December 3, 2018

Reaching Prospects Through Evolving Higher Ed Search Behaviors

Paid search (PPC) is an integral part of any higher education marketing mix. The ability to connect prospective students with your school’s relevant messaging – that precisely matches their need, behavior, and search query – is an invaluable tool for driving efficient inquiries.

But search behaviors are rapidly changing, and students are not researching schools in the same way they used to. They are still turning to search on their student journey, and in increasing numbers – according to Google’s education vertical research, total education queries are up compared to 2017. If your paid search strategy relies on the same branded and non-branded keyword mix and bids from years past, you’re likely missing out on these opportunities to enroll future students.

If it seems like it’s time to change up your higher ed PPC strategy to avoid missing inquiry and start goals, take note of these recent trends in the education search space:

Go Beyond the Brand

There is always value in bidding on your own brand name when it comes to paid search strategy. With the average prospective student researching 3.6 schools during their consideration process, it’s important to make sure your messaging dominates when they search for your school by name.

Despite their usefulness, searches for a specific school brand name are not on the rise anymore. According to Google, branded searches in higher education have fallen in year-over-year comparisons each of the past three quarters.

This could mean that prospective students are less brand loyal when it comes to education, especially with the growth of online offerings that don’t require quite the commitment of a traditional school. In fact, branded search volume is flat for non-profit traditional schools. Vocational and for-profit is where the decline is happening (including a 10% drop in branded search volume for vocational schools YoY).

Google has also evolved to help the research process, offering easier access to reviews and competitors from a single search and cutting down on the need for searching each school individually in order to gather information.

Non-Branded is Growing

With branded searches declining, higher ed PPC volume will come more and more from the broader non-branded queries that prospects are making. Non-branded education queries have experienced slight increases in every quarter since the start of 2016. And with Google claiming that 15% of all queries everyday are brand new to the platform, it’s easy to see how non-branded queries will continue to grow in both volume and complexity.

Optimizing your higher ed PPC efforts to focus on non-branded terms will be key. Use search term reports to identify and add long-tail non-branded terms, funneling spend to the proven converters. Use of audiences can also help cut down on the competition in the broad non-branded space. If budget is a limiting factor, you can use search remarketing to target much broader non-brand terms that you might otherwise not be able to afford. This will help re-capture users with proven touch points to your website, while still giving data on which non-branded queries are the most valuable to your school.

Focus on Degree Type

Within the non-branded growth, queries centered on a degree type are the biggest growth opportunity in education right now. Queries involving a degree type (such as “business administration certificate”) are up 4% YoY.

Among degree types that are appearing in searches, certificates are the big winners. “Certificate”-based education queries are up 5% in the last quarter alone, and total volume of queries involved “certificate” far surpasses other degree types. But there have also been volume jumps for searches involving associate’s, master’s, MBA and PhD degrees.

Potential students are becoming more cognizant of the degree types they need (or don’t need) for the careers they want. Employers are placing less importance on having a bachelor’s degree, and with the cost of school rising there are more prospects looking to other options like certificates. Understanding this behavior and building out new paid search keywords into long-tail versions that account for degree type (as well as calling out the type in ad copy and landing page content) will be key for converting more prospects down the line.

The value of higher ed PPC as an inquiry-driving channel shows no signs of slowing. But it does show growth and evolution in entirely new areas for education compared to past years. Adjusting focus to account for the latest trends in how prospects are searching will set your school up for the future.

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