Google Search Trends: Lessons for Higher Education Marketing | Top Universities

Google Search Trends: Lessons for Higher Education Marketing

By Laura Tucker

Updated February 20, 2021 Updated February 20, 2021

Last year, Google said “the student decision journey has moved online”, with one in ten prospective students solely using online resources to research their university options, and education-related search numbers increasing year on year. In a similar vein, QS’s Students Online: Global Trends report, released last month, showed the increasing dominance of online resources in the field, with over half of surveyed prospective students claiming to research higher education options on two or more digital devices.

Google plays a keen role in analyzing these search trends within higher education marketing, releasing quarterly reports on the topic, of which the most recent covers the second quarter of the year (April to June). A complete summary of this report can be seen in a Google webinar presentation here.

What’s going on in the world of search trends?

According to data collected by ICEF between the periods of 2010/11 and 2012/13, search volumes for the top five ranked institutions across the leading study abroad destinations increased by a total of 8%. The types of search being conducted are also changing.

In a year-on-year comparison of the second quarter by Google, brand-related searches were found to be down by 1% from 2013, while non-branded searches were up by 1% over the same period. This correlates with ICEF observations made back in 2012, which found that nine out of ten prospective students are not sure of which school they wish to attend at the start of the university search process. It seems that despite the overall growth in search volume, searches relating to specific institutions are lessening.

Non-branded searches are categorized by Google as encompassing three main areas: searches for particular fields of study, queries regarding degree types and specific credentials, and more general queries such as practical information, rankings and news. As non-branded search trends become bigger, so too has the volume of program searches (4% up compared to the second quarter of 2013) and degree type queries (up 6%). The volume of general queries remains the same.

With this new data in mind, along with the discernible decline of brand-related searches, Google’s recommendation is that higher education marketing teams should focus on devising new strategies to improve brand awareness, as well as to increase student interest in specific programs and specializations exclusive to their institution or organization.

Specificity is key for higher education marketing online

Within Google’s search trends analysis from this quarter, it is highlighted that while the search queries of prospective students are not becoming any more closely aligned with individual university brands, they are in fact becoming much more specific in terms of location and field of study.

This means that when it comes to search engine optimization or paid search advertising, specificity is key for higher education marketers in order to match user behavior and intent. Focusing marketing materials on specific locations, along with information on particular programs, is highly recommended. “Being more specific about what you offer and capturing [prospective students] earlier in the cycle is really important,” one Google analyst notes in the report.

Huge growth in mobile usage

Although not the most surprising finding, the number of prospective students using mobile devices to conduct their searches has risen considerably from last year. University search queries performed on mobile were up 23% in the second quarter of this year, with Google reporting that students using mobiles were starting their searches earlier than ever. From recent Google data, it is now believed that half of all prospective students use mobile devices to research higher education, often using mobile early on in their search before returning to a desktop device for further information.

This new data regarding the growth of mobile usage shows an urgent need for higher education marketing departments to adapt their platforms to provide a smooth, high-quality user experience across all devices. Current research from Google shows that there is much room for improvement on this front, with half of all visitors to education sites on mobile having reported a poor experience. This has led to 40% of prospective students reporting a negative perception of the university brand in question, with 35% moving on to conduct their university search on a competitor’s website. To counteract this, ICEF asserts, education marketers should make sure information is easily accessible on mobile, with effective calls to action in order to keep visitors on the site.

The average university search may take months

In an interview with Google’s Director of Education, Jennifer Howard, ICEF highlights the long, drawn-out nature of the average university search. “77% of education seekers will first visit a school’s website at least two weeks – and often two months – before taking action,” she says. “Education is a highly involved decision and one that requires many different touch points along the way. Asking prospects to fill out a lead form too soon might result in short-term success for a marketer, but in the end, both the student and the school will lose. The key is to engage potential students in the right mindsets, on the right channels, and to enable them to experience all the great things your school has to offer.”

Furthermore, before deciding on a university, prospective students travel through many different channels (referred to as “assisting” channels) before reaching their “last interaction” channel and making a choice. With Google data, it becomes easier to see which higher education marketing channels are seen as secondary “assisting” channels, and which more frequently achieve “last interaction” status. By looking at Google analysis available online, higher education marketing departments are better able to understand the role they play, across a variety of platforms, in a prospective student’s decision-making and purchasing process.

For more insights into prospective students’ use of online resources:

This article was originally published in August 2014 . It was last updated in February 2021

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