SEO Showdown: Cambridge vs. Oxford

Optimisey is a free SEO MeetUp based in Cambridge – mostly, because that’s where I live.

I’ve lived and worked here for over 10 years now. Like many before us my wife and I moved away from London when we had ‘too much kids and not enough house’.

My better half grew up in Oxford (I’m an Essex boy) so we wanted somewhere not too far from either, nor too far from London, that was ‘a bit like Oxford’. Cambridge was the obvious choice – and it’s lovely.

I started Optimisey to try and help people in and around Cambridge learn about SEO, get better at it and share knowledge. I figure if Cambridge businesses do better that helps my city, my family and the whole area.

An age old rivalry

Cambridge and Oxford compete with one another on many grounds. The Boat Race is possibly the most famous instance but both have world-famous universities, hospitals and publishers.

They compete for tourist spending too – both cities are synonymous with punting (each claiming the other punt from the ‘wrong end’ too).

So with my SEO hat on, which city comes out on top? There’s only one way to find out… an SEO Showdown!

SEO Showdown – The Rules

Every contest needs rules, so here are the rules for the SEO Showdown:

  1. There will be seven match-ups between representatives from each city
  2. Match-ups will be made between businesses/institutions of similar ilk or aims (comparing a college of Cambridge University with an Oxford primary school would not be a good or fair match)
  3. Points will be scored for:
    • SEO basics (e.g. optimal use of page titles, meta descriptions, H1s, robots.txt, sitemaps etc.)
    • Page speed (as measured by GT Metrix)
    • Number of backlinks (as reported by SEMrush)
  4. Each match winner will score one point for their city (to save a single one-sided match-up completely skewing the competition)
  5. The city with the most total points wins
  6. This is all just for fun (and to point out some SEO stuff you should probably be considering for your site. I’m aware that good SEO covers many, many factors – just go with it, OK?)

Match 1: Cambridge University vs. Oxford University

A graphic showing Kings College Cambridge and the spires of Oxford

Mention Cambridge and Oxford to anyone and almost invariably people will think of the Universities so it makes sense to start our SEO Showdown there.

I’ll be mixing in some ‘town’ with the ‘gown’ (as both cities have much more to offer beyond world-famous seats of learning) but where else could I start the contest?

Let’s get them to pull on their metaphorical gloves and sound the bell for the SEO Showdown.

ROUND 1: SEO Basics

Neither site is on https, which is not the best start. Google are pushing increasingly hard on the shift to https.

What does https mean? It basically means that data transferred between you and the website is encrypted.

Https is the web equivalent of shading your hand as you punch in your debit card PIN number.
At the moment it’s considered to only be a ‘tie-breaker’ in ranking terms but it’s going to become more and more of a factor.

From October 2017 Google’s Chrome browser will go even further, displaying “Not secure” messages to users entering details on non-https sites.

Mozilla’s Firefox already does something similar – inserting a pop-up pop-up message warning users if they’re entering data (e.g. an email subscription form) on a site that is not secure.

Migrating to https is no joke – especially for sites the size of these two – but work to be done here for both.

For internationally famous institutions that recruit a high number of students and faculty from overseas you’d hope they’d have their lang tags sorted out – and both do.

However, both do this with html lang tags, which isn’t optimal.

Href-lang tags is the suggested route. Href-lang is a signal to search engines to say which language your website is in.

If your site is available in multiple languages and/or if even the version of English your site is using (British English, American English, Australian English etc.) is important then this is important. Again, some ‘Optimisey-ing’ to do here.

Oxford edge ahead as they have a sitemap whereas Cambridge don’t. Sitemap’s aren’t vital to SEO but they’re a good way to take some control of which pages on your site can be discovered by search engines and how often the search engines should revisit them. Not a requirement but some low hanging fruit.

Cambridge pull it back with their use of on their site – something I’m a big fan of and something that can really elevate a site above their competition.

This round is too close to call. I’ll call it even.

Cambridge 1 Oxford 1

ROUND 2: Page Speed

There’s a clear winner in this round.

When I tested their homepages using GT Metrix Oxford’s clocked a staggering 21.8 seconds to fully download their page. Hardly surprising given it’s calling a chunky 9Mb in 319 separate requests (meaning a count of how many times a web browser has to fetch a resource like an image or a tracking pixel etc.). That’s a lot. No wonder it’s slow.

Cambridge would struggle to be slower… and they’re not, clocking a zippy-seeming 4 seconds. The list of things Oxford need to look at to increase their site speed is considerable. It’s a clear Cambridge win.

Cambridge 2 Oxford 1


No surprise that in all the contests in this Showdown these two are streets ahead in terms of the number of sites linking to them.

But who has the most?

The blunt answer is: Cambridge, who have 6.5m links (from 61,000+ different domains) to Oxford’s 5.3m (from 71,000+ domains). Now, raw numbers are not the only thing that counts with links – one or two relevant links are better than a few dozen links from low-quality websites irrelevant to topics your site is about.

Without exploring each of those nearly 12 million links it’s hard to say whose links are ‘better’. As a tie-breaker here I’ll say that having more unique domains linking to you is preferable.

When you consider that one site with a link in it’s footer (that appears on every page) could supply many thousands of links (and that search engines recognise this and value those links less) seeing that Cambridge have 1.2m more links from 10,000 fewer domains would suggest that this could be the case here.

A tough call but this round goes to Oxford. Making this first contest a tie.

Cambridge 2 Oxford 2

Match 2: Cambridge United vs. Oxford United

A graphic showing two footballers one each from Cambridge United and Oxford United

Time to head into the ‘town’ side of these cities. What could be more town than football?

This is an intriguing contest. Both teams are called “United”, both have the nickname “U’s” and both play in yellow (sorry Cambridge fans, ‘Amber’).

ROUND 1: SEO Basics

This is a tough one to call as both teams use the English Football League’s preferred supplier EFL Digital meaning their sites are, technically, extremely similar.

They’re both https and both do have sitemaps but not robots.txt files. They’re also both missing a meta description from their homepage which is a shame but that seems to be the exception rather than the rule across the site.

You do wonder how much influence over these elements the respective teams have. If it’s an off the shelf solution given to all EFL teams, one suspects not a great deal.

Too close to call. A goal a piece.


ROUND 2: Page speed

Again, given the extreme similarities between these sites (they’re even hosted in the same place) they’ll be hard to separate here too.

That said, they are similarly bad here.

GT Metrix clocked Cambridge United at a slovenly 10.1 seconds to download the homepage, with Oxford United at a slothful 14.9s.

Google are pretty adamant that this as bad news:

Graphic from Google showing 40% of shoppers will wait no more than three seconds before abandoning a retail or travel site

Given both sites have a heavy focus on retail (for tickets and merchandise etc.) their woeful page speed times should be a serious concern.

Both sides have had a shocker. I’m not giving this round to either. No extra points. Consider that a yellow card.


ROUND 3: Backlinks

Finally, a sliver of light between the two sides and, I suspect, something that the respective owners of the sites can affect more directly themselves.

Cambridge United have 6,800 links (from 493 domains) compared to Oxford United’s 8,600 links from (610 domains). This may be as a result on efforts on their part or simply because of their, comparatively, higher league position (Oxford are in League One, Cambridge in League Two). Either way, there’s a marked difference.

A late winner from the U’s… the Oxford U’s.


match 3: Magdalene vs. magdalen

A graphic showing an old wooden door displaying the crests of Magdalen and Magdalene Colleges

Back to the gown side.

How do you spell it? And isn’t it pronounced ‘Maudlin’ anyway?

Either spelling is fine (depending on which city you’re in) and they’re actually both pronounced ‘Maudlin’ (Magdalene in Cambridge and Magdalen in Oxford) despite what you may hear/read about one or other city differing in their delivery of the similarly spelled words.

I confused myself writing this so a good rule to remember which is which: Cambridge ends with an ‘e’ and so does Magdalene College in Cambridge. No ‘e’ on the end, it’s the Oxford one.

Round 1: SEO Basics

Both sites are actually on subdomains or their respective universities ( and respectively) and both use the same magd. prefix, which makes this a deliciously similar URL contest.

A lot of SEO basic issues are carried over from their ‘parent’ websites (see Match 1 above): neither are https and the Cambridge college does not have other useful SEO additions like a sitemap or robots.txt file in place (which it’s near namesake in Oxford does have).

These minor (and easily fixed) tweaks cost Magdalene this round. However, there are more glaring SEO basics missed on both sites. Between them they have:

  • 50+ pages have duplicate Page Titles
  • 450+ pages have missing meta descriptions

Though the duplicates are mostly news pages this is just a missed opportunity; likewise with the missing meta descriptions. You don’t have to put in meta descriptions for your pages (if you don’t Google will fill in the blanks for you) but it’s a missed opportunity to insert target keywords or synonyms.

Page Titles say 'Hey Google! This page is about 'x'.' If you pass that up you're missing an easy win.
Magdalene are missing other easy fixes (like a favicon) and though they don’t directly impact on SEO, they do impact on users reassuring them that they’re in the right place and users and user behaviour does impact on SEO. An early lead for Magdalen (that’s the Oxford one – remember? No ‘e’ on the end).

Magdalene 0 Magdalen 1

Round 2: Page speed

Page speed is important but especially for these two considering a large part of their target demographic – students. They’re more likely than most to be a ‘mobile first’ audience where every second counts.Mobile page speed affect on bounce rate stats from Google

Google’s own stats show that an increase of just six seconds in page load time increases the likelihood of that visitor ‘bouncing’ by 113%. Ouch.

Both sites’ homepages loaded in under 2 seconds on GT Metrix but Magdalene wins this round with a zippy 0.5 seconds.

However, quick-win work to do here for both colleges again – with both loading chunky images, even on mobile. To give Magdalen their due, their scrolling carousel of images looks lovely (even though I hate carousels on websites) but on raw speed, this round goes to Magdalene.

Magdalene 1 Magdalen 1

Round 3: Backlinks

Links are really important if you want to rank, OK? Don’t take it from me:

“Ranking without links is really, really hard.”

– Gary Illyes, Google

Raw numbers here and Magdalen clinch this contest with a resounding win in the 3rd round. Magdalene has just 625 links (from 238 domains) to Magdalen’s 1,100 (from 413 domains). Unequivocal.

Magdalene 1 Magdalen 2

Match 4: Scudamores vs. Oxford Punting

A graphic showing a bare chested man punting and numbered punts lined up in Oxford

Scudamores are the biggest punting company in Cambridge and Oxford Punting came out on top in a search for “punting Oxford” (which means they must have done some decent SEO) so were chosen to represent Oxford.

Round 1: SEO Basics

This one is shaping up to be a bit of a trouncing.

Scudamores have https in place, a sitemap and robots.txt file. has just one of those three, the robots.txt.

Given both sites are trying to push customers towards making a booking of various sorts the “Secure” message or padlock symbol (depending on your browser) is very reassuring to users entering personal and payment details on Scudamores’ site.

As if that weren’t enough Oxford Punting make a right royal mess of their H1s – sprinkling them like confetti on almost every page throughout the site.

H1, H2 (and H3s, H4s etc.) are the headings you have in your content. Again, they’re not the be all and end all of SEO (certainly not as important as they used to be) but as with Page Titles and meta descriptions they’re an open goal of a chance for sites to influence the search engines and what their systems understand a page to be about and therefore rank for.

If your site has a site-wide logo set as H1 (say unrepeatable things to your developer) then fix it.
I daren’t go any further for fear the referee might stop this contest early.

Scudamores 1 Oxford Punting 0

ROUND 2: Page Speed

Ready the white towel because, though the Scudamores homepage is a a full 1Mb heavier than Oxford Punting’s, it loads just half a second slower.

Oxford Punting’s ‘sub-menu’ of images pulls in huge photos and then jams them into boxes around a tenth the size – utterly wasting value download time. If you were a customer, out and about in Oxford, looking for something to do and searching on your phone this also eats valuable data allowances.


Scudamores 2 Oxford Punting 0

ROUND 3: Backlinks

The knock-out blow is delivered. Scudamores have an impressive 1,100 links (from 351 different domains) to Oxford Punting’s 249 (from 142 domains).

Game. Set. Match.

Scudamores 3 Oxford Punting 0

Match 5: Cambridge University Press vs. Oxford University Press

A graphic showing photos of the Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press shops

Almost as old as their famous seats of learning, both cities have world-famous printing presses, respectively Cambridge University Press (CUP) and Oxford University Press (OUP).

Both have large ELT (English Language Teaching) arms of their business too so another juicy contest awaits.

Full disclosure, I work in the ELT industry too and @AndrewDoesSEO (who was in my ‘20 rising SEO stars to follow on Twitter‘) and is, I like to think, my friend – used to work for CUP.

ROUND 1: SEO Basics

This is a one-sided opening round.

CUP’s site is https, has a sitemap and robots.txt in place and – importantly for this industry – makes use of the href-lang setting.

Href-lang is a signal to search engines to say which language your website is in. If you have multiple language versions of your site and/or if the version of English your site is using (British English, American English, Australian English etc.) is important then this can be crucial.

Search engines hate duplicate content (if two pages are identical – or as good as identical) they can struggle to work out which to rank higher – and will rank one or other less well or, often, rank neither.

Even in different languages some pages can have remarkably similar content so using href-lang is smart. A brand term like ‘Cambridge University Press’ doesn’t always get translated either so href-lang tags help search engines work out which page to send a user to if, say, a user who is Spanish speaking searches for “Cambridge University Press”.

OUP have something odd going on with their site. Their root domain ( seems to be inaccessible. Instead, it redirects to a subdomain (

SEO debate on “Which is better subfolders or subdomains?” is almost as old as the internet itself but for me a good rule of thumb is:

'If Rand Fishkin says it's so - that's good enough for me.'
And, on this debate, Rand says subfolders (e.g. would be a better option here.

As if that wasn’t bad enough it also automatically redirects me to a ‘GB’ version of the site (presumably based on my IP) adding ?cc=gb as a suffix to the URL. Google themselves have said this is not a great idea, can frustrate users and even break indexing. For example, what if I’m a French speaker who happens to be in the UK – perhaps on a business trip, looking for the OUP bookshop… oh dear.

Best practice here is to offer the option. You can even show off: “Hello! It looks like you’re in the UK – visit our English language site or choose another language here.”

A resounding win for CUP.


ROUND 2: Page Speed

An interesting second round here.

GTMetrix clocks CUP’s homepage at just shy of six seconds to full load. OUPs canters in at just 1.4 seconds.

However… CUP’s site is calling nearly 40% more data (2.15Mb to 1.57Mb) for which the PageSpeed test gives CUP a C grade to OUPs F.

A seat at the front of the class, under teacher’s watchful eye for them as they write out 500 times “I must not load images at huge sizes and then jam them into tiny boxes.” For example, they call the LinkedIn logo at 800 pixels wide – then squish it into a 23×23 sized box. Why? Madness.



OUP are already out of this contest (two down with one to play) but they don’t even get a morale boosting ‘score on the board’.

CUP win this round and the match resoundingly: 3.7m links from over 49,000 domains to OUP’s 1.7m from just over 10,000 domains. Impressive numbers from both – but even my maths tells me CUP are well ahead in this one.


Match 6: City of Cambridge Rowing Club vs. City of Oxford Rowing Club

A graphic showing two women rowing from left to right and two other women rowing from right to left

Light blue or dark blue? Millions of people watch the famous ‘Boat Race’ on TV around the world. Thousands more line the banks of the Thames for the face off which is rapidly approaching two centuries of history. (I wonder where SEO Showdowns will be in the year 2217…?).

Rowing in Cambridge and Oxford isn’t just for the universities. Both have ‘City of…’ Rowing Clubs so let’s see which crew comes out on top in SEO.

ROUND 1: SEO Basics

No https here again but we’ll give them both the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re working on it.

I won’t rehash the above arguments on sitemaps and robots.txt files. Cambridge let themselves down on a classic SEO fail – using ‘Home’ as their Page Title for the homepage (see rant about Page Title’s above). They also make a horlicks of their use of H1 and H2s (many, many H1s on every page) and there are swathes of meta descriptions missing across the site.

Oxford lead around the first bend.

Cambridge RC 0 Oxford RC 1

ROUND 2: Page Speed

You’d think speed would be uppermost in the mind of two racing clubs.

Both sites are pretty nippy. City of Cambridge RC cross the line in 1.5 seconds to City of Oxford RC’s 2.5 seconds.

Oxford shade it in terms of GT Metrix’s grade score but I’m going to call this round even, given both come in under the recommended minimum of 3 seconds. A point each.

Cambridge RC 1 Oxford RC 2

ROUND 3: BackLinks

Cambridge RC shade this on the blunt numbers: 285 links (from 38 domains) to 257 (from 57 domains) but as discussed in Match 1, links alone is not a terrific metric. To be honest, unique domains isn’t a great deal better (you should be far more careful with your links than I’m being here) but it’s the precedent I’ve set, so Oxford win this one by virtue of having more unique domains linking to their site.

The dark blues take this one.

Cambridge RC 1 Oxford RC 3

Match 7: Pink Floyd vs. Radiohead

A graphic showing a photo of a Roger Waters stage show and Radiohead's Thom Yorke singing

Final round, time for a musical interlude. Cambridge and Oxford both have thriving music scenes.

Cambridge can boast links to The Datsuns, Hot Chip and Katrina and the Waves. Oxford can lay claim to Foals and Supergrass.

Both cities have ‘super groups’ though – Cambridge have psychedelic rock gods Pink Floyd. Oxford have the slightly more contemporary Radiohead.

But who’s better at SEO? Guitars at the ready…

ROUND 1: SEO Basics

Perhaps it’s indicative of how high (or low!) SEO features on each band’s  ‘to do list’ – though perhaps with fan-bases of millions, unlike the rest of us, they don’t need to worry too much about how easy they are to discover in search engines!

Neither are on https, neither have sitemaps though Radiohead do have a robots.txt file – which is surprising given their site is currently a one page promo/landing page.

Both sites make a bit of a fudge of their H1s and meta descriptions – missed opportunities but OK Computer composers take round one.

Pink Floyd 0 Radiohead 1


Both get a big point here. Both sites are rapid. Pink Floyd a smidge under two seconds; Radiohead’s one page site even edges under a second. Speedy.

Both could get even faster if they used browser caching (so that same assets don’t have to be called multiple times) which can shave valuable seconds off download speeds.

Hard to fault two such fast sites though. A well-earned point for each.

Pink Floyd 1 Radiohead 2

ROUND 3: BackLinks

Given the 20 year gap between their foundation you’d think Pink Floyd have the edge here. That said, their foundation was a good few years before Tim Berners-Lee had even thought about having the thought to invent the internet as we know it.

Further debate could be had about whether writing blog posts and link to ‘The Floyd’s’ website was on the minds of their fans in the 70s and 80s.

Worth noting that Pink Floyd’s last live performance was in 2005, after Google and even Facebook were invented. Radiohead have been touring their A Moon Shaped Pool album as recently as this year and also headlined 2017s Glastonbury Festival.

Perhaps no surprise then that the more contemporary Radiohead have nearly 56,000 backlinks (from 6,000 domains) to Pink Floyd’s 47,500 links (from around 3,700 domains).

Radiohead turn it up to 11.

Pink Floyd 1 Radiohead 3

And the winner is…

Cambridge University 1-1 Oxford University
Cambridge United 1-2 Oxford United
Magdalene 1-2 Magdalen
Scudamores 3-0 Oxford Punting
City of Cambridge RC 1-3 City of Oxford RC
Pink Floyd 1-3 Radiohead
Cambridge 2½-4½ Oxford

Oxford win! They won four matches outright and shared another giving them a comfortable win.

On ‘count back’ of total points it was 11 each but as I set out at the start one-sided matches shouldn’t skew the contest.

Congratulations Oxford.

Cambridge – more work to be done for you. I expect to see you booking a free place at the Optimisey SEO MeetUps shortly.

How do you shape up?

Want to see how your site shapes up?

Punch your domain (e.g., you don’t need the www. or the https:// bit) into the box below for a free overview of your site from SEMRush:


Then head over to my piece on free Google tools for your site which can help you get ahead of your competition.

Disagree with my verdict? Post a comment below!


Photo credits

A big thanks to the fabulous photographers, who posted the awesome photos used here, on Flickr under creative commons.

Photos used:

And to the terrific who combined them into the fun WWE-style face-off graphics.

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