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How higher education should think about the website

May 19, 2018

Before I start, I would like to make a semantic argument.

The Facebook Page is a website. The Twitter feed and YouTube channels are websites. In fact, everything that is on the first page of a SERP (Search Engine Results Page) for a brand – or University, is a website.

The .edu is often first on the list of searches for the University (second is often Wikipedia, it has that much power.).

The .edu is also the only place to register for a tour, apply for prospective students. It is also the only place to register for alumni events, and to give. (Facebook offers the opportunity for a college or university to register as a not for profit and take money online, but only if the school changes the category to not for profit.)

The .edu is also the only place to register for classes, and get information about facilities, hours, and perhaps menus.

So it is critical to generate the behaviors needed at a school.

The .edu is rarely a first point of contact.

Unlike YouTube and Facebook (and perhaps Twitter), the .edu is rarely, if ever, a first point of contact for someone interested in the school.

No one is made aware of a University via the website.

Screen Shot 2018-05-28 at 6.25.26 AMEven if someone searches “nursing school” and selects an autofill, the text of the SERP for the program is the first point of contact. It is worth noting that the first 4 results are ads.

For a liberal arts undergraduate university, the .edu is almost never a first point of contact.

That’s a bold statement. Almost never.

The few exceptions are blog posts, magazine articles with good SEO, and faculty searches after a conference or a meeting. The people who make these kinds of searches are probably not alumni, and are almost never prospective students.

That doesn’t mean the traffic isn’t important, but it does show the importance of landing pages. As a product, Google is winning because it gets people to the content they need.

Screen Shot 2018-05-28 at 6.31.27 AMThe psychology professor who is in the news has a landing page for the website. Chances are high that the majors and minors page is a landing page. More and more, the smart people at Google are looking to get people directly to the page they want. A search for Harvard offers some helpful looks into landing pages that aren’t the front page of the .edu.

These autofill options are based on search volume at certain times of the year. Right now, the Class of 2023 is thinking about Harvard and wondering about tuition, acceptance rates and requirements. The “nursing” hit is Google trying to be helpful to me, and anticipate what I am seeking. Prior to this search I did a search for “nursing” – the Google AI wonders is that is still on my mind. (Pro tip, do a your school and collect the screen shot of the autofill each month.)

Why understanding Google search matters

A student learns about a school – either from a guidance counselor, a teacher, a family friend who attended the school, sports success, an email to a purchased list, or reading or listening to a professor’s work. They hear about the school, then go to Google and search for the school. No one types in URL’s anymore, people type search queries into the search bar and wait for autofill to help. While it is increasingly rare that people don’t take autofill suggestions, presume for a minute that the search ends up being for the school, in this case Harvard University.

Like most schools, the .edu wins the Google search. Wikipedia is often second, but since I’m logged into Twitter and use it a lot, Google delivers me three random Tweets from Harvard’s main Twitter feed. Next are Facebook, Athletics, USN&WR, and the Times Higher Educations. Some other schools get Niche, Princeton Review, and Forbes. Quite often lists on the front page of a SERP. (I think the similarity of marketing from schools results in a marketing void filled by lists that numerically differentiate schools.)

Social media channels have taught us to scroll-scan, so most people do and look at the options. The Knowledge Key, the thing on the right-hand side, also anticipates a searcher’s needs – which is where business.google.com comes in.

Even though Google is actively trying to answer the query with the Knowledge Key, assume the user clicks on the first result, the website. After they peruse the site, and click on the links in a way that the web company proposed, they will leave. if they come back again, it will be via a more detailed Google search.

Academics at school. Research at school. Majors at school. Student life at school. Athletics at school. Dorms/food at school. Or they might listen to Google’s suggestions and follow the breadcrumbs of previous searchers.

Landing pages for the win. 

When a brand decides to redo their website, it often starts with a hierarchical flow. Students will start here and click twice to get here. The desire is a top down flow, almost mirroring the University governance – Faculty get the departments and their own bios, the school gets the rest of the pages. The people who make the site assume two things:

  1. This is an introduction to the school.
  2. Users will always start on the front page.

It isn’t an introduction to the school. they already know something by coming from your amazing video, Facebook post, Canvas Ad, or Twitter post.

The website can’t get the first hit, but it can encourage the second, third and subsequent hits. It can encourage a hit for research, academics, and student life.

These are things any university wants to attract, so the website should be designed, written, and created to encourage these kinds of searches.

It should not be designed as a top down site. Instead, it should be designed with two questions in mind.

  1. How will people get here?
  2. What pages do you want them to find?

If those questions aren’t asked and answered, the schools ends up with a website that has a lot of information on it. It will have majors and minors, programs, stories, and images. It just won’t have purpose.

What do you think? How do you think the web should be crafted?

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