Search engines: the most important audience you’re likely ignoring

Those of us with any experience in marketing or communications understand that the audience drives many (if not most) of our decisions. We wouldn’t dream of crafting and publishing a piece of content, developing a strategy, or changing a logo without keeping our audience in mind. Yet, if you’re only thinking about the human eyes you hope to lock onto your composition, you’re ignoring the juggernauts silently judging you behind the scenes: search engines.

Enter the world of search engine optimization (SEO). Enough to warrant its own subfield of marketing, SEO is often used as a shorthand term to describe a series of efforts to help a website show up on Google’s home page, on the front page, at the top.  And these efforts have some major uphill battles to fight.

By some estimates, the top listing in Google search results receives about 33% of all traffic, with the #2 spot claiming 18%, and the rest declining from there.  And when Google has about 3.5 billion (yeah, with a B) searches to attend to on any given day, it behooves any content creator to intimately know what Google is looking for when placing things front and center. Unless you can first appease the needs of this digital behemoth, you’re unlikely to reach the eyes of your intended audience.

So, then the million dollar question becomes: how on earth do we do that? The Venn diagram of SEO blends three main components: technical, content, and social. And although in many industries the technical component of a website—e.g. title tags, keyword placements, sitemaps, data structure, etc.—is becoming less critical as it becomes easier to build and automate high-quality sites, higher ed unfortunately continues to lag behind in this regard. Many higher ed websites contain fatal flaws that limit their abilities to be crawled by search engines. Search engines don’t make assumptions, and if your website contains dead links that are both technically antiquated and non-optimized and contain stale or irrelevant content (or no content at all), Google is going to devalue your entire site. And if Google devalues you, you’re as good as invisible to your intended audience.

Thus, the first step in optimizing your SEO is to audit the technical structure of your .edu to determine the quality of your links and the optimization of your technical structure. Luckily, there are a number of resources and checklists out there to give you an idea of how to approach a technical audit. Once you have a solid idea of where your technical deficiencies lie, you can start prioritizing which problems you’ll move to solve. Most websites have a lot of issues, but not every technical problem is created equal. All SEO takes time, so being economical is critical.

Only once your technical structure is streamlined can you begin to focus on the content and social aspects of SEO. And this is where the long game starts. Once you’ve trimmed the fat on your website and let Google know that you’re a high-quality site now, you must continually prove your worth with high-quality content and an optimized social presence. The Google algorithm goes through multiple updates each year, and many updates in the last few years have turned Google’s eye more toward quality. Google doesn’t disclose too much about these quality updates, so suffice it to say that they’ve got an eye on your user experience. Can your audience find the information they’re looking for? Is your content clear, well-written, and aesthetically pleasing? Does your audience have clear ways to share and engage with your content? Allow questions like these to guide you through a content and social audit.

SEO is a game that higher ed can no longer view from the sidelines. Internet users rarely type URLs—they type keywords and ask questions. Your intended audiences are those searching for answers, not necessarily for you. And the ask that we’re making of search engines at that point is to help our audiences find us on as little information as possible. So appeal to the search engines and become the best answer to the questions your audience is asking.