US International Higher Education

Aligning international student expectations with search engines

Creating content on your website is a great opportunity to tell your institution’s story and let international students know what sets you apart from others. Identifying and telling this story is only half the battle though.

In order to ensure the best amplification of your unique messaging, it is important that content on your website is reconciled not only with what users expect but also with what search engines demand for maximum visibility.
Great content will only get you so far, students need to be able to find it in the first place. Here’s a round-up of where users and search engines meet at the apex.

A unique voice

To add real value for students and to get the best organic rankings in search engine results pages, we need to ensure that the content we create is original and inviting. The content you hold on your site is an expression of your institution’s core mission and values; content that is beautifully and thoughtfully crafted is a great indicator of quality for users and search engines alike.

Old ways of structuring content for visibility include the seeding and re-seeding (and re-seeding, again) of the same few keywords we expect students to search for. The reason for this is that search engines historically looked at keyword density in order to determine how relevant an article was to a user’s search query. This is boring for readers and no longer a sure-fire way to win rankings.

Search engines nowadays seek to understand context rather than density, and so a more sophisticated, and future-proofed, way of working is to look at your content’s targeted keywords in terms of thematic groups and words that are semantically linked to that which you are trying to target. You can identify latent semantic keywords easily from looking at related searches on results pages, and work to feed those that naturally fit, into your content.

For student users, writing your content in this way gives them the freedom to get really specific in their search queries and still be able to find the right answers within your content. This is particularly relevant as the increased adoption of voice search means that search queries are longer in length as we subconsciously adjust our language for voice queries. For example, when a student is searching for a university via their desktop or smartphone they might search, ‘Best university for medicine UK’, but when using voice search they may be more inclined to ask the question, ‘what is the best university in the UK for studying medicine?’

Already, 20% of mobile queries are voice-activated (Google) and with the adoption of voice assistants forecast to grow exponentially, it is predicted that two years from now, 50% of all searches will be voice search (Comscore).

Integrating these semantic keywords and working to understand the nuances between textual and conversational search queries will give your institution’s content prominence across both mediums.

Expertise, Authority and Trustworthiness

Some of your institution’s web content is content that could affect the student’s happiness, health, finances, and/or their well-being. If it’s low-quality, it could actually serve to harm the reader. A good example of this is content about student finance or visa advice. There is therefore an added responsibility associated with your institution’s content. Content creators should be mindful of this, not simply to satisfy user needs but also that which is required by search engines in order to be marked as good quality.

Google’s own search quality rating program evaluates content based on three key “EAT” principles, meaning that content should adhere to the values of ‘expertise’, ‘authoritativeness’ and ‘trustworthiness’.

What does this mean in practice?

Pages that do not feature a level of expertise or pages that cover dense topics, but offer little information will be marked as low quality by Google’s evaluators. In order to avoid this, ensure that your content is robust in its responses to the user queries it seeks to answer. Be sure to facilitate meaningful links to other sources that provide further information also, should this be applicable to the content.

In the context of EAT, your lecturers, alumni and academics are powerful content marketing tools. Allow them to shine by adding your content creators’ biographies, including their job titles and their experience.

To be trustworthy is to be easily available, to be transparent and linked to and from external, trusted sources. A good example of this is student reviews: testimonials that have been uploaded to your institution’s webpages will likely be ignores by Google’s Page Quality rating, whilst Google chooses to give more consideration to reviews and recommendations from independent sources. Make it easy for your users to access them.


A translated web experience

When targeting international students, it may be tempting to assume that students’ English language skills are adequate enough as to be able to interpret the information with ease, negating the need for translated webpages. There may even be an inclination to create this element of friction between the international user and your institution on purpose, with the hypothesis being that it’ll filter out those students whose English may not be very strong.

However, this is missing out on a powerful opportunity to connect with your prospective students and to showcase the sense of belonging they will feel should they choose to study at your university.

International students

Committing to developing an experience tailored to international students will help tremendously to achieve that. Using html mark-up – namely hreflang tags on your site – will inform search engines which language you’re using on the page, and will in turn adjust the language of your search results according to the student’s language and browser settings, providing a localised experience for your users.

Hreflang tags can be implemented easily by using Aleyda Solis’ tool  to generate the tags followed by a validation tool to ensure correct implementation.

Remember that 9 in 10 international prospective students do not know which school they wish to attend when they begin their research, with search queries that are not specific to a particular institution being the predominant type of search, so not only is translation important to the users’ web experience, it’s so important to initial student outreach. Whilst your students’ English may well be perfect, chances are that when they commence their initial research, those search queries will be in their mother language.

Here is an example:


The Google Trends report demonstrates that, in Thailand, whilst searches for University of Cambridge were conducted predominantly in English using the Latin alphabet, the overwhelming majority of searches for studying abroad were conducted with the Thai alphabet.

Mobile-optimised content

Site speed is highly esteemed by users – users all want performant sites, especially when we’re on mobile and we’re searching for those ‘Who?’, ‘What?’, ‘Now?’ micro-moments, and search engines want to serve users performant pages. Mobile performance is now so highly valued, in fact, that Google has moved to a ‘mobile-first’ means of indexing sites on search engine results pages, meaning that the search engines creates its rankings based on how the webpages appear on mobile.

It is therefore important to ensure that your university’s web content is easy to read and scroll through on smartphone. The number of enquiries to universities sent by mobile worldwide is increasing 27% year on year so there are huge opportunities that exist for mobile-responsive websites. Mobile is also the favourite device for 2 in 3 students while accessing the internet at home for education research.

Having a website that is responsive for mobile not only increases the number of opportunities for student applications but it also has the potential to save your institution money in the long-term as any initial investment into responsive site design is countered by the decrease in cost and strain to your web servers.

For great advice on site speed, run your institution’s website through Google’s testing tool. The tool provides a free report complete with industry benchmarks, helping you to discover opportunities to optimise your site experience for mobile.

Remember, online search is the most popular channel used by prospective students to discover institutions and courses and so it is worth taking the time to get your institution’s digital content experience right.

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