A plea to higher education marketers scrambling to take heed of the venerable Noel-Levitz's "E-Opportunity" to Search Engine Optimize college web sites: Won't somebody please think of the kids?
And not only the kids! Your audiences are students, and prospective students, and alumni, and parents, and faculty, and employees, and contractors, and the community, and visitors, and legislators, and agencies, and partners, and employers, and the media, and vendors, and benefactors. Wildly diverse groups, but with one attribute in common: they're not robots.
Raise SEO, and the conversation tends rapidly to devolve into talk of algorithms and meta tags and someone thinking they remember something about that one thing they read somewhere.
And before long that person is proposing keywords.
Even today higher education institutions will spend substantial time and resources generating lists of key words for their web pages. Unfortunately, Google does not recognize keywords and Bing will think you're a spammer.
Nonetheless, conventional wisdom serves up a heady combination of holdover web directory wisdom and zealous, played out Black Hat strategery that well-intentioned marketers are all too eager to lap up. Thus, many SEO "techniques" popular today are, at best, marginally positive in respect of SEO – but horribly deleterious to the user experience.
At the most fundamental level, web pages ought to be readable by humans. Humans tend to have little tolerance for highly repetitive keyword-stuffed pages, duplicate content, redirects, and infinite loops of nonsense. Such inane content, coupled with shady linking practices, might propel a page to its top-10 search ranking in the short run... until editorial control or the algorithm catches up and bans the site from appearing entirely.
Something as simple as a page's title can very easily be the difference between a user seeing your page on a search results page, and that user ending up on your web site. Consider the way in which we know users' eyes scan the screen: if the unique, relevant title for the page in question is not front-loaded (i.e. the first couple of words of the title) it most likely will never get read.
Search engine impressions are not nearly as useful as search engine conversions. So how do we make our pages beloved of robots and students?
Fortunately, robots' tastes are becoming more human each day, so writing for search engines and writing for students are increasingly complementary tasks. Wise to the "SEO by numbers" techniques that have, in the past, yielded fast and significant results, Google and major search engines are continuously working to deny success to such lazy, automated approaches.
Instead, Google asks for good, well-written and fresh content. It also insists on a logical, hierarchical Information Architecture and decipherable navigation structure. Which is good, because that’s what we know students want too.
Although less glamorous, and a lot harder work than purchasing an off-the-shelf SEO strategy, or attempting a purely technical solution, search engine optimization through student experience optimization is the only sustainable option. The first and only relevant question: does this page meet the needs and expectations of my (human) audience?
So next time you find yourself searching for one more SEO in higher education blog to read for the latest tips and tricks, why not take the time to rewrite a student-oriented web page instead? The humans and the robots will thank you.