Harness Q3 2016 Google Trends to Maximize 2017 Enrollment

Contributors: Megan Danielson, senior director of digital marketing and Ashley Nicklay, marketing manager, both of Collegis Education

Google released its third-quarter search trends for higher education and three compelling data points led us to some interesting conclusions: two opportunities, and one indication of changing interests.

The first data point that caught our attention is that higher education searches are expected to peak in January, as they did in 2016 and previous years. The second is that interest in certificate programs is on the rise. The third is that MBA search, while still a significant category, is no longer growing.

Key Findings

  • January is the busiest month for higher ed search.
  • Certificate program searches on the rise.
  • MBA search category remains significant, but no longer growing.

Historically, within higher education, January is the highest search/demand period and this January, Google is projecting another strong surge with demand peaking within the first three weeks. However, when looking at spend distribution, it appears that colleges and universities are spending more to capture students in August and September than in January. This reveals a gap in higher ed assumptions and actual prospective student behavior.

We recommend adjusting marketing campaign budgets and timelines to align with these findings. As most higher education fiscal years begin in July, schools may not be able to adjust in time for 2017, but they should make note of these findings to maximize the next fiscal year’s budgets. 

One way to maximize the ROI of your budget is by applying a remarketing strategy. Leverage your analytics profile, and look for trends in your site analytics on what’s bringing prospective students to your site. Some trends we’ve seen lately have been increases in searches for program information and cost/tuition.

“I would definitely encourage colleges and universities to think about re-marketing as a part of their enrollment campaigns.  It’s a good strategy that allows you to continue the conversation with prospective students and maximize marketing ROI.” — Megan Danielson, senior director of digital marketing with Collegis Education Education.


  1. Revise your campaign schedule for 2017 to leverage the heaviest search times.
  2. Set up re-marketing campaigns for the more frequently searched topics on your site. Trending recently have been searches for program information and Collegis Education has also seen an increase in the use of cost-related keywords in higher education searches. .
  3. Develop a cross-channel campaign focused around New Year’s messaging, to run through the month of January.
  4. Invest in higher-funnel awareness campaigns such as online video and radio.

Search frequency:

  • Highest: January
  • Next highest: August
  • Lowest: December


Chart: Google searches in the overall category of higher education from December 1, 2014 through November 1, 2016

Chart: Google searches in the overall category of higher education from December 1, 2014 through November 1, 2016

Certificate Program Search Rises 31 Percent

The second point we found interesting is that while all degree types have risen in query volume, certificates show the strongest query growth, increasing by 31 percent YoY. It is not known whether searches are for pre-degree or post-degree certificates. With the increase in demand for certificate and other degree programs, it’s time to ensure that program positioning is up to date on your website.   


  1. Work with your analytics team to understand the traffic on your website’s program pages.
  2. Optimize your home page to ensure that program-level information is easy to find. Is there a link to certificates on your home page?
  3. Review your site’s program descriptions. Are they up to date? Could you add photos to make the online information more interesting?

MBA Search Remains Significant, No Longer Growing

Finally, the third head-turning statistic, for us, was that MBA search growth is down. While MBA search remains a significant part of overall program searches, the category has decelerated more than any other program, showing a mere 1 percent in growth YoY. This puts our analytics team on alert for the possibility that MBA programs may see an increase in competitive pressure which often leads to an increase in cost-per-click (CPC) advertising rates.

To combat rising CPC rates, it’s important to invest in program differentiators. MBA programs are common and tend to be similar. To win in this competitive landscape, you need to have a program that offers something your competitors don’t, whether it’s low pricing, a more flexible model, or unique and relevant content.


  • Ensure your program stands out from your competitors’.
  • Invest in awareness-generating channels that tend to foster search growth, such as online video, radio or similar audience targeting.
  • Ensure you are running a tight remarketing campaign to improve your return on media-spend.


Percent of Query Volume by Degree Type

Google search percentage of query volume by degree type for Q3 2016.

Query Growth by Degree Type

Google search query growth by degree type for Q3 2016.

Program Search: Strong in Spite of Gainful Employment Oversight:

  • Art & design +28%
  • Criminal Justice +22%
  • Esthetician +19%
  • Culinary & Hospitality +15%

Percentage of query volume by program

  •  Art & Design 7%
  •  Automotive 1%
  •  Business 9%
  •  Criminal Justice 3%
  •  Culinary & Hospitality 2%
  • Education 2%
  • Esthetician 12%
  • Healthcare 33%
  • Liberal Arts & Others 8%
  • Nursing 16%
  • Technology & Engineering 8%

Other Critical Findings:

  • Mobile search is up +14% YoY
  • Desktop/tablet search is down -8% YoY

Mobile growth also brings an increase in more ads per query and higher cost-per-clicks (CPCs). Mobile’s popularity is nothing new, but it’s reaching the point where not having a mobile-optimized website will set you up to be overlooked by prospective students.

Brand searches are down 1 percent YoY, non-brand is up by 9 percent YoY. This is in line with what Collegis Education has seen with current trends in education — teens are more brand agnostic in all categories, and more tuned in to personal goals. There is also more scrutiny about whether investing in higher education will be worth the cost.

Traditional schools continue to dominate brand traffic, with community colleges coming in a distant second (also decreasing by -1 percent).

Shifts in Search Trends

Overall, Collegis Education noted an increase in cost-related keywords being used for higher education searches (i.e. cost of a business degree, nursing program price, affordable nursing program, etcetc.). They believe this is likely tied to the onslaught of affordability and cost-related messages that entered the market over the last year.

Competency Based Education & Online Education

Competency based education (CBE) is going through a rapid growth period. There are currently at least 600 schools trying to bring CBE on board. These schools are taking different approaches, but the original group is trying to create standardization. One thing to keep in-mind; While CBE is certainly growing and is of interest to prospective students, they aren’t actively searching for “CBE” as a keyword. Similar to transfer or bachelor-completer programs, it’s not nomenclature that they think to search. Along with CBE, Collegis Education is also seeing more low-cost options enter the market, like Georgia Tech’s Master in Computer Science, and Penn State’s “World Campus” program.

Looking ahead to 2017

We look forward to watching January search results and how colleges and universities harness this busy search time of year. The coming year’s trend in certificate-search growth is also one to watch. Many are hoping for signals re: whether the search growth is for pre-degree or post-degree certificate programs. Finally, it will be interesting to see what 2017 holds for MBA programs and whether searches in this category will continue to slow.

About the Author

Leah Otto

Leah Otto is a content marketing writer for Collegis Education. She holds a Master of Business Communication from the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota.

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