SEO advice from Amy Cousins (Newcastle University)

Amy Cousins from Newcastle University joins us to talk about the blog that she manages and dives into her SEO specialism. We also talk about a COVID vaccination campaign from Slippery Rock University and yet more frightening Facebook tales.

[00:00:07] Nathan: Hello and welcome to episode three of Most Clicked where we break down the most popular digital marketing news stories in higher ed. Do consider subscribing to our YouTube channel or following us on linked in to get notified about new episodes, you can find out more over on I’m your host, Nathan from SMILE.

SMILE is a leading digital agency for the higher education sector. And today I’m joined by my good friends Matt from SMILE and Kyle, not from SMILE. You will probably know Kyle from the Education Marketer email newsletter instead.

So in today’s episode, we’re joined by Amy Cousins from Newcastle University. Hi, Amy.

[00:01:02] Amy Cousins: Hi. How are you?

[00:01:04] Nathan: I’m good thanks. Yourself?

[00:01:06] Amy Cousins: Good, thank you. Thank you for having me!

[00:01:08] Nathan: You’re welcome. Thank you for joining us today. Would you mind introducing yourself?

[00:01:15] Amy Cousins: Yeah, sure. So, as Nathan said, I’m Amy. I’m the SEO and content marketing manager at Newcastle Uni. I started there a couple of years ago. Um, initially just purely a SEO focused role. It was the first SEO role that was recruited for. It was a bit mental and a bit of an education piece in the first year or so. Um, yeah, I’ve been there ever since and really enjoying it.

[00:01:37] Nathan: Awesome. That’s great. Well, Kyle, why don’t you do the honours and introduce our guest inspired story…

[00:01:47] Kyle: we’re doing? Amy, I’ll probably pick you up about being the first SEO role to join Newcastle, and a bit because that sounds terrifying.

The reason we invited you on today is to talk about this great thing that you’ve been working on called your Belong Blog.

A screenshot of the Newcastle University Beyond Blog

So what Newcastle’s done is they’ve created a blog entirely dedicated to helping students feel like they belong on campus and also, as a result, attract new people to the university. And it’s very much on trends with this idea of community marketing at the moment. And that is getting your students to be the marketers for you almost and invite people into a university in that manner, rather than the standard promotional avenues that we’ve all been used to over the years. I don’t want to steal your thunder Amy, I’m really got curious about the content on this blog because it seems really sort of close to the student journey. But I just got a feeling there’s a lot more going on than how you’ve chosen to write about these topics and the way you’ve written about them. So it would be great if you could share a little bit about it?

There’s gaps in Google’s data set for our audience. So if you’re under 18 and you have a Google account, Google won’t give us your search data because you’re a child. So tools like Ahrefs don’t actually include, information on those users.

[00:03:04] Amy Cousins: Yeah, totally. So I inherited the blog when I first started working here. And initially, it was treated a lot like how a lot of businesses treat blogs – which is just kind of like a place for content to be dumped that we think the user wants to see, and not necessarily what the user is telling us they want to see. I was just left to it, and as I say, it was the first person at the university, so I was quite isolated. I thought this would be a perfect place to house an SEO content strategy. So all the content – well, I’d say 95% of the content on there… there are some battles that we have lost. But 95% of the content on there is just purely searching data, so we use enterprise tools like Ahrefs. There are gaps in Google’s data set for our audience. So if you’re under 18 and you have a Google account, Google won’t give us your search data because you’re a child. So tools like Ahrefs don’t actually include, information on those users. The majority of people under 18 don’t have a Google account but there were gaps that we can anticipate. So I do Ahrefs for research in tandem with social media monitoring and then also, I think, have been using advanced search operators as well. I used those on the Student Room so I can get key phrase research in real-time. So that’s what kind of it’s all based on. It’s Google and what they’re searching for on social and stuff. That’s where it’s born from.

[00:04:41] Kyle: That was amazing. It’s like I’ve also noticed that as I’m scrolling through here, you’ve got a few lead magnets that popping up as well. Obviously, you’re driving traffic to the site, and it sounds like you’re doing a really, really good job of it. But you’re also grabbing the email addresses of that traffic. And then I imagine you’re putting them into a decent chain of CRM comms and making sure that they are looked after. Is that right?

[00:05:07] Amy Cousins: Yes, that’s right. So our emails, we have 16 different email audiences, so that’s from, parents 2022, international to UG UK 2023, like Prospects Parents, International… in total it’s 16 different ones. But we write targeted emails for them. We do use that for lead nurture and stuff like that, but I’ll be honest – my roots are in SEO. So I have to sort of learn the lead capture side of things. And I learned that from my colleagues who were brilliant. We’ve got some blogs in particular that perform really well, that have been really successful in that area because (I don’t know if you guys have much experience in SEO), but SEO differs from industry to industry. So, for example, for example, the fashion industry is really, really saturated. I used to work on, Clarks shoes, and it’s really hard to rank anything. In higher education – It’s like this fair game, and I shouldn’t be saying this here because other universities will maybe do it. But it’s fair game. It’s it’s not as competitive, so you can get stuff ranking quite quickly, but also because each industry is different. That SEO best practice per industry is different. So pretty early on, I realised that if a blog was live for two years on the Belong Blog, then it will start to get on page one, which is the average amount of time for most sites. But our clearing stuff took a year, so it’s time-sensitive. It’s like Google’s prioritising and advanced enough to know, based on the nature of the query when it should be ranking. But it’s been a massive learning curve.

[00:06:45] Nathan: What sort of KPIs are you tracking to understand if this has been a success?

[00:06:52] Amy Cousins: Rankings and clicks. Do you know what the featured snippet is? So if you Google something just from your listeners that aren’t sure, if you Google something and then you get the answer straight away – So how old is Obama and his age? And it just comes up in a box… that’s called position zero. And it’s so powerful to get that because it’s not just that you’re giving the user an answer to the query straight away. It also means that they see you as authoritative in that field. Think about the amount of trust you put in that page. One position, one result. So it’s kind of like a by exploiting that. Sounds awful. So both ranking and traffic. But also I love the feature snippets. We’ve got a few of them for the blog now and they’re another metric for me as well. Personally, I like getting there.

[00:07:38] Kyle: nice to talk all day about this. I’ve got another question if that’s okay.

[00:07:42] Amy Cousins: Sure!

[00:07:44] Kyle: A big part of SEO (at least what I found in universities) is that education piece mainly around stakeholders and colleagues. As you’re the only person looking after SEO, what sort of approaches have you taken to share that knowledge and specifically, things around? Dispelling myths like every sort of search results in a click, like you mentioned features snippets there like, or you know, you won’t get click out of that, but it’s very good to have it anyway. So you know what sort of things you have in place to handle that in the university?

[00:08:19] Amy Cousins: Good question. So I work within Central Marketing. I think Newcastle Uni is probably structured in a way a lot of unis are. Where we have the central marketing team and they have faculties that will have their own teams. And it’s all quite silo’d. And then you have academics, which is just a whole other kettle of fish. Within central, it was easy because there was a pre-existing understanding of SEO, and we have a really brilliant web team, and they knew what it was and they knew how to do it, like bread and butter SEO. It was just having someone who would take ownership of it that they needed. In terms of like wider, across the uni that took a bit more because I think, for example, if your site is really, really big Google doesn’t like that. Because it uses a lot of crawl budgets. It’s very, very expensive for Google to crawl all these websites all the time. And if you’re a waste of Google’s money, then it won’t. So our website is massive. It’s so big that this sounds like it’s a “yo’ mama” joke. But it isn’t. Our website is so big, if we made a change now, it wouldn’t actually be indexed and show up in Google for 23 days because that’s how long it takes Google to get through our site.

Our website is so big, if we made a change now, it wouldn’t actually be indexed and show up in Google for 23 days because that’s how long it takes Google to get through our site.

To answer your question. It’s teaching people that actually publishing content needlessly is hurting us as a business. But I don’t think there’s anything more empowering than sharing your knowledge, which sounds really cheesy. But I built my career on it. We were really happy to just tell you everything they’d learn. You know, “I’ve tested this today and this worked”. I did all the hard work that you can have this piece of knowledge so that’s the ethos I’ve tried to have. You know, like if someone emails me about pushing a blog and I think it’s actually going to hurt our rankings, I’ll say, “Look, you know, I’m not too sure about publishing this, but let’s have a call and I’ll teach you why they want to do it and how we could potentially make this blog something that’s actually gonna get some results”. So being open-minded and just being really willing to share and be patient with people. You need to have such a huge legacy thing that people aren’t digital forward all the time. And that’s fine because they’re not digital. So quite a new thing to unis, which is insane coming from an agency background. But it is, so yes, the patience and just being willing, I think, to share what you’ve learned really openly helped a lot.

[00:10:38] Nathan: Amazing. Nice. Well, I mean, like Kyle, I feel like there’s so much more left unsaid, but unfortunately, that’s all we’ve got time for on that section today, I’m afraid, but thank you so much. Amy, I hope you’re going to stick around and hopefully, um, chip in with the next couple of examples. So, Kyle, what’s up next?

[00:11:00] Kyle: The second most popular piece of sweet was from Slippery Rock Uni, which wins automatically because of the name. Something about American universities, like they just have these incredible names and often wonder, what’s the story behind something like that?

So Slippery Rock there, like a lot of you need in America right now… They’re doing a vaccine campaign I guess to get their students vaccinated and protected from the coronavirus. But like a lot of American unis have got a lot of budget to throw behind it. They’re doing a campaign saying, “Look, if you get too, I think it’s 75% of everyone vaccinated by a certain date, the president will get a tattoo of which is designed by the student body”, which I think is just rolling the dice personally! I mean, you wouldn’t do it, would you?

It’s about money as well. The tattoo is the big prize, but beneath that is free tuition, free parking on campus and a load of other goodies for students as well. So you know the tattoos up there because it’s fun. It’s the hook. But then there’s some real benefit to get them vaccinated, apart from protecting yourself from a virus, But it still amazes me. In general, that these campaigns exist, but I kind of get it. If you’re struggling to get people to get vaccinated, then you have to do something. But, yeah, I shared this one because of the just the kind of different angle on it, because usually its monetary incentives or tuition, that’s pretty standard by now. But, you know, actually, getting a member of the highest order of your faculty in your senior team tattooed is… I haven’t come across that!

[00:12:46] Nathan: Matt, could you ever imagine any of our clients offering this one up?

[00:13:04] Matt: It’s a serious commitment to the cause, isn’t it?

He’s been quite clever, though he’s covered his back by saying that he will get to pick the chosen designs. That kind of goes out to a vote.

[00:13:12] Nathan: It’s very American, This video as well. I often think when you’re watching, like an American sitcom TV show, and they cut to those really cheesy adverts on public broadcast stuff. It feels like one of those. It’s quite it’s quite endearing.

[00:13:32] Kyle: It’s tongue in cheek as well. I mean, I don’t know the full context behind the clip we just saw, but the mascot puts a tattoo on him, but I think it’s a tattoo of their competitor or the closest competitor, which is why he throws it away. I’m not sure, but I think it is, um so again, it’s tongue in cheek and I think I said, It looks like it’s shot on an iPhone 6, but I still love it. You know, it’s funny. It’s some dude walking around in a suit, and it’s great. I love it.

[00:14:03] Amy Cousins: It’s such an estimate to like the climate over there as well, because, like, did I read that it was 60% of something of them got vaccinated or it just willing anybody to get vaccinated. But so at Newcastle, like 95% were already fully vaccinated, and then the rest is waiting to get their second. So when I read that, I was just like you just forget.

[00:14:31] Kyle: I think it depends also where about in the US the university is as well. I think some states are considerably better than others. But yeah, the generally comparing not the UK to the US and vaccination targets. It’s crazy, and it really is.

[00:14:48] Nathan: Unbelievable, and more from the US next in our final story of the episode, isn’t it Kyle?

[00:14:55] Kyle: Yeah, it’s where all the big social people live, isn’t it? Um so Facebook. I feel like we’re kind of sponsoring Facebook at this point because we talk about them every bloody episode. But there’s so much going on right now. And every time the story comes out, it just moves so much further away from this time it was born, and it was a brand new thing. It was positive, it was innovative. And now it’s just it’s a devil of a corporation. So you probably heard about the whistleblower’s stuff coming out. But there are a few things within that that I just wanted to share and that maybe we just think about a bit wider. So there’s actually a document in Facebook that was leaked that had the line on it. “Is there a way to leverage play dates to drive word of hand stroke growth amongst kids?”

Now, let me break that down. So word of hand is a smartphone in a hand, right? So they’re looking to get smartphones into kids hands to distract them from actually playing as an option for a product. I just don’t know what to do with that. It’s just so disturbing. It is. I read about this stuff in books. This shouldn’t be our digital marketing moves. You know, I can reel offloads more as well. Like the recent stuff about Instagram and Facebook sitting on research that Instagram was harming teenage girls.

[00:16:29] Nathan: Clearly there’s an interest from HE marketers around the Facebook vehicle, and it’s something of interest to them. And I think that the things that I can draw from this story is I’ve been involved in a couple of conversations where recruitment conversations, where things are said like, “Well, we need to start targeting people earlier”. And I think this is pretty common across the sector now. It is relevant to the HE market, for those sorts of reasons, as much as it is absolutely terrifying. I mean, you know, you’ve got small children.

Matt, how do you feel about Facebook trying to target your kids?

[00:17:06] Matt: I mean, the problem is, they’re so used to using phones and tablets and things now, like it wouldn’t take much to get to them, So yeah, it’s a bit worrying. Yeah. Yeah, it is.

[00:17:48] Kyle: It really is. I assume every university has a Facebook account, and if they don’t They probably missed the boat on it now, but you know, every university is on this platform and the more stuff that leaks, it’s actually about the target age group, who we recruit right and we look after and we put great pains on mental health and protecting people at university. Is there going to come a point where Facebook is just so predatory and so out there that we really have to consider it as a university – Do we want to be on this platform now?

Is there going to come a point where Facebook is just so predatory and so out there that we really have to consider as a university – Do we want to be on this platform now?

Now that’s a massive decision because in most cases, universities have hundreds of thousands of followers, you know, whatever you get a business out of that or you can actually leverage that is another question. But these are huge audiences, and, you know, to get rid of a platform like that is a big decision. So I mean, my thinking is, that there should probably be an exit strategy. In case your audience does force your hand and say, “Look, we don’t want you on this platform”, it’s happened before. You know your students speak loudly about topics and we have to respond. So, you know, they might speak very loudly one day about a presence on Facebook and Facebook associated apps (Instagram WhatsApp). It’s not just Facebook, it’s an ecosystem. You could atest because when it went down the other week, you lost some services, didn’t you? It’s the Internet. It’s infrastructure.

[00:19:25] Nathan: Exactly. It’s getting to the point where it is infrastructure now. And you’re right. If it goes down, it can take down a large proportion of the Web with it. Should it be treated as such?

I think what you’ve done there, Kyle, it’s like a fantastic kind of Jerry Springer food for thought type thing at the end of our show here. So that’s all we’ve got time for I’m afraid for this episode. Thanks again to Matt, Kyle and our guest, Amy Cousins.

Amy, if people would like to connect with you, what is the best way that they can do that?

[00:20:08] Amy Cousins: Probably Linkedin – more than happy to meet with people on Linkedin. And if anybody has any questions about SEO, I love talking about it. Just message me – I’m more than happy to chat.

[00:20:19] Nathan: Brilliant. Thank you so much, Amy Cousins.

Well, if you have enjoyed today’s episode, please do consider subscribing on YouTube or indeed, following on Linkedin, you’ll be able to get updates for all of our future episodes.

Nathan Monk
Nathan Monk

I'm proud to work for some of the world’s most influential brands that shape cities and define lives: Universities and colleges.

I provide advice to forward-thinking senior leaders on how to exceed their organisational targets by creating user-focused, digital-first strategies.