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Google updated the entire search experience for prospective students

June 15, 2018

Google is at it again. I wrote earlier this week about the change in the mobile search experience, for students. Then after I hit publish, Google changed the desktop version of the Knowledge Key for all of higher education.

First, Google is a product. Their initial “I’m feeling lucky” actually worked. They are a powerful company because they have a product that people use, and the product, for the most part, works.

When the browser bar became the search engine, everyone started their queries with a search. Google’s core business is still search, so it wants to return the correct search results for someone searching for something.

This week, while researching a couple of schools for a proposal, I did a Google search for a school. Then I did one for another school, in this case Union college.

On that second search, the top of the SERP threw me a list of other schools. This is a screenshot of a google search for union

This is great for students, but not for schools. Remember, in order to do a search for Union, a student needs to know about Union. Union will have extended marketing resources, either via school visits, outbound emails, or social platform ads, to make someone aware of Union. Now a student is delivered more schools like Union in that search.

Super useful for students.

Each school’s Knowledge Key (the thing on the right in the above image) was updated with three categories: average cost after aid, graduation rate, acceptance rate.

How much will it cost, will I get in, and will I graduate. Three key data sets.

The Knowledge Key also has a “more about” at the bottom which includes some very contentious data. It has a cost per household income chart.

Cost per household income

Finally, it also includes a random list of rankings that doesn’t seem to include US News.

To a student starting their top 20 list, this is all they need. Every school offers the same class size (what is the difference between 9, 10, or 11), the same basic majors, a chapel on a hill, students under a tree.

These data sets, costs and rankings, are a differentiating metric. A student can understand a highly ranked party school and a highly ranked academic school. They don’t even care about the methodology, when given a bunch of rankings, they can begin to see a picture that is more accurate than a Chapel shot.

Since all higher ed marketing is about the same, rankings are useful. Google knows they are useful. I bet they come out of the “more”

So what does this mean?

A few years ago, Google offered a menu option called “Search Engine Optimization” on analytics. It showed how many people did a search for the brand, and then how many people clicked on the website. I saw the data for a higher education institution and it blew my mind. They showed the number of searches for the school, then reported that about 11% of the people clicked on the top result.

Social media platforms have taught people to scroll.

89 people our of 100 did not click on the website of the school when they searched for the school. Google took away the data, but you can still find it by searching in Google Trends and comparing that to your search engine source data.

Google continues to actively stop people from looking at the 3,000+ pages of the .edu and deliver information it knows students want. This redesign is packing it in a simple way.

If I were you, I would seriously consider your digital strategy. I’d probably consider not redoing a .edu that Google is actively trying to help students avoid. Instead, I suggest two things:

1. How are people becoming aware of your institution? School visits, list-buying, PR campaigns? Where are they landing? Redesign those landing pages, which might include Facebook, Twitter and your .edu. Consider also building pages that fit what Google is delivering. Yes, that means having rankings on the .edu.

2. How best can you maximize your digital presence? Have you turned on Do you have a calendar of posts for, including events and your best sales pitch? Do you have a Note on Facebook? How are your videos tagged on YouTube – the second most-used search engine on the Internet. If the school does convince a student to study the SERP, is it the best it can be?

What do you think? Is this a big change, a small change? A change you can get behind?


Google takes over the second point of contact for higher education

June 13, 2018

Red or blue.

that’s the decision Google has made for most Higher Education institutions.

Red. Blue. (The ones pictured above are blue. Your school might be red.)

Google announced a new admissions tool for higher education this week. Here is the announcement 

Google wrote:

The process to find the right school for you, however, can be confusing. Information is scattered across the internet, and it’s not always clear what factors to consider and which pieces of information will be most useful for your decision. In fact, 63 percent of recently enrolled and prospective students say they have often felt lost when researching college or financial aid options.

Indeed, it is.

Google was already a huge part of the second point of contact

I’ve been watching the way the SERP has evolved for higher education for years. From the simple tabs on the first hit, to the launch of the Knowledge Key on the right-hand side. At its core, Google wants to give people a good experience on search. So it has been tweaking the SERP for the last couple of years. When people searched for a school, less and fewer people were clicking on newly updated websites that valiantly try to tell a story to the world, so Google acted.

Navigation tabs on a mobile SERP.

Every school is either red or blue. Red for schools that are reddish. Blue for schools that are blueish and greenish.

Every school gets: Overview. Cost. Majors. Outcomes. Students. Rankings. Notable alumni. Similar Schools.

This is the new nav of a school’s digital presence. With a seal or logo, depending on what Google thinks is important.

Since most .edus spend about 3,000+ pages on Overview, this is a much cleaner look at a school, with the things students really want. On mobile first. Because that is where students are starting.

Overview cribs from Wikipedia. Cost cribs from Wikimedia or the website. Outcomes cribs from US Department of Education.

Students offers data from, and from crowd-sourced images people added.

Rankings are exactly that: in a world of Chapels and hills, and posed students in a lab, the only differentiation is a ranking. Schools hate them, but if they don’t want rankings they should do better marketing. It is hard to determine a difference from a view book. it isn’t hard to determine a different from a ranking.

“Notable alumni” is the weird one: it displays the alumni who are searched for the most on google. It tends to throw up entertainers and media people, since more people search for them. It is an issue for many schools. It might be fixable by having a more robust notable alumni section on Wikipedia.

Finally, similar schools. Not what your college thinks are similar, but the colleges that people who searched for your college also searched for. This is data that is not in dispute. These are your peers.

If you know me, you know I think Google should crib from LinkedIn. I get it, Google v Microsoft (owners of Bing, powering Yahoo.)  But LinkedIn data is actually the greatest outcomes collection ever assembled and tell a nice story about outcomes. Hey, maybe Bing will incorporate this when they copy Google 3 years from now.

What does this change? 

Well, nothing. Google was still a second point of contact for your school. Remember, this is for people searching for your school,. so they have to know the school’s name. Unaware people don’t know your school’s name.

I do think there should never be a need to spend 500K on a new website that LESS people will now click.

There should, however, be time and $$ spent on a digital strategy that asks two important and obvious questions:

1. How will people become aware of the brand school? You know, a proper marketing question.

2. How can a school influence the Knowledge Key on desktop and mobile – thus putting the school’s best foot forward?

If you’re not asking and answering these, you should be. Or you could go build that website that Google is ACTIVELY trying to stop people from needing to visit.

What do you think?

Higher Education should get a podcast

June 4, 2018

About a quarter of America listens to a podcast each month. The vast majority probably listens on their commute to work. From RadioLab, to This American Life, some people might even know when their favorite new podcast drops. We’re approaching peak podcast – wherein people say, this is where the audience is, and you should do this.

Imagine if billboards didn’t exist. Then one day someone had the idea to put up a billboard. The news would be: “millions of people drive past this every single day, brands have to be here.” So brands, or higher education brands, would go about making a Billboard – which isn’t easy. Distilling the essence of higher education down to 7 words is an exercise in sheer impossibility.

Here are the reasons to say no, and the reasons to say yes. 

Look, I’m not saying higher education shouldn’t get a podcast. The plus side is that more and more students will begin using Siri, Alexa, and Hey Google assistants to aid them in the school search. Having a podcast called “Getting into (school)” or “life at school” could begin to win those particular digital assistant searches.

that said, before going down the complicated road of making a podcast, consider using to ensure that the content on your search engine results page (SERP) is 100% perfect. Getting that right takes continued care and a detailed, calendar-specific content plan.

This is like a football game. There are certain things one must do to win a football game. A team must block and tackle to win. That is called doing the fundamentals. When the fundamentals are right, and there is a content plan for Twitter, Notes for Facebook, posts for Google, all fitting the time of the year in the admissions or development cycle, and the Wikipedia page is updated with a notable alumni section, then start a podcast.

The podcast will be the trick play of your offense. An “in vogue” play that gets the school the championship, or a play from a digital assistant. Just don’t ignore the blocking an tackling.

It is also worth noting that making a podcast is hard. One of the hardest things to do on the Internet is build an audience. It has taken me years to get to 3K followers on Twitter. Maybe a hit podcast would increase my reach. Maybe not.

Finally, the podcast has to live alongside Serial, RadioLab, and 99% Invisible, and other professionally created  podcasts. At the end of the day, the podcast by a brand is an ad. Their podcasts aren’t an ad. So tread carefully.

What do you think?

How higher education should think about the website

May 19, 2018

Before I start, I would like to make a semantic argument.

The Facebook Page is a website. The Twitter feed and YouTube channels are websites. In fact, everything that is on the first page of a SERP (Search Engine Results Page) for a brand – or University, is a website.

The .edu is often first on the list of searches for the University (second is often Wikipedia, it has that much power.).

The .edu is also the only place to register for a tour, apply for prospective students. It is also the only place to register for alumni events, and to give. (Facebook offers the opportunity for a college or university to register as a not for profit and take money online, but only if the school changes the category to not for profit.)

The .edu is also the only place to register for classes, and get information about facilities, hours, and perhaps menus.

So it is critical to generate the behaviors needed at a school.

The .edu is rarely a first point of contact.

Unlike YouTube and Facebook (and perhaps Twitter), the .edu is rarely, if ever, a first point of contact for someone interested in the school.

No one is made aware of a University via the website.

Screen Shot 2018-05-28 at 6.25.26 AMEven if someone searches “nursing school” and selects an autofill, the text of the SERP for the program is the first point of contact. It is worth noting that the first 4 results are ads.

For a liberal arts undergraduate university, the .edu is almost never a first point of contact.

That’s a bold statement. Almost never.

The few exceptions are blog posts, magazine articles with good SEO, and faculty searches after a conference or a meeting. The people who make these kinds of searches are probably not alumni, and are almost never prospective students.

That doesn’t mean the traffic isn’t important, but it does show the importance of landing pages. As a product, Google is winning because it gets people to the content they need.

Screen Shot 2018-05-28 at 6.31.27 AMThe psychology professor who is in the news has a landing page for the website. Chances are high that the majors and minors page is a landing page. More and more, the smart people at Google are looking to get people directly to the page they want. A search for Harvard offers some helpful looks into landing pages that aren’t the front page of the .edu.

These autofill options are based on search volume at certain times of the year. Right now, the Class of 2023 is thinking about Harvard and wondering about tuition, acceptance rates and requirements. The “nursing” hit is Google trying to be helpful to me, and anticipate what I am seeking. Prior to this search I did a search for “nursing” – the Google AI wonders is that is still on my mind. (Pro tip, do a your school and collect the screen shot of the autofill each month.)

Why understanding Google search matters

A student learns about a school – either from a guidance counselor, a teacher, a family friend who attended the school, sports success, an email to a purchased list, or reading or listening to a professor’s work. They hear about the school, then go to Google and search for the school. No one types in URL’s anymore, people type search queries into the search bar and wait for autofill to help. While it is increasingly rare that people don’t take autofill suggestions, presume for a minute that the search ends up being for the school, in this case Harvard University.

Like most schools, the .edu wins the Google search. Wikipedia is often second, but since I’m logged into Twitter and use it a lot, Google delivers me three random Tweets from Harvard’s main Twitter feed. Next are Facebook, Athletics, USN&WR, and the Times Higher Educations. Some other schools get Niche, Princeton Review, and Forbes. Quite often lists on the front page of a SERP. (I think the similarity of marketing from schools results in a marketing void filled by lists that numerically differentiate schools.)

Social media channels have taught us to scroll-scan, so most people do and look at the options. The Knowledge Key, the thing on the right-hand side, also anticipates a searcher’s needs – which is where comes in.

Even though Google is actively trying to answer the query with the Knowledge Key, assume the user clicks on the first result, the website. After they peruse the site, and click on the links in a way that the web company proposed, they will leave. if they come back again, it will be via a more detailed Google search.

Academics at school. Research at school. Majors at school. Student life at school. Athletics at school. Dorms/food at school. Or they might listen to Google’s suggestions and follow the breadcrumbs of previous searchers.

Landing pages for the win. 

When a brand decides to redo their website, it often starts with a hierarchical flow. Students will start here and click twice to get here. The desire is a top down flow, almost mirroring the University governance – Faculty get the departments and their own bios, the school gets the rest of the pages. The people who make the site assume two things:

  1. This is an introduction to the school.
  2. Users will always start on the front page.

It isn’t an introduction to the school. they already know something by coming from your amazing video, Facebook post, Canvas Ad, or Twitter post.

The website can’t get the first hit, but it can encourage the second, third and subsequent hits. It can encourage a hit for research, academics, and student life.

These are things any university wants to attract, so the website should be designed, written, and created to encourage these kinds of searches.

It should not be designed as a top down site. Instead, it should be designed with two questions in mind.

  1. How will people get here?
  2. What pages do you want them to find?

If those questions aren’t asked and answered, the schools ends up with a website that has a lot of information on it. It will have majors and minors, programs, stories, and images. It just won’t have purpose.

What do you think? How do you think the web should be crafted?

Hey #highered can we talk about tone?

May 12, 2018

Hi there,

I run the digital media channels for a 200 year old collection of buildings. The Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Linkedin channels are the voice of a highly selective liberal arts university on a hill.


If you happen to attend a higher ed conference, someone will say the following: “I want to bring more fun to our voice.”

It will never be me.

200 year old buildings are fun. College isn’t fun. College students are fun. College sports are fun. College events are fun. The buildings aren’t fun. The mission of a university isn’t fun.

The mission is important. It is also important to get people involved in executing the mission to agree on said mission. Or vision. Or strategic plan.

So, this post below. This is the kind of post that is killing digital media platforms.

I would have accepted this post with “Final exams are underway.” That’s it. The buildings of this particular school are reporting on a fact. Alums will probably be nostalgic. The Class of 2018 will definately feel nostalgic. This would have been a great post.

But marketing is simple, the hard part is keeping it simple.

You got this!

That is the voice of the glee club. Of DORAK. Of a student who wants to support. That isn’t the voice of a chapel. Or an academic building. Or most professors.

Also, never use a screamer. Ever. Not ever. My rule is one screamer a year, maximum. So if I used a screamer to talk about finals, I wouldn’t be able to use it for commencement. Or Reunion. Or when we turn 200. Or something that is actually exciting.

My storify on Donald Trump and Climate Change

May 5, 2018

One time I did a storify on Trump’s climate change tweets. Since Storify is going away, I moved it here. In my Storify, I added comments about his posts, probably pithy things that were too clever by half.

The tweets are a record.  And they are still love on the Internet.

It actually isn’t actually that amazing

April 28, 2018

This is going around LinkedIn, the amazing proclamation that we can read words that are spelled horribly wrong.

Only, it isn’t that amazing. We don’t read letters, we read word patterns. We don’t read t-h-e with the word the, we read a pattern. We see the pattern of the, not the letters.

So what does that mean?

Two things, really.

First, when you TYPE IN ALL CAPS, you make it harder for people to read. The more words in all caps, the less people will read it. THE isn’t recognizable in ALL CAPS, so we actually have to read the letters. Often, we don’t. Thus, if you intend to communicate something, doesn’t use all caps.

Reverse type is hard to read because of this phenomenon. Reverse type, white text on black isn’t actually the thing, instead, it is the absence of color. So we don’t pick up the patterns in reverse type because what we’re mostly seeing is the lack of color.

So, when someone says let’s do all caps reverse headlines on the poster, point out this post, and the simple fact that you made your communication less of a communication.