College Search Behavior Study Reveals Academic Program Pages Drive the Most Website Traffic.
A study conducted by EAB revealed that academic program pages drove the most website traffic. The report, College-search Behaviors in 2021: Actionable Insights from EAB’s Latest Survey of High School Students
The group surveyed 15,291 high school students across the United States, 91% of whom intended to attend college in the future. Of this group of over 15,000 students, 40% were seniors, 40% were juniors and the remaining 20% were sophomores. The survey group was asked the following question:
“When you searched specific college websites, what topics were you most often looking for information on?”
EAB found that over 60% of their participants reported they most often searched by the majors and academic programs offered. Thirty-five percent searched by the cost of attendance, and thirty-two percent searched by admissions requirements.
These findings conclude that the most sought-after content on higher education websites is information on the majors and minors offered. EAB stresses the importance of ensuring that the content on these academic pages is engaging and captivates audiences. This further increases the likelihood they’ll stay and engage further on the site. The report also stresses that relevant, helpful website content is more findable on search engines, meaning that more prospective students have access to the information.
Studies like these provide critical insights that are crucial to understanding college search behavior and higher education search intent. As digital and marketing professionals, we harness this information and use it to make strategic decisions.
Synthesis and Takeaways
The findings in this study did not come as a surprise. They affirm one of our key beliefs about search engine optimization–content on higher education pages that is most relevant to user intent will rank higher in Google search results.
Google is always evolving its search engine algorithm. It is one of the business strategies that helps them command over 90% of the search engine market. This algorithm is modified to reflect changes in search behavior and search trends. In the summer of 2022, Google Search Central announced an update to their algorithm that catered to ‘helpful content’. The goal of this ‘helpful content’ update was to reward websites with effective, compelling, and helpful content with higher search rankings. This move was made to provide greater access to content that fit Google’s algorithm requirements and matched search intent.
In terms of higher education SEO, user intent is incredibly important because it tells us what kind of content a user is looking for and how we can optimize the content to rank high in search engine results.
EAB’s report found that the higher education search intent for this focus group is information regarding academic programs offered. From this report, we know that these pages need thoughtful content strategies if they want to be discoverable on Google. But what kind of content is “helpful” and “compelling” to prospective users? This is where keyword research and analysis come into play. Performing this research is critical to content strategies because it helps marketing professionals build an outline for the page.
Examples of Effective Academic Program Pages
1. Carnegie Mellon University
Take an example of a prospective student who is researching different academic programs that spark their interest. This interest may be in data and technology, and they come across a list of majors that relate to this. One of these majors, Information Systems, sparks their interest and the student searches “Information Systems Major ” on Google to find more information about this topic. This keyword has an average monthly search volume of just over 1 thousand searches. One of the first .edu results is Carnegie Mellon University’s domain, and the title of the page is “What is Information Systems?”. A prospective student browsing a Google search results page may find that title captivating, and will likely click on it to learn more information about the topic. We know from search trends and search behavior analysis that Generation Z is most likely to find the first results on Google the most credible.
This page was strategically designed to rank high on Google’s results pages. There are multiple headings that offer different sections of content related to search intent, but are still relevant to the overall topic—for instance, listing examples of what students can do with the degree after graduation, providing a sample schedule with actual classes, and showcasing an infographic that states the average starting salary, alumni accomplishments, and more. This page has a great deal of meaningful content, and it can keep a prospective student engaged by continuing to offer information relevant to the major.
An analysis of the trending keywords and topics around “information systems major” revealed the same heading structure as Carnegie Mellon’s page:
What is information systems – monthly search volume of 2.1K
Information systems jobs – monthly search volume of 2.9K
Information systems salary – monthly search volume of 1.4K
2. Michigan Technological University
Another example of an academic program that is optimized for search intent is Michigan Tech’s Mechanical Engineering program page. This page starts out with a strong heading (“What Is Mechanical Engineering?”) that immediately answers questions such as, what is the definition of mechanical engineering, what mechanical engineers do? What skills do they need? What careers can they have? And, how much can they earn? This academic program page also takes it a step further and offers insights into the future of the industry, a topic that can ease prospective students’ nerves.
As we saw with Carnegie Melon, the heading structure mirrors the most popular search queries for the topic:
What is mechanical engineering – monthly search volume of 5.1K
What do mechanical engineers do – monthly search volume of 4.6K
Mechanical engineering requirements – monthly search volume of 500
Mechanical engineering jobs – monthly search volume of 9.1K
Mechanical engineering salary – monthly search volume of 15K
Providing content that is relevant to prospective students’ search intent increases the likelihood of Google ranking that webpage high in its search results. Information provided by studies conducted by EAB further helps marketing professionals make strategic decisions.
This study found that for perspective students, their higher education search intent was centered around academics, specifically majors and minors pages. It is clear that the emphasis needs to be placed on the optimization of these desired pages
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