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Digital Marketing for Schools: Search Like A Parent

When it comes to a school for their child, parents are choosy — and they’ve never had more options than now. Long before they walk into a school, they narrow their top choices after researching online. Digital marketing for schools is critical if you want to be found among that top select few. Here is what a school communications pro needs to know to enhance your school’s digital presence and protect your school’s online reputation.

Not All Google Searches Are Created Equal

Google’s power as a search engine comes in part because it tracks and remembers a lot of things about you as a user. Paying attention to your search history and location services, Google offers parents customized results. According to CEL digital strategist Katie Fuller, this matters. 

“You need to know — from an unbiased point of view — where your school ranks in search results when parents Google for schools in your area,” she said. “Don’t get tripped up. Google is going to customize your search results, based on past search and your location. So Googling from your office is unlikely to return the uniformed results of a typical family in your community.”

Fuller acknowledged that Google can determine your location in a variety of ways, and this does play a role in search. But she stressed that the most strategic approach focuses on the terms parents are likely to enter when they are researching their school choices.

“To be strategic about search, we need to understand that many families search with words that describe a need they’re trying to meet or problem they’re trying to solve. Or it may even be based on something they heard a friend say,” Fuller said. “Special education, schedules, bullying support, programs, technical services — the list is endless. Ultimately, the work that will contribute the most to your overall digital strategy is making sure your school shows up for a wide variety of parent searches.”

Tips to Get Unbiased Search Results

Understanding how Google handles everyday searches highlights the challenge that school communicators face when trying to search like a parent. 

“Google knows if you’ve searched for state assessment information, crisis management tips or back-to-school photo ideas,” Fuller said. “When it couples that with your specific local searches, it’s more than likely going to conclude that you are not the average parent.”

Incognito search is a first step to unbiased results. By opening an incognito browser in Chrome or a private browser in Safari, you will slightly reduce the role that your past searches — think school names and education-related terms — play in your results. Using a browser extension, such as DuckDuckGo, is an even better option. 

While most school communicators don’t have an SEO professional on their team, there are DIY workarounds that can help you assess your search and enhance digital marketing for your school. Borrow a local parent’s computer for an hour. If your spouse or partner doesn’t work for the school, their computer is a great option. Or identify a friend or family who lives in the community — to get the benefit of local geographic results — who might be willing to run a few search terms for you and send you screenshots of the first page of results each time. 

Using a combination of incognito and “someone else’s computer” search, you’re ready to find out what parents are really finding online about your school:

When most parents begin searching for a school, they open up Google. The key to understanding their results begins with knowing their search terms. It’s possible that parents are searching your formal school name. But it’s even more likely they are searching only part of your official name or using a nickname or abbreviation they’ve heard from a friend or neighbor. 

Branded search, where people search for your school by name (formal or otherwise) is only half of the search equation. Results for both branded and non-branded searches are critical in your school’s overall digital presence. Fuller suggests these non-branded search terms for school communicators to include:

    • Schools near me
    • Public schools near me
    • Private schools near me
    • Best schools in _________
    • Any other “_________ school near me” that define the identity of your school, whether religious, grade levels, academic focus or other characteristic a family might seek 

As you monitor search results, pay attention to the photos that appear from your school. One website best practice is to use title tags, meta descriptions and alt tags that are intentional and strategic. Not only can you help improve the quality and variety of images that appear in search — this practice also increases the likelihood that your school will be find-able by search engines.

Claim Your Place on Google

Just like businesses, schools have a Google My Business (GMB) Profile that shows up in search. Claiming your schools’ profiles gives you the ability to customize information, including a school photo, operating hours and key information you want to share. It also gives you the ability to formally request removal of reviews that violate Google’s policies.

The multi-step process to claim your GMB Profile helps protect against fraudulent or confusing information. It also provides you the opportunity to support digital marketing in education. You can upload nice photos of your students and schools and create a question and answer section to help searchers find the information they need without even having to visit your website.

School communications pros may have been among the earliest adopters of Google News Alerts. But an occasional media search is just as important as daily monitoring. Because whether your school was on the news last night — or three years ago — those stories are almost always live online and can appear in a search. 

As you work through your branded and non-branded Google searches, click on the News tab to view and document those results. If your school has had substantial negative or controversial coverage in the last several years, spend a few extra minutes searching those stories specifically. 

As school communications pros know, it’s impossible to control the news that is reported and distributed digitally. The goal of a media search is to know what will be revealed in a simple Google search of your school — and what can easily be found by someone motivated to uncover negative news. 

A Google search for your school’s name will often bring up links to the school’s social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tik Tok and other platforms). But the most effective way to understand what parents are finding on social media is to search for your school by name inside each of the apps.

As on Google, think of the search terms a parent would use, and include a variety of formal and informal names common for your school. As you see results, Fuller stressed that it’s important to take note of any unofficial accounts, hashtags or groups that appear to be communicating about your school or organizing school parents. These can range from helpful to harmless to damaging, and you can choose to monitor, intervene or ignore, depending on the circumstances. Be sure to search for school leaders too, and aggressively report any impersonating accounts.

While your school may only be on one or two platforms, don’t limit your social media search there. If your community is using a social media platform, you should search there, including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, Pinterest, Nextdoor and others.

Digital Marketing in Education: Don’t Ignore Online Reviews

While the ability for online reviews to influence public opinion is usually not cause for concern, knowledge is power. Even parents who take online reviews with a grain of salt are still likely to read them to become aware of possible weaknesses at your school. 

In addition to Google and Facebook, these popular review sites should be explored and documented:

    • Niche
    • SchoolDigger
    • Yelp 
    • Glassdoor

Many sites that allow people to leave reviews, including Google, allow the business or organization to claim their page. Fuller strongly recommends that schools go to the effort of claiming these pages. When a school owns the review page, it simplifies review monitoring and often brings a greater ability to moderate and even disable reviews in certain cases.

Pro Tip: Keep a spreadsheet of all the digital marketing assets you claim, and note which may need some TLC.

Managing your school’s digital presence begins with this DIY audit — but it doesn’t end there. The results of your audit should reveal next steps to take, or additional research that may be needed. If you are looking for a partner who knows digital marketing for schools, or you’re ready to dig deeper into your online presence to attract parents using search, CEL can help. Contact us to schedule a free 30-minute consultation.

Published on: January 12, 2022