SEO for universities is a strategy that uses keyword research and website optimization to improve online visibility and attract students. Check out our expert tips to help your university’s SEO campaign succeed.

When you’re in higher education marketing, how do you encourage prospective students to enroll in your university’s programs?

We’re guessing it involves digital marketing. And while paid search (also called pay-per-click or PPC marketing) campaigns can garner fast results, there’s another key element of advertising that’s worth your time and effort: search engine optimization, or SEO.

With a comprehensive SEO strategy, you can rank your university website in search engines like Google and Bing for the keywords your target audience most likely uses.

We’ve put together this guide to SEO for universities to help you skyrocket to the top of organic search engine results. We’ll look at the importance of SEO for educational institutions and SEO best practices, as well as the top mistakes to avoid.

What is SEO for universities?

SEO for universities is the process of making changes to your website that help it rank as high as possible in the organic search engine results.

This includes researching the keywords prospective students are using in their queries, optimizing your website for these keywords, and creating valuable content to draw traffic and increase engagement with your site.

Here’s an example of the sites that appear at the top of Google for “drama degree scotland.”

Google search results for the keyword: “drama degree Scotland”

The aim is to rank on the first page of the search engine results, ideally in the No. 1 position. According to Backlinko, this result gets 28% of all clicks, which means more traffic to your website and more conversions.

Search engines like Google use a set of rules known as a search algorithm to understand how to rank web pages it indexes for certain words and phrases. When someone types a search query, the search engine ranks these pages in the order it thinks searchers will find most relevant.

The good news is that having an .edu domain makes it easier to rank your website on the first page.

Top-level domains (TLDs) like .edu and are known as “sponsored top level domains,” which means you must meet specific criteria to have one.

Sponsored top level domains are considered more exclusive and credible (and trustworthiness is a ranking factor), so your website gets a boost in the search engine rankings.

However, it’s still important to have a solid higher education SEO strategy, since your top competitors will be other university websites aiming for the top spot.

Expert SEO tips for educational institutions

Here are some additional ways to optimize your site, provide quality content to visitors, and improve your search engine ranking.

Consider search intent

Your web visitors will have different goals when visiting your website. Some will be carrying out research into the best universities to attend, while others will be ready to enroll right away. This is called search intent.

Search intent can be divided into four different categories: informational, navigational, commercial, and transactional. Here’s how the categories might apply to your university website:

Informational Navigational Commercial Transactional
Definition The user is seeking information about a topic. User is trying to find a specific website or page. The user is researching services or products with the intention to buy. User is ready to convert.
Where visitors are in the sales funnel Awareness Consideration Decision Action
Example “What is the difference between a dentistry course and an orthodontics course?” “John Doe University dentistry course” “Best dentistry courses in the Northwest US” “Apply for John Doe University dentistry course”

Understanding the search intent behind a specific query makes it easier to meet the expectations of web visitors and tailor your content strategy accordingly. This means more organic traffic, better search engine rankings, and more conversions.

Set up a Google Business Profile

While some prospective students may be coming to your university from another state or even another country, others might be a little closer to home.

As an example, around one-third of freshmen students at the University of California live within 50 miles of campus.

Local SEO, or local search, makes it easier to rank for search queries like “university courses near me.”

One of the most effective ways to enhance your local SEO is by creating a free Google Business Profile (previously known as Google My Business).

A Google Business Profile lets you claim ownership of your university in the Google search results.

Google Business Profile for the University of Oxford

A Google Business Profile has three key advantages when it comes to local SEO:

  1. It provides your university with additional real estate in the SERPs when people search for you by name. They can find out more about you, visit your website, and even call you on mobile.
  2. GBP provides Google with additional context about you. So for example, if you offer a specific degree course and mention this in your profile, Google knows to rank you higher if a user asks the relevant query.
  3. It increases the chance of your university appearing in the “Google Map Pack” at the top of the search engine results. This is a fantastic way to get additional visibility in local search.

University of Oxford in the Google Map pack results

Make sure your Google Business Profile is regularly updated and that you fill in as many fields as possible.

Use link outreach

Backlink profile on Ubersuggest for Bryn Mawr College website

Link outreach is the process of reaching out to relevant organizations and asking them to link to your content. The more high-quality backlinks you get, the more trustworthy and authoritative you appear in the search engine results.

Getting backlinks is one of the harder aspects of SEO for universities. This is because you not only have to create high-quality content marketing, but have to find prospective websites willing to link to it.

However, when done right, it can give you the edge in the SERPs. According to Backlinko, the number one result in Google has nearly four times more backlinks than the rest of the results on the first page.

Here are some of our top tips for managing your link outreach campaigns:

  • Use management tools like Semrush’s link-building tool to find prospective sites and track your emails.
  • Look at your competitor’s sites to see where they are getting backlinks from. If a website is willing to link to a competing university, they may be willing to link to you too.
  • Quality is better than quantity when it comes to backlinks. Links from irrelevant and spammy websites may hinder rather than help your SEO efforts.

Take advantage of university SEO agencies

If you haven’t got the time or resources to look after your university SEO, a digital marketing agency can help. An agency can look after all of your SEO or specific parts, for example, if you need a company to manage your link outreach or content marketing.

There are many agencies out there, and it’s important to do your research. Here’s what to bear in mind when finding a company to outsource your SEO to.

  • Understand what you want to achieve from your SEO efforts. For example, do you want to increase enrollments, increase brand awareness, or launch in a new international market?
  • Read reviews, case studies, and testimonials to see what results an agency has provided in the higher education sector. It’s always best to work alongside agencies with previous experience of working with universities, as they’ll understand the unique challenges you experience
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions – a good SEO company will answer any questions you have honestly and transparently

The benefit of working with a university SEO agency is that you can take advantage of the enterprise-level SEO tools they use to give your SEO strategy the edge. says:

“We use our own bespoke tool, ConversionIQ, to granularly track every step of the customer journey,” explains Sam Yadegar, CEO of Hawksem.

This helps us understand what aspects of an SEO campaign are working well and what needs additional optimization.

“Another advantage is that CIQ provides valuable insight about the university’s target audience,” continues Yadegar. “We can take that data and use it on another marketing channel (such as PPC) to scale and drive conversions.”

Why use SEO for educational institutions?

There are tens of thousands of higher education institutions in the world. According to Statista, there are nearly 3,200 in the U.S. alone! A lot of competition when promoting your courses to potential students.

Understanding and implementing an SEO plan increases the chances of ranking on the first page of search engine results.

Other benefits of search engine optimization for universities include:

  • More targeted traffic. Using SEO means you can appeal to the students most likely to enroll, meaning higher conversion rates
  • More trust in your university. Trust is imperative to all universities and higher learning establishments. A high search engine rank shows prospective students that you’re a reliable and credible place to study
  • Longer lasting results. While SEO can take a while to implement, it provides long-lasting results. A well-optimized page can rank highly in the search engines for months, even years, after the changes are made
  • Measurable results. SEO is trackable, meaning you can see how effective your campaigns are and make further changes if needed

Another key advantage of SEO is how cost-effective it is. While your exact return on investment (ROI) will vary, SEO produces the highest return compared to other digital marketing methods. This is because the ongoing costs are low compared to other marketing channels like pay-per-click advertising (PPC).

The three different types of SEO

There are three main components of a good SEO strategy. Focusing on them all will increase your odds of getting the results you want in the search engine results pages (SERPs or SERP).

On-page SEO

On-page SEO concerns how your individual web pages are optimized for the search engines.

One-page optimization works in two ways. First, it provides context to search engine crawlers so they understand what a page is about and how it can help with specific search queries.

Second, it makes your page more engaging, enhancing the user experience. Search engines reward pages that provide a positive user experience, meaning they’re more likely to rank highly.

Here’s an example of good on-page SEO:

Applying to Cambridge” page on the University of Cambridge website

The content is easy to read and understand, there are links guiding visitors to other parts of the website, and a video that clearly explains the undergraduate application process.

Elements of on-page SEO include:

  • Using keyword research and adding relevant keywords to your pages
  • Using headings to break up text and make it easy to read
  • Writing high-quality, accurate copy
  • Making title tags and meta descriptions as relevant as possible
  • Using external and internal linking to aid navigation
  • Adding images and videos and optimizing them (for example, adding contextual alt text to images)

Off-page SEO

Off-page SEO (also known as off-site SEO) concerns any search engine optimization that takes place away from your website.

This type of SEO can be harder to manage, since you have less control over what happens outside of your website. However, it can be a powerful way to boost your search engine rankings.

Take, for example, backlinks from other websites. This Wikipedia entry for Yale has a link to the university website, highlighted in red:

Wikipedia entry for Yale University

This link acts as an “endorsement” that the Yale University website is trustworthy and credible. The more high-quality and relevant backlinks a website receives, the bigger the boost in the organic search results.

Other off-page SEO tactics include:

  • Local SEO like citations on online directories
  • Optimizing your Google Business Profile
  • Guest posting on other websites
  • Review management on third-party platforms like social media and review aggregator sites
  • Backlinks from reputable, relevant websites

Technical SEO

Technical SEO concerns how you optimize the code and elements on your web pages to improve the overall user experience on your site. This can often be the things behind the scenes that your page visitors don’t see.

For example, let’s say a landing page takes too long to load. Rather than wait around, prospective students may get frustrated and leave your site — potentially to check out a rival university.

According to Portent, a site that loads in one second has a conversion rate 3x higher than a site that loads in five seconds.

A slow-loading webpage doesn’t just affect your conversion rates, but your SEO rankings too. While Google has said a high bounce rate isn’t an SEO ranking factor, it can indicate that your site isn’t reliable, which is an SEO ranking factor.

If you have Google Search Console, you can use the core web vitals report to check your page load speed and get recommendations to make your pages faster.

Navigation bar in Google Search Console showing core web vitals

Other technical SEO tactics include:

  • Ensuring your web pages are mobile-friendly
  • Using structured data (like schema) to give the search engines extra context
  • Making sure your site is indexable, for example, by submitting a sitemap
  • Removing broken links and creating relevant redirects

Prajwal Manglekar, Senior SEO Specialist at Hexanovate, spoke to us and confirmed the benefits of technical SEO.

“We optimized the entire website of a university client for technical SEO,” shares Manglekar.

“We prioritized mobile responsiveness, trimmed heavy images for faster load times, and revamped the URL structure to enhance navigation. As a result, organic traffic increased by 30% in just six months.”

How much does SEO for universities cost?

Generally, SEO agency pricing costs between:

  • $3,000-$10,000 a month for fixed rates
  • $500-$1,000 a month for local SEO
  • $5,000-$30,000 for one-off projects

We’ll look at how to decide which university SEO agencies are right for your needs later. The exact cost of SEO for universities depends on a number of factors, including the tools you use, and whether you do the work in-house.

There are free tools available to manage your SEO marketing strategy if you’re on a budget. For example, Ahrefs and Semrush offer basic keyword research and tools to analyze your competitors.

If you want to manage your technical SEO, Screaming Frog lets you track up to 500 URLs on your university website.

Ahrefs webmaster tools

If you use an SEO consultant or digital marketing agency, the cost will depend on your goals and how much work needs to be done.

For example, if you just need a company to create an SEO audit for you to follow in-house, this will cost less than a digital marketing agency creating an audit and implementing the recommendations on your behalf.

University website SEO: Common mistakes to avoid

At HawkSEM, we work with a wide range of higher education websites, helping them to improve SEO. For example, we helped California State University – Northridge (CSUN) with its search engine marketing, doubling the university’s conversion rate.

As a result of our digital marketing services, we’ve seen many mistakes that are frequently made by university websites.

Here are three of the most common errors, and how to avoid them.

Not understanding your target audience

Misunderstanding who your target audience is doesn’t just lead to a loss of conversions, it can also mean your SEO rankings take a hit.

For example, imagine that your university department offers both on-campus and online courses. You believe students are interested in the on-campus experience, so you focus your SEO efforts on pages relating to student life and campus facilities.

However, the opposite is true and your real target audience would prefer to enroll on an online course.

This can affect your placement in the SERPS in the following ways:

  • You won’t rank well for terms that are relevant to your actual target audience, for example, “online University courses”
  • People who visit your site will realize that your content doesn’t meet their needs. This will lead to a high bounce rate and lower search engine rankings

Before planning your SEO for schools strategy, it’s crucial to create a target audience profile. This will help you understand who your ideal learner is, and how you can optimize your pages to encourage them to enroll.

Example of a target audience profile

Using keywords that are too broad

Some keywords are more competitive than others. Using overly competitive (or broad) keywords can mean less chance of ranking on the first page of the search engine results as you’re up against more universities and college websites.

Long-tail keywords are keywords that are more specific. As a result, you’re more likely to rank, and the people who use them are more likely to convert on your university site.

Here’s an example. “Forensic science courses” has 310,000,000 results in Google, meaning it’s a very broad and competitive keyword.

Google search bar with the keyword “forensic science courses”

Alternatively, the more specific “Best forensic science degree courses in Texas” has 19,400,000 results, meaning you’re more likely to hit that all-important top spot.

 Google search bar with the keyword “best forensic science degree courses in Texas”
We spoke with Magee Clegg, CEO of Cleartail Marketing, who helped increase website traffic on behalf of a university client by over 14,000%.

“Diligent keyword research and content optimization were integral to our strategy,” explains Clegg. “It’s all about understanding what prospective students are looking for and aligning your website with those search terms. Tools like Google Keyword Planner and Google Trends are great for identifying high volume, low competition keywords.”

Having too much duplicate content

Academic websites contain several thousand pages of content. As well as course details, you can find information for students, alumni pages, and several blogs. This increases the chances of duplicate pages as many departments need to display identical (or very similar) information.

Take the Harvard website. When you take subdomains into account, there are nearly nine million pages indexed in Google. search in Google

It’s important to say that duplicate content isn’t as serious an issue as many marketers think it is. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll get a manual penalty unless you’ve intentionally copied multiple pages of content from other websites.

The issue that comes with duplicate content is that it confuses the search engines. Let’s say you have ten identical pages on your university website. The search engine isn’t sure which page is the original one, so it takes an educated guess. And there’s the chance it could guess wrong, meaning it directs potential students to an incorrect page.

Diagram showing how search engines treat duplicate content

The easiest way to avoid this issue when duplicate content on your web pages is unavoidable is through canonicalization. This is when you specify which page is the original one using a canonical tag, telling the search engines which page you want to display in the results.

Example of a canonical tag

The takeaway

Getting university enrollments can be challenging. You’ll likely be up against other universities and colleges that offer very similar courses, and perhaps experiences, to you.

Using SEO to increase your chances of getting on the first page of Google can make the difference between landing new students and losing out to your nearest rivals.

At Hawksem, we specialize in SEO marketing, meaning we can create, implement, and manage a university SEO strategy unique to your specific needs and goals.

Want to know more about how we can help? Get in touch for your free, no-obligation consultation today.

Kate Ingham-Smith

Kate Ingham-Smith

is a freelance writer and founder of Keep it Simple Copywriting. Kate has over 15 years of experience as a digital marketer, specializing in SEO, paid advertising, CRO, and UX.