With the internet taking so prominent a role in how today’s students find and choose colleges, a growing number of schools are partnering with search-engine marketing firms to design school web sites that vault to the top of students’ internet search-result pages.

Officials at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), for example, are working with the Peterborough, N.H.-based company @Web Site Publicity on a campaign to attract students looking to study criminal justice online.

The campaign’s goal is to make sure that, when students are looking online for information about such courses of study, they see that SNHU offers an online Master’s degree in Justice Studies.

“We recognize web marketing as our No. 1 tool for reaching prospective students,” said Gregg Mazzola, a spokesman for the school. “We want to be accessible to any student looking online for a justice-studies program.”

A recent survey shows why prominent placement atop search-engine results is important. According to Jupiter Research and marketing firm iProspect, the typical web surfer will click through only three pages of search results at most before giving up on his or her search–and a third of web users associate the companies appearing on the first page of search results with the top brands.

In addition, 41 percent of web users will change search engines or try a new search term if they don’t find what they’re looking for on the first page of results.

Search engines such as Google and Yahoo use proprietary methods of searching the web that are closely guarded trade secrets. These methods use complex algorithms to determine how results are ranked–but search-engine marketing firms say they can help clients structure their web pages in a way that will bounce these pages to the top of the pile.

“We find that many colleges and universities are still preaching to the choir with their web marketing efforts,” said Susan O’Neil, chief executive of @Web Site Publicity. “The true opportunity for search-engine marketing is to introduce an opportunity to students who wouldn’t know about it otherwise.”

There are two ways to do this, O’Neil explained. The first is through search-engine optimization, or SEO, which involves making sure a school’s web site contains solid information about the terms that students use most frequently when searching for information online. The second is through paid keyword searches, or pay-per-click campaigns.

Schools, like any other organizations, can bid to have their web pages appear in the paid search results at the top of most search engines’ results pages, O’Neil explained. But it’s not simply a matter of how much you have bid for this right; Google, for instance, factors in the relevance of your landing page to the search term when choosing which paid results to feature at the top of a search page.

Search-engine marketing firms work with clients to identify the most appropriate search terms–that is, the terms most relevant to what clients are looking to feature, but also those most apt to be used by web searchers–and then optimize their web pages so these pages will appear near the top of a search using these terms. (Google, for instance, looks for pages that contain the featured search term an optimal number of times–too many, and Google thinks it’s a dummy page created for marketing purposes only; too few, and the search giant doesn’t consider the page a good match for the term.)

Mazzola says SNHU, which is working with @Web Site Publicity to design paid keyword searches only, says it’s too early to tell yet if these efforts are working–but he’s optimistic they will. Already, he said, the company has helped SNHU identify the keywords most often used by web searchers and refine its web-marketing approach.

O’Neil says schools looking for web marketing help can expect to spend between $7,500 and $25,000 on search-engine optimization in the first year, depending on factors such as the size and complexity of their web site, how much work will be outsourced or done in-house, and so on.

For paid searches, “we have clients spending as little as $3,000 per month, but several spending significantly more,” she said.

Besides SNHU, @Web Site Publicity’s other education customers include Mount Wachusett Community College and Suffolk University, both of Massachusetts.

Links:

Southern New Hampshire University
http://www.snhu.edu

@Web Site Publicity
http://www.websitepublicity.com