COVID-19 Impact on Higher Education Search Trends

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered profound change in higher education. The shock to the established system shifted priorities for students, educators, administrators, and staff.

Two months into the crisis, uncertainty still reigns. Will on-campus classes resume in the fall? Are institutions and teachers ready for a potential increase in the demand for online learning? What impact on higher ed marketing have we seen in response to the societal upheaval associated with the spread of COVID-19?

An analysis of trends in Google search and paid ads offers clues about how higher education marketers can adapt to the new normal. It also helps us find answers to questions such as:

  •   How have search engine results pages changed?
  •   What do Google search trends tell us about prospective students?
  •   How has COVID-19 affected click-through rates?
  •   How has this crisis affected ad spend?
  •   How can SEO and paid ads help?

Circumstances will continue to evolve as medical researchers seek a vaccine for COVID-19, as states loosen or strengthen lockdown guidelines, and as universities and colleges adjust accordingly. Meanwhile, savvy higher education marketers will use the information at hand to establish new best practices heading into an uncertain summer.

How COVID-19 Has Impacted Google Search Pages

Google demonstrated remarkable adaptability in response to the emerging threat of COVID-19. Even before the World Health Organization labeled the global emergency a pandemic on March 11, Google had dramatically reorganized its search engine results page (SERP) to correspond to the increased search volume for coronavirus-related terms.

A one-month study of SERP results conducted by Search Engine Land between February 25 and March 23 showed a dramatic shift in display results for “corona” searches. Even as late as February 25, the term returned results related to the town of Corona, California, and the beer company of the same name.

By March 2 — less than a week later — the Page 1 format for the search “corona” had eliminated both the beer and the town in favor of COVID-19 news stories and a “help and information” box at the top of the page. It was just the beginning of a major presentation shift for Google’s SERP, one that could have a long-term (or even permanent) effect on how it displays organic listings.

Meanwhile, Search Engine Watch found that online ad spend through mid-April had decreased by 50% across all channels. Statista, a business data company, estimated that the advertising industry was poised to absorb a $26 billion loss as a result of the pandemic.

It’s too early to make precise predictions about the long-term ramifications of these facts. We have enough data, however, to begin to draw some useful conclusions about how the coronavirus pandemic is changing the digital marketing landscape.

Changes to Search Features

By late March, Google’s SERP for terms related to COVID-19 began to resemble a news layout. In addition to help and informational listings, it now included panels with local and national resources and local news, along with a statistical matrix in a right-hand column with a map depicting the international spread of the virus.

Google’s SERP for “coronavirus” also added Twitter accounts for local health agencies and governmental bodies.

Down the left-hand column, Google added an information box with headings such as Symptoms, Prevention, News, Testing, Treatment, and Statistics. This box is shaded red to indicate a state of emergency.

The key takeaway here is the default setting for hyper-local personalization. In making these changes, Google has chosen to emphasize its function as a news provider, rather than an information aggregator.

Google SERP during COVID-19

Changes in Click-Through Rates and Ad Spend

Two leading entities in the paid search field — Search Engine Watch and HubSpot — conducted early benchmark studies on COVID-19’s impact on paid ad spend. Not surprisingly, both studies observed that paid spend had tanked during the first few weeks of the crisis.

HubSpot’s paid search benchmark study revealed the collapse had leveled off by late April. In fact, paid spend began to gain back some of its losses — the week ending April 20 saw the largest volume of deals created since the beginning of the crisis.

At Circa Interactive, we’ve noticed a significant increase in click-through rates for programs related to education, healthcare, leadership, and emergency preparedness. Across all programs, the click-through increase was 5% on organic searches.

According to an analysis of pay-per-click data conducted in late April by Wordstream, an online advertising publication, average click-through rates have increased across a wide array of industries.

The takeaway? Google’s algorithm quickly surfaced pages and ads related to COVID-19 topics as users increased their searches for information on the pandemic. Beyond affecting click-through rates and ad spend, the pandemic has also caused a shift in trends and organic search volume.

Google Trends and Changes in Search Volume

One key indicator to watch as the crisis continues to play out over the next few months is the organic search increase for relevant key phrases. Another is month-over-month fluctuations in search volume.

An excellent and simple (and free) tool to use to examine organic search levels and search volume over time is Google Trends.

Google Trends for Higher Education

According to Google Trends, searches related to the term “public health” increased 100% year over year as of early March. Of particular interest to higher ed marketers, “online college courses” searches also spiked by 100% year over year.

Google trends for online college courses

This is no surprise. Nearly every educational institution — from K-12 to grad school — shifted from on-campus learning to online learning virtually overnight. As of early May, a handful of major universities have announced that students will return to campus for classes in August. Most universities have adopted a “wait and see” approach, while others have committed to an all-online course schedule for the fall.

Fluctuating Search Volume

Overall, we saw significant search volume increases in the past month for terms related to healthcare, education, and leadership degrees. We also saw increases in search volume for non-degree-level-specific keywords, online graduate degrees, and concentration-specific bachelor’s programs.

Google trends for MSN program

For example, we experienced a substantial increase in impressions and clicks for a page about a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program in mid-to-late March. This spike indicated that the page met the criteria for education and healthcare, two of the emerging topics of increased interest for organic and paid search during the crisis.

The first search volume spike for the MSN program page lasted about a week in March, followed by two additional large spikes in April. These sharp increases corresponded to search data found on Google Trends as users turned to the internet to learn about the crisis as quickly as possible — and to explore potential degree options moving forward.

Leveraging SEO and PPC Campaigns to Fight the Effects of COVID-19

Lemonlight insights

According to a Lemonlight essay about Search Engine Optimization and COVID-19, “SEO efforts are amplified in the midst of a crisis like COVID-19.” SEO is important during a crisis for the same reasons it’s important all the time — the pages that show up on the SERP are the pages that earn the clicks.

Just as organic SEO and paid media work in tandem to produce a desired marketing outcome during “normal” times, a multichannel effort remains a vital tool for disseminating information or achieving conversions during unprecedented ones.

The Role of SEO for Higher Ed

Lemonlight’s analysis explains that SEO is a cost-effective tool that produces long-term growth and builds trust among consumers. In the short term, as students seek answers to their questions about the future of their education, higher education marketers can make good use of SEO metrics — high-traffic keywords, click-through rates, time on page, and other key performance indicators.

Knowing what current and potential students are looking for online can help marketers shape their content accordingly. Providing sought-after information when users need it most establishes trust and deepens the user-brand relationship.

Paid Media and Multichannel Campaigns

While it might take months — or even years — for ad traffic and revenue to rebound from the economic downturn associated with COVID-19, paid search remains a vital component of a cross-channel strategy.

Higher education saw a 10% increase in searches related to “new career” and an 8% increase in searches related to vocational occupations. Knowing these trends enables planning for a multichannel campaign — SEO, display ads, paid search, social media, etc. — targeting audiences searching for these terms.

Because trends remain fluid from month to month, it’s important to monitor fluctuations in search volume for potential campaign terms. This month’s trend for new career searches might shift to something slightly different — or even wildly unrelated — next month, depending on how the crisis unfolds during the summer.

Key Takeaways for Higher Ed Marketers

There is no doubt that COVID-19 has deeply impacted every aspect of higher education Here are a few key takeaways for higher education marketers to keep in mind heading into the summer:

  •       Changes in the SERP display, especially for coronavirus-related terms, have meant changes in click-through rates.
  •       Programs related to healthcare, public health, and social work will likely draw qualified and engaged traffic.
  •       Other programs have seen a drop-off in both engagement and conversions.
  •       Multichannel campaigns are more important than ever and will continue to help drive ROI

Circa Interactive’s team of digital marketing experts is here to help you meet your enrollment goals. Check back often for new information and insights regarding the shifting landscape of higher education as the industry continues to respond to the challenges posed by the ongoing pandemic.

Please contact us or visit our SEO tactics page if you have any questions or would like to discuss how we can help support you.

Raymond Martinez
Raymond Martinez is Circa Interactive’s SEO manager, concentrating on search engine optimization, conversion rate optimization, and content strategy. He has a history of diverse campaign work for organizations such as Louisiana State University, Tulane University, University of San Diego, and the California Innocence Project. Ray’s work with these partners has led to millions of search impressions, thousands of organic keywords ranking first on Google, and healthier sites that drive lead generation.
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