As academic institutions continue to focus on providing quality education and research, their online visibility is often neglected.
This means that potential students may be unable to find them easily on search engines, leading to missed opportunities for growth and impact.
In the fall of 2022, Search Influence commissioned a study with the research team at UPCEA, the preeminent trade organization for professional, continuing and online (PCO) education. Here’s what we found.
Attracting new learners through organic search
With the millions of dollars spent in higher education digital marketing and advertising, there is very little understanding of search engine optimization and its role in attracting new learners.
With this belief, we commissioned a multi-part study which:
- Reviewed 100 websites of university professional and continuing education departments.
- Surveyed marketing leaders and institutional leaders.
In this mini-audit, the UPCEA team reviewed several factors we call SEO readiness. These include common SEO and user experience metrics, such as:
- Number of unique pages (titles).
- Unique meta descriptions.
- Number of inbound links.
- Domain and page authority.
The UPCEA team surveyed both marketing teams and institutional leadership to understand their perceptions of – and alignment around – their own readiness.
At the risk of telegraphing the punchline, there are some big disparities.
In his introduction to the published research study, Jim Fong, Chief Research Officer at UPCEA, emphasizes the need for innovative practices, models, and credentials tailored to nontraditional and professional audiences, such as stackable degrees, non-credit programs, and micro-credentialing, among others.
Fong points out that reaching new adult learners requires precision, planning, and better prospect and student interfaces. These learners are savvier than previous generations, relying on various sources of information and influencing others through their outcomes.
One critical area of improvement lies in optimizing the degree programs’ “storefront” – the institution’s website – for better user experiences.
While Fong is cautious not to create panic, he believes a greater sense of urgency is needed to address the impending challenges in higher education.
With the labor shortage and a decline in the population of college-age students, universities need to do more to stay relevant to all learners, not just recent high school graduates.
It’s not unusual for individual PCO units in major universities to spend a million dollars or more on digital advertising.
And as we see in the research, those same departments are not even sure their teams are doing SEO.
The state of SEO in higher education
The UPCEA/Search Influence research highlights the perceptions and comprehension of SEO among institutional and marketing leaders. It also points to the potential impact on the SEO preparedness of the institutions involved.
Some key findings from the study:
- Marketers and institutional leaders see SEO as foundational but admit their units lack an SEO strategy.
- Institutional leadership often lacks reporting.
- UPCEA members performed poorly in an SEO audit.
84% of marketing departments see SEO as a core part of their marketing strategy, but half (51%) do not have an established SEO strategy
The disconnect is pretty striking.