Posted on 21 Feb '23

SEO for Higher Education – Troubleshooting an Optimised Page

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) can be an excellent way to drive traffic to your content, but doesn't always yield immediate results! We asked our SEO Executive, Morgan James, for some insights on what to do next if you're not seeing the expected uptick on an optimised page.

So, here's the scenario: you've just run some SEO on one of your pages. Your content is high quality, it's useful for students, and now you've flipped all the SEO switches. It's time to see those numbers jump!

"...Oh. Hm. Did that actually do anything?"

Unfortunately, SEO is a tricky old business. 'It depends' is a classic SEO catchphrase for a reason, especially with Google constantly tweaking their algorithm. Even if you've done everything right, there's no guarantee you're going to see the results you're looking for.

With that said, there are definitely steps you can take if you're not seeing the uptick you were expecting. Here are a few to get you started.

#1 Sense check your targeted keywords

The lifeblood of SEO is keywords, as you likely already know. Keywords are plugged into Google every day by searchers, and Google uses keywords from your webpages to help it understand your content. Optimise for the right keywords and you're already on your way towards better SEO.

Typically, when doing your keyword research, you should try and balance the search volume (estimated number of monthly searches) with the keyword difficulty. Very broad keywords (such as just 'higher education') may get a lot of searches, but will be very hard to rank for.

So, here are some key questions to ask:

  • Are the keywords you've optimised for too ambitious?
  • If you plug them into Google, are you seeing institutions like yourself rank, or just pages in the realm of Wikipedia and government sites?
  • Does the intent of the search (e.g. informational, transactional) match what your page provides?

That isn't to say you shouldn't go for these high volume keywords when possible. Even position #9 for these searches can pay big dividends. But you should always remember that the tastiest bait can attract the biggest sharks. Sometimes it's better to focus on smaller, more specific keywords. The results may surprise you.

#2 Patience, young grasshopper

What applies to kung fu also applies to SEO . . . well, at least in this instance. If you've only published your optimisations yesterday, you're unlikely to see a jump in rankings the day after. In fact, it can take months for your efforts to bear fruit. This can be frustrating, but bear in mind that Google has the entire internet to trawl through on a daily basis.

Imagine you've baked Google a delicious cookie and you're waiting for them to tell you how nice it is. Unfortunately, Google has an entire mountain of food to get through. They'll get to your cookie in time (you did go with double chocolate chip, right?), but it's unreasonable to expect them to eat it straight away.

That said, there are techniques you can use to make things easier for Google to process your updates. These might include:

  • Adding a 'modified date' to the page to let Google know it's been updated recently
  • Adding the current year in the page title (when relevant)
  • Reducing the number of clicks it takes to reach the content from the home page (known as click depth)

#3 Leverage internal linking for fun and profit

When Google was created, one of the features that set it apart from other search engines was realising the power of links. Essentially, if a webpage was linked by a bunch of other webpages, that page was more likely to be high quality (and thus, rank well).

These days, Google doesn't factor in links quite as heavily as they used to. Not only do they have a variety of other methods to evaluate webpages, but links from one website to another ('backlinks') can be easily manipulated by bad actors. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to say that backlinks don't have any importance in the present day.

What many don't realise is that backlinks aren't the only kind of links that matter. Internal links (i.e. links from one page on a website to another page on the same website) can be surprisingly powerful. Think of it this way: if a page is linked by a lot of other pages on your website, Google can deduce that this page is important. Your home page tends to be the greatest receipient of this, but you can leverage internal linking on any page on your site.

A few things to bear in mind when you're implementing internal linking:

  • Anchor text (the text that your link is attached to) is important. Google prefers descriptive, unique anchor text. 'Click here' doesn't tell Google (or your users) anything about what your link does.
  • Make sure your links are relevant. If you link from a guide on cooking healthy meals at university to a guide on choosing the right course for you, what is Google supposed to take from that? The topics don't have to be 1:1 of course, but ensuring your links feel like natural parts of the article can go a long way.
  • Don't go overboard. You don't want your article looking like a sea of blue text! There's nothing wrong with wanting to link more of your great content, but you need to be tactical about it.

#4 Watch out for cannibals (keyword cannibals, that is)

I'm pretty sure there's no context in which something being a 'cannibal' is a good thing, and SEO for higher education is no exception. In short, keyword cannibalisation is when you have multiple pages trying to rank for the same keyword. Which is Google supposed to choose?

The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed a change Google implemented a little while back: indented results. This theoretically means that if you have two pages ranking for a particular keyword, Google will try and group them together on the search page rather than have them apart. 'Woohoo!' you might say. 'No need to worry about keyword cannibalisation now! The evil is defeated!'

Except . . . where exactly is that indented result being shown? And how is that decided? Is it possible that these two dueling cousins are joining together before dropping further down?

It's unfortunately impossible to prove that any rankings problems are due to cannibalisation alone, but it's never going to help matters. If you've performed your keyword optimisation already, you should do some digging and make sure there aren't other pages which (accidentally or otherwise) are trying to rank for the same thing. A quick Google search is a decent initial step, but ideally, you should plug the offending pages into a true SEO tool (such as Ahrefs).

The unfortunate truth is that sometimes cannibalisation is impossible to avoid, for one reason or another. Still, if you can avoid it, then that's one less pothole for Google to fall into when ranking your site.

#5 Google giveth, Google taketh away

The final advice I'm going to give isn't directly related to your content, nor is it something you have any control over. That might seem strange, but much like when a relationship goes sour, sometimes you need to realise that it isn't always your fault. It takes two to tango, after all.

As I alluded to earlier, Google is updated fairly often – perhaps more often than even we SEOs realise. Sometimes these updates are heavily advertised and given a name (such as the Helpful Content Update), while others are only detected by the ripples they leave behind. It's kind of like tracking a dinosaur by looking for its massive footprints.

Thankfully, you don't have to put your deerstalker on and get investigating yourself. Instead, it's worth dropping by some SEO news sources to see if there have been any updates recently. Search Engine Roundtable is a good source for SEO news, especially since they report on the 'unconfirmed' Google updates I mentioned previously.

This isn't to say that if Google has run an update, everything is suddenly out of your hands. It just means that if you've run optimisations and the results haven't been stellar, there's a chance Google has been tweaking things. It's not something you can plan around, but if you keep abreast of what's going on, you can adjust your expectations accordingly. If it's a named update, you can also make sure that your page is in-line with whatever that update is focused on, when possible.

In conclusion . . .

Hopefully this list of tips has been of some help in figuring out where your SEO may have gone off-kilter, though I'm afraid such a list can't be completely exhaustive without looking like a meandering university thesis (you know the ones).

Still, I hope I've provided food for thought. While SEO can be a strange, almost mystical discipline, we're not just spinning a roulette wheel over here. When things go wrong, we can still do checks and pull on the levers we think will make a difference. When we've done that, all we can do is wait, monitor results, and learn from our findings.

After all, every day is a school day, no?

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