In spite of a bit of negative fervor, there is still some good news around Google’s new higher ed search feature if you use digital marketing for higher education.
Claiming that it wants to make choosing the right college easier for students, Google recently rolled out a new feature for college search. It aggregates information garnered from a variety of reputable sources, such as the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Wikipedia and a school’s own website, to provide an institutional snapshot for students looking at four year colleges. In the preview panel on the right side on desktop or top-of-page on mobile, the new feature will provide such info as tuition, acceptance and graduation rates and undergrad enrollment. It even delves into average costs after aid. For students and parents conducting a query for a school brand, it does seem to simplify the early search process.
But colleges are rightly concerned that students may scan their school’s snippet produced by Google and decide, from limited information, not to look more closely at their institution. The student might see an admissions rate and think: no way I’m getting in. Or they might be discouraged by an astronomical tuition. So they don’t take that next step: a visit to the school’s website.
In fact, schools may indeed see a dip in organic traffic. After all, if those high funnel prospects searching for your brand think they’ve found a reason not to look at your school, they may not. While Google sees this as helpful to students and may also believe the feature is an appropriate filter for your school to eliminate unqualified traffic, you probably understand that students in the early stages of search need to be taught a lot. They need to understand that “average” cost after aid may not apply to them. Only 12 percent of students at private colleges actually pay full tuition and college freshmen in 2016-17 received grants to cover more than half their tuition. Since your website allows you to paint a clearer picture of who you are and what you offer, no amount of aggregated data can ever serve your school as well as you can.
But the Good News?
That Google snippet uses school colors and looks a lot like your brand. And it does offer a link to your website. Serious students are likely to click for more info—and you do want serious students. They will find your website. Moreover, if students are searching for your brand (the search feature applies only to brand) they already know your name. The next step in a brand search may be even more specific. Instead of just searching for NYU, they might opt for NYU admissions, NYU clubs, NYU student activities. And you can help students this far along in the enrollment process by making certain your pages are optimized for the right search terms. Good SEO practices are your site’s best means to show up in serious searches.
More Good News
The new feature only applies to four year schools. That means if your marketing goals are program-specific or for graduate degree programs, many of the same tactics you’ve used in the past will still be effective. There will be no Google-inspired disruption to the student journey. Your future students will find you the same way they always have. More importantly, paid search and SEO can help you well beyond brand. By optimizing for and bidding on appropriate keywords, you can point serious students in your direction even if they never realized your brand offered exactly what they were looking for.
Organic Still Matters
If you’re worried about controlling your message, some more good news is that you still can. Google is pulling from your site, after all. It’s more important than ever, then, to make sure your SEO components are technically spot-on. Your content needs to provide thorough answers to stakeholder questions and it all needs to be optimized for search. If Google is pulling from your pages, make sure it pulls what you want. You can still control the message.
Wait There’s More
There has been debate for years on the benefit (or not) of bidding on branded terms. Especially in the nonprofit sector, there has always been reason to believe that it is both unnecessary—your brand is your brand, so why bid on it—and a waste of money—people unintentionally click on ads when they already find you organically. However, if you have a four year school and you want to control the message, it may be time to embrace pay-per-click, branded campaigns. On mobile, PPC campaigns will appear above Google’s new search feature. So even those of us who’ve been pretty steadfast in our opposition to brand bids, may have to acknowledge that Google’s new search feature for four-year colleges definitely changes the playing field.
Google tweaks its algorithm daily and makes more significant changes a few times a year. Its higher ed search is one of those more serious updates so you need to pay attention. At ESM Digital, we always pay attention. And we’re here to keep you informed of how algorithmic updates could impact your marketing and enrollment goals. If you’d like even more information, contact us today.