We recently implemented some updates to the search capabilities of all onCourse websites. I’ll use some customer sites as an example to outline the sorts of changes which have been implemented.


Notice that as you scroll down the page the search results automatically continue to display without you needing to click “more records”. This avoids the huge penalty courses get for not being “on the first page”. Even if a course is number 11 it is easily reached by a student scrolling down the page.

The next change is quite subtle, but very important. Let’s take a look at this search:


That might be created by someone using the advanced search box on the site. You will notice that the search options are applied in a ‘fuzzy’ way. Some results are returned which are on the weekend, but not actually in Chatswood. We want to give the user more choice (maybe they don’t mind travelling), however the closer the classes are to the student’s request, the closer they are to the top of the results. Our engineers are regularly tuning the ordering of the results. Classes which start soonest are pushed higher, but keyword or distance search will have an even greater effect on the ordering.


Now this example shows the real power of our updated search engine. This was the result of a user typing “gardening” in the search box. Not only did we find courses about gardening and put them right at the top, but we were also able to assemble a list of near misses much better than we ever have in the past. Our search engine was able to know that “garden” is the shortened version of “gardening” and therefore those courses were also promoted. Some other courses had ‘garden’ type words just in the description: the more often they appeared there, the higher the result list they appear.

Next, let’s look at an instance where we mostly get it right, but even our new search engine isn’t perfect.


A search for “home gardening” is even more complex for a computer to understand. Which word is more important? “Home” or “Gardening”. Courses which mention both close to each other are of course promoted to the top. The Certificates III and IV have the word “home” mentioned a large number of times and so gets a high score. But other than that, the list is quite a good set of results for home gardening, followed by other types of gardening and other home activities that relate closed to gardening.

The results of our work are mostly quite subtle, but these cumulatively add up to getting better results to the top of the list far more often. Our results are much more advanced than simple keyword matching; and in the age-of-Google users just expect that. Students who more easily find what they are looking for, are more likely to enrol.

So, keep writing copy for your courses which contain all those words people search for. In particular name your courses clearly with words people will search for, and use a range of common words when you describe your courses. This will not only improve searching on your own site, but also improve the results on Google search. Google can only index the content you actually put on your page, so get all that text out of PDF and into your course descriptions.

Finally, we’ve also implemented a range of improvements to help Google index your content. Look away now if you don’t care about how Google SEO works…

Suppress class detail pages

If you were finding that class pages (/class/ABC-123) were appearing in Google search results, our new update should take care of that. We have embedded special instructions (a canonical link) in the class page so that even if other sites link to your class pages, Google will understand that the extra page rank will flow through to the course detail page instead.


By embedding special rich text formatting into your pages, your onCourse website now automatically feeds this data into Google’s search engine.


For an example of how this works in the real world, take a look at this search


Hopefully the results haven’t changed between now and when you look at it, but the top result for me is a Sydney Community College course complete with date information. Right in the Google result list.

Sydney Community College and The University of Sydney’s Centre for Continuing Education both showing event snippets in the native Google search results. Both onCourse websites, of course!

I hope you have enjoyed reading about our new work as much as we’ve enjoyed working on it.