COVID-19 and Student Search Behavior

Carnegie Higher Ed Apr 06, 2020 Carnegie Higher Ed Persona The Visionary Frontrunner

COVID-19 is absolutely dominating the search engine results pages (SERPs) right now, and organizations across industries are seeing performance losses in the organic channel as a result. Despite a drop in search demand, adjusting to the current climate via creative and adaptive advertising, SEO, and content marketing efforts is crucial for higher education institutions looking to ride this thing out without much collateral damage—and come out strong on the other side. 

What are students searching for?

Google Trends is an extremely useful tool at all times, but especially in a bizarre time like this. Google has dedicated a “story” page specifically for coronavirus search trends. As you might expect, there have been significant increases in searches for terms such as “social distancing” and “hand sanitizer,” as well as queries like “when will schools open back up” and even “how to make bread.” 

As far as relevant terms go, the query “when will schools open back up” saw a 4,050% increase in just one day. The term “coronavirus college” saw a bump in March but has since tapered off.



Related queries include “college closings coronavirus.”


Other higher education terms that have seen upticks in search volume:

  • College closures
  • Online classes
  • SATs/SATs canceled
  • Virtual campus tours
  • Virtual classroom
  • Commencement canceled

Higher education terms that have seen drops in search volume:

  • College applications
  • College campus tour
  • College tuition

What can you do?

Just because the pandemic is affecting the digital landscape (in some downright wacky ways) doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities to reach your prospective students. You need to go organic—here’s how.

Nurture your SEO strategy

Just because search demand is down doesn’t mean SEO is dead. However, some organizations are treating it as such. A poll of 1,000 marketing professionals and consumers asked about their perception of the effectiveness of SEO vs. Google Ads, and 64% of marketers said they’d choose Google Ads over SEO if they had to go with just one strategy. These businesses must be forgetting that organic search drives more traffic than paida BrightEdge study showed organic accounted for 53% of site traffic compared to just 15% for paid

Don’t make this mistake. SEO and content marketing are crucial avenues to build trust and credibility with prospective students—and how you do that during this crisis is just as important as it was in the “before times.” 

Tap into Google Search Console data

Google Analytics provides stats on how users interact with your site, including visits, bounce rate, average time on page, and more. It also provides insight into who your users actually are—including detailed demographic information. However, despite the correlation between site visitors and success on search engines, Google Analytics doesn’t make solid connections from which marketers can expand on their SEO strategies.

On the other hand, Google Search Console homes in on search results. The data focuses on impressions, click-through rates, search queries, crawl errors, etc. Google Search Console highlights problem areas and opportunities for improvement in the SERP. This can be a benefit for those targeting SEO development as the relationship between ranking and optimization is made a little clearer. Don’t miss out on this valuable tool. 

Refocus on desktop

Since students are now at home all day and night, they’re reaching for their laptops and desktop computers more often than their phones. “We’re seeing that that’s the device of choice when people have the choice,” said Rik van der Kooi, Microsoft Advertising’s Corporate Vice President. 

He also noted that in the last downturn of 2008, “search outperformed all other formats. Given stay-at-home and online media consumption, consumers are doing more online research, search, and shopping.” 

“As you think about attribution modeling, as you think about ‘Where do I want to show up,’ ensuring that your advertising campaigns and remarketing opportunities are really maximized as consumers do more research and visit more sites” is important, said van der Kooi. He also suggested being more flexible with your ROI and CPA thresholds to adapt to longer, more meticulous customer journeys. 

WordStream echoed Microsoft’s findings. According to their data, their clients’ mobile traffic in March was consistently down an average of 24% from the last week of February. Tablet traffic is seeing a 19% drop, whereas desktop traffic is showing an 18% decline during the week and a 7% decline on the weekends. It’s too early to tell what the implications for mobile-first indexing (and the preferential treatment of mobile by Google in general) will be, but it’s undoubtedly important to make sure your website’s desktop version still has a smooth and pleasant user experience for the users visiting your site from their desktop device for the first time.

Make on-page optimization a priority

On-page optimization is essential in order to gain visibility in the SERPs. It’s really quite simple to ensure a page is optimized for the web; start by ensuring that the purpose of any given web page is clearly stated in all of the following elements:

  • Title tag
  • Meta description
  • URL
  • Content of page (copy)
  • Image alt text
  • Header tags

Adding COVID-10 content to existing pages could benefit your site by leveraging pages with pre-existing authority. This could take the form of pop-ups or banners, in-line content, or eye-catching body copy.  

Blog, blog, blog

According to our COVID-19 student survey, high school seniors are more open than ever before to communication from prospect schools, especially in regards to reassurance and direction. So blog your heart out, then craft emails to let students know you’re posting. Having updates and information on the ways coronavirus is affecting your institution’s operations on pre-existing web pages is crucial, but so is creating blog posts specifically catering to COVID-19 content. Haven’t started a blog yet? Please do—blogging could be the missing link in your digital content marketing strategy.

If you already have a blog but it isn’t quite up to snuff, download our free white paper on how to optimize it according to SEO best practices.

Utilize Google My Business

Now is the time to update your information on your GMB (Google My Business) property. Be sure to update your “hours of operation” to reflect closures and include contact information for students to reach out with questions and concerns. 

Additionally, Google Posts allow you to share messages in the local panel of Google Search and in Google Maps. They appear instantaneously in the search results for branded keyword searches. Each Post can include up to 300 words of copy and a photo. Google Posts can help bring COVID-19 updates to the forefront—so when students search your brand name, that timely, informative messaging is front and center.

Look to the future

SEO and inbound marketing are “long games.” Though you may want to focus all your efforts on getting around the obstacles we’re facing due to COVID-19, don’t let your long-term strategy fall by the wayside. 

Make no mistake: this pandemic will end. The quad will once again be abuzz with chatty students, lecture halls filled to the brim, music carrying through the air from re-occupied dorms. Search demand will also make a comeback—so start planning for that. What will be different for them? What will remain the same? 

For more insight on how students are feeling about COVID-19 and their education, download our comprehensive survey reports on high school seniors and current college students.

Never miss an update.