I am assuming that your school is well-known within your local community. But what about beyond that community? Are you visible to families looking for a school like yours? How will they know that your school fits their specific requirements? Well, there are several things you can do to reach that critical pool of families and potential students.
The Invisible Stuff
SEO or Search Engine Optimization is a mystery to the uninitiated. It is one of those arcane sciences that webmasters everywhere have to be aware of. Unfortunately, the mention of SEO for the rest of us prompts most of us to start reading email and texting friends. It's all so technical. The truth is that good SEO can enhance your marketing efforts. It can make your school more visible to the audience which you are trying to reach. Weak or non-existent SEO will bury your site so that it is practically invisible. So, ignore SEO at your peril. At the least get your arms around the basics so that you can supervise your web management and design team authoritatively.
This video explains what SEO is.
What is Search Engine Optimization? In its simplest terms, SEO is making sure that your site's meta tags and content are optimized so that parents and students can find your site easily when they type specific words into a search engine. For example, if you ask Google to show results for the words "private schools," it will oblige with millions of sites which have something to do with "private schools." But, be more specific and ask Google to find you private schools in Raleigh, North Carolina, for example, and instantly your search results will narrow and be more focused. That's the point of SEO. To make your website more visible.
Years ago SEO didn't matter much. The web was beginning to take off as a resource you and I could use in just about every aspect of our daily lives. Back then most private schools relied almost exclusively on brochures and beautifully printed catalogs for their marketing tools. Parents visited your website, found a phone number or address, and requested catalogs. Websites in those days were considered add-ons.
Nowadays your website is one of the most powerful marketing tools you have. Its reach is enormous and long-lasting. It can make or break your marketing efforts. That's why your website requires professional design and daily maintenance in order to position your school effectively in the marketplace.
This video explains what makes an effective business website.
Here are some of the terms which you will encounter when discussing SEO. While there is much more to SEO than what I am mentioning here, this will get you started thinking about SEO and how it affects your website. I have appended some resources for further reading. These are worth reading before your next meeting with your web and marketing teams.
Hidden in the background where nobody but other webmasters and web page designers can see it is some very sophisticated code which tells search engines like Google what your site is about.
According to Metatags.org "Research shows that only 20% of all web pages contain these important meta tags in their HTML and over 85% of these websites are unfit to be submitted to the search engines."
Think of keywords like landscaping for your home. We all know that professionally designed landscaping can add value to your real estate. Well-designed landscaping attracts people to your house. It showcases your property highlighting all of its best features, while at the same time minimizing its minor faults.
It's the same thing with your school's website. The public part of your website can be appealing and attractive. But if the meta tags don't draw parents and students and others you want to know about your school, your website won't get noticed.
Search engines like Google and Bing read meta tags when they crawl your site. Search engines don't have people looking at the millions of websites out there. They use a tool called a spider or web robot (bot). Spiders visit millions of Web sites and read the data on those hidden pages. They report that data back to their owners. Search engines use algorithms to parse the data which the spiders mine. That parsing determines where your page ranks in search results.
To see what your meta and other information look like, find View >Source in Internet Explorer and Tools>Web Developer>Page Source in Firefox.
Keywords help tell search engines what your content is about. For example, if your keywords include "day school," "private school," "miami," "gulliver schools" when somebody searches for "private schools miami," the search results will hopefully include The Gulliver Schools.
It is much more complicated, of course, depending on which tags you use and how you want the spiders to crawl your site. But basically, the spiders are looking for a match elsewhere on your site with those meta tags which you have used. In other words, if your site is about your school, it will make sense to have the tags and content reflect that focus.
This video explains the role which keywords play in search engine optimization.
Because your website is all about your school, it should describe in words and images all that goes on at your school. As long as the content on all your pages matches the stated purpose of the site, it will get noticed. After all your school has a unique name, doesn't it? There is only one Savannah Country Day School, after all. But what if people search geographically using, for example, words such as "private schools savannah georgia" You will find Savannah Country Day School near the top of your search results simply because it is a good match. Think of the search strings you use when you are looking for something. Parents and students do the same thing.
That's why the content must match. If your web site's meta title includes "Savannah Country Day School," it will appear in the search results for the search string we used earlier.
What is your message?
If you don't have a message, then how can your readers determine whether your school is a good fit for them and their requirements? I can hear you saying "Parents have to visit our school in order to truly understand what it is we do." That's true, but in this age of instant answers, parents make snap decisions based on their perceptions and first impressions.
So, right there on your first page or Splash Page, you need to make sure your message appears. Let me give you an example: One of the things a reader will see first is the Title Bar at the top left of his browser. That's one place where what you do behind the curtain with meta tags is visible to your reader. Take a look at Andover's website to see how this works. As soon as the page comes up, the title in the top left corner identifies Andover as an independent boarding school. If that's not the kind of school you are looking for, you will know at a glance.
The next thing which puts your message front and center is a well-written menu, strategically placed so readers can't miss it. The first item on that menu ideally should be an "About Us" entry. That, in turn, ties in with your message. Literally, with three things, your reader's eye is drawn to that all-important understanding of what your school is all about. The old saying "a picture is worth a thousand words" applies here as well. Make sure your pictures on the splash page also tie in with that all-important message of what your school is.
The # or pound sign has been used since 2007 to enable your online material to be found quickly. For all practical purposes, they have replaced Meta Data such as keywords when spiders roam websites. The question most social media site curators have is how many and which hashtags are the most effective. As in many things, keeping it simple works best. For example, if I wanted to write a hashtag for Savannah Country Day School, I would create a hashtag #privateschoolsavannah or #privateschoolsgeorgia. Input either hashtag into Google, and you receive targeted results.
Where does social media fit in?
By now I hope that you have begun to understand how critical your school's website is. It is the hub from which radiate all kinds of public relations and marketing activities. That's where your social media sites come in. They radiate out from your website. They complement and enhance the static message which your website delivers.
For example, your website will contain detailed descriptions of your athletic programs. These tend to remain pretty much the same day to day. On the other hand, the play-by-play excitement of the junior varsity field hockey team's game with a rival team will occur in a series of tweets or Facebook Live broadcasts. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram put the spotlight on your school's programs and community in real-time.
There is an important caveat here which you must understand. Everybody has a smartphone with a camera ready to record anything and everything. Unfortunately for you, not everybody using that smartphone camera is a marketing professional who understands how to present your school and its activities in the best possible light. You need to do two things to control your message: first, encourage your community to share videos of anything to do with your school with you as soon as possible. Second, require your public relations and marketing staff to record every event. Once your staff can see the stills and videos available, they can craft effective messaging on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to promote your school in the best manner possible.
I can hear you thinking about how your messaging can target several audiences. One of these is your current school community. The daily round of classes, meals, sports and extracurricular make for a satisfying experience when students and staff alike see themselves doing things. The other target audience is that all-important group which we call alumni or graduates. Reminding them of the great times, they had at your school sets the stage for your Annual Appeal and all the other parts of your fund-raising activities. Finally, your messaging is continuously casting the net for new families. They have definite ideas about what kind of school is going to educate their children. Is your school the kind they are looking for? They will never know unless they can explore and experience your school to the fullest extent possible.
Questions? Contact us on Facebook. @privateschoolreview