Institute for Higher Education

Summer of SERP: Getting Your Digital Welcome Center in Great Shape

5 quick tips to win the search engine results for your institution.

When someone googles your college or university, the Search Engine Results Page (SERP) is what appears.

The SERP isn’t about generating awareness; it is about facilitating exploration for students who are already aware of you—those who knew enough to want to google you.

In 2018, Google changed the SERP for all of higher ed. It became a digital welcome center.

This spring, it became your only welcome center. And with visits to your physical welcome center curtailed or at least greatly reduced for the foreseeable future, the SERP has taken on even greater importance.

In the absence of college fairs, college counselor appointments, and campus visits, homebound students interested in your institution are increasingly turning to Google for their research. Concurrent with this unprecedented time, the company has updated the SERP again (at the end of May 2020).

Why focus on SERP?

Your SERP shapes where students will get their information about you, and that isn’t necessarily your .edu. In fact, it most often is not.

3E research shows that when people google a school, only about three in 10 click on your .edu. That means that from the search engine results page, around seven in 10 click somewhere other than your .edu.

Yes, 7 in 10. Google doesn’t report where they go, but we can make some assumptions. Many go to Wikipedia. Still more go to the Knowledge Panel: that’s the section on the right-hand side of the desktop SERP, and it provides a snapshot of information based on available web content.

Incidentally, for U.S. and India-based institutions, that Knowledge Panel was part of Google’s May 2020 update.

While it is critical to ensure that your Knowledge Panel is accurate and comprehensive, with this latest update, there’s a stronger focus on the left side of the page.

What does it mean to “win” a SERP?

  • Ultimately, a searcher clicks on the content you want them to—your content about your institution (wherever it is, your website or social sites).
  • To achieve that, your content–.edu, social—is higher up in the results than content such as review sites, etc.

SERP is a complex pursuit, but these are five relatively low-lift things you can do.

1. Be direct in your naming conventions.
Make sure the account names on your social platforms match your school’s keywords. If you are Monsters University, then your social platforms should be called that. For example, don’t call your Twitter feed MonstersRock; call it MonstersUniversity. Use names over nicknames.

2. Give thought to your image names.
When adding images to the internet, call them what they are. Don’t call your quad img3456.jpg, call it MonstersUniversityQuadinthespring.jpg. Don’t worry about spaces: the algorithms are clever.

3. Answer questions in video form.
Make video answers for the “People Also Ask” section of your SERP. Do it often. If the question is: “How hard is it to get into Monster University?” then make a video that is titled: “How hard is it to get into Monsters University.”

4. Lead with your name.
When naming content (with the exception of #3 above), lead with the school name. An aerial shot of campus should not be titled “Our campus from above”. It should be titled “Monsters University tour from above”.

5. Cut multiple accounts on the same platform.
Only one can make it to the front page of a SERP. If you want to get career services messages to prospective and current students, it will not get to them from the SERP unless you get it on the account that is on the SERP. You don’t need a Twitter feed or a Facebook Page for career services, you need that content on the place where it makes a case to enroll.

Understanding the inner workings of SERP is a complex pursuit, made more challenging by the fact that changes can be implemented when you least expect them (the May 2020 updates came out at 6 pm ET on a Friday evening).

And then positively influencing your SERP is a complex undertaking, as it involves shaping elements within each of your multiple social and digital approaches. It is not set-it-and-forget-it. We’ve just scratched the surface of what you can do here.

Interested in learning more about the changes to the SERP? View our on-demand webinar.

Matt Hames is the Associate Vice President of Social and Digital Media at 3 Enrollment Marketing.