SEO Hacks for Higher Ed Marketers with Little-to-No Time, Money, or SEO Knowledge

SEO Hacks for Higher Ed Marketers with Little-to-No Time, Money, or SEO Knowledge
Zach Busekrus
November 20, 2020
Digital Advertising
Enrollment Marketing
Student Recruitment

About the Blog

I hate hacks blog posts.

Hacks or any other “get rich quick” posts are like fast food — it feels good while you’re consuming (skimming) them, but in the end, you’re left unsatisfied because the content had little substance (no nutritional value, so to speak).

But boy, do posts with words like “hacks” in the title get clicked! It worked on you, am I right?

So, here’s what we’re going to do. 

Today, my goal is to provide you with a hacks post that is more like a fine steak dinner — complete with crispy brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, and an artisan side salad.  

It’s going to take some more time to prepare, you’re going to need to follow the recipe to ensure the meal comes out just right, but in the end, you’ll be left truly satisfied — or at the very least, inspired to make dinner tonight. 

Let’s dive in!

How Higher Ed Marketers Can Improve Their SEO Today

First and foremost, there is no magic recipe when it comes to increasing a particular page’s rank on Google, or your overall domain authority — Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is kind of like your home...there’s always something to fix, a new floating shelf to put up, and a closet that could use rearranging. 

Secondly,  there are two primary components to SEO — a technical component and, what we like to call, a content component. Technical SEO focuses on improvements to your site architecture, URL structure, and site speed. For the purposes of this hack, we’ll be focused on the content component. 

My final disclaimer: this hack is meant to kickstart your journey to better SEO. It is by no means an end in and of itself. It is, however, the best way to move the needle on organic rankings for  higher ed marketers. 

Pro-tip: Learn how to significantly increase your school's organic search rankings in DD Agency's 4-session SEO Strategy for Enrollment Marketers Cohort. Read more and sign up today!

Step 1: Identify 2-3 General Topics You’d Like to Increase Your Ranking On

There’s no way to increase your school’s SEO without a clear understanding of the topics you want to grow your authority around. There are a couple of pathways for gaining that understanding.

You can take the program-specific approach and try to win on keywords and search terms relevant to your BSN, your MBA, or your Bachelor of Science in Information Technology. 

Or, you can take a brand-specific approach with the hope of winning on keywords and search terms that are relevant to your school’s unique value proposition. This path can be much more difficult than the aforementioned one but will yield greater dividends if you prove successful. 

Let’s tease this out a bit with an example. Meet Loras College — a Catholic liberals arts school in the Midwest. For the purposes of this pretend scenario, let's say Loras has determined that they’d like to increase their school’s ranking around the following topics:

  1. Private colleges in Iowa
  2. How to become a counselor in Iowa
  3. Flexible school counseling programs 

Now, that we’ve identified the general topics Loras would like to win on, it’s time to garner insight into what folks are actually searching for. To do so, we’ll need to get our Sherlock on and hop into a search research tool like Google Planner, MozSEO, or, our personal favorite, SEMRush.  

Step 2: Conduct Keyword Research to Discover the 2-3 Keywords Terms to Target

Once we log into SEMRush, we head on over to the Keyword Magic Tool and query our first search:

And here’s what we learn…

The green box represents the monthly search volume (MSV) of the search query “private colleges in Iowa” — this means that in any given month, about 400 people are searching for this specific term. Generally, if a term has an MSV of 100+, it is worth targeting (especially if it includes some geo-specific this one does!). 

The red box represents the keyword difficulty score, which is an indicator of how challenging it will be to secure a top spot on Google’s SERP for that particular keyword. As a general rule of thumb, keywords that have a difficulty score of 70 or less are totally “winnable”! 

Terms that have a keyword difficulty score of 71 - 80, can be won, but not without a lot of effort (which mostly translates to the pumping out of new content with the search term baked in).  Anything over 81 will be very hard to win on and— in most cases — is not worth pursuing. 

Now, we want to get a sense of the domains that are currently winning on this term — we can do this by clicking on the keyword itself. Below are links to the top ten pages that rank on the first page of Google for the term “private colleges in Iowa.” 

Notice that the first actual school that ranks for this search term is Grinnell College in position 10.

So how does Loras currently rank for this keyword? As you’ll note in the screenshot below, they are currently ranking in position 23 which puts them on the third page of Google’s SERP…

When’s the last time you clicked through to the third page of search results?


This confirms that this is a keyword worth targeting!

By repeating this process for the second and third topics, here’s what we discover:

The “how to become a school counselor in Iowa” yielded zero results, but by removing “school” from the keyword, here’s what we found out.  The term “how to become a counselor in Iowa” has a low keyword difficulty score but the monthly search volume isn’t fantastic.  

But, interestingly enough, the term “how to become a licensed mental health counselor” has a monthly search volume of 260 and a keyword difficulty score of only 72.  It’s above our KD target of 70, but not by much!

So, Loras has two options here. 

They either decide to own the “how to become a counselor in Iowa” term (in spite of the MSV) or they decide to tackle the broader keyword in hopes of garnering more traffic. And yes — they could certainly decide to go after both terms! 

For the purposes of this pretend scenario, let’s say they decided to target “how to become a licensed mental health counselor,”

Finally, here’s what we learned about the keyword “flexible school counseling programs":

Yup, there just aren’t enough people searching for this term in any given month to go and target it. So, we explored related terms, and here’s what we uncovered:

There are several great candidates here and, ultimately, the best path forward for selecting the search term that Loras should target will be a strategic decision.

If it were up to me, I’d tackle both the “top masters in counseling programs” and “low residency masters programs in counseling” terms as they are consistent with Loras’ offerings and have decent MSV and KD! For the purposes of today’s hack though, let’s select “top masters in counseling programs” as our keyword. 

In conclusion, Loras’ key topics of...

  1. Private colleges in Iowa
  2. How to become a counselor in Iowa
  3. Flexible school counseling programs 

...have been translated into the following target keywords:

  1. Private colleges in Iowa
  2. How to become a licensed mental health counselor 
  3. Top masters in counseling programs

You still with me?  

Step 3: Understand Who is Winning...Evaluate Their Page...AND DO IT BETTER.

In order to devise a game plan for how to usurp a domain with a page currently ranking on the first page of Google’s SERP, Loras will want to have a look at the page that’s ranking for the search term.

Let’s go back to the start and take a peek at the ONLY school that is currently ranking on the first page of Google for the term “private schools in Iowa.” 

Grinnell College’s home page is the page in position 10:

Now, I did a quick find and search and wasn’t able to find our keyword anywhere visible on the actual home page (which, in all likelihood means that the search term is used in either a global tag like the footer or header and/or in the home page’s meta description).

This is actually great news for Loras! Why? Because it suggests that with a little strategic keyword splicing, they might be able to (relatively quickly) trade places with Grinnell!

When evaluating a page that’s ranking for one of your search terms, here’s what you want to look for:

  1. How many times is the keyword used throughout the page?
  2. Is the keyword used in any header tags? 
  3. Is the keyword used in the page title?
  4. Is the keyword used in the page URL?
  5. How fast does the page load?
  6. How long is the page (is it optimized to increase time on page with a video perhaps)? 

In a nutshell, Grinnell’s home page is not well-optimized for the keyword “private colleges in Iowa,” clearing the way for Loras to come in like a wrecking ball and snag the lead!

Step 4: Strategically Splice Keywords into Your EXISTING Site Content

Alright friends, here comes the hack!

In an ideal world, you’d have the time, money, and resources to develop and execute a well-thought-out SEO strategy for your school. This strategy should include building out content around your target keywords — blog articles, long-form pillar pages, videos, and maybe even podcasts (all of which are indexed by Google bots).

But if you can’t immediately follow SEO due diligence, you can move the needle on your page rankings by taking these search terms and splicing them into your existing blog content, event landing page content, program page content, etc. — and increase the length and value of each content piece!

Here’s what splicing in the term “best private colleges in Iowa” could look like in the case of Loras’ home page.

Home Page Tier 2 Before:

Home Page Tier 2 After:

Home Page Tier 4 Before:


Home Page Tier 4 After:


Home Page Footer Before:

Home Page Footer After:

Now if Loras wants to increase its domain authority around this particular keyword (which they should) they’d be wise to find other website pages to creatively splice this term into AND think about how to augment these pages to better please the Google gods (like adding a video on the page to increase session time, adding additional content pathways to ensure a great user experience, and using header tags effectively). 

While this hack DOES require some upfront work, it’s work that just about anyone on your enrollment management team or marketing and communications team should be able to do. This hack doesn’t require a huge allocation of resources to the development of new content, nor does it require that you have influence over your URL or site architecture.

One more time for good measure — this hack is not an end in and of itself.  While following this roadmap is sure to boost your school’s ranking position on your targeted terms, it likely won’t propel you to a top three position. 

But, it’s a heck of a lot better than doing nothing.

Every enrollment marketer with access to a keyword research tool (many are free!), editorial privileges on their website’s CMS, and a sense for which keywords their school/program would want to win on, will be able to implement the framework I’ve just outlined. 

Alright, I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry for some SEO wins. Let’s skip the fast food joint and get started on that homemade feast!

DD Agency Logo

Do you need to move the needle fast, when you don't have much money or a lot of time? Introducing DD Agency's latest cohort, "SEO Strategy for Enrollment Marketers: How to Increase Your Rankings and Attract Qualified Prospects."

Find out how you can significantly increase your school's organic search rankings in this dynamic 4-session cohort. We will empower you with the context, frameworks, and tools you need to build a solid game plan for your school. Here's what you'll come away with if you choose to join:

  • Learn the fundamentals of how search engines rank content and become equipped with a framework for how to build a short-term and long-term SEO strategy for your school.
  • Discover effective strategies for keyword research and how to create content that enables your school to win on targeted terms.
  • Learn how to audit your website’s architecture, design, speed, backlinks, and content pathways to identify SEO optimization opportunities.
  • Learn how to measure SEO performance over time and which software and analytics tools are best suited for enrollment. 


Shelby Moquin
Transforming Technical Education: Insights from Texas State Technical College
No items found.

Transforming Technical Education: Insights from Texas State Technical College

In a recent episode of the "In Your Element" podcast hosts Daniella Nordin and Brendan Henkel spotlighted an insightful discussion with Michael Bettersworth, the Chief Marketing Officer at Texas State Technical College (TSTC).

Shelby Moquin
Exploring Social Media Mastery with J.S. Stansel: Insights from "Confessions of a Higher Ed CMO
No items found.

Exploring Social Media Mastery with J.S. Stansel: Insights from "Confessions of a Higher Ed CMO

In the latest episode of the "Confessions of a Higher Ed CMO", host Jaime Hunt welcomes J.S. Stansel, the founder of Saturn 9 Media and former social media manager at the University of Central Arkansas.

Shelby Moquin
The Athletics Advantage: How Division III Sports Boost Recruitment and Retention at Elmira College
No items found.

The Athletics Advantage: How Division III Sports Boost Recruitment and Retention at Elmira College

On another insightful episode of Visionary Voices, the college president's playbook, host Bryan Gross dove into the crucial role that college athletics play in enhancing recruitment and retention, especially at Division III institutions. Guests include President Chuck Lindsay of Elmira College

Weekly ideas that make you smarter

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Search podcasts, blog posts, people