Getting your school found online is an ongoing battle that requires different strategies for different goals. Search engine marketing (SEM) is comprised of both search engine optimization (SEO) and pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns. You can use both these strategies to direct traffic to your school's website, blog, or other digital assets you have, e.g. a landing page/microsite promoting a new school program.
While both strategies can drive traffic, they have different virtues. To maximize your spend and get the best return, you want to use the right strategy for the right reasons.
Where SEO and PPC Differ
SEO is about building a strong content foundation that earns you more attention as time goes on. It's a long-term investment that has a lower cost with slower rate of return. Yet there comes a tipping point at which your SEO-optimized digital assets provide exponential returns. Its value doesn't reside in only a few specific high performing pages — the collective value starts boosting newer content as well. The more authority your site builds over time, that authority applies to other content you post on your site. Your SEO-optimized pages create a perpetual flow of traffic.
Infusing all your digital assets with SEO best practices should be part of your standard practice for every piece of digital content your school publishes.
In contrast, a PPC campaign is fixed-time campaign that will have high upfront costs, but can get you quick, valuable returns. Your PPC campaign will be designed around a keyword strategy, just like your SEO. Unlike SEO, the PPC campaign only brings in returns for the time you're paying for the ad space. There's no long term benefit or exponential growth. That doesn't mean PPC doesn't have its role to play in getting your school found. It just means you want to pick your spots.
How and When to Use SEO
Really, the answer to "when" is "always." As mentioned earlier, SEO is the foundation that will push your website and blog higher and higher in the search engine results page (SERP). Virtually all searchers click on a first page link in their search results rather than a PPC ad.
Of course, getting ranked for "culinary school" isn't going to be easy (it's a very competitive term). And the truth is, you don't want to. That's far too broad a keyword. Your SEO strategy will return the most relevant visitors to you if work with long tail keywords (LTKs) that are queries containing the language your ideal students use to search for what they want. So if you're a school with a culinary management program that offers an online learning component, you might find "online culinary management degree program" more effective.
The more relevant your long tail keywords are to your personas, the more interested and qualified an audience you'll attract.
After researching and identifying the most relevant collection of long tail keywords, you need to execute your SEO strategy through on-page and off-page optimization.
This where you have the most control. On-page SEO uses all the smart ways to embed a page's keyword throughout the page. This doesn't mean repeating the keyword over and over in your text. Those days are long gone. Instead, you'll use the keyword a few times in your text. You'll write naturally as Google also looks for the phrases it expects to see if your program page is truly about an "online culinary management program." So Google might also expect to see other culinary related phrases such "back of the house" or "restaurant operations."
You also have a variety of tags (i.e. title tags, meta tags, heading tags, and descriptions), where you can use your selected keywords. Some of these tags (e.g. your URL, title tag, and meta description) appear in the search results, so are critical to getting the click. Other tags, (e.g. alt-text tags — used to optimize images), don't always get seen by visitors. But the search engine bots deciding where to rank your page see and use them. Your title tag is probably the most important tag in terms of SEO, but don't overlook any of them.
Google has recently changed a number of its properties for on-page tags, such as giving you more room in titles and descriptions. When these changes happen, it's a good time to give your pages an SEO refresh.
Other on-page tactics to remember are: give the page a quick loading time and incorporate your social sharing buttons so visitors can spread your awesome content.
Off-page SEO is when high authority sites link back to your awesome content. You have no control over this, because it requires external sites to like your content and link to it. However, you can encourage this process by sending a lot of social sharing signals in your content.
You want social sharing icons on all your pages, posts, and emails. And you can do more. You can craft copy to encourage people to share by reminding them to do so. You can also create pre-fabbed Tweets and Shares in your content for them to use.
Let's say you have a blog post of interviews with well-known restaurateurs sharing what personal and technical skills they look for when hiring a restaurant manager. Using the "birds of a feather" principle, you might add some copy to above your social sharing icons that says, "Know someone who's wondering if they have what it takes? Help them find out. Share this article." Or "Tweet this: Graduate as a #Chef from this #Top-Ranked #CulinaryProgram @[YourSchoolTwitterHandle] [url]."
The more your blogs posts and web pages get out there, the more likely people will start to link back to them.
How and When to Use PPC
While SEO is strategic and on-going, PPC is more tactical. PPC ads are those ads you see at the top of your search results. Since a PPC campaign only runs as long as you're willing to pay for it, you want to reserve for when you have something very specific you want to promote.
Sticking with our culinary management program example, if this is a new program and you want to drive awareness as well as attract immediate potential students, a PPC program could be a good choice here.
Another good use case for PPC is to support a specific enrollment priority. Perhaps your school wants to attract students with high musical ability to improve your band and orchestra. Your team has invested a lot of resources creating a report on how music education improves overall learning, which can help students in their future college admissions. You set up a detailed workflow, filled with smart lists and triggered email series to nurture the leads who download this report. Building a PPC campaign around promoting this report could be a valid expense to make this a wide funnel entrance point into your database.
A third place for a PPC campaign may be in growing your funnel numbers for the upcoming year when they're a bit low. If you need a boost in prospects to get the right number of school applicants, a PPC campaign may help. Keep in mind that in this case, you're not looking for people in the attraction stage (top-of-the-funnel). They will more likely already be in their consideration stage (middle-of-the-funnel). So select your promoted keywords and content appropriately.
Use this PPC ad calculator to find out if using a PPC campaign makes economic sense for a specific campaign.
In short: think of SEO as your "always-on" SEM, while PPC is your "special occasion" SEM. You need both, but in the right proportion and places.