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Decreasing Popularity in College Ranking: The Impact on SERP Competition

Let’s face it – we are in an economy of attention. Time is our scarcest resource, so many people say, and people and products are constantly competing for it.

In this digital age, every platform is an arena where different companies and creators vye for our attention, and to the victor go the spoils: more attention and engagement. The higher ed industry is no exception to this phenomenon.

While we are pleased to see that college ranking losing the footing it had in this fight for many years, higher ed institutions have a lot of work to do when it comes to capturing and keeping their audiences’ attention by proving what sets them apart.

Looming on the horizon is an even fiercer set of competitors: the domains that are outranking them in search engine result pages (SERPs).

SERPs are notoriously competitive, and human search behavior has conditioned us to put the most trust and authority in the results we see first. These domains get the majority of clicks and traffic. When prospective students search the internet for academic interest and information on programs, they are often met with organizations whose sole mission is to provide college ranking information.

The U.S. News & World Report is one of these sites. The media company launched in 1948, has earned the title of “America’s oldest and best-known ranker of academic institutions” in the past years, reported by the Washinton Post [1]. With this extensive reputation comes powerful domain authority, a score that is designed to predict how likely a domain is to rank within a search engine results page. The closer the score is to 100%, the higher chance it will rank.

MOZ estimates the domain authority of U.S. News & World Report to be 93% out of 100, putting it at the top of the Domain Authority Scale [2]. With such high amounts of quality backlinks, this domain is routinely seen in search engine results when academic search queries are used, particularly coupled with the keywords “top” and “best”.

Popularity & Trust in the U.S. News Report is Dwindling

Recent attitudes towards the educational powerhouse have shifted, and organizations and people alike are asking if the U.S. News rankings can be trusted, and are starting to doubt its reliability.

Colin Diver, former president of Reed College and dean of the University of Pennsylvania, has been one of the most vocal opponents of college ranking in general. In his book Breaking Ranks, Diver criticizes the higher education ranking industry, particularly the influence that popular ranking systems like U.S. News & World Report has on the priorities and practices of universities. Diver argues that these rankings focus too heavily on easily quantifiable metrics like test scores and alumni giving, rather than on the broader mission and impact of higher education.

Diver suggests that universities should push back against the ranking industry by developing their own alternative measures of success, such as tracking the impact of their graduates on society or assessing the quality of their research. He also advocates for more transparency and public dialogue about the limitations and biases of ranking systems in order to help stakeholders make more informed decisions on the value of higher education institutions. Ultimately, Diver argues that universities should prioritize their educational mission and focus on creating meaningful experiences for their students as opposed to simply pursuing prestige and rankings.

Colorado College made headlines in early March with its public announcement to withdraw from the U.S. News & World Report college ranking published each fall. Inside Higher Ed reported that the multi-fold decision stemmed from frustration with the correlation between the quality of education and the institutional prestige of an organization. Colorado College did not want its prospective students and their families to equate the quality of its education with its rankings in the U.S. News & World Report [3].

Colorado College is not the only institution to garner these feelings. In late 2022, Yale and Harvard announced that their law schools would opt out of participating in the U.S. News & World Ranking Report [4]. To learn more about this, check out the blog we wrote, As Rejections of Ranking Mount, Colleges Have an Opportunity to Rise Above.

The State of Academic SERPs

Since the beginning of search engines, results pages have been paginated. This kept roughly 10 websites on one page at a time, and domains needed to earn the authority to stay there.

As marketers, we know that around 70% of searches on search engines did not make it past the first page. Human search behavior largely confined searches to the first page. We perceived those results as the most trustworthy because they seemed to earn the reputation to be there. This made that first page of a search engine extremely competitive, with rankings sharpening the competitive edge of institutions.

In late 2022, Search Engine Land accounted that Google removed its pagination on search engine results [5], replacing it with endless scrolling. The goal was not only to improve the user experience but emulate the endless scrolling that had hallmarked the mobile experience for years.

ERI’s Hypothesis

We hypothesize that the websites that traditionally “fell off” the first page of Google will now be more accessible to users. The once crowded first page will become less competitive, as users would be able to effortlessly scroll through search results rather than be confined to the first page.

Why Does this Matter?

Prospective students use search engines to find information about academic interests and programs. Before Google removed pagination from desktop searches, prospective students would be limited to the higher education websites they saw results on the first few pages of Google. The removal of pagination will likely increase the visibility of websites hidden within Google’s page architecture–increasing a URL’s visibility increases traffic.

Less of a barrier to entry (schools that are not high on the US News lists) → allows academic program content to speak for itself. The quality of education is not dependent on ranks that can be bought by institutions with access to monetary resources.

Bye Bye Backlinks

The crown jewel of the U.S. News is its backlinks, which traditionally, Google has put a lot of emphasis on. These used to be one of the most important ranking factors that determined trust and authority.

In today’s digital world, backlinks have a lot less impact than they used to. Entire marketing budgets and campaigns would be created to build backlinks, and some organizations existed solely for the purpose to mine backlinks. Google used to use backlinks as an important and credible ranking signal, which helped get users to the most relevant results to their queries.

How Helpful is U.S. News Anyway?

Attitude shifts are not the only search engine interruption US News is facing. As Google rolls out more and more algorithm updates related to helpful information, the quality of the information provided on this website is brought into question.

US News operates on a list-like structure, and it knows its audience well. Humans love lists, especially when searching for information, but with attitudes and confidence in the authority of US News shifting, the list-like structure becomes less and less helpful. With Google constantly adapting its ranking factors to emphasize helpful information, the question must be asked, will Google’s algorithm find US News’ content helpful? If Google rejects U.S. News’ content strategy and deems it unhelpful, there will be a major disruption in search results for academic-related queries.

Will This Be Trendsetting?

U.S. News and World Report is not the only organization under the microscope as perspectives begin to shift. Niche’s educational arm provides many of the same services as the U.S. News and is just as often seen within SERPs for academic queries. As the U.S. News’  college ranking model becomes less and less reliable and popularity decreases, Niche may start to feel the same scrutiny.

Wikipedia is another domain that commonly sits at the top of search engine results and outranks college and university domains in search engine results for academic keywords. With Moz’s domain authority score equal to U.S. News (93%), it will be interesting to see if changes and adaptations to Google’s search algorithms and ranking factors will have the same effects.

Conclusion

Websites that have traditionally relished on the first page of Google are getting the quality of their content put to the test. As Google adapts its search algorithm and ranking factors to remain competitive, domains that sat comfortably at the top will start to feel the pressure.

As stances towards college ranking shift, higher education websites that previously fell off the first and second pages will have more visibility, as they become more and more available to users in SERPs. U.S. News rankings will become unreliable, and higher education marketers will find themselves in a position where they need to re-think college ranks, as more and more institutions opt out of participating.

Are you interested in learning more about higher education SEO? Let us know, we’d love to be part of the conversation.

Sources:

[1] “U.S. News college rankings are denounced but not ignored”The Washington Post Daniel de Vise, September 2011

[2] “Domain Authority Checker” – MOZ

[3] The End of RankingsInside Higher Ed William D. Adams, March 6th, 2023

[4] Why the College Rankings Are Getting Less and Less RelevantNew York Magazine Benjamin Hart, January 26th, 2023

[5] How Google’s continuous scroll can impact SEO –  Search Engine Land Tadeusz Szewczyk, January 20th, 2023

Diver, C. S. (2022). Breaking ranks: How the rankings industry rules higher education and what to do about it. Johns Hopkins University Press.

 

 

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