When I started to research this article, I became frustrated with the quality of the majority of university websites. After hours of scrolling through more than 40 ineffectual and poorly designed websites, I simply couldn’t take it any more. I clicked over to the Google search bar for help.
"Why are college web…" I began to type. But before I could even finish typing the word "websites," Google auto-filled, "Why are college websites so bad?"
Apparently I wasn’t the only one to be frustrated by college or university websites.
In fact, on the first two pages of Google, I found no fewer than 11 articles discussing poor university web design and the potential reasons for it. Not only that, but I also found numerous mentions of this problem among college student discussion boards, marketing resources and even college faculty blogs. Clearly this is an industry-wide problem.
So here’s the bad news. Statistically, your university is probably making some of these mistakes with your website. The good news is that even small improvements can place you far above and beyond the rest of the pack.
Keep reading for the most common SEO issues with college or university websites, and the steps you can take to combat them.
1. HomePage misuse
This is the most important factor to consider when designing your university’s website. Many people think of SEO as a technical service – if your header tags are correct, your copy is dense with keywords and your pictures have alt-tags, your website is optimized. But one of the biggest factors search engines take into account when ranking your website is how people use it. If your website is confusing to look at or difficult to use, people will click away – and search engines will take notice.
Of the 40 university websites I looked at, I hoped to find some examples of good, user-focused homepage designs to include in this blog. I found fewer than five.
The biggest question I was left with was this: Who is this website for?
In my mind, although there are multiple audiences for each university website (media, alumni, city officials, etc.), the two that are most important are prospective students/parents and current students.
- Prospective student and parents are looking for compelling reasons to attend your institution. They will be most interested in information like campus activities, classes, majors, financial aid information, application due dates and requirements.
- Current students are looking for actionable information. This includes academic calendars, faculty contact information and weather updates.
In my research, the majority of university homepages have three sections: Research and alumni news, upcoming campus events and social feeds (which are mostly made up of links to news and events).
Who exactly is this information benefiting? Web comic artist Russell Monroe demonstrated this incongruity to hilarious effect with his Venn diagram sketch about university websites.
Your homepage is arguably the most important page on your site. On average, it is the starting point for almost 75 percent of interactions with your website. And yet, so often, university and college website homepages seem to be a place to put non-compelling (and often unnecessary) information.
“Site structure reflects what the institution thinks is important, not what site users actually want to know," wrote Melanie Fullick of University Affairs.
Take a look at your website, especially the homepage. Does your audience need the information you have featured there? And if not, what do they need?
2. Website Navigation
Universities seem to have gathered together in a room and decided they would all use gigantic mega-menus. Now, I will admit that there are conflicting views on mega-menus in the SEO world – some believe that it takes away from the power of the most important topics, and some believe that it makes the site easier to use, thereby improving the website. In my experience, mega-menus are often entirely uncessary.
So, let’s perform an experiment. Take a look at your university's website. How many things are likely to be clicked on by your primary audiences? I am skeptical that your website’s navigation really needs a quick link to a letter from your president, for example. But they would probably appreciate a quick link to directions to campus.
Footer navigation is another area that colleges and universities often overload with links. Install some heat-mapping software on your home page – are people actually clicking on the links down there? If not, implement some spring cleaning and get rid of them. This doesn’t mean you have to delete every single link in your footer. But case studies have shown that deleting links from your footer can lead to improvements in keyword rankings.
3. Lack of Blogging
Most universities and colleges have a "news" section in which they list important research updates, new hires and updates on building progress. This is all important information, and it deserves a home. But what about all the other important information? To be specific, what about all of the information that appeals to potential students and their parents?
In a 2012 survey of freshman students, the most important factors in enrollment decisions were a school’s academic reputation, job placement of alumni, financial assistance, cost and social activity reputation. If you want to take the best students from application through to enrollment, you need a section on your website that addresses these questions.
South Dakota State University started a potential and current student-focused blogging platform called Rabbit Food in fall 2016. On this platform, they address common questions, such as how to get a summer internship, why study abroad is important and the best places to get a late-night snack around campus. Having a section like this addresses many potential relevant issues. Not only does it give admissions counselors a resource to answer common questions, but it also demonstrates a school’s commitment to its students.
Lastly, it provides colleges and universities with an opportunity to increase their keyword rankings. Having a consistently updated blog that is based on keyword and search-query research can greatly endear your website to search engines like Google. (Check out our case study on Rabbit Food here.)
4. Inaccurate Local SEO
It's not always about what's on your site, either. Some of what you need to pay special attention to when it comes to SEO is what's called "local SEO" – essentially, how your college or university is listed in business/location results from search engines. Don't ignore Google My Business, Bing and Yelp – SEO success is about more than just keyword rankings.
Take note of this key statistic – in 85 percent of searches, Google properties such as Google Maps take up the first 25 percent of the page. Make a good impression through these properties by ensuring your information is accurate and complete. Check local information sites like Citysearch, Yelp and YellowPages so that students have an easier time finding you when they're seeking you out. Simply putting in the time to correct any errors in your phone number, address, imagery or even your university name will help you see gains in local SEO.
Pro tip: A good first step is utilizing a tool like Moz Local to set you on the right path.
5. Separation of PPC and SEO
One of the most common mistakes I encountered in looking at university and college marketing SEO strategies is that they consider their PPC and SEO efforts separate in nature. While this is one potential approach, you're missing out on key opportunities by keeping these efforts in separate camps. For example, SEO research can help you discover long-tail keywords that will resonate in your PPC strategy – and they're often less expensive, but still popular with searchers (i.e., bidding on "best university for science degrees" versus simply "university").
Your PPC ads can also be a great way to test out meta descriptions and page titles for your SEO efforts. Test which ads perform best, and it can make your metadata more effective and improve click-through rates on your search listings. It can also be a great harbinger for your website copy by giving header tag options a trial run.
Whatever your SEO needs for your university or college marketing strategy, we've got you covered. Download our free digital guide (linked below) to get started. It's a great first step toward maximizing your digital potential.