evaluate keyword rank and position. Ensure relevant keywords display for niche audiences. Create strategies to outrank your competition on the SERP.
  • Optimize your google attributes. Claim and update your institution’s Google Knowledge Panel. Choose the right website images, adding captions and proper alt-text, title text, and names for Google Image Search. Make sure images are the correct file size to decrease page load time. Last, upload an XML sitemap to Google Search Console, ensuring Google knows which pages to index.
  • Audit your social media. Search engines crawl and index social media accounts, but social media is an often overlooked SEO opportunity. Social media platforms increase online visibility and support SEO efforts to drive traffic to your .edu. Take a look at your referral traffic in Google Analytics. How much comes from Facebook? How can you be sure your efforts are driving students to the right content? Review your social media strategies as well as individual channels and accompanying analytics. Refine or adjust content to drive more traffic and directly influence your search results.
  • Boost your blog. A solid and consistent blogging strategy is the foundation for great SEO. Some of our clients have admission blogs; faculty research blogs, and event blogs. Blogs are primed to drive traffic to the main website, produce fresh content, incorporate back-linking to the site, and build credibility.

Google Analytics Configuration

If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. Keyword rankings are a great measure of SEO. But reporting solely on keywords devalues the marketer’s role and doesn’t paint the full picture of why SEO is important to the institution. Going beyond keyword rankings allows marketing teams to showcase what really matters: how organic search brings revenue and profit to the college.

  • Build a Google Analytics foundation. Review your current analytics and measurement configuration and identify areas for improvement. Identify your business objectives and establish corresponding website goals and key performance indicators, such as completing an inquiry form. Plan and implement a set of tracking mechanisms for the site within Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager. This includes setting up Google Analytics conversions and traffic monitoring between your blog and your .edu.
  • Create an SEO Google Analytics dashboard. Combine your analytics data with your Google Search Console data to establish the foundation of a complete SEO dashboard in Google Data Studio. Set goals and track KPIs such as branded and nonbranded keyword search results, traffic sources, and most viewed pages.
  • Review and iterate regularly. Once you’ve optimized for analytics and SEO, review at least on a quarterly basis. This working rhythm should include analysis of SEO and analytics reports and data, recommended improvements or adjustments, and results of any user testing

Investing in your website’s SEO is a long-term strategy. SEO rankings cannot be purchased or negotiated — they must be fought for and earned. That takes time and skill. We can help you expand your reach by incorporating valuable habits into what you’re already doing. The more we get familiar with you and your brand, the better direction we are able to offer to help you win the trust of search engines.

Download our SEO Starter Pack to begin increasing the quantity and quality of organic traffic to your .edu.


  • Daniella Nordin Director of Marketing Daniella brings more than a decade of experience with digital engagement, social media marketing, online fundraising, and digital marketing to mStoner. Prior to joining us, she helped nonprofits like the Girl Scouts find their audience on the right platforms and the right times. She spent nearly seven years as part of the marketing and communications team at Skidmore College, where she built the social media strategy from the ground up and found creative ways to share student stories.