From education to employment

Improving the ROI of college websites

With our customers and potential customers able to use mobile phones and tablet computers that give them 24/7 access to search engines and FE websites it isn’t surprising that colleges are investing more and more money on their websites.

This spend includes the cost of new sites, staff time uploading new pages, maintenance and hosting which all seem to absorb money at an increasing rate.  All of this is necessary of course when we live and teach in the Google Age.

What is surprising however is the lack of understanding of the factors that will influence what the search engines perceive to be a good website, and the impact this can have on a provider’s recruitment and bottom line.

Getting on Page One of Google for various search terms can dictate the choice of provider in many curriculum areas.  Take for example the young person looking for an Apprenticeship or the business looking for a First Aid course.  Today they are more likely to Google for information than to use the traditional routes.

The problem for colleges is that often the marketing team lack the technical skills and the IT team lack the marketing skills required to ensure they get their market share of website traffic.  So often effective search engine optimisation (SEO) is at best neglected or, at worse, is carried out without an overall shared objective.  The third option is the use of external SEO companies that charge huge sums for what can be accomplished in house at virtually nil cost.

The whole situation isn’t helped by the fact that Google is constantly refining their search algorithms; for our staff, keeping up with this is a major task.  Although Google have never revealed details of their algorithm we know if consists of approximately 200 factors; and we know that some of these are heavily weighted.  Some of our knowledge on this derives from video and article “teasers” released by Google and some from empirical evidence gained by authoritative figures from within the search industry.

How to Use Google Analytics to Improve SEO

One heavily weighted factor in the latest “Panda” update is the bounce rate.  Until recently this was apparently didn’t significantly impact search engine results.  Times have changed.

Bounce rate is a measure of the percentage of visits to a page that result in people leaving the site from that page.  In an extreme case, if we send people to a page that has no menu bars or links to other pages they cannot access other pages and so leave; in this case the bounce rate will be 100%.  The real trick is to keep people on the site for as long as possible, not only do they learn more about our offer, their actions also improve our search engine metrics.  If they visit four pages the overall bounce rate will be 25%; five page visits equal 20%, and so it goes on.

Not only does it now matter what the bounce rate of an individual page is; there is evidence that Google is measuring the bounce rate of the whole site and using it in the overall search engine results.  So one bad page can pull the whole college site down.  This means that if we no longer appear on Page One of Google, when the local electrician is looking for “17th edition training”, we can lose that business.

However recent improvements to Google Analytics have also produced a powerful new technique for us to analyse bounce rate and remedy any deficiencies.

We can now filter our Analytic results, find pages with high bounce rate .. and discover why this is occurring.   If we then improve the offending pages our whole site can rise up the search engine results.

This may seem an esoteric science to be performed by bearded men wearing sandals but the impact on a college can be dramatic.  This is the world where the bottom line is affected by small changes performed behind the scenes.

So one has to question why we spend so much money on website paraphernalia but pay scant attention to the details that impact that spend.

Stefan Drew is a marketing consultant, and was previously director of marketing at two FHE colleges. He now works with providers throughout Europe and theUS

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