Content Management, Usability

How to Win the SEO Game

SEO conceptWant to win the SEO game? Stop playing.

Don’t get me wrong—search engine optimization, or SEO, remains essential. Your team can build a bang-up website, but if few people visit, all that work is wasted. And most of your visitors (at least off-campus visitors) arrive via search results delivered by Google (or Bing, or Yahoo).

But it’s time to put to rest the notion that one can game search engine algorithms. Search engines are always evolving, getting smarter with every change. They learn to ignore—or worse, penalize—SEO tricks.

We’ve covered SEO basics in other posts (see related posts below, for example), summarizing best practices for keywords, titles, page structures, URLs, alt tags, and so forth. Take a closer look at these tactics and you’ll notice something: They all cater to people, not machines.

That’s the trick to winning the SEO game—putting users first. Here’s how:

Go mobile: Not long ago, Google search results started favoring sites designed for phones, tablets, and computers alike. The message: If you haven’t adopted responsive design, now’s the time.

The change underscored Google’s emphasis on users. Worldwide, most people use mobile devices to browse the web, and non-responsive sites just don’t work well. They drive users away, hurting other metrics—time on page, for example—that influence search rankings.

If you haven’t gone responsive, establish a plan to modernize. Users and search engines alike will thank you.

Start with pages people search for: It’s common for a college or university site to include tens of thousands of pages. But not all these pages need to rise to the top of the search results.

When it comes to SEO, focus on pages that likely matter most to key audiences—namely, prospective students and their families. Look first at:

  • Academic program pages, especially marketing-oriented overviews
  • Admissions information
  • Pages for divisions like continuing education or online programs
  • Any top-level “about” content that introduces your campus and culture

Thanks to search engines, more and more visitors to your site enter through pages like these—not through your home page, so make sure you’re ready to welcome them. Any SEO enhancements also should improve your on-site search function, giving visitors a better experience wherever they arrive.

Use keywords naturally: “Keyword stuffing” may be the most notorious SEO manipulation tactic, but today’s search engines are too smart to fall for it. Rather than cramming keywords where they don’t belong, put them where they can help users most.

The experts at Moz (which markets useful SEO tools, both free and paid) suggest placing keywords in a handful of locations to provide a clear, accurate sense of what a page is about:

  • Near the beginning of the page’s title tag
  • Once in text near the top of the page
  • Maybe two or three additional spots throughout the page
  • In the alt tag for an image on the page (which also helps with image search)
  • Once in the page’s URL
  • Once in the page’s meta description tag (as opposed to the meta keywords tag, which both search engines and human users ignore)

Also, make sure you’re using the right keywords. Use Google Search Console to see which keywords are driving searchers to your site (and get other valuable SEO info), or use the Google AdWords Keyword Planner to gauge keyword demand.

Keep content fresh: Creating great content is the single best SEO strategy. No coincidence that it’s also the best way to give users the info and experience they want.

Regularly updated sites with rich content—text, images, videos—tend to earn higher search rankings, in part because they keep users engaged. Make your content as compelling as you can, and refresh it regularly.

You can apply this advice even on academic program pages, where basic info stays relatively static. Drop in new photos, faculty snapshots, student success stories, or other features to keep these pages fresh.

Stop fretting: College and universities are good search citizens—we seldom see their sites deploying “black hat” SEO tactics. If anything, higher education web teams fear they aren’t doing enough to win the SEO game.

OU Campus provides plenty of tools to make SEO second nature, even for distributed web teams. It lets you customize metadata, create clean URLs, check for broken links, and much more.

If you’re providing a great user experience, you’re already winning at SEO.

For more on SEO, check out these related posts:

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Sara Arnold

Web Communications Manager

Starting her career in academic publishing, Sara is a stickler for grammar and makes sure that every "i" is dotted and every "t" crossed in all OmniUpdate marketing communications that go out the door. A Camarillo native, Sara enjoys spending time with family, camping, doing anything crafty, and rooting for her ASU Sun Devils.

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