SEO and Digital Advertising: A Beginner's Guide for Graduate Enrollment Managers

This resource will help you understand why graduate enrollment managers need to grow in their knowledge of digital advertising and SEO, walk you through a quick history of the SEO landscape, and explain how Google’s changes impact your student recruitment efforts.

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Understanding SEO and Digital Advertising as a Graduate Enrollment Manager

SEO? Digital advertising?

If these terms fill you with a vague sense of dread, you’ve come to the right place. For many graduate enrollment managers, SEO and paid digital advertising seem far removed from the day-to-day challenges they’re facing. If you work in graduate enrollment management, you’re probably spending your days thinking about applicant numbers, yield rates, and streamlining communications for your admissions team. You’re probably not following the nuances of Google’s search engine evolutions.

We’re here to offer you insight into these two neglected elements of a strong higher education digital marketing plan.

First, we’ll help you understand why you need to pay attention to these two elements of your enrollment marketing strategy. Then, we’ll walk you through a quick history of the SEO landscape and explain how Google’s changes can impact your student recruitment efforts. We’ll wrap things up by telling you how to create content Google loves (think blogging, pillar pages, and more!), how to launch a paid digital media campaign, and how to unify your strategic efforts across your admissions marketing plan.

Table of Contents:

SEO and Digital AdvertisingDefined

What is SEO?

Most people can tell you what SEO literally stands for (Search Engine Optimization), but how many people can clearly define what this phrase means?

Here’s our working definition: SEO is a set of strategic practices designed to increase your website’s visibility and search engine page rankings, ultimately driving more web traffic to your institution’s website and increasing the likelihood of lead generation.

SEO has the potential to make or break the success of your program or institution, especially if you are operating in the crowded, competitive space of higher education. It’s also ideal for programs or schools with unique program offerings that simply need increased visibility in the digital space in order to attract the attention and prospective students they need.

What is Digital Advertising?

Digital advertising is the use of personalized advertising material to engage a target audience in the digital spaces where they spend their time: social media outlets, Amazon, Google, and other sites. Digital advertising is precise and sophisticated, giving you the chance to get your program, school, or most recent e-book in front of the people who are most likely to be interested in what you can offer, based on their online behavior.

Digital advertising has the potential to unlock a whole new pool of prospects for your university’s enrollment efforts as the industry as a whole sees diminishing returns from other forms of advertising and lead generation.


Why Graduate Enrollment Managers Should Care About SEO and Digital Advertising

It’s worth taking a little time to explore why graduate admissions teams should care about SEO and paid advertising, when we know you are already doing your best with a small team and limited resources.

As we hope to convince you, SEO and digital advertising are not “trendy” marketing tactics that you should use because everyone else is using them.

The realities of recruitment strategy are changing. More and more admissions teams are facing the fact that purchased lists and mailer campaigns are losing value, and that the vast majority of prospective students’ journey back to school begins with simple Google searches like the following:

“Reasons to get an MBA”

“How to become an electrical engineer”

“Careers for art teachers”

Ultimately, SEO and digital ads are about bringing you and your prospective students face-to-face, through the public square of the internet. It’s about putting yourself where you KNOW your prospective students are spending time (social media and Google) so that when they begin to explore the possibility of graduate school, they don’t have far to look before they can learn about your school or your program.

Thinking about SEO and paid ads isn’t tangential to your work, it’s essential to your entire recruitment strategy. We know that you may be responsible for the whole scope of enrollment efforts—from lead generation and recruiting to admission processing and yield management. But your work depends on a regular flow of new prospect names to work with, and this is where SEO and digital ads could become your doorway to new digital spaces, full of potential prospects.

The Changing SEO Landscape: What It Means for Your Higher Education Marketing Strategy

Here’s What SEO Used to Look Like

In 2004, the Merriam-Webster Word of the Year was “blog.” Fifteen years ago, the world was just beginning to take notice of this form of online content, and “blog” became one of the most looked-up terms as people wrapped their heads around the new phenomenon.

In the early, primitive days of SEO, the two most important things to Google were…

  • the number of indexed pages associated with your site (more indexed pages equaled more topic authority),

  • and the keywords that appeared on the page (the more keywords there were on the page, the more it was assumed the page was highly relevant to the searcher).

We all know what early SEO led to: keyword stuffing and massive proliferation of online content.

Some of this content was quality stuff, as companies, institutions, and individuals found their online voices. But much of it was junk: pages and pages of useless or repetitive posts and landing pages that “stuffed” the same keywords in over and over. Ultimately, it became harder and harder for a Google user to separate quality content that matched their search needs from the online drivel.

What did Google do to help make search more sophisticated at weeding through the enormous amount of online content? It evolved to focus on the user experience.

Here’s a Look at What Matters for SEO Today

In order to understand what content users were finding truly valuable, Google simply began to watch the way users interacted with web pages.

Here are some basic questions and the Google SEO tactics/metrics that are related:

  • Did they click through to the page and immediately bounce back to the Search Engine Results Page (SERP) because the content wasn’t relevant or interesting? (Time on Page, Scroll Depth Percentage, Bounce Rate)

  • Did the page take so long to load that the user clicked away in frustration? (Page Speed or Load Time, Site Optimization)

  • Did they dig deeper into the site, finding other pages and posts on your site and other sites that were relevant to their original query? (Site Architecture, Content Pathways, Link Building)

  • Did they use a more personalized question query instead of simple search terms? (User Intent, Keyword Optimization)

Google has repeatedly changed its SEO priorities in order to fit the way users are actually searching. The following is a non-comprehensive list of what Google is paying attention to today. (There’s a difference between Google’s explicit, official SEO ranking factors and things they say they pay attention to to improve their machine learning—however, we think that it’s important to pay attention to all the hints Google gives about SEO, explicit or non-explicit!)

Check out this SEMRush study on ranking factors if you want to dive deep.

  • Keyword Optimization—Google doesn’t want you to fill your pages with awkward keyword phrases, but it does want you to clearly convey what your page is about and what questions it can answer for the search user. The trick to this is including relevant keywords and related phrases in a way that’s natural.

  • Mobile Optimization—let’s face it, over 50% of all web traffic takes place on mobile phones. If the user is searching via a mobile device, Google will prioritize sites and web pages that are mobile optimized, this is called mobile-first indexing.

  • User Intent—no more exact match keyword searches! Google makes inferences about what the user intends to search for based on geographic data, previous search history, and more.

  • Site Architecture—Google wants to see clear pathways within your web pages that the user follows once they hit your site. This helps them know that the site is relevant, easy to navigate, and answering users’ questions.

  • Dwell Time and Time on Page—Google keeps it simple sometimes: how much time is passing between when a user clicks through to your site and then clicks back to the SERP? How much time do they send on the single page itself before moving elsewhere?

  • Scroll Depth Percentage—another metric to gauge your content’s usefulness: how far down the page are users getting?

  • Link Building—Google likes to see that your pages are linked from other sites and that you’ve linked to authoritative sources. This helps establish your reputability.

  • Bounce Rate—Google calculates the percentage of users who visit one page and one page only on your site before heading back to the SERP. It’s a measurement of your site as a whole, not individual pages.

  • Page Speed or Load Time—is your site packed full of massive images or other clunky features that impact load time? If so, Google is not likely to serve it up for search users; it prefers pages that are well optimized.

Here’s Why You Should Care

You may be thinking, “Well, this is all well and good, but what does this have to do with student recruitment? Isn’t this stuff for businesses and techies to worry about?”

We hear you, and we get it. But our goal is to empower you to think about your student recruitment strategies with a digital first mindset since the digital space is where there is real opportunity for differentiation and success in higher education marketing.

Google’s algorithm changes and SEO more generally have the potential to amplify or hurt your student recruitment strategies. Whether you like it or not, Google’s choices affect your website, content, webinar, and landing page performance, either increasing or decreasing the likelihood that your program or institution will end up in the SERP of a prospective student.

It’s important to understand and take advantage of the possibilities of SEO in order to improve your ability to attract qualified prospects via digital channels.

While you may not have direct control over your program’s web pages or your institution's website as whole, it’s crucial that you become more aware of how your digital presence is impacting your SEO performance and that you begin to think holistically about your online and offline recruitment efforts.

Next, we’ll talk you through some common sense methods of creating and arranging content across your website to increase your visibility in Google search results.

The Best University Marketing Strategies Focus on Creating Content That Google Loves

The research is clear: young people love consuming digital content. They’re surfing the web, watching videos, checking out website pages, and reading blog articles for hours every day in order to learn more about their interests.

If your enrollment marketing strategy does not include content marketing, you are missing out on a big opportunity to reach a wider, digital audience.

For most of us, this is old news. In terms of your SEO and digital presence though, the organization and structure of your content is enormously important—and this is where many enrollment teams may be behind the times. Because of Google’s algorithm changes and changes in how users are searching, your content performs most powerfully when it’s arranged in what we call topic clusters.

Thinking About Content in Topic Clusters

Let’s say that your enrollment marketing team has a blog where you regularly post quality content designed to engage digital prospects. Maybe you even have been intentionally blogging around keywords that you know are important for your school or program. That’s great!

The next step is to help your site rank more powerfully as a unit for sets of related keywords by organizing your content creation in topic clusters.

Topic Clusters

Topic Clusters are made up of the following items:

  • Pillar Pages

  • Blogging Assets

  • Landing Pages

Instead of creating many blog articles, each one focused on a specific keyword, topic clusters focusing on creating a single, highly informative, long-form pillar page that groups or clusters related keywords around a larger theme. These pillar pages then provide links to your blog articles which provide more in-depth information about the sub-topics of the pillar page.

Pillar pages can also include specific offers like request-more-information forms, opportunities to connect with your admissions team, and opportunities to apply. However, these offers come in the context of a page where you are focused on answering their larger questions about a field of study or the career outcomes of a specific kind of degree program. This respects the decision making process of prospective students, many of whom want to do a lot of research about schools and programs before they actually reach out to your admissions team.

Here is a helpful graphic from our marketing platform partner, HubSpot, that illustrates the topic cluster model.



Writing for SEO Must Focus on Content Pathways

By organizing your content in topic clusters, you provide meaningful content pathways for the users who engage with your site and your content. They can hit a blog post and head to the larger pillar page to learn more. They then jump into a different blog post that’s linked from your pillar page and explore a related sub-topic.

Meanwhile, users are showing Google that your site has topic authority around this set of related keywords and that you’ve arranged your website in a way that makes it easy for users to find answers to questions and to learn new information. Google rewards your effort to please the user with improved SEO rankings.

Think Holistically About SEO and Digital Media for Your Student Recruitment Marketing Plan

The most important take-away from this dive into SEO and digital advertising is this: your enrollment marketing team needs a unified strategy across online and offline channels, and SEO and digital advertising are crucial elements of that strategy. Ignoring these two elements will impact your ability to establish an online presence in the digital age.

Old tactics like direct mail, list purchases, and space ads are offering you and your team diminishing returns. However, SEO, your website presence, digital advertising, social media, and marketing automation are opening new doors and can allow your team to reach new audiences in the digital spaces where they spend their time.

Now is the time to approach your marketing plan holistically, allowing unified campaigns to drive your strategy across email, content, landing pages, social media, SEO, and digital advertising.

We hope this resource has gotten you ready to embrace SEO and Digital Advertising. These tools and practices, when used holistically and strategically, can dramatically influence your enrollment team’s ability to generate leads online, nurture prospects, and close the deal with qualified prospective students.

Unsure where to get started? Start by optimizing your existing website content for SEO. You may be unable to win the content game overnight, but you should be able to improve your technical SEO rather quickly if you follow the best practices we've laid out in this resource. If you're looking for more help, go enroll in our eCourse on Optimizing Your School's Website Pages for SEO

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