Demystifying SEO (Search Engine Optimization)

Posted: February 27, 2012

If you hope to haul in qualified prospective students for your institution, the most important playing field to master is the Web. And in the dense jungle of competitor websites, SEO can be the machete that clears your target audience’s path to your website. With an understanding of how search engines crawl, catalog and index content on the Internet, marketers and institutions can plan optimization strategies that increase your visibility online. 

In this blog, we provide a few tips and considerations that can make search engines work for you.

What is SEO and how does it work?

There are a number of different explanations out there for what SEO is and how search engines function, but Google breaks it down in a way that makes it really easy to understand.

What it comes down to is that there are a number of things that you can do on your website and with your content that will help search engines rank you over your competition. The more and better you do these things, the higher you rank on search results. And the good news is that you can do most of these things on your own with a little bit of time and training.

Maximize the impact of your site with these SEO strategies (in no particular order)

1. Your URL – Websites have unique ‘addresses’ that tell your browser where that site lives. These are called a URLs. While the main part of your site’s URL is a given ), you can edit the URL in a way that tells search engines something about the content on a particular page.

  • Keep your URL short. The rule of thumb is no more than 3-5 words. If that limit is exceeded, search engine algorithms weight those words less and won’t give them as much credit.
  • Describe the content. If a person can read the URL and get a sense for what type of content they’ll find on that page, you’ve done a good job (for example: is clearly the link to the Undergraduate Admissions section for Campbell University).
  • Avoid ending URLs with file extensions (like .exe). This could prevent your pages from being crawled by the search engines.

2. Page Titles – A page title, the value you assign the <title> tag that’s typically found on top of a HTML document inside the <head> tag, is one of the most powerful on-site search engine ranking factors. Use brief, but descriptive titles that accurately portray a page’s content. Try to create unique title tags for each page.

3. Meta Description – Although Google announced in 2009 that meta descriptions and keywords will no longer factor into its rankings algorithms, it is still important to write compelling descriptions for searchers and other search engines. These meta descriptions appear below the website link on the search engine result page (see example below).

  • Make descriptions no longer than 160 characters.
  • Avoid using duplicate meta tags.
  • Make sure the meta description is clear and gives the searcher a good idea of what they’ll find.

4. H1 and H2 tags – Of the six header tags that can be used, these two are the most important to search engines. Used effectively, they guide search engine crawlers to the most important words on a Web page. They are also used to visually draw a visitor’s attention to particular parts of your content. They give your page a natural hierarchy, so make sure you don’t overuse them just because you know they carry more value to a search engine crawler.

5. Write for the Web – There could be a whole lecture series given on this, but writing for the Web is key. Highlighted keywords, meaningful sub-headings, and bulleted lists are ways to go about structuring your content for the Web.

  • Try writing using the inverted pyramid structure and keep one idea per paragraph.
  • Keep in mind that website visitors scan text as opposed to reading line by line.
  • Consider incorporating bulleted or numbered lists in your copy.

6. Keyword Research – This is an essential part of online marketing. Having great content is a big plus for you, but if you don’t use the words people are actively looking for, you could be missing out on a lot of traffic.

  • Use Google’s Keyword tool to create a solid keyword research strategy. Make a list of five or six keywords you would like to use and see what Google suggests.
  • Take a look at a competitor’s site and and see what words they’re using.
  • Keep in mind that there are many considerations in defining a solid keyword strategy. Tools can help, but it’s up to you or your SEO specialist to decide on which keywords you’ll target.

7. Establish a Social Media Strategy – Social media communities can have a tremendous impact on your institution from the obvious networking, communications and reputation perspectives; they also play a part in SEO. Links shared via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter can impact your search ranking results, especially if the person sharing your link is of some level of ‘stature’. Most schools have already entered the social media playing field, but few are following a dedicated strategy. If you’re not sure your current methods are working, we’d be happy to help you establish a social media strategy of your own.

  • Consider setting up social segments for tracking in Google Analytics.
  • Make sure content is easily linkable with sharing buttons for social media.
  • Pay close attention to your website’s meta description, because it will show up after links are shared and give potential visitors and idea of what they’re in for.

8. Reputation Management –  A higher ed institution’s reputation plays a tremendous role in the decision making of prospective students as well as those interested in giving to the school. You are your search results, so it’s important to try and take as much control as you can of what comes up on a results page and drive down negative or unwanted results. Google Alerts is a free tool used by marketers to monitor a brand’s name, key industry terms and competitors. It can be very useful in helping you do the following:

  • Monitor what’s being said about your institution.
  • Keep an eye on developing news stories about your organization.
  • Keep up to date on competitors.
  • Make sure to respond to any situations that may arise as quickly as possible.
  • Make sure that your Public Relations team is involved so that they can advise on how to best use the information you’re seeing.
  • Optimize on the positive.
  • Establish a credible, authoritative voice so that you can take control of your messaging.


These are just a few of the basics to get you started. Keep in mind that if you plan on doing SEO on your own, you’ll need to understand that it’s a moving target. Search engines are constantly changing their search algorithms, which means that you’ll need to keep up with these changes in order to stay relevant and competitive.

If you find that you’d rather have someone else do the work for you, feel free to reach out to us. If nothing else, we’re happy to lend an ear and give you a bit of advice on how to best approach your particular situation.