In the media and in communications to your PR staff, there will be lots of hype this week about ranking online programs. In the past, we have been critical of such rankings on the basis of the quality of their methodology and we let them respond to questions from WCET members. Subsequent discussions produced mixed results.

Thank you to Anna Porcaro, Wichita State University, for her guest post with a different take on sites that provide rankings or “best” designations for an institution or its programs. You may want to consider how your institution promotes these “honors.”

  — Russ Poulin, WCET

Congratulations! Your school was just ranked in the top 25 by [].

Which Chief Marketing Officer wouldn’t welcome an earned-media opportunity like this? Just think about it: a no-cost option for you to market your specialized program! Especially since the established outlets that provide annual ratings rely on a team at your school to actively submit page after page of data, often in combination with publicly-available IPEDS data.

Earned-media is marketing that you don’t control, but mentions you, like a review, a positive blog or article about you, recommendations, etc.

Picture of several purple balloons tied together.However, by engaging with these third-party ranking sites that go by names like, “affordable” “best,” “top,” etc., you are actually working against your own interests.

As you have likely heard for years now, Google, Bing, Yahoo, Baidu, and other search sites have an algorithm that determines what pages come up in what order for any given search. What you may not know is that there is a process to get your website listed on top. This is called Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

Make Your Website SEO Friendly

When making your website SEO friendly, there are few items to address. The two most important are:

1) Page Authority: Your page authority is similar to your page’s reputation. Do other ranked sites that have been around for a while link to it and it does it link to other ranked sites?

2) Quality: Quality is indicated by the functionality of your pages. Does your site load quickly, does it have a lot of broken links, and is it filled with usable content that links to keywords in the body of your page that are words that rank high in searches, or do you have just pages of links?

Checking these two boxes will increase your web authority.

Benefits of SEO

The goal of your webpage is most likely to get your message out to your customers. It’s good to be able to get that message out without spending money on paid digital media channels like display or paid search. Making your pages SEO responsive is a way for your owned-media channels (Medium defines these as “web properties owned by the business”) to be connected to the place where many of your potential students’ eyes are: search engines. If you are using a modern Content Management System (CMS) on a good server, much of the speed and link issues can easily be tamed. It is up to your team to produce usable content that will keep eyes on your pages, reduce bounce-rates (or the rate of people leaving your site without engaging), and, therefore improve your quality scores.

Feeding to SEO Machine

If you have a quality site, and unless your university is brand new, your website should already have some authority, because as a university or college you are a known player on the open web. That means that your site is a target for people hoping to establish their authority by connecting with you. It isn’t just enough for them to come up with a click-bait type site (“Best online schools for x; #9 will amaze you!”) and link you to their site, you have to reciprocate. So how do they get you to do that? They not only rank you, but they try to entice you to accept their ranking as meaning enough for you to link back to them and in turn lend your authority to their site.

Remember, these “best schools” sites are not in the game of ranking schools. They exist for one reason: to get you to link to their site; to help them rise in authority. Why? Because once they have dominated the search market, they then can use that same authority to sell “sponsored” rankings. They have made something that on the surface looks like earned media and have turned it into paid media and they have marketed their wares for little to nothing. They aren’t doing so through the channels you are using, paid media, they are doing so through earned media and SEO. They also are using people to reach out to you via email or phone call and to get you to link to them.Picture of red, white, and blue first place ribbon.

Yes, you can be listed on their site, take their certificate and put it on your site, send the story through your PR machine and feed the earned-media machine, but in the meantime, you have pushed your own website out of the running to be seen on organic search rankings.

In other words, students learn about your programs or your school, not from you, but from one of these third-party sites. Then to be seen, you have to pay them so that students actually see you.

Searching for Our Site

One such “best” website that “congratulated” us on our high ranking recently had this type of design on their page for a specific graduate program:

  1. Sponsored programs (called “Featured” with a tiny light blue “sponsored” disclaimer below them),
  2. Description of the field and highlights of careers in that area,
  3. Their ranking methodology (which was done very loosely by assigning points to student/faculty ratio, average price, and concentrations – not actually on the quality of the program or its alumni),
  4. Top 15 programs listed in reverse order with a short blurb on each program.

In this description, you should see that they are playing the SEO game well.

  • They have created content (it’s not just links) that highlight valuable keywords,
  • They have fast loading times (no special scripts running to make it slow down, not a lot of large graphics, only logos from the schools), and,
  • The site has working links to credible sites.

What they don’t have is authority – that is what they want from us when we put their site through our PR processes or link to their site directly from ours.

Picture of a laptop on a desk. Laptop screen has various graphical visuals.The problem with these pages is evident when you go search for your school or program. What you may see is that your program is nowhere to be seen in a search. The first two pages of my own search for our “ranked” program was filled with “best this” and “affordable that.” Only one legitimate school came up organically.

By winning the SEO game, they have pushed you out, and in turn, your “highly ranked” program is so far down on their page that you aren’t likely to be really seen.

In the last two years, we have seen these sites dominate the organic search market for university programs. They are proliferating almost daily. We get several emails a month from these sites. Often, they’ll go to the non-PR/non-marketing team and then because they aren’t vetted properly, a program links to their website or put out a story, and soon they have fed the SEO machine.

The solution to take back organic search is to make sure your team is versed on the proper techniques for making your sites optimized for search. More importantly, we need to stop giving our authority and legitimacy to these sites. Save your earned-media opportunities for higher quality media outlets. If we stop linking to these sites, and schools stop paying to be sponsored, and we can own the organic search world again.


Anna Porcaro 
Executive Director of Online Learning
Wichita State University 
WCET Steering Committee member



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3 replies on “Congratulations! You are a Best Ranked School! But…”

Thank you so much for this thorough explanation of the game these folks are playing. I have always refused to play along, understanding that this is primarily about feeding those sites’ SEO for their own money-making purposes, but this definitely deepens my understanding of the mechanics and adds the clarity about how it ultimately works against our own interests for our legitimate marketing. I will be saving this to share with others at my college who receive the flood of “congratulations” messages …

Agreed that this is one the biggest wastes of my time as an online higher ed marketer, especially when the savvy content specialists at these sites send the rankings notices to your administration! Before I know it, a story and logo is posted by another office. We’ve attempted to create a vetting process with our IR office for rankings we didn’t submit data for. Still we have acknowledged some of these fly-by-night rankings, but we’ve done so because we caved to pressure. FOMO is causing us to give credence to sites where it isn’t due.

Great blog post. I’ve worked in higher education SEO for almost 15 years, so I thought I’d sprinkle a little insider knowledge into the comment section. I could spend an hour unpacking all the info and arguments you made, but given I’m pressed for time, I’ll address a few key things.

Yes, the goal of the rankings marketer is backlinks. Earning a backlink from a college is incredibly helpful and gives the marketer’s webpage and website a boost of authority. That said, many “SEO” sites do a great job of ranking colleges based on meticulous collection and analysis of data. Others, however, are downright crap. You are right to be wary.

You mention there’s “a solution to taking back your organic search” for colleges. Here’s why that will never happen…

1. ROI – Ranking on a competitive keyword phrase, e.g. “online MBA programs” requires more than the content, backlinks, and fast page load speeds that you mention. Those are just 3 of Google’s 200+ algorithm ranking factors. And winning on all 200 takes serious investment (time, money, energy, knowledge). For MOST colleges, it’s much easier to pay a website like $50 for a student lead. The return is much higher. Let’s breakdown the economics.

Student lead = ~$50. Ten percent of leads convert into enrollment. That’s a $500 investment for a student that will spend THOUSANDS of dollars in tuition and fees at your college. That’s a massive ROI.

2. Competition. Unfortunately, we live in a time with declining college enrollments, and thousands of colleges are competing for students. Now, these thousands of colleges can try to compete in Google’s organic rankings, but the reality is, unless you rank on page one, you’re basically non-existent. And how many websites can rank on page one for a given term? Ten. This begs the question: Why try to rank in Google when you can pay a site that specializes in SEO to give you student leads at such high margins?

When it comes to rankings, definitely vet the site that’s asking you to link. There’s some real trash out there, with half-ass rankings based on garbage data that’s collected using “data researchers” on UpWork. But there are also some great sites, too. Even U.S. News & World Report, which some people feel is still credible, monetizes their rankings.

Are you right to be skeptical? Absolutely. Are you ever going to “take back organic search”? Not a chance.

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