Episode 001

How SEO Fueled Massive Growth For Purdue University

For many education organizations, growing enrollments begins with growing their website traffic.

Well, what if I told you I met someone who managed to grow his university’s web traffic from 5 million annual visitors to 37 million? What if I told you it took him less than six years to make that jump, and that his university’s website was ranked among the top 1,500 in the world for traffic?

In this episode, we’ll explain:

  • Which highly underrated marketing process led to these massive achievements.
  • Which tools and strategies you can use to better understand your audience’s behavior.
  • How to make your university stand out in search results.

Today, I spoke with Martin Sickafoose, the digital marketing director of Purdue University. Martin is a former web development manager with over 15 years of experience in the digital marketing space. He attributes much of his success to one of the oldest and most misunderstood tricks in the book: Search Engine Optimization, a.k.a. SEO. That’s right: The same process that countless marketers have written off as “dead” helped Martin revolutionize his university’s web traffic.

What Good is a New Site if No One Can Find it?

About nine years ago, Martin was tasked with building a new website for Purdue. The university had big ambitions for this project, but Martin felt that his team didn’t have enough data to get started on content. They needed to find out what their various audiences wanted to see, and how each audience preferred to use the website.

It was time to let Google Analytics determine their next move. Martin reviewed data from Google searches as well as the Purdue website’s internal search engine. He found that the most popular search topics varied dramatically throughout the year. For example, while prospective students dominated the fall searches, a great deal of summer searches were performed by parents who were looking for directions to campus.

The message was clear: Martin and his team would have to continuously modify the homepage in order to accommodate the most popular searches for that specific time. This made the website equally accessible to each audience, from current students to donors to research partners.

Focus On What Makes Your University Unique

Another integral element of SEO is unique content. Thus, Martin focused on what sets Purdue apart from their top competitors, as well as credentials that would surely catch the eye of prospective students. He highlighted Purdue’s exceptionally funded STEM research programs, and their inclusion in the Wall Street Journal’s list of the top five most employable student bases.

“People think SEO is dead. I don’t think it’s necessarily ‘dead.’ People have just beaten it up quite a bit”

He then recalled being asked to lend his talents to the website for Purdue’s graduate school. Before taking action, Martin decided to see how the graduate school’s 17 biggest competitors were using SEO. It turned out that 14 of them were not using it at all.

“Even if you’re not doing it, it still affects your business,” he said of SEO.

The Best Software for Mining Student Data

As for specific tools, Martin used BrightEdge to determine which keywords were being searched most frequently within the Purdue website. BrightEdge also showed Martin which pages prospective students were landing on after certain searches. He would then modify those pages to direct the prospective students back into the pipeline for en rollment.

Like any forward-thinking marketer, Martin could not ignore social media’s potential for valuable student data. He used Brandwatch and Hootsuite to find out what kind of people (journalists, students with massive followings, etc.) were mentioning the university on social media, as well as which pieces of this social media content were gaining the most traction.

It’s the combination of multiple tools, however, that allows Martin to learn the different touchpoints prospective students are going through before entering personal information. Speaking about the Purdue alumni club, he named Google 360 and Salesforce’s marketing cloud as two of the many tools that gradually unveiled the journey from former student into official club membership.

Education Marketers Have to Be More Patient

Believe it or not, it’s not technical knowledge or an aptitude for web design that separates Martin from the rest of the pack. It’s patience.

Martin was able to leverage SEO to this degree because he had the patience to wade through lots of data and do what it told him to do. He discovered the aforementioned software tools because he had the patience to see which options best suited his needs.

The success of Martin’s strategies reminds us that the greatest rewards usually go to those who sacrifice the greatest amounts of time. If you devote this much attention to the holes in your web traffic, you’ll climb the Google ranks like every other data-driven marketing sensation.

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