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As the student post-secondary search moves increasingly online, competition is heating up among colleges and universities to get noticed. It is the non-branded search engine queries for specific programs and degree types that have been growing most significantly in the past few years. A 2012 Google study found that 9 out of 10 prospective students don’t know which school they want to attend at the outset of their search process and that appears to still hold true. While search engine optimization (SEO) is becoming even more important for schools to heighten brand awareness, combining organic search with paid advertising (pay-per-click or PPC) is ideal for attaining optimal visibility.

Prominent placement on search engine result pages (SERPs) is essential for attracting traffic – top spot earns about a third of clicks on average and 91.5% of searchers don’t make it past the first results page. However, SEO can take months before yielding desired results and Google search pages are more and more dominated by paid ads above the fold (visible without scrolling down).

google results ppc marketing

PPC effectively supplements your SEO campaigns by immediately getting your school’s offerings in front of the searchers that matter most to you. For keywords you’re unable to rank for organically, paid ads elevate your content with guaranteed positioning at the top of the page that targets precisely those prospects most likely to be converted. Paid search campaigns can be easily managed and continuously adjusted from a user-friendly dashboard with a predefined schedule that promotes particular programs or events at selected times of day and year. Their clear and concise messaging enables direct calls to action that guides leads along the conversion path.

How to Create Paid Ads

For those who have yet to explore the wonderful world of PPC, the first step is creating a well organized Google AdWords account structure – Bing Ads can conveniently be imported from AdWords but not vice versa. More organized accounts make it easy to track results and optimize, ensure your ads are relevant for your target audience, and improve your Quality Score. Quality Score is how Google rates the quality and relevance of your keywords and ads, which then determines your cost-per-click (CPC) and ranking in the ad auction process.

Quality Score is based on:

  • Click-through-rate (CTR): More clicks on your ad indicate relevancy, therefore this is the most important factor
  • Relevance of each keyword and ad text
  • Landing page quality and relevance
  • Historical AdWords performance

Google AdWords ppc  structure

You may choose to run a separate AdWords campaign for each campus or program or have one central campaign including various Ad Groups that each target a shared set of keywords. Stick to one goal per campaign, targeting specific locations with appropriately differentiated messaging. Each Ad Group will contain keywords, 2-3 ads and a resulting landing page. If you already have a list of keywords, you can organize them according to various themes to create discrete Ad Groups.

Challenges of Today’s Paid Search

The popularity of PPC in higher education has made the competition for desirable keywords increasingly fierce. For example, the average CPC for “MBA” has risen from $4 in 2010 to over $60 today in Bing or Google AdWords. Although paying this much for clicks with no certainty of becoming leads dissuades some schools from pursuing this type of marketing, a well managed PPC campaign can be among the most cost-effective advertising platforms available.

It begins with thorough keyword research, understanding your goals, competitive environment and website analytics to determine which keywords are most likely to convert leads. While businesses are often recommended to bid on their branded keywords, it’s typically a waste of money in the education sector as your college is likely to dominate results of branded searches already.

“Unlike other businesses, you can get a lot of current customers, faculty and staff who use the website as their prime portal for resources,” says Adam Higgins of Fisher College. “Students Google ‘Fisher College,’ click on the paid ad, and then you pay for those clicks without conversions to justify the cost.”

Choosing Relevant Keywords

Limit the number of keywords for each Ad Group to no more than ten, or twenty at most. Avoid overly generic (and expensive) ones like the aforementioned MBA by focusing on particular qualities sought by your most relevant audience that represent your school. A campaign may be defined as a concentrated field of study, such as a nursing program, with each Ad Group structured around small sets of keywords based on themes like “healthcare training programs” “nursing courses in BC” and “becoming a registered nurse”.

Google implemented regulations in 2011 banning education institutions from using words like “employment” that might mislead users – in any case, it’s best to aim your content at the audience most likely to yield a good ROI from paid search. For example, some schools find that certain programs or audiences are adequately served with organic search while adult searchers for continuing education programs or international students are most likely to convert from PPC.

In addition to popular phrases most often searched by your demographic, consider your unique benefits to develop more specific long-tail keywords, which are less frequently searched but have lower cost and competition, yielding more qualified leads.

Keywords PPC marketing higher education

PPC Keyword Refinement

The default setting for keywords is “broad match”, which reaches the most users by showing your ad for variations, but you can narrow your reach with “phrase match” to show your ad only in searches with that exact phrase, or “exact match” for searches with exactly your keyword phrase. A year ago, Google implemented “close variant matching” for all exact and phrase match keywords to correct for misspelled, abbreviated and other close variations, although since AdWords prefers identical matches, some organizations still include commonly misspelled variations as separate keywords.

“Negative keywords” are an often overlooked but perhaps the most important keyword qualifier, preventing your ad from showing when irrelevant, unwanted words or phrases are part of a search term. Some schools, for instance, find that unqualified traffic mistakenly click their ads in search of jobs, so filter out keywords like “job”.

Better PPC Budgeting for Higher Education

Paid search campaigns must be actively managed on a near daily basis or will certainly result in a quickly blown budget on unqualified traffic. The cost really depends on several factors, including the location(s) you’re targeting, the amount of competition for your desired keywords, and how tightly you schedule and target your campaigns.

AdWords works like an auction, where Google determines whether your ad will be displayed and in which position it will be ranked based on how well the searcher’s query matches your keyword and the competition for this word (or phrase). Your ad rank depends on the maximum bid you specified for the keyword and the aforementioned Quality Score.

Ad rank PPC bidding education


Improving your Quality Score can see you pay less for a better ad placement while optimizing the relevance and ROI of your general paid initiatives. Well researched and organized keywords will help, as will continuously refining your ad text and landing pages. Keep your costs under control by adjusting Google’s settings to separate search and display network and manually setting your bids. Each campaign has its own settings and should have a unique budget with a maximum default bid CPC.

Determine which keywords are performing best to consider increasing your bidding price and drop the ineffective ones. Keep on the lookout for other keywords or long-tail variations you may be missing. The immediate nature of PPC makes it easy to quickly identify methods of improvement – impressions and clicks are shown in your AdWords account while your website analytics will reveal how well your ads are converting. This is essential for justifying your ad spending and continuously improving your ROI.

Targeting your Paid Search Ads

Always be testing and revising your keywords, ad copy and targeting. To initiate a campaign, try to target precise geographic locations from where you’re receiving the bulk of your applications and test new ones with separate campaigns. Geotargeting can be coordinated with broader marketing campaigns and prioritize areas as broad as a state or province all the way down to the area immediately surrounding your campus. Newer segmentation options allow you to reach a very specific audience, based on age and gender.

Modify your ad bidding price throughout the day and year, from zero up to higher than average during peak viewing times. Consider adjusting your budget to allocate heavier spending during the peak admissions season between August and December, when high school seniors are intensifying their college research. Some universities boost their ad budgets in August and January, their biggest enrollment periods, but be aware of your own seasonal conversion cycle for optimization.

PPC generally works best for “top of the funnel” offers, casually searching education options with no predetermined choice. Once they’ve narrowed down their choices, searchers will more likely go directly to the school’s website. Appropriate ad and landing page copy for education lead generation should then provide easily digestible and helpful content rather than long forms that attempt to jump right to the application. Understanding your target audience and seasonal application cycle can guide your messaging, whether it is fun facts about your city, financial aid solutions or the application process.

Mobile Device Targeting

As mobile has eclipsed desktop in popularity, especially among college prospects, it’s vital that your paid ads separate mobile devices into independent campaigns, likely with a greater portion of your budget and higher maximum bids. It goes without saying that these ads, landing pages and your webpage will first need to be mobile-optimized, with easy navigation and shorter contact forms.

Mobile users tend to be very specific in their education search, responding to more direct calls-to-action like “enroll now” and “learn more”. Include a call extension in these ads so mobile users can call you directly and consider accepting broader keyword matches to account for increased misspellings. Analyze the metrics and results as a completely separate channel in AdWords and Analytics reporting. Mobile screens have smaller SERPs, so ads need to be particularly concise, targeted and action-oriented.

bing keywords ppc education


There is so much more that can be said about creating better PPC campaigns but these tips will get you off to a good start. We’ll look closer at retargeting and display ads on other websites in a coming blog. Staying on top of PPC campaign administration can be challenging at the best of times, so working with an established agency for managing your higher education pay per click marketing often yields the most efficient and effective results.

Learn More About Recruiting Students with PPC Advertising

Do you have any great PPC tips you’d like to share?