As we discussed last week in the post on your school’s inbound marketing strategy, the first place most internet users go to find what they’re looking for online is a search engine, which, almost 90% of the time, means Google.
Once given a word or phrase to search (say, “Catholic Schools in Cleveland”) search engines use proprietary and top-secret algorithms to scour the web for the sites they believe are most relevant to the user. Naturally, businesses that appear highest in the search tend get the most clicks, and, if they have the right inbound marketing strategy, the most customers.
Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, is the art and science of tailoring your digital presence to make your website appear as high as possible in online search rankings, preferably on the first page of results. Why is the first results page so important? There’s a joke among digital marketing experts that the best place to hide a body is on the second page of Google results because nobody goes there.
Think of SEO like this – just as the beautiful images and well-written copy on your website make it easy for prospective parents to learn how wonderful your school is, SEO makes it easy for Google to identify relevant phrases and keywords that those parents are likely typing into their search bars.
Thousands of consultants will claim to be able to improve your SEO – some of them are very good, and some are, to be charitable, less good. One thing they all have in common is that they cost money. But before you consider hiring outside help (assuming that’s even a possibility in the first place), let’s take a look at how search engines work and see how schools can organically improve their SEO in a targeted, natural way aimed not just to increase clicks, but to help attract families who are looking for a school just like yours.
It’s been over 30 years since Google and other search engines burst on the scene, and almost immediately they became the web’s go-to destination for search. Google’s big advantage over its competitors was that it was the easiest to use and gave the highest quality results. They pulled this off by creating an ingenious process (known in computer science as an algorithm) that not only scoured websites for the keywords web users most commonly search for, but also by scoring the relevance of each website in part by how many other websites linked back to it.
Over the years, Google has constantly tweaked and improved its algorithm, now assessing hundreds of different factors to determine a website’s relevance, and even applying artificial intelligence to improve searches in ways Google’s founders could never have imagined.
As Google’s search ranking have gotten more complicated and their market share among search engines has increased, many online businesses have discovered that whether or not they’re found on the first page of Google results can be the difference between profit and bankruptcy.
For schools, the importance of Google is more nuanced. Sure, you want Google to rank you as high as possible, but for what searches and for what users? To answer those questions, we’ll have to dig deeper into how you need to think SEO for school websites.
The first difference between your school and many online businesses is that unless you’re a boarding school or one that primarily attracts international students, you’re going to find all of your students in your immediate geographic area. Also, families searching for schools online often focus their search for a particular kind of schools, whether it’s by religious affiliation or the school’s area of concentration like STEM or the arts.
Before beginning an SEO effort, ask yourself who you are trying to attract. Start with the customer personas you’ve developed for your school and ask yourself what search terms these families are using. These search terms will be the building blocks of your school SEO strategy.
Whether you’re concerned about public school SEO or private school SEO, an often overlooked but essential step for any school eager to be found online is to register with Google My Business. It’s free to create your profile, and it ensures your school will show up on Google Maps. It also increases the chances of your school being displayed in the top panel of search results, which highlights the names and location of the top three registered businesses for certain searches. We covered Google My Business in this article and created an easy step by step guide in this video.
Once you’ve identified the search terms most likely to be used by the families you want to attract, the next step is to use those terms yourself. Feature those terms in blog posts. Create pages on your website dedicated to those topics. Use those exact terms when you are describing your programs or educational approach. Do whatever you can to make those terms central to your online messaging.
That said, just spamming those search terms all over your website probably isn’t going to help much, either in terms of attracting clicks or keeping the attention of families after they’ve clicked. Search engines are very smart about identifying “clickbait” websites, and families searching for schools online aren’t going to be impressed if your blog is just the words “Private School in Chicago” over and over again. That’s not how SEO for private schools works.
Referring back to the article on your inbound marketing strategy, think about how your school SEO can work hand in hand with your inbound marketing strategy both to make yourself more visible on search engines while still providing engaging and relevant content to those families who click.
One important and often forgotten avenue for boosting SEO is through the images you post on your website. Google is pretty smart, but it’s not yet smart enough to know exactly what each image is. To help Google out, it’s important to add labels or “Alt Tags” to your images that describe them in terms of the same SEO keywords you use in your web copy. For example, if you are a Catholic school and have a picture of students attending mass, you might have the tag of “St. Mary Catholic School”, or if you are a charter school with a STEM focus, you might title your picture of kids experimenting “Students working on a STEM project”. Remember, visitors to your site might never see these labels, but Google certainly will, so it’s worth the time to get them right.
Here’s where your school SEO strategy can really take off. While using your customer personas is a good jumping-off point for targeting keywords, many websites discover more effective keywords over time by looking at the data generated by their website about who their users are how they got there.
We’ll dig deeper into identifying website visitors in an upcoming post, but for right now, try to think of your school SEO as part of a positive feedback loop where better content leads to more visitors leads to better data leads to better SEO leads to better content (and on and on).
So you’ve optimized your keywords, tagged your images, and registered your business. — now your traffic will double tomorrow, right? Well not exactly. SEO takes some time to bear fruit. As your site appears more and more in Google searches and people click on it, Google will start to learn that your site is relevant to those types of searches and begin to show your site more often. However, a well-executed SEO strategy still generally takes between 3 – 9 months before results start to appear.
One pitfall that schools must watch out for in the world of SEO is that, unlike websites that make money through advertising where each click is an end unto itself, a school’s goal is to find students, not web surfers. Getting families to check out your website is just the first step to getting them to enroll. However, without the right SEO strategy, you may never have that chance in the first place.
School SEO can be challenging, and oftentimes schools don’t even know where to start. Bright Minds Marketing can help you get started by running a baseline audit of your current search engine visibility and providing a step by step guide to fixing some of the basic issues that are impacting your SEO.
Nick LeRoy, MBA, is the president of Bright Minds Marketing and former Executive Director of the Indiana Charter School Board. Bright Minds Marketing provides enrollment and recruitment consulting to private, Catholic and charter schools. For information about how Bright Minds Marketing can help your school improve its’ student enrollment, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at 317-361-5255.
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