Trying to grow the audience for your course the natural way? Here are some SEO tips to get you started.

Many course creators start their programs on a shoestring budget, and when they think about marketing, their first impulse is to turn toward paid media. Paid advertising on platforms like Google, Facebook, or Instagram can, of course, achieve excellent results. But they also require an ongoing investment. The moment you stop paying for ad space, those leads sources dry up.

The other way to build an audience is through Search Engine Optimization (SEO). If a learner is on Google searching for a course like the one you teach, you will of course want to be at the top of their search results. To get there, you need to make sure your content is formatted in a way that makes it easy for Google (and the learner) to see that the information on your site matches the learner’s search terms.

There’s a lot of myths about SEO, and it’s easy to be misled, especially by people who are doing it the wrong way, or who did it the wrong way, got burned, and now believe it doesn’t work at all. So before we get into best practices, let me set some expectations by bursting some of those myths and misconceptions.

Top 4 SEO Myths

  • MYTH: SEO doesn’t work. It does work, so long as you follow the right strategy. It’s also not guaranteed or exact. You may not see yourself ranking for the exact terms you wanted, but you will see yourself rank for adjacent terms.
  • MYTH: I’m entitled to the #1 ranking on Google. No, you aren’t. You can do everything right, and find yourself ranking behind another site with more heft and a bigger budget who put more work behind ranking for that term. That’s OK. There are plenty of keywords to go around.
  • MYTH: SEO happens instantly. SEO takes time—not only for Google to crawl your site, but for user behavior on your site to affect various ranking factors. It might take a few months to see results. In the meantime, be patient and trust the process.
  • MYTH: SEO ranking can be bought. Only if you’re hiring an expert to do the work we’re about to discuss for you. Otherwise, no: SEO rankings aren’t like search ads. You have to earn your rankings.

Now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s dig in to real strategies to help you earn content rankings for your online course.

1. Choose your keywords.

If someone is searching for your course, what keywords might they type into Google? These keywords may be phrases like “online pottery course,” “compliance certification,” or “writing support group.” Some of these key phrases will be more important to you than others, but they should all be relevant terms for your elearning business.

Now do two things with that list:

1. Take any keyterms that are too broad, and use them to create keyword variations. For instance, “writing support group” might have, as variations, terms like “online writing support group,” “writing support group for women,” or “sci-fi and fantasy writing support group.” Think about synonyms as well, such as “women-led writing support group” or “speculative fiction writing support group.

2. Look for any ways that keyterms in your list might mean things other than what you thought they mean, or which might attract people outside your audience. If you’re focused on a writing group for speculative fiction, you might want to remove “literary fiction writing group” from your keyterm list.

Your goal for this list should be to create a general cloud of search terms that you would like to rank for. As you begin ranking for some of the longer, more niche terms, it will raise your credibility with Google, making it more likely that you’ll rank for other, related terms. You will probably also rank for terms that aren’t on your list at all.

2. Focus on rich content.

You’ve got your keywords, now it’s time to think about content. The biggest question for most people is: how long and detailed should SEO content be? Is it a better strategy to write a lot of short posts, or fewer, longer posts?

The short answer is that longer and more detailed is better. Longer posts give you more space to incorporate keywords in a natural manner. They also give Google more context for what your article is about. Most importantly of all, a learner who is searching the Internet for an answer needs your article to provide it. If you’re overly focused on short content, you could be leaving out some of the key details that learner needs to find a complete answer to their question.

And yes, I have heard the objections:

  • “But people don’t have the attention span for long content!”
  • “People want your answer to get to the point!”
  • “You’re a content writer, of course you think more content is better!”

To which my response is: I don’t expect most people to read every word I write. If you wanted a few tips on how to optimize your online course for better SEO purposes, all you have to do is skim the article to find the most relevant points. Some readers will probably already know a few things. Others may be completely new. By writing a more detailed post, I can serve both audiences.

The data backs this up. Longer content not only ranks higher on search engines, it’s also more likely to receive shares and comments on social media.

That said, there’s still a very important case to be made for short content, in some contexts. SEO isn’t everything, after all. If you go to write a post and are satisfied with what you wrote after 300 words, don’t feel like you need to add words just to make it longer.

Long content is valuable not because it’s long, but because it contains important information. If you aren’t sharing anything meaningful, move on.

3. Incorporate keywords strategically.

Once you begin writing content, look for ways to naturally include your keyterms in the copy. For instance, you might want to write a blog post about “5 Tips for Finding a Speculative Fiction Writing Group,” or “How to Give Constructive Feedback in Your Writing Group.” Longer content makes it easier to include keyterms more times without being too repetitive.

Google will place more weight on words in some copy areas than other.

If you can, try to use your keyterms in places such as:

  • Page title and URL. The title of your page and its URL should mostly match, but it doesn’t have to be exact. If a reader can look at the URL and look at the title of your page and see that they’re basically the same, that’s good enough. Don’t worry about removing stop words from your URL (“and,””the,”etc.). This is recommendation is oudated.
  • Headers. You should always header tags to format your posts for greater readability. Headers are primarily to help your readers skim and navigate content, so it’s more natural for them to be focused on important keyterms anyway, but try to include your phrases in these places wherever natural.
  • Anchor text. When you add a link to a post, the anchor text are the words that get underlined. It’s important to always use descriptive anchor text for accessibility reasons, but if a keyword just happens to make sense there, too, all the better.
  • Formatted text. Most of us use formatting (bold, italics, bulleted or numbered lists) when we’re trying to call attention to something that is particularly important. It’s unclear how significant this is as a ranking factor, but it probably plays some role.
  • Alt tags. Alt tags provide descriptions to screen readers so that someone who is blind or visually impaired can know what is in an image. These should primarily describe the content of an image, but it may be relevant to use a keyterm here.
  • Meta descriptions. The meta description of your page should be a few sentences that describe what the content is about. This isn’t a ranking factor, but it will appear in Google’s search results, and provides extra content to searchers.

Back in the day, you had to be pretty exact with your phrasing to rank for a term, but this made for stilted copy that was awful to read. Thankfully, Google’s most recent algorithm updates have fixed this problem, and it is much better now and spotting keyword variations or synonymous phrases. In other words, “women’s writing support group” and “writing support group for women” should both work the same way.

4. Create a linking strategy.

So far, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about keywords and how important they are to improve your search engine rankings. But what happens if you’ve written a perfectly optimized page, and then someone else writes a perfectly optimized page on the same topic? How do search engines know what to prioritize?

The answer has to do with your site’s overall credibility, as measured by how other users interact with it. Google isn’t just trying to serve up the page with the most optimal keywords, it’s also looking for sites that seem to be have good standing among other Internet users. Of the signals that tell Google your site is valuable are the backlinks point toward it. If a lot of people are linking to your site, that means you must be widely trusted.

To this end, having a lot of content on your site is a huge factor. It means there are more pages for people to link to, and more avenues by which visitors can and up on your site.

Naturally, this can be frustrating for elearning sites with a lot of content behind a paywall or a login page. But if you have blog content or information-rich subject pages on the front end of your site, those pages can be doing the work of attracting backlinks and building your domain strength.

Ways to earn backlinks include:

  • Write excellent content that other people will want to share and reference!
  • Network with other educators in your community and look for ways to partner or guest blog.
  • Look for guest blogging opportunities on high-profile sites. You may have to do extra research and pitch your idea, but if you get published it can bring in a lot of traffic.
  • Keep an eye out for broken links on other sites. If someone’s written an article in your field that includes a broken link, you can contact the site administrator or the author of the post to suggest something you’ve written instead. You have to be very careful with this strategy, however, as a lot of people will suggest their content even if it’s no match. 99% of these requests that come my way to straight into the spam folder, but the couple times I successfully replaced a broken link were helpful.

While you’re at it, also consider your internal linking strategy. Long, content-rich pages with lots of internal links are what’s known as “anchor content.” These are the important, high-value pages that can direct a your visitors toward other resources that they may find important. Even if you aren’t linking to an anchor content page, having internal links can encourage visitors to stay on your site longer and discover new content.

When you right content for your site, think about opportunities to link to other pages. All our blog posts include link to related topics that we’ve written about previously. This gives our visitors more content to read if they encounter a term or idea they’re not familiar with and want to learn more.

5. Use a schema markup tool to target rich snippets.

Points 1–3 take a lot of work, and if you do it right there’s a good chance you’ll start earning the backlinks we mentioned in point 4 without having to shop your content around. But even after all this, there’s one last thing you can do to help your content earn more rankings: format your content for Google’s rich snippets.

I’ll admit that I myself am not an expert at this, so this suggestion is more an idea of how you can take your content to the next level than directions for how to do it. I’ve worked with people who have gotten my content to rank in Google’s rich snippets, and it’s always an exciting thing to see. But it takes a little extra back-end know-how, which is often beyond what someone beginning in SEO is ready to tackle. That said, here are the basic principles.

A few years ago, Google rolled out their Rich Snippets feature to make it easier for searchers to find high-level answers to questions without having to navigate to a page. Earning a featured snipped means your search ranking is Position 0.

You can earn a featured snippet if your content is clearly written and well-formatted. Google will crawl your page like usual, and if it seems to think your post matches the search criteria, it will pull from it to make a rich snippet.

However, you can help Google out by including markup code that effectively labels what your content is so that Google knows how to display it. If you’re writing a recipe, you’d format it so that Google can easily identify the ingredients, the cooking temperature, and the cooking time.

If you’d like to know more, check out Google’s content on rich snippets. You don’t have to know all the code yourself to make this work—there are plugins available that can help you format your content for this, too.

Good SEO is about giving your searchers the content that will benefit them.

The bottom line with SEO is that your content has to be good for it to work, long-term. If you’re writing content that is awful to read, people will turn away and look elsewhere. If your content is uninformative, or too obviously self-serving, people may also be turned off.

Google will notice if your content isn’t attracting people, and eventually your rankings will suffer. But that’s actually beside the point. The point is that, as an educator, you should always be putting your best foot forward. If the content on your blog indicates that you aren’t a compelling writer, or if it’s uninformative, or if it’s just boring to read, it won’t be effective in selling your course.

Good SEO will help draw more traffic to your site through search engine results. But more traffic will only work in your favor if it convinces more people to take your course. If you increase the volume of visitors to your site, only to lose them with bad content, it’s unlikely they’ll give you a second chance.

On the other hand, good content can not only demonstrate your knowledge level to future learners, it can also show how well you’re able to share that knowledge with others, and whether or not you’re an engaging educator. All those qualities will go a long way to boosting your sales—as well as your SEO.

Laura Lynch photo

About Laura Lynch

Laura is a marketing specialist with experience presenting at WordPress events in Ann Arbor and Vienna. She speaks Russian and German and holds a double MA (Hons) in History and Russian Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

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Thanks for the good and practical information.

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