Start your college search with Google – new addition to the US SERPs helps students navigate the college search process.

By Natalie Delplanque,

With a view to what might happen here in the UK, Anything is Possible’s Paid Media Partner Natalie Delplanque shares an update on Google’s recent product rollout affecting US colleges.

On the 12th June Google announced a new initiative to help improve the search experience for US students, trying to find the right college. Google will now show an enhanced listing below the paid ads and above the organic results, highlighting information about admissions, costs, graduation rates, employment prospects and student life. The panel will appear specifically for branded searches for 4-year U.S. colleges.

Most of the features will be rolled out across mobile first with a few enabled on desktop, but it sounds like this is an evolving experience with more to come! 

This new experience uses public information from the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard (an Obama initiative launched in 2015) and Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).

It’s a bold step in the competitive EDU (Higher Education in the Queen’s English) vertical. And one that has caused some concern amongst US colleges that rely heavily on branded keyword searches as part of their online lead-gen and enrolment strategy. There are concerns around the potential impact on CTR, with an expectation for a decrease in paid and organic listings, having spent valuable marketing $ on awareness campaigns to initiate that brand search.

The new panel has a strong visual impact, with engaging interactive content, designed for a mobile experience. Average costs and graduation rates are instantly visible and easily explored, providing breakdowns for segments like household income and demographics. Google is now presenting a lot more information within the SERP and colleges may have to work a little harder to earn their brand clicks within this enhanced listing environment.

The panel also includes a section listing “similar” colleges to that of the brand that was searched for. This is an interesting feature, and it is unclear what factors are considered to classify a college as “similar”. At the very least it would include location but how far it goes to compare the likes of fees, course subjects, graduation rates and employment prospects is not yet known.

US colleges are rarely upfront about fees, focusing their most accessible content around student life and available courses. They like to build up their brand story and get some level of emotional buy in from prospective students, often with a lead gen focused landing page, before they readily share information around the cost of tuition fees. Colleges have become adept at selling the student lifestyle in the digital space, publishing a host of content from their Facebook page to their Twitter feed, daily updates, images, videos and more.

The volume of emotive content can be overwhelming for some students. According to Google, in the US, “63 percent of recently-enrolled and prospective students say they have often felt lost when researching college or financial aid options”. So, is this really the most effective approach in terms of securing enrolment? It appears Google doesn’t think so, bringing more transparency to a system where fees vary so much from college to college and the financials are such a key part of any student’s enrolment decision. With Google now providing that information up front, directly in the search results, a revised digital strategy may be required.

There has been no mention of expanding this feature outside the US yet, and it would depend on the available data sources available in the likes of the UK. We don’t have our own version of the US College Scorecard but with independent rating systems such as TES, QS and UCAS, a similar UK solution would certainly be feasible. Of course, the higher education system and cost structure in the UK is different to the US, with much more consistency around fees across public funded Universities.

We will certainly be keeping an eye on this and wonder how long it may take Google to start monetising that similar colleges section!

For more information on how we can help you with your paid search get in touch.