If Google (or other popular search engines) cannot find your work or the work of your colleagues, department, or institution, then it is essentially irrelevant — dare we say, nonexistent.”
This guide focuses on quick actions you can take today to optimize your existing website content. To use this guide, you’ll need permission to make light revisions to the content and titles of webpages. The main action items described here can accurately be described as “revising content for clarity and readability.”
What is SEO?
SEO is search engine optimization. It’s optimizing the content of your website to rank highly in Google search results. It’s making Google like you.
Google likes you if:
- People spend a long time on your website once they’ve navigated there from search results.
- People DO NOT return to the search results after visiting your site. This indicates to Google that their question was answered.
- People click other pages on your site after that initial first contact.
Why SEO is important in higher education
“If Google (or other popular search engines) cannot find your work or the work of your colleagues, department, or institution, then it is essentially irrelevant — dare we say, nonexistent.” –EduCause
Prediction: a majority of your web traffic already originates in Google search. It could very possibly be that 80 percent or more of your traffic comes from Google.
Google is how prospective students learn about you. Google is how admitted students inform their decisions about which school to attend. Google is how parents confirm their decision to send their child to your school. Google is how current students double-check requirements. Google is how faculty and staff find the resources they need to do their jobs.
In higher education, we have a responsibility to ensure that important information is accessible to our community.
Terms you need to know
A keyword is generally a phrase, something like “Top Undergraduate Biology Programs.” It’s the phrase that people type into Google to find information.
A branded keyword is a phrase that includes the name of your academic institution, department, office, or unit. For example, “University of Minnesota Environmental Science graduate degree” or “Wichita State academic calendar.”
An unbranded keyword is a phrase that does not include the name of your academic institution. For example “Environmental Science graduate degree” or “academic calendar” or “top undergraduate biology programs.”
<title> and <h1> tags communicate valuable information to both readers and search engines. These tags are important to readers because they provide a snapshot of the content contained within the page. These tags are important to search engines because they highlight the keywords and content of the page, which helps them accurately index and serve the page. A web page can have two different page titles — meaning the <title> and <h1> can be different. The <title> appears in search engine results pages. The <h1> appears on the page. This beginner’s guide will treat them as one and the same, but more advanced web administrators may want to explore tactics for using each differently.
Subheadings, which are short bits of text wrapped inside H2 and H3 tags, help you organize your page so that both readers and search engines can understand your content. Subheadings can help make it easier for the user to engage with the content because they make your page easier to scan.
All about Keywords
Google’s search algorithm has steadily grown smarter over the years, and it’s important to note that SEO tips that were once common are now obsolete. Professionals who work in the field of search engine marketing obsess over the details of every update to Google’s algorithm. But for regular people, the upshot is that Google evaluates web pages more and more like a human would.
Several years back, websites could repeat a keyword over and over again to trick Google into ranking them highly for that keyword. That practice is now obsolete. Nowadays when we talk about targeting a keyword, we mean using the keyword in a few specific locations within the content of a page — notably, in places that are also helpful to the reader.
Google looks for pages that provide comprehensive answers to its users. Google wants its users to be satisfied by what they find on the web pages that they find through Google search.
How can they tell if users are satisfied? Great question, and only Google knows the full answer.
But imagine a user who lands on your page through a Google search, spends 4 seconds on the page before clicking back to their Google search results, and then opens a different page. That behavior clearly indicates that they were not satisfied with what they found on your page. Google notices that.
Getting started with keywords
A great way to get started is to identify a focus keyword for each page of your website. Or at least, the most important pages.
Identifying the best focus keywords can become a large project involving substantial research. If you are just getting started, I recommend keeping it simple and focusing on branded keywords. This will give you the opportunity to get comfortable thinking about keywords and including them in your content in intentional ways.
The advantage of focusing on branded keywords is there is a simple formula to follow to generate focus keywords. Just take the name of the program/department/office/unit and combine it with the topic of the page.
- So for the “Programs” page, your branded focus keyword can be “[office name] programs.”
- The “Resources” page becomes “[office name] resources.”
Tip: Start a spreadsheet with a column for each web page on your site, and another column for the focus keyword you choose for each page.
Step 1: Choose a page and highlight all the places where a general term could be replaced by a branded keyword. Look for mentions of:
- The university
- The program
- The degree
- Our faculty
- Our courses
- The requirements
- The major
Step 2: Replace those generic keywords with branded keywords like:
- University name (“Indiana University”)
- Program name (“Earth Science”)
- Degree name (“Earth Science BS Degree”)
- Program name plus students (“Earth Science students”)
- Program name plus required courses (“Required courses for Earth Science majors”)
Isn’t that going to be super repetitive? Yes, it would be super repetitive — robotic, even — if you used all of those branded keywords at every single opportunity. But you’re not going to. You are going to use them smartly and strategically. Start by using them in the first mention only. For example, the first time the web page mentions “the program,” try changing it to “the Earth Science program” and leave any further mentions alone. If several branded keywords land in the same sentence, or it feels like they are right on top of each other, then space them out by shifting one to the second mention. Read your webpage from top to bottom. If you reach a point where it feels like its been a while since a branded keyword was used, go ahead and swap one in.
How to optimize a web page around a focus keyword
With your focus keyword chosen, use it in as many of the following places as feels natural and human-readable:
- As part of the title/headline. This will ideally be at the beginning of the title, if possible.
- In the first paragraph, within the first 300 words approximately
- In at least one subheading. See below for more guidance on adding subheadings.
- In the body copy. The most important guideline is that your language should be natural, readable, and aimed at helping the reader’s comprehension of the topic. Consider: A webpage dedicated to several degree options will need to mention the names of those degrees more often than a page dedicated to a single degree, in order to help readers keep things straight. But if you are the type of person who likes to have benchmarks, here you go: For a long-form page (2,500 words), the focus keyword might typically appear 5-8 times. For a short-form page (500-800 words), around 3 mentions of the focus keyword should be plenty.
Bonus points: use a couple variants of your focus keyword. For example, if your focus keyword is “Careers for English majors” you will help your cause by also using keyword phrases like “Jobs for English majors,” and “Getting hired as an English major.”
Take your optimization to the next level by using your focus keyword in the following additional spots:
- Meta description
- Image Alt Text
- Image file names
- URL slug. For beginners, I don’t recommend changing URLs of existing pages.
Hit save. Congratulations, you just optimized a web page for a specific focus keyword.
Two more essential optimization steps
Add Internal links
Having internal links within your content helps readers on their path to get their questions answers. So if your content mentions the academic calendar, you should link it to your academic calendar page. Links should appear contextually within the content of the page, not as a list of ‘Related links’ at the bottom of the page.
Two key action items regarding internal linking.
- Every page on your site should include at least 2-3 links to other pages on your site. Make the links specific, and, as much as possible, try to avoid linking to generic pages like Contact Us or About.
- For every new web page your publish you should go back through your site and link to it from your old content.
Adding subheadings to a page not only helps with SEO, but improves readability by making the page more scannable for readers. It’s very common for readers to skim a page to survey the content, looking for the section that answers their question or addresses their concern. Subheadings are the biggest visual marker to enable this type of reading pattern. They make your page more readable and more helpful.
How many subheadings should be on a page? It depends. There’s no upper limit, and content that is comprehensive lends itself to numerous subheadings. Any place where the content shifts to a new topic, go ahead and add a subheading.
Important: subheadings need to be designated as Heading 2 <h2> or Heading 3 <h3>.
Remember: Putting text in bold is not a subheading.
And one last important thing
Remember when I said that Google will like you if your page helps users get answers to their questions? Well, you will succeed more often if every reader can clearly understand your content. Content written at a very high reading level is distressingly common on higher education websites.
Check reading level
Use a browser extension to check the reading level of a web page. Pages with a target audience of prospective undergraduate students should aim for a 9th or 10th grade reading level. In fact, this is a good target level for all pages, but if your office is truly only for graduate students, or existing faculty, then a slightly higher reading level may be acceptable.
How to revise content to improve reading level
The free online tool Hemingway App can scan your content and identify complex sentences, difficult words, and other things that you can revise to help improve the reading level of your web page. You can use your own judgment on how to implement the app’s suggestions.
Need a hand?
I can help you optimize your website, whether that means a quick consultation or a full-blown site audit. Email me (hi, I’m Erik) at email@example.com with the basic information about your situation, and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.