A couple of weeks ago when I spoke at the American Marketing Associationâ€™s Hot Topic day on Search Marketing  in San Francisco, I got a lot of SEO questions from attendees who were from the educational community. I realized that college and university websites have a lot of unique aspects to consider in natural search optimization, and that thereâ€™s not a lot of specific advice out there specifically for them, so I thought Iâ€™d put together a brief list of tips which could be beneficial to any .EDU webmasters who are looking to improve their natural search marketing. Read on for more info.
Thereâ€™s lots of sites out there who have general search engine optimization (â€œSEOâ€?) advice, so Iâ€™m only going to touch lightly on those tips. Iâ€™ve spoken at a WebDevShare conference before (oriented to college webmasters â€“ WebDevShare was since merged up with another conference, perhaps Educause , I think), and I know that university webmasters are aware of SEO, so itâ€™s not that theyâ€™re unsophisticated so much as that theyâ€™re typically asked to wear way too many hats at once, making it hard to do as much as theyâ€™d like to.
Typical EDU webmasters are often working multiple roles like: Marketer, Public Spokesperson, IT expert, Graphic Designer, Usability Expert, HTML Coder, Server Administrator, Copywriter, Photographer, etc. All at grossly underpaid rates of academia! So, itâ€™s little wonder that many .EDU sites have some faulty infrastructure from the standpoint of being easily indexible by search engine bots and easily findable by people searching for info through search engines.
Even so, colleges and universities (particularly smaller ones) should pay attention to natural search optimization, because they often have limited advertising budgets or even no campaigns in paid search marketing.
So, what to do about SEO for college and university site(s)? In most cases, an entire website overhaul is going to be expensive, and other priorities will make it difficult-to-impossible to accomplish. So, I recommend trying to incorporate most of my tips into general webpage design standards so that as you work on new pages and adjust old pages you can iteratively improve your site rather than trying to bite off too much at once. At very least, try to first do improvements to your homepage, and then work your way down to other sections and pages of your site in order of precedence.
Tips for how to optimize .EDU sites:
- TITLE tags & keywords â€“ The words you use within the TITLE portion of the webpage code appear in the upper bar of most web browsers. These words also appear as the link text in search engine results pages when users find the page through keyword searches. So, you should carefully consider the words used in the TITLE, including the top 2-3 keywords that a user would be likely to enter into a search engine to find that specific page. You can carry the university name throughout a websiteâ€™s titles, but you may need to modify based on how long the name is. For example, on the homepage of Stanford, they use â€œStanford Universityâ€?. On subsection pages, theyâ€™re using a format like â€œStanford University: Researchâ€?. For the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I would use their full name along with their well-known acronym, â€œMITâ€?, on their homepage, and then just use the acronym for branding purposes in subsections, like: â€œMIT School of Architecture & Planningâ€?. If your school primarily focuses on one or two disciplines, you might want to include those words in the homepage title, if the universityâ€™s name doesnâ€™t already mention them. Ex: â€œXavier School, Focusing on Leadership Training & Upper Level Managementâ€?. For smaller, less-well-known schools, the specific disciplineâ€™s mention of your main programs is a must-have.
- Research your keywords â€“ most colleges are likely already using good keywords where they make sense, and Iâ€™d guess that most are not likely using terms like â€œApothecaryâ€? when they should be using â€œPharmacyâ€?. But, itâ€™s a good idea to check your assumptions about ideal keywords by using good tools to see what words are most popular on the internet. Hereâ€™s a great article on keyword research , and also check out Google Trends , which is a great tool that allows you to enter up to five terms simultaneously to see comparative popularity (enter each term, separated by commas).
- Optimize your H1 tags â€“ the H1 tag is a sort of headline or title which appears in the body of the page text. This is another good signal for informing the search engine as to what the page is about, similar to the TITLE. Use similar or identical text that youâ€™re using in the TITLE. Donâ€™t include hyperlinks within the H1, since link text is typically more of a signal about the page which the link is pointing to, rather than the page it resides upon. Use styles to make the H1 look nice on the page. Also, donâ€™t hide the H1 text, as this could look like youâ€™re trying to trick the search engines! Hiding text is against their policies.
- Use good on-page text â€“ just like in the TITLE and H1, use good keyword text within the body of your pages. Try to always include some main text body in a page, even if the entire page is mainly devoted to an image, Flash application, or video. Ideally, add a caption to the image or other object. Keyword searches function off of text found on web pages, so donâ€™t create pages which look like little more than empty shells with no content.
- Use ALT text in image tags! This is important for making pages usable for vision-impaired people, and itâ€™s important to the search engines, too. The ALT text should describe the image. Likewise, a common error is when designers neglect to use ALT text within navigation buttons and logos found throughout a site.
- Use good link label text. When linking to a page, the text used in the link informs the search engine about what that page is about. Use of good keywords in the link text is very helpful to you. For instance, youâ€™ll see many cases where someone will link words like â€œclick hereâ€? or â€œlinkâ€? instead of using text that people actually search upon. If an image, such as a navigation button, is hyperlinked, the ALT text of the image is used just like the text in textlinks. So, if your sitewide navigation has buttons, itâ€™s better to use text like â€œAbout Anytown University â€“ Maps, Contact Info, Historyâ€? â€“ donâ€™t just label a link something too vague like â€œAboutâ€?.
- Make your URLs easily crawlable â€“ if possible, use server-side rewriting of your URLs to make them in a spider-friendly format. May be nonviable for larger universities, since many different departments may all be hosted on different platforms, programming languages, server software, etc. Itâ€™s hard to get all the various campus website owners to cooperate on common formats, Iâ€™m sure! Links formatted with querystrings like â€œhttp://www.example.edu/application.jsp?ID=1234&Pg=125&Section=articles&Dept=Humanitiesâ€? donâ€™t work so hot. Instead, rewrite the URLs without the querystings, or with querystrings in a directory/subdirectory/filename format. Ex: â€œhttp://www.example.edu/Dept-Humanities/Section-articles/Pg-125.htmâ€?
- Consider using Sitemaps, too â€“ one for each major website/division in the university. This can help overcome some of the difficulties search engines have in finding pages that may be hidden behind the various non-optimal URL formats you may have. Sitemaps  are a standard format for a datafeed of a siteâ€™s URLs, informing search engines as to where all your pages are housed.
- Use Sitesearch/Websearch to provide your internal site keyword search utility â€“ Googleâ€™s service  to provide universities with their own site search engines is very useful, and some people feel that it could help get your pages indexed in Google. I donâ€™t think itâ€™s really going to help with indexation, but Google works better than most in-house, home-grown site search engines, so it can help site users find the info throughout your site. (Also, if you havenâ€™t heard of the Google Apps for Education program , you might look into that since their collaboration tools are very strong and it appears that quite a few other university communities are planning to replace their in-house stuff with the Google Apps.)
- Use RSS in your news section. RSS stands for â€œReally Simple Syndicationâ€?. Using this or Atom allows people to subscribe to feeds of your news/announcements content so they can get the articles in their RSS readers, and also allows them to take and display your news stories on their websites. This is great for increasing distribution of your news stories, and it also can help drive links back to your site! (Check out Stephan Spencerâ€™s RSS optimization tips  â€“ heâ€™s a recognized expert on RSS optimization. One of his tips is: provide the entire article in the RSS feeds, not just introductory preview text.)
- Police your own .EDU domain! Find out if parts of your university site(s) have been compromised by spammers! Do a site: search on your EDU domain along with keywords like â€œViagraâ€?  to see if some servers have been compromised and are deploying bad spammy content. Donâ€™t become a bad neighborhood of links! Spammers try to gain access to .EDU sites because links from them are worth a lot more for achieving search engine rankings. They may hack into your campus servers, or bribe some poor, underpaid academician to give them access/links.
- Provide a â€œlink to usâ€? section, and provide copy-and-paste HTML code for textlinks, badge links, and banners to your university site. On those same pages, provide instructions on how to cite the university and website and what the official Hex/PMS codes for your school colors are. Providing these official instructions for linking may help improve the ways people link to you and make them consistent (something to also support your trademark enforcement).
- Watch your referral traffic through your web analytics program. You should see healthy trend lines of visits from people coming in through Google, Yahoo, and MSNâ€™s Live.com. (Google traffic should really dominate your trends, followed by Yahoo! And MSN Live. Also, some other, lower-tier search engines might be worth watching, since they can be used by larger amounts of the college student demographic: Ask.com, Dogpile.com, and Mamma.com.) If you see sudden drop-offs in referral traffic from search engines, say, after youâ€™ve just deployed a new site-wide UI, this could be a major tip-off that you mayâ€™ve deployed something that made your site hard to spider, or mayâ€™ve impacted how your pages rank.
Stay tuned for some Advanced Online Optimization Tips for Universities and Colleges! Iâ€™ll post a followup article within the next few weeks which outline some advanced tips which could help in your online promotion efforts.
Also, the AMA Hot Topic Series on Search Marketing will be coming to New York  later this month, and Chicago in June, so plan to attend if youâ€™re able and you can get some more details on basic optimization steps for websites from my presentation.