SEO Part 1: What is SEO and Why Should You Care

Posted: January 7, 2015

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We know how hard you’ve worked to get your website up and running. You’ve slaved over strategic considerations, gone through countless variations of information architecture, poured your heart and soul into the visual design and moved mountains to get this thing developed and launched. Now that your site is up and running, let’s talk about how users will actually find what you’ve created.

Search engine optimization (SEO) is a broadly used term in the marketing world, but what does it mean? Does SEO have real value in higher education? Can it help your institution? We have so much to say about SEO, that we couldn’t actually fit it into just one post. We’re kicking off our SEO blog series here with Part 1 that focuses on what SEO really is, the anatomy of the search engine results page, the importance of all of this for higher ed and ends with our recommended SEO toolkit. Part 2 will get more indepth about the most important ranking factors and considerations. But that’s a story for another day. Right now, we’re starting with the basics.

SEO is the process of optimizing a website in order to drive relevant and quality traffic to that site through organic search engine results (Search Engine Land).  As a general rule, the higher a website’s pages rank on a search engine results page, the more organic search engine traffic it can generate. A search engine is a system on which people look for information in order to make informed decisions. This is important to remember when considering why higher education needs SEO. In order for a prospective student to make an informed decision on whether or not your institution is a good fit, they first must know that the institution exists. The ultimate goal of SEO is to be listed as the top result on the Search Engine Results Page (SERP). The SERP is the page that’s presented when a query is typed into the search engine bar.

A SERP looks like this:

The word or string of words entered into the top toolbar is called the search query. In SEO, the goal is to optimize the content on a webpage, in the URL and in page titles to target the keywords found in search queries.

The top three results and the results running the length of the right side of the SERP are paid search advertising. Many times these can also be found at the very bottom of the page. These are types of contextual advertising usually running as pay-per-click (PPC) ads. With PPC ads, the advertiser only pays when a user clicks on their ad. These ads are served based on targeted keywords and phrases commonly typed as a search query.

The part of the SERP most important to SEO is the organic search results portion, also known as natural search results. This is where search engine optimizers focus their efforts on tailoring a website to rank high in organic search. When a search query is submitted, a list of topically relevant websites are served to the user. Search engine optimizers pay close attention to page content to ensure relevant keywords will trigger their website near the top of the results.

According to Moz, almost 70% of all clicks on the first search engine results page come from the first 5 results that are served to the user (these appear on the first page of results). The second and third SERPs get less than 6% of all clicks. So, a webpage listed as number 11 on a SERP has significantly less value because it will be on the second page of results, practically invisible to users searching for higher education opportunities. This is why it’s critical to optimize a website to appear as close to the top of the first SERP as possible. The more visibility your website has, the more traffic is will generate.

VisionPoint’s SEO Toolkit

We’ve established what SEO is, but how do you do it? There are countless ways to come up with the information you need to analyze your site, hundreds of tools (ranging from free to very pricey) claim they can help. To narrow down your focus and save you the time and hassle of a lot of trial and error, here are VisionPoint’s favorite tools that get the job done.

Screaming Frog SEO Spider Tool

First thing’s first, you need a good crawling tool in order to gather all the necessary information from your site. VisionPoint loves the Screaming Frog SEO Spider Tool! This tool is especially great for beginners because of its user friendly interface. Not only that, we use it because of all its great features! A demo version is available to download for free to see if you like it before you buy. The demo allows you to crawl up to 500 URLs and gives you almost all of the features. If you have a small website, you may be able to get away with using only the demo. Screaming Frog works best on small to medium size sites. (If you are working with a site with 10,000 pages or more you could use a tool like Moz Pro. It has a larger memory capacity and a few more tools that could come in handy if you really want to dig into your website’s inner-workings.)

Screaming Frog allows the user to save all site crawls to reference later which can really come in handy. This software gives a total breakdown of each page on the website it crawls and allows the user to export selected data into an Excel file for further segmentation and analysis.

VisionPoint uses Screaming Frog to determine the overall health of a website. With a thorough crawl, we are able to determine the number of pages in a site, the availability of those pages and the content that makes up those pages. This crawling tool is an excellent way to get a full view of a website.

Google Webmaster Tools

If you don’t have a Google Webmaster Tools account for your website, go ahead and set one up. Your first step to do this is to verify that you’re a site owner and then set up an account following the instructions. Webmaster Tools is a good way to see your website through Google’s lense. This account allows you to see any issues Google has with crawling and indexing pages on a site. It also shows any status codes and link issues that can be critical to site performance. Webmaster Tools is a huge asset to have when looking into your site’s performance and ways to optimize.

Google Analytics

This is another Google product we at VisionPoint use almost daily to monitor website activity. While Webmaster Tools looks at crawling errors and page indexation, the Google Analytics interface looks primarily at website traffic. Here you can see who is coming to your site and what they are looking at. GA is a powerful tool that can help you narrow your focus to the pages that are driving the most traffic to your website as well as where this traffic is coming from.

Check your Google Analytics reports when you conduct your SEO audit to see how users interact with the most visited pages on your website. If you know which pages are your website’s most valuable traffic drivers, you’ll know where to focus your SEO efforts. In higher ed, website managers are often faced with the reality of limited resources, so it’s important to make every move count. This tool will help you do that.

Pagerank Checker

In addition to the multi-functional accounts and softwares that can help you with your website analysis, it’s good to have a basic tool to help determine just where your top pages are sitting on search engine results pages (SERPs). Pagerankchecker.com is a tool that provides insight into where on a SERP a website ranks. If a domain is typed into the search bar on the homepage, a short profile of that domain is generated for the user. This profile includes some information that would have already been reported through the Screaming Frog tool. However, additional helpful information is in this profile that will give the user a full picture of how the domain is ranking.

The number to look at on this profile is the Google Pagerank. Pagerank Checker reports where in the top ten search engine results the site ranks, if it does at all. If the site ranks at number two in organic search, the site will show Google Pagerank  2/10. If it reports the site at 0/10 this means the website does not show on the first SERP and there may be an issue that should be investigated.

Additional information provided by the Pagerank Checker website profile can be further helpful when analyzing a website. A keyword density profile is generated, showing the percentage of each keyword found on the homepage of the website. This can be helpful when evaluating page-level content. A figure for domain popularity is given as well as social signals showing how many Facebook shares and Twitter mentions the website has.

We hope that Part 1 of our SEO blog series has helped you gain a better understanding of what good SEO can do for your institution. If you have questions or want to talk in more detail about any of the tools listed above, please feel free to contact us. If you’re ready to dive in and read more, you’ll have to stay tuned for Part two… coming soon!