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Is Your Higher Education Inbound Marketing Google Ready?

Is Your Higher Education Inbound Marketing Google Ready?

In today's digital environment, the importance of using Google to get in front of your school’s audience is obvious to most marketers and admissions professionals. After all, 67% of prospective students use search engines as their first (and most important) source of information when starting their college search.

And yet, too many higher education institutions still treat their websites as one-time projects, optimized at first launch but neglected over time. That can conflict with Google's continuous optimization policy, where thousands of small and multiple large updates to its search algorithm every year can change which websites rank on which search results. 

In other words, optimizing your school’s website for Google is an ongoing process. Neglect it, and your rankings will suffer, potentially meaning less exposure to potential student leads. Worse, you may be actively penalized by Google for bad website habits, which are difficult to recover from

Successful inbound marketing for colleges and universities has to keep these continuous updates in mind. In this article, we'll discuss some of the most common areas higher education websites should pay attention to in order to avoid costly penalties - and optimize their inbound marketing strategy.

An overview of major Google algorithms

Taken as a whole, the structure on which Google bases its website rankings is both complex and proprietary. However, we do know of a few core principles and algorithms that both guide rankings and determine whether your inbound marketing tactics might get penalized: 

  • Panda: First published in 2011, assigns a so-called "quality score" to every website and page Google scans. It penalizes pages that run duplicate or plagiarized content, spam generated by users in content or comments, and so-called "keyword stuffing" in which a website artificially increases its ranking by including a specific keyword as often as possible in its content.
  • Penguin: First published in 2012, focuses primarily on links to and from the websites Google scans. Websites that receive too many links from spammy or questionable sources are penalized under the assumption that the publishers try to artificially push their credibility through a high volume of backlinks
  • Hummingbird: First published in 2013, is designed to prioritize search rankings based on searcher intent. Keyword stuffing and low-quality content continued to be penalized in new ways while intent-based content was elevated in their stead.
  • Mobile-First: First published in 2015, shifted the way Google interprets device types of searchers. All of its search rankings, regardless of whether the user searches from a desktop computer or smartphone, were ranked and prioritized based on the website's mobile performance, while websites not optimized for mobile were penalized.
  • RankBrain: First published in 2015, is a now-ubiquitous AI update that helps Google better understand the deeper meaning and intent behind searches based on past user data and behavior. Synonyms, implied words, and search history all now play into the results Google displays for searches.
  • Bert: First published in 2019, uses natural language processing to understand users better and display more relevant search results. As the culmination of similar efforts in Hummingbird and RankBrain, Bert rewards good writing above all while penalizing content rich in fluff words or without any meaningful depth.

What do these algorithms mean?

With a 90% market share among search engines, Google sets the standard for website optimization designed to draw in visitors. Penalties, intentional or not, can jeopardize your ability to be found by prospective students and their families online, significantly reducing your digital footprint and minimizing the chances of success with your inbound marketing efforts.

Fortunately, Google's relative transparency in regards to its algorithm means that schools with a thoughtful and strategic approach to inbound marketing and web design and optimization can make themselves and their content easy to find throughout the student journey.


That starts with avoiding what SEO (search engine optimization) experts call "black hat" optimization tactics. If Google penalizes low-quality content, any content you want to be found on your website should be relevant and in-depth enough to attract and interest your audience. Their behavior on your website, after all, affects how Google will rank it in the future.

Beyond that basic approach, it also pays to avoid these potential Google issues that could prevent your content and website from being found:

  • Keyword stuffing, over-indexing keywords you want to rank for in a given piece of content.
  • Hidden text appears only for search engines but is invisible to actual users.
  • Cloaking, in which the page presented to search engines is different from the page users see.
  • Link buying or other unnatural links to and from low-quality websites that look like an effort to game the system.
  • Spamdexing, or using content comments to spam links to manipulate search engine indexes.

Each of these black hat tactics carries potentially significant ranking penalties, even when done accidentally. They might also target your website for manual review, at which point the Google reviewer can decide to either penalize the offending page or your entire website domain. When that happens, it can take months to recover from the harmful effects of violations. 

Not all issues with your website are directly related to specific algorithm updates or black hat tactics. Free hosting or structural issues within your site, for example, can result in slow page load times and unreliable websites that reduce user experience and, as a result, Google rankings. 

Building ongoing optimization into your website strategy

Add it all up, and once things become clear: upkeep and ongoing optimization of your website and any content you publish are pivotal to long-term success. Once you begin to neglect it, the potential penalties incurred by Google could be fatal to your recruitment efforts.

Fortunately, you don't have to go through this process alone. At Sonority Group, we monitor our education clients' websites and content, regularly auditing them to ensure ongoing optimization according to all of the most current standards.

Using software specifically designed to notice potential issues, we can prevent Google penalties or ranking hazards before they occur. And of course, we work with our clients to remedy any issues we see, as they arise. Ready to learn more, and talk about a potential partnership? Let's chat! 

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