SEO for Schools: Strategies for a Page 1 Ranking
Mia Major

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is often a strategy set aside by professionals working in Higher Ed and K-12 — especially those with small marketing departments — because of the immense amount of work and upkeep it requires.

Searching on Google

SEO isn't something you just do once and hope for the best. Because algorithms are constantly changing and the bots crawling your site are getting smarter, it is essential that you constantly re-visit best practices and strategies, and how they relate to the success of your website.

One of the simplest ways to begin optimizing your website for search is understanding branded and unbranded searches.

Branded Searches

These type of search engine queries include your college or university's name plus a particular piece of content, such as "Lenior-Rhyne University scholarships," or "Choate athletics." These kinds of searches serve up interior pages of your website prior to your homepage, because Google wants to help searchers find information quickly.

Implications of branded search

If someone is conducting a branded search, it means they already know about your institution. So at this point, you're not competing for rankings, but you could be your own worst enemy.

Because branded searches serve up interior pages of your website, families are entering your site through a "mudroom" rather than a "front door." So, if your interior pages are messy, confusing, or disorganized, you may­ have trouble keeping new website visitors on your site.

To get an idea of which interior pages you need to focus on, use Google Analytics to create a report of top entry points on your website. While you might be too busy to tackle all your interior pages, starting with your top 10 entry points will greatly improve your bounce rates. In addition, branded searches also result in what we call the 0th (zero-ith) impression, or, the search impression — the impression before the intended first impression of your website. Within search results, searchers can see your social media pages, display ads, directories, ratings, rankings, bad press and so much more — just on Page 1. So, if they see something they don't like they may never even visit your website.

Unbranded Searches

Unbranded searches are where schools meet the most head-to-head competition. These are general searches for colleges that serve a particular interest, location, or goal, such as:

  • Best colleges for film
  • Best boarding schools in Florida
  • Best private colleges in New England
  • All-girls schools in Boston

It is in these unbranded searches where colleges and universities have to work their hardest to earn the clicks and homepage design becomes critically important.

Best Private Colleges in TN

Implications of unbranded search

83% of search query paths (AKA, a simple Google search) begin with an unbranded term. This means that the majority of prospective students are looking for an education that best fits their needs. These searches suggest that word-of-mouth-marketing might be dying and underscores the imperative importance of optimizing your website for search and using Pay-Per-Click (PPC) ads to ensure visibility in the searches that matter for your school. In addition to the mass amount of website traffic stemming from unbranded searches, 60% of all organic clicks go to the top three search results.

Top of the page means top of mind for lazy, quick-to-make-a-decision high school students. If your school's website isn't appearing in the top 3 search results — or even the first page — chances are your website won't be found in unbranded search queries (which comprise the majority of searches). In one study, only 7.4% of clicks were below the 4th organic listing on a mobile device, versus 16% on a desktop.

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Optimizing for Branded and Unbranded Searches

The goal of SEO is to drive more qualified traffic by:

  • Appearing in the searches that matter to your school
  • Appearing at the top of search for unbranded searches
  • Serving up relevant interior pages from branded searches

The end goal is to lower bounce rates, increase the number of pages per visit and conversions. While the best-executed SEO strategies take a lot of time and effort, there are some easy strategies you can implement on your website now to optimize your website for search.

Use plaintext in the places that matter

It's a time where there is a strong focus on digital storytelling — more photos, more videos, more content. And while your school's story is the heartbeat of a successful marketing campaign — what is it worth if prospective families can't find you? Good use of plain text, accompanied by your school's digital content, can improve its performance in search because of the importance of Google's NAP+W (Name Address Phone + Website) score.

Because local search engines use NAP information to judge the accuracy of the data in their own indexes, consistent plain text across your website and directories like ensure that Google sees your website as legitimate, improving its search ranking.

Plaintext should be in the following locations on your school's website:

The footer: Rather than use your school's logo in the footer, opt for using plain text. By nature, its purpose is to include the contact information for your school, so don't get fancy. Include your school's full, official name, address, and phone number — as well as any other important details or contact information.

Plaintext in Footer

The header: The name of your college or university needs to be incorporated in the first panel of your homepage in plain text. You can choose to write your school's name in plain text, add a brief description below it, or add ALT text (the text that displays when an image doesn't load) to your image logo.

Wyndcroft plaintext in header

As ALT text for images: Adding ALT text for images can be cumbersome, especially when you're uploading dozens of photos to your website. However, ALT text is critical for ADA compliancy and improving search rankings. For schools who use Finalsite Composer, adding ALT text to images can easily be done when uploading images:

Adding ALT Text

Craft title tags + meta-descriptions for every page

Too often, schools are guilty of making their homepage title tag (the phrases that appear on search engine results pages) simply their school name — or their school's name plus the word "Home." And while that is, of course, descriptive of who you are (and where a visitor is on the site), it isn't helping you — especially in unbranded searches. (Remember, that's where 83% of online experiences begin!)

So — think about which terms a prospective student would use when they're looking for your school. Are you a private liberal arts college in Boston? Are you a top public institution in Texas? Use this term in conjunction with your school's name for the perfect page title tag.

On your homepage, it is best to stick to a general term, but for interior pages regarding specific programs or accolades, you can be more detailed with your title tags.

In addition to your title tag, a website page's meta description is also critically important. A meta description is an HTML and XHTML element that describes your page to search engines and plays a significant role in SEO rankings. Allowing you 155 characters before becoming truncated, you have the opportunity to define who you are in a bit more detail. The goal of the meta-description is to drive qualified site traffic. It can be simple, or it can be compelling.

Title Tags + Meta Description Best Practices

To help with crafting your title tags and meta descriptions, we've crafted this simple worksheet that will help you prioritize keywords and pages to optimize for search.

Beginner's Search Engine Optimization Worksheet


Mia Major

As Finalsite's Content Marketing Manager, Mia plans and executes a variety of inbound marketing and digital content strategies. As a former TV reporter, freelance cinematographer and certified inbound marketer, Mia specializes in helping schools find new ways to share their stories online through web design, social media, copywriting, photography and videography. She is the author of numerous blogs, and Finalsite's popular eBook, The Website Redesign Playbook.

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