It’s official — the year 2020 will go down in history as one of the major pivots for humankind. Nearly every industry has changed on both micro and macro levels...and higher education has by no means been immune to this need for adaptation to circumstances. Whether it’s the pivot to virtual vehicles for engagement, the HYPER-digitalization of marketing methodologies, or simple tweaks to admissions requirements (bye-bye SAT), the pandemic has accelerated change in an industry that has been needing a bit of an update.
Naturally, anyone who has been in higher education for longer than five years (as a professional) knows that the battle against inertia is real...and I happen to fall into the category of humans who believe that not all of the positive change we have seen since early 2020 will stick (esp. in higher ed). However, combating my Gen X cynicism, I am confident that some of the adaptations are here to stay. The increased reliance upon SEO for universities, for instance, is a keeper.
To paint the backdrop a little more, I think that SEO is a long play that leads to greater sustainability in the enrollment marketing industry. When done correctly, SEO will lead to a decreased dependence on lead generation through name purchases and paid search. But SEO is NOT a silver bullet and it takes some time (and discipline) to get it right. As your mom used to say, most good things are worth the wait and SEO definitely is! Keep reading to dive into the three reasons why most undergraduate enrollment marketers need to make SEO more of a priority in the coming year.
For Gen Z, Finding the Right College Starts With Search
It probably comes as no surprise that many consumer transactions start online. However, if someone were to ask you how much of the sales pie can be attributed to the internet, I bet you might predict around half (that’s what I guessed). In reality, OBERLO has reported that 63% of shopping experiences start online...and that statistic was BEFORE the pandemic started. It’s been reported that this percentage has jumped by about 20% in many industries since then.
So, how does this translate into the college search process? Well, let’s say that you have 10,000 students who generally end up in your undergraduate inquiry pool. According to the research, at least 6,300 of those initially went online to begin their research. You might be thinking: “OK, no problem, they knew about my institution, Googled us, and then visited our website.” Unless you work for an extremely well-branded institution, that is most likely NOT how the research began (just sayin’). More often than not, prospects are searching specific keywords like “best engineering college in Georgia” or “what bachelors degree pays the most” and then end up funneling down to your site (or they come across your digital ads).
The important point is, if your institution has had an ongoing conversation about ‘lacking brand’ or increasing your market presence in the past 6-12 months, search engine optimization (SEO) is a key component toward reaching brand recognition and winning against your competitors.
Standardized Test Scores and Student Search are Circling the Drain
Ditching the SAT or ACT score as a requirement for college applications might be the single biggest change in protocol for this next generation of college students. You can thank the pandemic for that. This change was gaining ground at a snail’s pace in the past decade. For some perspective, in September of 2019 about 1,050 colleges and universities were “test-optional,” with only 47 having made that decision in the prior 12 months. As of today, according to FairTest, at least 1700 institutions are test optional. While we can certainly debate the merits of this change to test-optional applications...there are bigger implications for admissions leaders who are trying to build a lead pool.
Many institutions count on student search to build a portion of their enrollment funnel (prospect names have been readily available through numerous sources, including The College Board, ACT/NRCCUA and more). This tactic of buying interest was frequently used in geographic areas where institutional branding is less prevalent. As the test-optional mentality percolates into the school systems, there will be fewer test-takers (we are already seeing this because of the pandemic). As fewer high school students take tests, there will be fewer people in the student search population, making an on-point SEO strategy for universities mission-critical instead of just a ‘nice to have.”
Google is On Track for a Record Search Year
Arguing the merits of which search engine is best can be done at another time and place. Let’s look at what we know and can all agree on. According to Internet Live Stats, between January 1 and April 1 of 2021, Google hosted 360 billion searches. If you just think about this for any given day...that is 3.5 billion searches every day or close to 1.5 trillion searches a year.
What we also need to consider is the audience that uses Google the most. ZoomUser tells us that Google is by far the first-choice search engine of those under 25 years of age. Youtube is the second choice, by the way. Voice search is also growing exponentially with over 55% of teens saying that they use this tool more than once a day.
So what does all this mean for higher education in general and for the use of SEO in particular? Higher education professionals will need to continue to adapt to new lead sources as traditional student search numbers continue to dwindle. Likewise, as more and more students take to search engines, YouTube and voice search, there are terms and keywords that need to be woven together with your unique selling proposition (USP).
Implementing an effective SEO content strategy gives you the ability to tell the story of your institution in a way that is authentic and competitive. It also enables you to capitalize on long-form content that will continually and consistently work on your behalf for months or even years by increasing quality traffic to your university’s website for free.
Next Steps to Leverage SEO at Your University
Below are some resources to help you launch your SEO strategy with minimal stress and maximum impact:
- Gain a deeper understanding of the basics of SEO strategy so that you can generate some easy wins around key ranking factors. We’ve put together a list of four SEO tips for colleges and universities that you can implement today, in order to grow your search results tomorrow.
- Access my webinar, “How to Take Your School's SEO Game from Zero to Sixty” to learn how to get started improving your school's organic search rankings in this jam-packed on-demand webinar.