I'm surprised that more graduate programs are not engaged in some form of SEO and conversion optimization. On the one hand, many university programs can rely on their notoriety to attract prospective students to campus. On the other, the types of students who are applying to top-tier institutions are from all over the country and may be choosing from a variety of programs at multiple schools. Many of them will begin their search online, and getting noticed at the top of a Google search could help substantially in filling out your applicant pool with quality prospects.
Case Study: Notre Dame ESTEEM Program
Description: The ESTEEM program is a collaborative effort of the University of Notre Dame College of Engineering, College of Science, and Mendoza College of Business, the one-year Master of Entrepreneurship degree program is designed for students interested in pursuing an entrepreneurship graduate program with a focus on science and technology. As a relatively new program, they were interested in improving their organic search rankings for keywords associated with entrepreneurship education as well as their organic and email campaign conversion results.
Search Engine Optimization
Luckily the ESTEEM Program website is relatively new, having been redesigned to be responsive by the Notre Dame Marketing Communications web team late in 2013. This is helpful because we didn't have to worry about problems like semantic markup, meta tags, mobile user experience, or structured data. Nonetheless, our baseline rankings at the beginning of the project were not very good.
Since people rarely get beyond the first result, much less the first page of a Google search, green on this graph represents the only keyword of value. That keyword is "Notre Dame Esteem." Great for those users who already know who they are, not so if you're looking to score other potential applicants doing a broader search. We're also looking at a branding issue. The program is actually called the Engineering, Science & Technology Entrepreneurship Excellence Masters Program, and referred to as ESTEEM for obvious reasons. The name ESTEEM, while quick and snappy compared to the alternative, doesn't provide much context for search crawlers. Since we weren't about to secure permission to rebrand an entire graduate program, we needed to get more creative with the language within their website.
On Page SEO
Step one was to address the content that is mostly seen only by the search engines. Changing the title tags, and meta descriptions of the individual pages to be more descriptive of the education that the program is selling potential applicants. This was followed by more descriptive headings, breadcrumbs, and language on the actual pages themselves. For example, instead of a heading title "About" we used "What is a Master of Entrepreneurship." (Better results could have probably been gained by doing a similar treatment within the site navigation, but at that point we'd be sacrificing the site style and responsiveness, so we chose to leave the nav alone).
We continued moving forward by attempting to improve the way content was displayed on key pages of the site.
The original homepage had a small block of content on the top of the page, followed by several columns of dynamic content that could change on a daily basis. Not only did none of this dynamic content explain what the ESTEEM Program was, it also made it difficult for the page to establish any solid footing in SERPs for relevant keywords. A simple change fixed all of that.
The new layout removes empty and largely useless content, like a twitter stream and non-descriptive CTA to the spotlight thesis with more informative and useful text content. Instead of just displaying a link to the capstone thesis projects, we're describing what they are and how they set the ESTEEM program apart. We have also opened up room to explain the benefits of the ESTEEM program's collaborative nature. These content blocks are not only more informative to the user, but they allow us to provide more contextual information for web crawlers as well.
Some people may look at this and complain about duplicate content across multiple pages. It's easy to think of websites as a book that people read from start to finish. From this perspective, it's hard to see much point in repeating messages. In reality, any page of the site is a potential entry page, and visitors move through a site on a variety of paths. Some users may never get beyond your homepage, so providing important information here is necessary.
On average, the new backlink count to nd.edu increases by 50,000 each week. The results are similar for comparable universities. Whereas the links to larger schools like the University of Michigan increase by twice that number. That's the power of being a major research institution, people are going to link to your website because you can be viewed as an authority. Departments and programs reap the benefits of natural link building that far outpaces the private sector. Whereas many SEO's will focus primarily on link building as a means to improve rankings, the nature of working at a university takes some of the pressure off.
Instead, it's better to focus on talking about and promoting your brand using the right language. We may not be able to dictate how 1,000 newspapers are going to publish a snippet about Notre Dame's new entrepreneurship program, but we can influence whether they use the brand name ESTEEM, or something more descriptive, at least to a point. This is a much more efficient use of our time. Not to mention, the Marketing Communications department controls over 400 websites associated with the University, all of which have the much-coveted .edu TLD. Doing a simple find and replace on any of these with anchor text mentioning the program was easy enough.
Initial results from these steps alone have been promising: Typically, it can take 3 - 6 months to see significant results show up in SERPs when making content changes that affect SEO. However, the nature of the .edu TLD as well as the specificity of the entrepreneurship program market is likely expediting the indexing process. It's also likely that we're seeing great benefit as a trusted university. Even when we adjust for the 7 added keywords since the start of the project, the number keywords the site doesn't rank for has dropped by half. Organic search traffic, the metric that really matters, has increased by 40% in 2 months.
The goal of the ESTEEM website, and most post-graduate program sites, is to act as a portal for prospective students to come and learn about the program and to apply. It seems almost taboo amongst the university crowd to say it, but prospective students are customers, and your website should be the sales funnel. Like all lead generation websites, each visit has a value relative to the value of the product you're selling and the cost of marketing that product online. That value increases with your conversion rate. For some sites that means the user is submitting a form or buying a ticket, for ESTEEM in means entering the portal to fill out an application.
We removed the button labeled "Contact Us" and changed the apply button from blue to green. The first step limits the number of options for the user and the second makes the call to action more obvious as the user quickly scans the page. That simple change increased the conversion rate by 15% during A/B testing.
Next, we turned our attention to pay-per-click landing pages. It's generally best practice to create specific pages for each PPC campaign that you're running. This allows you to optimize the campaign with the most percision possible without having to worry about hurting the content or architecture of yoru public facing website. We started with a single page design that's typical of PPC landing pages, with bullet points layed out to the left and a form and additional easy to read data on the right. On mobile, the user sees the form first. The only difference between the two pages was the presence of an apply button above the short form that led you to the full application.
After 3 months of A/B testing this landing page, it was apparent that prosepective students were much more willing to complete the short form as opposed to being directed to the apply page. In all, the page with just the short form yeilded 20% more engagements than the one providing the option to go directly to the application.
SEO within higher education is unique thanks to the power of the .edu TLD and the number of links that will build themselves. What you need to focus on is having a great user experience and great content that clearly explains what your program or department does, both to the user and the web crawlers. In conjunction with a smart strategy in how you talk about your program in press releases and on the internet, SEO in higher education can yield quick results.
Conversion optimization is much the same in higher education as it is for private sector big ticket items like mortgage loans or insurance. Conversion rates are low, and return visits are fairly high as people shop and explore to find the option that's right for them. However, using standard A/B testing and changing even the most basic aspects of the design can yield big results.
It's hard to explain the reasons behind our results specifically. Button color is the most commonly altered and debated subject when it comes to conversion testing and, so far, no one has come up with that one perfect color that works in all situations. It's likely that the former blue color flowed too well with the site design, and some users just glanced over it, or it may be that the type of users who view this page simply prefer green. The only way to know for sure what's going to work best in these situations is to run the test.