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On Feb 5, 2014, Google’s Education team hosted a Google Hangout that gave their 2013 Q4 report on the state of Google search and pay-per-click marketing for the higher education marketplace. It provided some 2013 summary level stats for the whole year’s performance but was unfortunately  a bit thin on that front, so what follows is mostly Q4 2013 / Q4 2012 comparisons.

The Hangout was hosted by Jennifer Howard, Education Practice Lead at Google, and included guests, Julie Klien, Senior Director of Digital Media Services, Apollo Group, Terry Howard, Director of Internet Marketing at Full Sail University, Shannon Smith, Account Director at Web Metro, who works with Corinthian Colleges and Rachel Myers, Google Sales, Strategy and Operations Manager in the Higher Edu Space.

YouTube video

Click the video to link to the full 53 minute video. My recap below includes what I found to be the highlights and related screen caps from the Hangout presentation. My comments and observations are in italic, not to be confused with those of the participants.

A couple of comments on the data just before we get started. The stats in this report are for the US market only. I had thought previously that they included Canada in this analysis but sadly, not. Just to confirm, “Middle Market Schools” i.e. vocational and technical institutes, right on up through to the universities are included in the data set. Surprisingly, at least to me, is that “how to “ searches are also included in their Training and Certification bucket. That type of search query really doesn’t fit into my definition of Higher Ed, nor I’m guessing, into that of most of our readers, so be warned that the data is slightly skewed into a more general educational context.

State of the Industry

  •  Total higher education search queries increased by 3% in 2013

branded searches up 3

  • Branded searches, ( that is, variations on school name), are up 7% year over year (Y/Y)

branded searches by segment

These 2013 growth rates are even more interesting when you factor in their base share of branded search. These numbers were referenced but were not actually on the slides

Career Educators made up 7% of the branded search total and had -1% growth y/y
Comm. Colleges made up 36% of the branded search total and had 4% growth y/y
Universities made up 57% of the branded search total and had 11% growth y/y

From the stats it is not clear why there is such growth in branded search at the high end of the market. Regardless of why, an opportunity seems very clear here for the universities, so get your SEO tuned up, own the organic search rankings for your schools branded terms, and you will likely benefit from an increasing amount of high quality SEO based traffic .

  • Program, General and Degree related search queries all increased in 2013

search growth by type

Auction Insights

  • PPC continues to get more competitive in 2013 Q4 with 13% more PPC ads appearing per query, with a 12 % higher cost per click but with only 1% growth in total click volume

Auction stats

PPC is tough to do well and getting tougher. With more ads appearing at a higher cost this is a challenging medium to grow in. If you are just getting started using PPC make sure you get some good advice and follow solid best practices. If you are experienced in this market you know how hard it is to grow your leads and improve conversion rates. The best approach lies in improving the overall quality of your ads and landing pages through conversion rate optimization with A/B and Multivariate testing.

  • PPC activity aimed at Program level keywords is less competitive and has experienced growth in total click volume

Auction stats with program

As Google drills down into the data we see that more focused specialized ads aimed at the program level compete in a less competitive environment. I think what these two slides are telling us is that general branded PPC is not your best option. Focus on the program level with very specific ads and landing pages that are highly relevant to the searcher’s intent. I know, easier said than done but these stats clearly indicate that the days of low hanging fruit are over and that you have to get really good at this stuff to be competitive.

Emerging Trends

  • Geo related term searches are up 5% Q4 y/y

No big surprise here as mobile search continues to grow as prospective students use their mobile devices to seek out local options versus more broadly available options.

  • Education related searches on YouTube are up 23% Q4 Y/Y

Youtube growth

I found this slide is be the most interesting of all the results revealed in this session. I think most active higher ed digital marketers are aware that video has been and is increasingly important in communicating your marketing messages. But with this data in hand, I think we can conclude that the jury is in and if you don’t currently have YouTube in your social media mix you should get there fast, particularly if you are at the higher end of the spectrum. A caution to those of you in the Training and Certification market, these stats are skewed by the inclusion of “how to” searches, so it is not quite as promising a scenario as it appears in the slide.

It is pretty fascinating to watch how the higher ed marketplace evolves in response to the general search and auction environment. Traditional schools, (aka the public colleges and universities) are becoming more sophisticated and aggressive with their digital marketing and are changing the balance of power in the PPC game. In the coming quarters, I’d like to see Google open up its focus a bit more and include more analysis and input from panelists from these schools to stir the pot beyond the perspectives of the traditionally dominant for-profits players. 

I would love to hear others impressions and interpretations of the Google report and what effect you see it having on your marketing efforts. Do you agree with the opportunities as noted? Do you see other important issues?