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SEO for Schools: Tips for a Better Ranking
Kristen Doverspike

It’s no secret that having a search engine optimization (SEO) strategy is vital for schools and districts alike to get in front of prospective and current families. But, how do you get started? And what does the long-term upkeep look like?

SEO isn't something you implement once and hope for the best. Because algorithms are constantly changing and the bots crawling your site are getting smarter, it is essential to revisit best practices regularly and make updates to your website as time goes on. It’s also important to keep in mind that 30-60% of your traffic, on average, is coming from organic search — so you can’t solely rely on your community finding you through other outlets or word-of-mouth.

screenshot of organic traffic sources

Let’s kick off some SEO 101 by digging into branded and unbranded search terms.

Branded Searches

Branded search terms refer to any inquiries that include your school or district’s name plus a particular topic or identifier, like “[School Name] scholarships,” or “[School Name] athletics." Searches these will most likely serve up interior pages of your website rather than your homepage, as search engines crawl your website diligently to find the most relevant information for the user in a single click.

screenshot of choate athletics serp

In this branded search, Google pulls all of the relevant athletics pages from Choate’s website to return the most relevant results on Page 1.

Implications of a branded search

If someone is conducting a branded search, it means they already know about your institution. At this point, you're not competing for rankings — so it’s important to look at your landing pages to ensure a positive user experience on those guaranteed clicks.

Remember: Branded searches are most likely going to serve up interior pages of your website. If your interior pages are messy, confusing, or disorganized, you may­ have trouble keeping new website visitors on your site.

SEO Services

To get an idea of which interior pages you need to focus on, use Google Analytics to create a report of the top-visited pages on your website. While you might be too busy to tackle all of your interior pages, starting with your top 10 is a great place to start making a difference.

Unbranded Searches

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

  • Best boarding schools in Florida
  • Best public schools in New England
  • All-girls schools in Boston
  • International schools in Milan
  • Private schools near me

It’s in these unbranded searches that schools have to work their hardest to earn the clicks.

screenshot of Chattanooga SERP

Implications of unbranded search

Most searches begin with an unbranded term. This means that most prospective families are looking for what best fits their needs — and they want to be told, via a search engine, what they should consider. This reinforces the importance of optimizing your website for search to ensure visibility in the queries that matter most to your school. In addition to the mass amount of website traffic stemming from unbranded searches, more than 60% of all organic clicks go to the top three search results.

If your school's website isn't appearing on the first page of results for a search query that you feel you should show up for (i.e. specific searches like, “best private schools in Princeton, NJ” and “boarding schools in central Tennessee”), then it may be time to look at your SEO— especially if rival schools are showing up first. Let’s dive in!

Optimizing for Branded and Unbranded Searches

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

  • Appearing on the first page of results for the search terms that matter to your school; and
  • Serving up relevant interior pages for those searches.

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.

Step 1: Get Started with Simple Keyword Research

There are many keyword research tools out there, like Ubersuggest, Semrush, Moz, and others. These tools are great if you want to know exactly how many searches happen per month, on average, for the terms you care about — or, if you want to find suggestions for similar search terms that you were unaware of. 

For example, say I’m working at a private school in Texas and using the free version of Ubersuggest to conduct keyword research around “best private schools in Texas.” I then see the following:

Keyword search volume results

Here, I can see suggestions for other phrases, their average search volume, and their competition in the space. Terms with a high volume, like “best texas private schools” with an average of 590 searches per month, may not be the best to try to capitalize on, as a Page 1 ranking will be competitive.

That said, the term “top texas private schools” has a much more reasonable volume of 170 searches per month, with an organic Search Difficulty (SD) of only 8. This indicates that this term is perfect to incorporate into my website. It has low competition and is relevant to the school.

If you’re serious about being strategic with your SEO, conducting keyword research like this first will help you put your best foot forward for identifying the terms that you can reasonably rank for.

…But what if you don’t even know where to start? If that’s the case, you can begin with some good old-fashioned (and free!) Googling. Simply go to Google (or the search engine of your choice) and begin typing a phrase that you think you would want your school to show up for. Then, let the search engine suggest other terms, and you’ll get a great high-level view of other popular terms, as shown here:

screenshot of best private schools in Texas

Step 2: Incorporate these terms into your meta content

Too often, schools are guilty of making their title tags (the phrases that appear on search engine results pages) simply their school name — or their school's name plus the name of the page, like “Home.” And while that is, of course, descriptive of who you are and where a visitor is on the site, it isn't doing you any favors for your SEO. 

Go back to the keywords you generated in Step 1. Use the most relevant term for the page you’re working on 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, the meta description is also important. This is the extra content that describes your page, setting relevant expectations for the person searching and helping search engines match your content to the query. You have 160 characters to work within your description before it gets truncated, so you have the opportunity to define who you are in a bit more detail.

screenshot of metadata descriptions on serp

Step 3: Bake these terms into your on-page content

While a lot of work can go into your on-page SEO, a task to easily tackle right away is to identify your top pages and incorporate your keyword terms, where relevant, into those pages. Take a look at your page titles, headings, and paragraph content — Do you use your school name frequently? Do you describe what kind of school you are? Do you note where you are located? If not, adding these phrases can prove to be a small, but mighty, update for your SEO.

Step 4: Create custom alt text for every image on your website

Alternative (alt) text refers to the backend content that is attached to images on your website. Alt text is critical for accessibility, as screen readers need it to tell a user the contents of an image. Aside from that vital reason, alt text also helps improve search rankings. Within each of your images, you can create a custom statement that not only describes the image, but also intelligently includes key search terms that you’re trying to rank for.

For schools who use Finalsite Composer, adding ALT text to images can easily be done when uploading images:

alt text with Composer

BONUS Step: Complement your SEO with paid search advertising

In some cases, you might find that there is too much organic competition to rank for terms that matter to your school. When that happens, the best way to guarantee that coveted Page 1 ranking is to begin putting dollars behind some search advertising — commonly referred to as pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. If you’d like to explore PPC options but don’t know where to start, get started today with Finalsite’s consulting team!

Key Takeaway

In a world where the majority of decisions begin with organic search, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a vital strategy for any school or district. From attracting prospective families to staying at the top of search results for current families, SEO is king. And while many complex concepts go into page rankings, beginning with some simple keyword research and improving your website content can go a long way in appearing in the searches that matter most. Request an SEO audit today to find out where your website currently stands!

Digital marketing and consulting services for schools. Click here to request a consultation!

Kristen Dovespike headshot

In her position as director of demand generation, Kristen provides the strategy and creation of content across email, website, and social media communications at Finalsite. With over six years of experience in content strategy and digital marketing, Kristen has worked with clients around the country to develop their inbound strategies. She regularly speaks at professional development events for schools and maintains a number of certifications from Google, Hubspot, and Hootsuite.

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