Thought Feeder social media photo for Episode 44. Guest JP Rains’s headshot is featured in a square image. White text reads “SEO in Higher Ed.”

Episode 44: SEO in Higher Ed: Mysteries, Misconceptions, and More!

Thought Feeder
Thought Feeder
Episode 44: SEO in Higher Ed: Mysteries, Misconceptions, and More!
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It’s our first SEO episode! JP Rains, Director of Digital Strategy and Communications at Laurentian University, chats with J.S. and Joel about everything from how Google works, to making user-first content, and managing internal expectations.

Joel Goodman: From Bravery Media, this is Thought Feeder. My name is Joel Goodman. With me as always as the caffeinated Jon-Stephen Stansel. And we are super, super excited to have, my good friend JP Rains. The, you know, one of the kindest Canadians I know, but just one of the kindest humans I know. JP is the Director of Digital Strategy and Communications at Laurentian University and also the President of Rains Media, where I’ve had the pleasure of working with JP on a number of different projects.

And we’re gonna talk about SEO and higher ed and all kinds of cool marketing stuff. And JP, thanks for being on the show.

JP Rains: My pleasure. Happy to be here!

Joel Goodman: So, just for folks that are in this community that, that may not know who you are, can you kind of give us a, a sense of your background, what, what you’ve been doing throughout the years in higher ed?

I know that I met you at conferences and have seen you speak a bunch of different times and then have had the pleasure of working with you, as I said. But, fill, fill in everyone on what you’ve been.

JP Rains: Well, I would lead by saying that that conference environment really shaped a lot of you know, what happened for me in higher education in the sense of wanting to stay within it and, and, you know, originally I started, I don’t think anybody goes to school to want to work at school, but I think for me, other than maybe teachers, but you know, the, the university administration, that kind of thing was never really something that I had as a path.

But when I started out as a university recruiter, um, you know, going from, school to school, kind of like an admissions. You know, I, I just kind of grew a passion for it. And then, transitioned into more and mower sort of education background, which would be marketing communications, and. Since 2009, I’ve been working in higher ed and, just in a variety of capacities.

I’ve worked in the, yeah, recruitment office in the IT department and marketing communications. Um, yeah, a bunch of different offices. we all know those random offices that exist, as well as I’m the agency side, for two years full time and then for six years now, part time.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: I’m really excited to have have you on talk about this cause this is something that I, I know enough about to be dangerous, but, Good at . Um, so, and, and, and I, I think that, that that’s true for most of higher ed. Like we know SEO is important, we know it’s something we should be concerned with, but we don’t really know much more than that.

So can you address some of the biggest misconceptions that folks might have about approaching SEO in a higher ed context and just SEO in.

JP Rains: Yeah, that’s really accurate is saying a lot of people, you know, know enough to be dangerous. And that’s certainly how I started out, when I was first, you know, tasked with, updating the website in 2010, and, and led to learning about that kind of thing. But I think one of the big, um, I’d say misconceptions or, or one of the, challenges within higher ed in terms of SEO is this, lack of centralization of web properties.

So in, in most cases, we have, um, you know, a lot of core issues to SEO, like duplication, for example. that, that is a challenge for most institutions. Websites, we. Competing interests where, you know, within a, you know, within one domain you could have multiple pages competing for the exact same type of searches. And without any kind of collaboration that can become a major problem. Um, and, and that’s true many things. Like I’ve worked for multiple schools that had, you know, Google ads running for competing pages under the same keywords, under separate accounts that we’re just driving up each other’s bids.

But, in, in some SEO, the same thing can happen, just with less, awareness of it. And so we also have this problem of kind of like website graveyards, where there’s all these pages that exist across institution websites that we don’t really know about and, and that they in a lot of cases may still be getting, traffic and, and unless they’re being monitored in a significant.

You, you don’t really know where people are coming into your website and, so unless you have somebody actively, you know, figuring out where people are coming in and what searches are related to the, those entrances, um, it can be difficult to understand how people are coming in, what impact SEO is having in general.

And I think, you know, what are the things that. Is a, is another challenge, is that higher ed in, in a lot of cases, will monitor SEO at kind of an institutional level as opposed to, a holistic level and, and really looking at it as, you know, how does everything fit together? so that’s one of our, our challenges.

But it, you know, speaking to SEO more broadly, I think. There’s a sentiment that you can just adjust, You know what your rank is on Google relatively effectively, but you know the reality, and I’ve had that, you know, email many times like, Hey, our department is ranking number six instead of number one. And, we need you. Can you adjust that? Can you email somebody at Google to adjust that? And, while that would be cool, I, I am glad that that isn’t the case. and the ranks, you know, are, are what they are based on, things like page authority and, and domain authority and all these things, variety of factors that we’ll talk about, but I think people have also said like, Oh, the more keywords the better. Just fire those in there. Right? And, and in some of the more recent updates, that’s becoming more of an issue actually for websites is just keyword stuffing. there’s a big difference between understanding which keywords are important to use.

And, how often you should use them. I’ll leave it at that for that. And then the last misconception that I’ll, touch on is just that, meta descriptions don’t matter. And so the meta descriptions are the, you know, when you’re doing a web search, they’re the preview of what you see as that page.

And while the meta description doesn’t have an influence on where you show up in the search, It absolutely has an influence on if people click and actually go through, right? And if it’s picking up some random piece of the text instead of a proper description of what happens on that page, you’ll, you’ll get, you won’t get as good of a user experience.

So those are just a few of my favorite misconceptions.

Joel Goodman: One of the things that I hear, or at least see a lot when I go into to work with a new institution. JP is this heavy focus on paid, like paid advertising, paid search advertising. And I think a lot of times in higher ed we see that kind of get confused with search rankings and like they kind of work together, but not as, not as powerfully as I think most people.

In our industry think they do. Could you speak a little bit to the, the difference between, you know, the, the organic building up of, search engine rankings and, you know, actually doing the optimization side of it versus, you know, the, the pay to play advertising side and, and what kind of, I guess, what effect those have on each other.

JP Rains: Definitely see that a lot where you know, people launch. In paying and just say, Hey, this will get a bunch of people to this page, and then our page will rank higher and. Part of that is true, yes. If you get a bunch of people to a webpage, it’ll help it rank. But if you do so based on a paid campaign, it will do it while the campaign is active and, you know, and, and sure those people might come back and this kind of thing, but in a lot of cases you really need a holistic effort that.

You know, uses regular paid ads, out of home advertising out there in the universe, as well as SEO efforts to make sure that the page kind of has longevity. So while, you know, Google ads and, and those kinds of things, paid ads will benefit the website’s traffic for a short period of time. SEO really does kind of the opposite.

So in a, and they work well in concert when you rely on paid ads to get something. and also have a lot of organic, you know, efforts, that will create some longevity and create some, you know, positive, momentum for a page so that it can rank after, you know, six months or a year or two years. So, and then a lot of things we do in higher ed is long-term, so we may as well take a long-term approach.

Joel Goodman: There’s kind of a lot of misinformation, or at least confusion. About how Google’s ranking algorithm really works. Um, and it’s also a pretty complicated topic, like there, it works in a lot of different ways and it takes a lot of different factors into, into account. Um, what do you think are the, the top things that, an institution should focus on when working to optimize their, their website for, for search ranking?

JP Rains: I think really, um, focusing on user experience and the student journey is probably the number one that I would go to first is, is let’s not build a webpage or a web experience for how it’s gonna rank, but let’s start with the core experience that we wanna provide, and then think about things like, Secondary to that.

Okay. Are we using the right words? Like, and how does that resonate with students? So, and I think one of the key things within that, within building that user experience is the relevance of, you know, the words that you’re using in the audience are going after. And I think, one of the things that, that we can do in higher ed to advance that is really speak in the language of our perspective students or future students.

And I, You know, we try to sound really smart and academic and all those kinds of things, and that’s important in certain areas, but it’s also important from an SEO perspective to speak in the same way your audience would, that we, and we’d hear that in a variety of places. But just because we’re an institution doesn’t mean we need to sound like a grade 15 reading level or whatever it might be like. I think, so a side note, the reading level tool is helpful for this kind of thing, but it’s really like looking at what are the searches that people are looking for that are related to the content that we have, and how do we. Have some of that information, right?

Rather than just talking about what’s important to us. Let’s talk about what’s important to, to our students. So I would say, you know, first user experience, and thinking about it in that context. And, and there’s a bunch of other things like page speed and, and links and, and domain authority and all that kind of stuff.

But, you know, I’m not sure if everyone wants to hear about that, but, but those are, those are the other pieces, right? But I, I think if you really focus on. why that person is coming to that webpage and like what is their goal and how do we respond to that? First? I think we can create a good experience that leads to good SEO.

If you create a good experience, it’ll, It’ll create to good SEO.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Yeah, they’re coming to the page to read about the, the research on Mediterranean tree frogs, right?

JP Rains: Yeah, that would be cool. Yeah.

Joel Goodman: The page speed thing is, is one of those ones that I, I really latch onto because I think it’s actually integral to user experience. Like you, you know, there’s, there’s all these, there’s all the, all the data out there that shows, you know, when you get beyond. I think it’s actually, I don’t even know what the latest number is, but it used to be like about three seconds of waiting time on a webpage.

The percentage of people that actually stick around on the site just starts to drop. And so like, you know, bounce rates, whatever, blah, blah, blah. But the, you know, if your site is slow, if the page that someone’s hitting is slow, they don’t even have the opportunity to experience that supposedly great user experience.

You have built for them because you’ve kind of, Cardi kind of already like cut it off the legs, you know, and, . And, but I think that, you know, that’s, that’s a big reason why, why Google does take that into account is, you know, not just for the sake of. You know, was, was it frustrating that I couldn’t load the site quick enough, but think about people that are, on cell phones in rural areas and only have, you know, still have a 3G connection.

You know, like, or, or, you know, I, we saw this during the pandemic. I think actually JS and I talked about it early on in this show, but there were students that were having to go to the McDonald’s parking lot and use their wifi to. Their, you know, their schoolwork done because they didn’t have an internet, internet connection at home.

And so having a fast site is definitely a usability plus, You know, it really does affect that user experience. And so no wonder Google actually does put some emphasis on that and rolls it into that UX issue.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: But Joel, nobody’s going to apply unless they see this really giant, drone video of our campus on our banner. Like it doesn’t matter how much it slows the site down, we’ve gotta have that drone shot that, that whole vi drone video, that auto plays,

Joel Goodman: No doubt.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: It’s gotta be there.

Joel Goodman: That’s what I visit websites for. I just wanna see the, I just wanna see the, the drone video or, there was a conversation that I, that I saw in, I think it was the, I think it was the HD web Slack, earlier this week where someone was talking about giant videos that are, you know, just like a nice beauty shot of campus with barely anything going on.

But like this, that’s been the recent trend, right? We saw a few years ago was the drone videos. Now it’s like these videos with no sound that are just atmospheric or like cut between a couple different scenes. Someone mentioned one that was, I forget what, I forget what institution it was. And I, I wouldn’t call them out on this show.

Um, I might call them out separately on Twitter if I figure out who it is, but it was like a 10 minute long video. That’s just a background. Mood setting video was zero, audio to it or anything like that. And I don’t, Do you, is someone gonna sit and watch a silent film for 10 minutes when they’ve come to like, get some stuff done on your website?

I just, I just don’t, I don’t think they are. I don’t think that’s the case.

JP Rains: Yeah. I mean, we, we all know the answer to that for sure, but like, I, I feel like the, the. Desire to look cool is, is much, it, it feels like high school fashion. Like, again, like, like forget form or function. I just need to have the same big baggy jeans as everybody else. Like, like I, I think this, this idea is, is all about, you know, just kind of fitting in.

And I think I’ve said this before, but I feel like higher ed, like we’re all the institutions. The zebra’s coming up to the watering hole, and then you’re just kind of tentatively looking around before somebody gets hit by an alligator and the but but the first sign of any kind of distress. You know, for, for one zebra way down the row that has an itch that turns around, everybody else runs away.

And in the same way that we latch onto these new trends in the same way, they’re kind of like, Oh, well those five schools did it. That must be a best practice. Oh, they want a case award. That’s a best practice. Let’s do that too. So like, I, I feel like there’s a lot of that. Bravery is hard, and I’m not using that as like a pun for the, for the agency here, but like to, to ha really do something unique in high ed, like to have the right reasons behind it is, is not always what carries the day.

In a lot of cases it does, but I think on page speed, that’s a really good reason. Right? Like when you’re thinking of the person that. You know, we’re, we’re thinking about accessibility, we’re thinking about, diversity from an enrollment perspective, even more, probably not as much as we should, but more.

And it’s this idea that we have to think about the outliers and, and be better at that. And page speed isn’t just about that. It, it’s also gonna bring all kinds of benefits, but I think it fits in with all the right reasons to do.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Definitely. I think that’s something we hit on just about, like every episode is like, How many decisions are made at universities that are based upon what the university down the street is doing? Like, Oh, they have the drone shot on their homepage. We need that too. And it’s just a terrible way to make decisions.

And the schools that are brave and going, Okay, we know that we can increase our page speed if we don’t have that video, or we do this and maybe we streamline things and do things differently, are going to be the ones that are going to succeed.

JP Rains: Totally agree. And I think there’s like a time and place for both. Like sure, you can have the big marketing campaign stuff. I’m not saying you shouldn’t. I I do. I am the person that puts that stuff on the website. but it, it’s this idea that, On the fifth level page of the admission section, you probably don’t need those bells and whistles when somebody’s really just trying to find out what are the admission requirements for somebody coming in from Mexico.

Like, you know, those kinds of simple things, that we can provide somebody is, is, you know, probably low hanging fruit.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Now another thing, and it is becoming a major issue for, for, for campuses is, um, Google’s continued rollout of zero clicks features, right? So how can marketers and colleges respond to this and, and, and prepare for it and, and, and have the best SERP?

JP Rains: We’re pretty bad at that right now. Like, you know, you, I, I’ve done a few tests and that kind of thing on, on my own institution’s website and many others, but it’s, it becomes really obvious to invoice search sometimes and when you’re, when you’re looking at something and you ask. Google a question or, Alexa a question, and you get some kind of response that, you know, is clearly read out of, out of the wrong context of a page.

It really becomes obvious. And, and I think it’s part partly, you know, thinking about those kinds of pieces, but I think it’s also. Looking at not just what the end product is like, why is this rich snippet being pulled into the search results? But it’s really looking at how can we ask that long tail question, whatever it is, and answer it on our website and provide, the right type of formatting, right?

So like, Shorter paragraphs, more specific questions and use of headings and all those things will really help Google figure out where things are. So I, I’d encourage people, if you’re seeing a rich snippet that’s just totally inaccurate, You know, look at where can you go find that piece of information on your website and adjust the page to make sure you are, um, you know, make sure you’re, you’re, identifying that page as, as being rewritten with proper headings and questions and these kinds of.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: And let’s take a quick step back too, in case there are any, university executives listening to this. Could, could you briefly describe what a SERP is, for those uninitiated.

JP Rains: Yeah. So in the context of, what we’re talking about here, this is, you know, when you’re searching for a question like what. The, tuition of so and so University, a lot of times it will get served right. That result will get served immediately on the results page as opposed to, you know, taking you to a subpage of the University’s website.

So in this case, it’ll just show you an excerpt and it’ll show you maybe. You know, 280 characters or so of a response, of what that information is. But it may very well be inaccurate, especially around something like tuition that can be, you know, highly, subjective to whatever type of student you are.

And so it brings in results from a webpage onto the search results page.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Yeah, I think that’s really important to think about, especially as we realize like a lot of students are getting their results from that. They’re not even clicking to the homepage, they’re just seeing this on Google’s, you know, search results page and, and going of that information there. So we really need to be cognizant of what is there and, um, you know, what we can do to improve that, right?

Joel Goodman: One of the things that, that I really love and, and you know, one of the. Of the major drivers or I, I think JP, we’ve, we’ve heard this question a lot, I think is we’ve worked together and worked with, with institutions, but there’s this question around how you can control a lot of those zero click features, the rich snippets that are showing up or, you know, starting to control the, um, the, the responses that that voice assistance use and get, you know, out of, out of Google.

And there, you know, I think there was a while I know that we worked together on a couple projects that were like, well, this. Kind of a way that we know, but we, we, we have better ways now. Like we know that, we know that, using things like, like sche. In our, in our content to, to identify the type, the, the type of content it is, but then also the various different pieces that are within that content, whether that’s, you know, directly in line within the code.

And I love this stuff cause I’m a nerd and I, and I do development work and play around with schema a lot because it’s, I don’t know why I like the structure so much, but, but being able to, being able to define that either in line or even with JavaScript or, or, you know, a j structure within the page itself.

Um, And, you know, more and more institutions are, are starting to do that. I know that, that we always recommend and we, we try to build that out when we’re, when we’re working on projects, here at Bravery. what are some of the, what are some of the various, schema or, or structures that, that you would like to see higher ed use more, or that you’re finding, you know, could be extremely beneficial to, to institutions you, you find that you’re recommending as you work on various SEO projects and, and look at, you know, look at your own, look at your own institution’s, SEO.

JP Rains: One of the first ones that comes to mind is events. And, what’s funny, I had a, a client at one point kind of say, Yeah, every time we put an event on Event Bright, it appears on Google, and we, we’d like, Do that for all of our events. Um, so we’re just gonna put every single event on Event Bright, because that’s the only way we can get it to show up on Google.

Right. And, and you know, so like it’s, it is. Okay. Well there’s other ways of doing that because, you know, Event Bright is using proper schema. And for anyone that wants to learn more about schema, schema.org is a great place to go to and just check out the various modules in there. Um, so events is one.

There’s another module, within schema.org you’ll find, that is courses. And, that’s an easy one, to, from a templating perspective work into what is probably already an, an existing course database. You to have a book or a PDF for that. But, that the, that is an opportunity, right? It’s a big opportunity under courses.

And then even a more simple one is, you know, have, profiles on, let’s say the alumni section of the website. You can actually identify using schema. When someone is an alum of that institution, and it will help show up under the notable alumni that, um, you know, you probably get an email once a year about how come this person shows up in notable alumni results on the internet and these people don’t.

We need to change that.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Oh, I’ve got a story about that.

Joel Goodman: Tell it J.S. tell it.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: I will pose it as a question of what would you do in this situation? Okay, so get that call. Somebody has complained to the president’s office that they searched for the school and the notable alumni that come up and I, I’ll, I’ll people know what schools I work for, but you can I won’t name it.

Top three alumni. Were a former president, a country singer, and an adult film actress, and they were very upset that when you Googled the school and they f they were, they were complaining because they felt the school controlled that. And we put her on the, the top three. And not that she was a very successful adult film actress, it was quite often Googled um, a very catchy name.

And, um, we were tasked with changing that. So let’s say that happens, somebody gives you that call. How do you respond and how do you do anything about. Because you know ours, it was like they wanted us to call Google and it was like, wow.

JP Rains: That’s a tough one, right? Because it’s, it’s very similar to the question of how do you make this particular page rank lower on search engine results? You know? Um, we. As a collective, don’t, don’t control what appears there, what we can do. and what we do control is identifying and, and influencing, the volume, of traffic and these kind of things that go to, the notable alumni that are highlighted.

So, my hope for an institution that has this problem is that you might have a fourth and fifth candidate that are just below the cusp of popularity of this particular film star that you could. boost with, perhaps an organic campaign that creates a lot of traffic and generates, visits to a properly coded page that has a bio of this person, you know, that might boost, that might be enough to turn the tide, but it takes time is the reality. And, you know, unless you’ve already maximized everything you can. Which is hard to do. It takes time. but I, I think I would recommend trying to boost other people up so that this person moves down, and then kind of go from there in the same way we do with, with search engine results, because we can’t necessarily control all of that.

And, and, you know, control, focus on what you can control and, and, you know, understand that we don’t control everything. I guess it’s tough.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Our method of responding to it was to explain how Google works and that we did not put her on, that’s, that’s not the university webpage and we don’t control that. Um, and we also used the example of like, hey, the unibomber went to Harvard and you search Harvard and he shows up. So it’s not something we can particularly, they are notable alumni.

Joel Goodman: But it’s, it’s that, it’s that old, that old adage that, I don’t know if it was actually coined, I don’t think it was coined on Mad Men, but I know it was used on Mad Men of, if you don’t like the conversation, Change it, you know, like, and, and there are ways that you can do that. And like you said, JP, it takes a little bit of time and takes some effort to do it.

But you know, the way you change it isn’t by call trying, calling Google calling whatever, voice automation they have at Google and complaining to a, to an, to a full

Jon-Stephen Stansel: We, we, we did luck out in the fact that Google does have, there’s a form somewhere buried that you can fill out and request a change, and we were able to get that adjusted where she, she still the number three search, but did not show up on the. Initial, if you clicked more, she’d be down there. But, which, you know what it, it’s, it’s a legit career.

Good for her. She’s very successful. Like,

JP Rains: it’s a good, it’s a good lead for your, donations office could reach out and, talk to these notable alumni about donating.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Okay. This, this, this is an important one because I think this happens quite often. So how can marketers and other institutional staff better support the individuals that are tasked with SEO on their campus? . I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a campus that had a dedicated SEO person. It’s someone, it’s not somebody who, it’s their job.

It’s tasked to someone who also has many other jobs, so, So how can we support them on our campuses?

JP Rains: That’s a great question and it’s really. Um, very similar to like accessibility from five or 10 years ago in a way where institution websites understood that accessibility. Maybe something they should be thinking about. and then it became, you know, with various legislation and rules, something they ought to be thinking about.

And then it became something they have to be thinking about. And I, and I don’t know that SEO’s gonna take that same path, but one of the things that had to happen at that stage was, you know, if you have a decentralized web with, 110 various authors, you had to do some substantial training and, and you know, kind of thad this really substantial, communication exchange with those web authors. So I would think that, you know, one of the first things is that an institution that, that has various web authors, hopefully we’ve got a group together of people, that, that do web editing and, and talking about SEO in a meaningful way is, is a big help.

So, I would start. Taking an approach similar to accessibility. And part of the reason why I mention accessibility is because accessibility really helps SEO. So if you have a website that has a lot of great accessibility features like alt tags or descriptions and proper use of headings and these kinds of things, that will really benefit from an SEO perspective because as my, if a screen reader can effectively read your website, you know, a search engine probably can as well.

And so I would, I would start. and what are the things are that we’re doing from an accessibility perspective. Support SEO, but then also just focusing on what I talked about earlier and not kind of sounding academic or using, um, you know, some basic content editing stuff like jargon and this kind of thing.

Acronyms that students don’t use. Now, an exception to that is if students are absolutely doing web searches that use acronyms, then maybe we can use acronyms. So it’s highly contextual in that sense, but I, I think focusing it around what is the experience of that person that’s coming into your webpage and, and if they’re using acronyms, and we probably should too.

So it’s this balance between, we want to sound professional and institutional and using the right words that people are looking for. That’s a keyword perspective.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: I love this answer on so many levels, and I wanna say why. First off, talking accessibility. One, we’ve talked about this before. Accessibility is just the right thing to do. Re regardless whether or not it had any, benefits whatsoever, we should just be doing it because it is good. But it also has so many other benefits.

If you do it, you get that better SEO and, and, and so many other, It improves your website in so many other ways. When, when something is accessible for everyone, it’s better. Everybody. Right. And then two, the acronyms. Oh my God, the acronyms. Like we try and be witty and clever and think it’s more memorable, but it’s actually the opposite effect.

Like not everything has to be themed around your mascot with some sort of acronym. Or like the, the worst one I ever heard was like, it was a, to promote financial literacy. It was like the university cafe, like career and financial expertise. And they even put like the little accent mark on the e and it was like the office was right across the hall from the actual cafeteria.

So like, it was confusing and. Many ways. And like the person behind it thought they were being clever and it’s like, yeah, but this is not put clarity over cleverness. Um, and, and, and, and go, go from there. So yeah, I applaud that and I think people, more people need to realize this, that, that these things, you know, Having that clarity, having that accessibility has benefits in so many other ways.

It’s so much more valuable than sounding academic.

Joel Goodman: I really hope they ended up having to serve sandwiches because they couldn’t get anyone in there, or they got too many people in there that were disappointed. People are already disappointed about like financial stuff on a, on a university or college campus, like to, to tempt them with pastries and coffee when you have none. Seems cruel.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: I think they might have had them. I think though the idea was like, come in, chill out. We’ll talk about your career and financial stuff. Have a cup of coffee, you know.

Joel Goodman: It’s like those Capital One Coffee shops here in the us

JP Rains: I feel like we’re always trying to name support programs. It’s F.A.S.T. So it’s F for something, A for something as to, you know, like we’re always trying to do that when in reality just call it what it is, Right? Like, like I think we can do a much easier job of just saying, yes, that is the fees office. You go there for fees, like it’s very forward.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Well, and it’s not that clever either when you consider the fact most schools have animal mascots, so like they always try and like make their acronym after the mascot in some way. So it’s like claws or paw and like tales or so like all animals have these things.

JP Rains: I can’t say the number of campuses that I’ve been to that call whatever their store is, the den, like whatever it is of that particular animal, for sure.

Joel Goodman: JP, one of the, one of the big. I think one of the biggest fears that, I’ve heard in higher ed, you know, this year, and we’re recording this in 2022, is the big, huge change to Google Analytics 4, and now this is not strictly SEO related. But it, it also sort of is because Google does all of these things together and, you know, and, and plus we wanna, if, if we’re doing our search engine optimization, we wanna make sure we’ve got the analytics in place to show that it’s working and be able to provide that, provide that data back.

And so, you know, in, in your experience with, with dealing with Google and, and how the, how their search engine results pages work with how all this analytics stuff is going on, setups, things like that. What. Do you think everyone should know about the Switch and how? How should they prepare? What should they be ready to do for the giant switch to GA four?

JP Rains: GA4 is coming. The first thing that that, um, I recommend to people is just to install it right away so you don’t have to do a lot of heavy lifting. You can install, GA four within an hour, like, you know, really simply. Um, because install it, it’ll start collecting data immediately. and then you can start to figure out how it works.

Because don’t I really encourage people, don’t try to figure out how it works immediately, because there’s a lot to learn and it’s hard to do. So without being able to reference your own data because, especially if you’re, you know, administering your, your analytics platform or even just a, a user that’s often in that analytics platform, I would say that, you know, installing it immediately can really, create some benefits around learning how it works, because as of right now, at least you do have, 10 months or so before they, they turn off the, Google Analytics data. So I would say that having the data immediately is the first thing. So that’s, that’s the easy step. Jump in, and, and keep in mind that, you know, you won’t have data until you install it.

So please install it now. and then the second thing that I would encourage people to look at, right? is, is looking at the list of standard conversions. So G four is actually gonna be a really good thing. Okay. So, so for, you know, in my opinion, I, I think, you know, there’s, there’s probably people on both sides, but I would say that one of the things that it’s gonna do, um, much more effectively for us is allow us to track some of these baseline conversions in a more substantial way, as opposed to all of.

We had to do so much manual work to track specific things that people were doing on our websites, and now this is going to be much easier. So the, the idea that this is coming in with a standard list of conversions, that are going to, you know, just make things easier, having a look at that standard list of, of conversions will help now.

So install it, look at the list of conversions, and then the third would. Looking at the delta between which conversions are already there that you really wanted and which conversions we have to add as manual conversions. and, and the list will be much shorter than it was in the past in terms of your manual conversions in most cases.

Um, but I think the opportunity that it creates to create new types of conversions based on, some triggers. You know, if people were heavily using Google Tag Manager, then you know, they’ll probably be pretty familiar with, because if you’re pretty familiar with Google Tag Manager, GA four will feel more comfortable, because it, it’s taking some of the pages from, from what GTM was offering, for, for a while now.

So I think it’s, you know, to, in summary, installing it. Second is looking at your baseline conversions, and then third is looking at what work you might need to do in addition to that to really. Um, the parts of your, your web user journey that you’re really interested in, and that, and that’s what all this stuff is for, is to tell you how efficient your website is and, and really, you know, these tools to demonstrate that efficiency can really be maximized more.

And I, and I hope that this spells, um, you know, a, a positive future for people being able to track even more, on an anonymous level.

Joel Goodman: So it’s not as scary as it seems.

JP Rains: It’s like, going to Halloween party, you, you know what you’re dressed up as, but you don’t really know what everyone else is gonna dress up as. So you do have some anxiety around that, but when you show up, it’s, it’s a good time. You get used to feeling, and seeing what, what is all happening in that room, because it’ll all be new.

Joel Goodman: One of the other, I think, fears that people have around around the monolith that is Google is algorithm updates. And so going back to SEO, they do this, you know, the, they call them helpful, helpful content updates. Which, Okay, sure. I’m sure they’re very helpful. however, what are some of the ways that, one, how, how do you stay up to date on just knowing when this stuff’s happening, and then how do you keep your own personal anxiety around how this is going to change change, ranking and performance for your websites?

Any sage advice for us?

JP Rains: Well, that’s absolutely the, the truth. these things change and, we don’t know. Well, we kind of know what’s coming, but we don’t really know what it means and they don’t really give us all the information. So what I, especially in the most recent update, I just said that it was, You know, penalizing pages that, that were keyword stuffing.

And so it rewards pages that have useful content. And so if there’s not, if there’s anything more vague than that, I’d like to hear it. But the, the, the world of updates is one that, um, is. Not too difficult to stay on top of. I, I follow a website called Search Engine Journal pretty closely.

And they have some really good content about how to adapt. Um, they, they have some, not inside sources, but they have some sources that come in from, Google that are able to lend some expertise about what a, an algorithm update is really intended to do. And I think, you know, if people have some anxiety around, an algorithm update, it’s really just think.

You know, hey, what are they trying to achieve with this? And really Google with this update they’re trying to achieve, um, you know, better ranking for pages that are written for people and less so, for, you know, websites that are just banks of links and these kinds of things and, and banks of buzzwords.

So it is, it will help us in higher ed because this, this helpful content update will absolutely be helpful to higher ed because we’re not big on. Some of these old, like black hat SEO techniques and these kinds of things that were really popular, and generally because we weren’t doing any, anything around SEO a while back.

But, it’s, it’s mostly because it’s gonna penalize these websites that we’re artificially ranking. And so I think, it’ll benefit the actual authority behind certain pieces of information, rather than the pa the websites that are summarizing pieces of information. And that’s a good thing for higher ed.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Yeah, I, I think that’s a healthy way to look at algorithms sometimes I think especially coming from social media where we’re always worried about like algorithm updates and getting punished and hit by the algorithm. I like to like reframe it. Like have you ever thought that the algorithm might actually be helping you and like, not docking some of, there’s so much shady stuff on social media that gets knocked down and dinged by the algorithm.

And if you’re not doing that and you’re producing quality content and you know a little bit about the algorithm to kind of game it just a, just a touch to give you a little edge, it can actually be your ally and not your enemy. and I think we, if, if we start framing it that way and start looking at it like that, it can be very be.

JP Rains: I think that’s a really good analogy because we’re used like, like I, I was. Social media manager at one point as well and like that kind of stuff, always felt like, Oh no, my reach is going from whatever, organic to half of that. But it really also made me think, okay, well what was that meaningful reach and what were we doing?

With, you know, engaging that audience. And I think the same kind of question can be asked of webpages to say, Is this webpages, is this webpage really effective? And is it delivering on what this user should be seeing? Because I think we’ve put a lot of effort into our major landing pages of sections like admissions and sections like services and this kind of thing, when in reality, It should be the opposite.

Like we should be focusing on the actual content that’s gonna answer somebody’s question as opposed to the web landing page experience that gets into that page. And more and more traffic is not necessarily just coming in from the homepage, but coming in from a variety of sources directly from Google, or, or being, and like we talked about, zero click environment. It’s reading the fifth level page without any context. So if, if you put more time and energy into the, the web experience, that will be on one of the more common pages that are deeper down into the website. it’ll help with that zero click environment. It’ll help with, you know, performing well in these algorithm.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: And that kind of brings us too, cause as you go down layers and layers, you get to some really shady, terrible, low quality pages that were created by who knows who created them at the university.

Joel Goodman: Or when.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: When, like who was there doing that and it’s been there since 2010 or even earlier than that. So what sorts of in institutional pages would be considered low quality or might be at some risk of a rankings penalty.

JP Rains: That happens a lot. So when I was talking about a website graveyards, there’s also like this effect on pages that exist for a conference that took place seven years ago that, that you know, has, doesn’t have any kind of annual conference. It just. There was one conference they talked about, um, you know, whatever it was at that point in time.

And they’re somehow getting a few search results or, or they’re, in some cases it could be, um, you know, Creating a high bounce rate because they’re showing information that’s no longer accurate or causing all kinds of other problems. So I would say that, you know, institutions are prone to this kind of thing.

Um, and, and you know, this I talked to a lot of people that are like, Oh, we migrated our website and we went from, you know, 18,000 pages to 7,000 pages. And, and that kind of like, it’s good. but it’s also like, okay, when could we have maybe killed those pages earlier? and, and this idea of thin content is, is really, you know, that’s the problem.

And, and it’s not. Look of the things we’ve talked about, this isn’t the first thing you should leave this podcast and, and go work on is like eliminating the pages. but, but there’s anything you can do. to re review, like why all these pages exist, that would be helpful.

And, and looking at it from a perspective of traffic, will, you know, help your user experience. It’ll help your, your ranking and ultimately it’ll just, you know, help clean up your website. So there’s a lot we can do there.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: I just checked the page I made for a small conference at a university 12 years ago is still up.

JP Rains: Yeah, that there’s a lot of that, There’s a lot of that and there’s a lot of, you know, um, faculty members, that I’ve created web pages for about a specific research interest. And they may have left the organization or no longer have that research interest. And this information may be out of date, but it might still be creating a lot of, traffic.

So, you know, considering that as an opportunity and saying how. sh reshape the content on this page or issue a redirect to, to benefit from this. Because one of the things that, that happens, that is another problem at a lot of institutions is that we have. actually a substantial amount of traffic coming to pages that just get 4 0 4 errors and, and no longer even have any content.

So, you know, anytime we’re, we’re changing, um, URLs or anything like that, like being conscious of redirects is, is a huge help for SEO. but also, you know, just going into. whatever tool you might be using and doing a 4 0 4 report and just seeing what pages people are, you know, landing on that no longer exist.

I think that is a big opportunity as well. And, and issuing redirects or just rewriting the information on that page could serve, could serve you well.

Joel Goodman: So before we wrap up this discussion, I need, I need your help JP, talking me down. So I, I really don’t like FAQs, um, but FAQs are also. Fairly good for, for, for search engine optimization. Have you seen any good ways of doing this where the frequently asked questions are either like rephrased, to make them, maybe not faq, but in that same style or where someone has actually managed to use questions that are asked frequently and not just make up a bunch of.

JP Rains: That’s like one of the biggest problems with web journeys is that it’s kind of like at the end of the road. If you didn’t find what you were looking for, it’s like, Oh, here are the FAQs. Oh, okay, great. No, maybe my question’s gonna get answered here, because it didn’t get answered when it was supposed to be answered.

So I think the, the thing for me that it really points to is that you need to answer whatever that frequently asked question is. When the person was looking for the information. So, you know, like in a lot of cases, FAQs can be, extremely helpful and what I would encourage people to do is look at how do I take my bank of FAQ questions, and if I were to pick a page or a section on a website where that question is most likely to be asked within a specific section.

Let’s move that to there, right? And let’s move it into where that moment in time that the student could benefit from it the most. So I think that’s like step one of just remapping it because I do wanna keep. Those questions, as you’ve heard me say before, like those FAQ frequently asked questions can, in some cases have a lot of search behind them and have a lot of, um, SEO potential behind them.

But I think if they’re, if they’re, um, you know, being placed in an FAQ that’s just all the, the lost toys of the world, like it’s not really going to be in the right spot for the future user experience either, because somebody might come for that question. And then need related questions, but they may not be right there with it, and, and really, you know, it’s this idea of pulling people back to your website with the, the next step in their student journey or the next question that they might have. And I, I don’t think we could do that really well with FAQs. But I think the idea of having developed an FAQ and then putting those questions into the sections of the website where they can have the biggest impact, I think that has a big benefit.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: I feel so good. I feel like I have gone from knowing enough about SEO to be dangerous, to knowing enough to be extremely dangerous. So thank you so much, JP Rains, for, for coming coming on the show. where can people find you? if you have anything to plug, let’s plug it now.

JP Rains: Yeah. So, best place would be, on Twitter and LinkedIn. So in, the Twitter verse, I’m just @jp_rains, and on LinkedIn, same thing. So just. To search for JP Rains and, happy to connect with people. I would say that I would also encourage them to go to, whether it’s HighEdWeb or PSEWeb or, any other of the industry conferences.

If you haven’t been to one yet, I would really encourage people to go to them. It really changed, a lot of how I look at higher ed and how I. about, about the industry as a whole and, and you know, a lot of the people, if you’re listening to this podcast, you’re probably one of the few people in your institution that do this kind of.

And it helps you to have some colleagues. So, seeking them out through conferences and, and different online forms can really be helpful. So I would say that, although, although, although I can’t make it to high web, next month, I will be there in future years and in conferences, I would say that, seeking those, those opportunities really can help your career over the long term.

It just, helps your happiness level to know that. Saying that your, your recommendations aren’t necessarily, um, you know, standing alone. So thank you. It has been my pleasure to be on.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Thank you for listening to The Thought Feeder Podcast. A very special thanks to JP Rains for being with us today. It’s great to have another Jand then letter initials name on the show again.

Joel Goodman: Triple J Again!

Jon-Stephen Stansel: And you can find JP on Twitter at jp_rains.

Joel Goodman: Thanks for being on JP.

JP Rains: Hey, it’s my pleasure.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: And you can find us on Twitter at @ThoughtFeedPod or on our website thought feeder pod.com, where we’ve got transcripts for every episode, which helps SEO and some other stuff too. Thought Feeder is produced by and edited by Carl Gratiot and hosted by me, Jon-Stephen Stansel, and Joel Goodman. If you’re a fan of the show and you’re feeling generous, we’d appreciate a review on your preferred podcast listening platform.

It really helps folks find us again, SEO. It all comes back. we’ll be back in a couple of weeks.