Online learner

Today’s students know where they want to end up and know the paths most likely to take them there. Capitalize on their confidence by marketing your school with a focus on programs. Capture the attention of goal-oriented prospects looking to enroll in your courses, their way. Part one of our series on program-focused marketing addresses how attention to SEO can separate your university from the crowd.

Year after year, more and more students choose online education. According to US News and World Report, enrollment in online courses rose at a faster pace between the fall semesters of 2015 and 2016 compared with the previous three years, with more than 6.3 million students taking at least one online course in the fall of 2016.

As the marketplace continues to grow, universities are faced with the increasingly difficult task of marketing online college degree programs in a way that makes them stand out.

At Keypath, we use a variety of digital marketing channels to promote our partners’ programs, including search engine optimization (SEO). Here’s a look at some best practices we recommend for setting your programs up for SEO success.

1. Start at the beginning
Everyone must walk before they can run – and if you want to appear on page one of Google, you need to make sure you address SEO basics, not just the latest hot tactics.

Keyword research

  • Use a tool like Google’s Adwords Keyword Tool to determine the monthly search volume for a given program (i.e. “online MBA degree”). Take note of the phrases being used in searches and look for phrases with a balance of good search volume and medium competition. 
  • If you try to pursue the same keywords as everyone else, it will be very difficult to rank for those. Similarly, if you choose words that no one searches, you’ll be on page one of results no one’s after.

Keyword insertion

  • Once you’ve figured out which keywords you’d like to use, put them where Google will find them. This includes the relevant pages’ meta descriptions, title tags, image and hyperlink alt text and, if possible, the URL itself.
  • For the meta description, try to use the keyword early and often. Google recently extended the snippet length shown in search results from 160 characters to roughly 230, so you can showcase your keywords and calls-to-action.
  • For the URL, don’t force keywords if they don’t make sense. Above all, you want a nice, clean URL string. A structure like “” is good, but “/online-mba-program-indiana” is better. 

2. Location, location, location
Three quarters of online students enroll in a program within 100 miles of where they live, and 55% choose one within 50 miles. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to attract students outside of your local area, but you should maximize your reach locally first and expand from there.

Tie your programs to the people most likely to already be aware of them. If your university is rooted in Indiana, don’t just offer an “online MBA program.” Offer the “Top Indiana online MBA program.” 

Brand awareness plays a significant role in whether someone buys a toaster, let alone selects an academic institution to become a part of their identity. So if a prospective student is already aware of your school, take advantage of that. Win the marketing battle in your home city/county/state and region.

You can even go as far as creating a standalone page just for your state and the biggest cities within it. This will let you cater to both a general “online MBA program” audience as well as the “online Fort Wayne MBA program” searchers.

3. Know your audience
If you don’t know who you’re targeting with your programs, you can’t write SEO-oriented content for them. If you offer courses tailored to certain demographic factors (age, occupation, etc.), orient your content as such.

Because Google strives to offer its users the best search experience possible, results are increasingly tailored to each individual. If your target audience continually passes over your site in Google’s listings or visits only to bounce right off, Google will take note and be less likely to offer your site to other users sharing those demographic characteristics.

Ensure your target audience is well-defined, documented and rooted in data by creating personas that address each audience segment as archetypes for your programs. These personas take the form of “Sara Stancook: working mom, wanting to launch a small business, her family and a work/life balance are important to her.” 

Then, don’t be afraid to walk away from Sara Stancook if she isn’t interested. If your target audience is 35-44 year old women, but your actual traffic is primarily women aged 18-24, take the opportunity to assess your web copy. Look for what may be attracting this younger audience and what’s dissuading your target, and figure out how to modify your messaging accordingly. 

Organic rankings take time. An update to your meta description or a blog post published tomorrow may be indexed by Google soon after, but any benefits to search rankings may still be weeks or months away. The sooner you make changes, the sooner you can reap the benefits down the road. 

As more students are pursuing online education, more universities are offering their programs online. Help yourself stay ahead of the pack by applying SEO best practices beyond the homepage.

If you’d like to learn more about marketing your university’s programs in addition to its brand, read our blog post on The Top FAQs for Marketing Online Degree Programs.