Scottish universities’ search strategies fall short in attracting international students

Scottish universities are missing an opportunity to attract students because of shortcomings in their discoverability online, according to new research.

Digital consultancy Storm ID analysed the ‘holistic search’ strategies of 15 universities across Scotland. The study focused on assessing each institution’s approach to paid and organic search – and it highlighted that all have significant room for improvement.

Holistic search is the unified approach to paid media and search engine optimisation (SEO) that combines intelligence learned from both channels to own more real estate in search results and drive respective channel performance.

“The results are designed to show areas of opportunity to increase their digital footprint and attract students from around the world,” said the company.

To analyse SEO performance, each university was audited and awarded a score based on a 25 point rating. To assess paid media activity, each university was analysed to identify active keywords, trended click activity, and example ad copy.

The results of the SEO audit highlighted several areas for improvement with the average score across all Scottish universities just eight of out a possible 25 points. Queen Margaret University scored the highest with 15 points, while Glasgow Caledonian University scored the least with only four points.

“All websites audited have significant issues with visibility, such as a lack of canonical link elements, which is harming their indexation in search results.,” it said. “Each institution also has issues with content, as many SEO elements are missing, duplicated, or simply not ‘crawlable’ at all.”

Honing a comprehensive holistic search strategy is crucial to meeting demanding recruitment targets in an increasingly competitive market

The research found that the majority of universities fail to meet the recommended mobile page speed of less than five seconds, with the average score across all being eight seconds. Edinburgh Napier University scored the longest with a page-load speed of 15 seconds, while Heriot-Watt University, Robert Gordon University, the University of Edinburgh, and the University of Glasgow scored the best with a load speed of four seconds.

A mobile-first site is more critical than ever now that Google indexes mobile versions of pages first. Mobile page speed will also become a ranking factor come in July this year, so it is vital to have a site that loads quickly. It is estimated that 53% of mobile users will leave a site if the load time is more than three seconds.

The analysis showed that almost all universities are using paid search as part of their digital strategy, but the majority doing so did not have Google Optimise or remarketing tags visible in their code, “meaning there’s no evidence they are engaging in remarketing ad targeting, A/B testing, or conversion optimisation.

“In such a competitive sector, it is crucial that paid best practice is followed to ensure budget is not wasted and targeting is used efficiently for higher return on investment.”

A spokesperson for Storm ID said: “Higher education institutions face a challenging time ahead, as the sector is being disrupted by new technologies and an ever-changing political landscape.

“This presents a major opportunity for universities to discover new ways to engage with students, both current and prospective. Honing a comprehensive holistic search strategy is crucial to meeting demanding recruitment targets in an increasingly competitive market.”


Storm ID is a digital transformation consultancy specialising in multichannel strategies that improve the way its clients do business. It combines innovative digital thinking with agile delivery to provide solutions across the public and private sector in the UK and beyond. Its expertise spans digital marketing, user experience design, and technical development.