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Do Students Google Community Colleges? A Look at the Numbers

Having a strong online presence will help students learn more about your college.

One of the great benefits of having content about your community college online is that it can attract the interest of online searchers. People use the Internet for a variety of things, from making purchases to connecting with friends, but from the beginning, one of its prime uses has been the gathering and distribution of information. Today, online users spend more time researching purchases than ever before, and are likely to have looked at more possibilities before making a purchasing decision than at any other time.

While we don’t usually think of community college as a purchase, it is a financial investment—one that potential students take very seriously as the research employment options. So, it seems important that community colleges understand the dynamics behind online searches, and how those searches relate to their enrollment numbers.

Google search is one of the best tools community colleges have as they build their online presence. Using various tools, community college marketers can see what terms students are using as they search for information, and how frequently those terms are used per month. But understanding exactly what some of these number mean can be tricky. Here’s what we’ve been able to learn so far.

What do keywords and search phrases mean?

Keywords and search phrases are the words users enter into Google (or other search engines) when they’re looking for information online. Some searches may only use one or two words, and users may google them tens of thousands of times in a month. Others are longer and more specific, but are only searched for a few times a month.

For instance, here are the search results for the keyword “community college,” as provided by the keyword research tool Moz. From this data, we can see that the term averages 30–70K searches a month. Clearly, it gets a lot of traffic.

MOZ search results for "Community College" showing the term is searched between 30 and 70K a month, on average.

On the other hand, here is the overview for the phrase “community college near me.”

MOZ search results of "community college near me" showing monthly average search volume of 3–4K

This phrase only appears in 3–4K searches a month. That may make it seem less valuable, but there’s a key difference between these phrases: searcher intent.

Someone who googles “community college” may be looking for a job, they may be a foreign citizen who is unfamiliar with the term, or they may be researching an article or a piece of public policy.

On the other hand, someone who searches for “community college near me” is much more likely to be seeking specific information about enrollment or class schedules. Even though the second phrase has lower volume, the person at the other end of that search is much more likely to be a prospective student.

How do community college search results change over time?

Another thing community colleges should know is that search results change over time, both as a result of shifting Internet behavior, and new algorithm updates from Google.

Most importantly, back in 2013, Google released a special update to its algorithm known as “Hummingbird.” This update took advantage of voice search, and began improving the way it interpreted search queries.

Before Hummingbird, Google wasn’t as efficient at understanding subtle grammar changes. It treated “community college” and “community colleges” as completely separate searches, rather than being fundamentally the same.

After Hummingbird, these results began to converge, while at the same time, natural phrases became more common. These days, may online search queries are full sentences. The number of times that exact sentence will be searched by multiple users is much lower, but the keywords within that phrase will still be important.

What all this means is that, as key phrases have grown longer and more specific, the overall average searches these terms receive per month has gone down.

You can see how this changes over time by using the Google Trends tool. Here’s a comparison of the terms “community college” and “community colleges near me” over the past five years since the Hummingbird update came out.

comparison of "community college" and "community colleges near me" showing decrease in the former and increase in the latter.

The blue line shows the results for “community college,” graphed in terms of popularity over time. We can see that it has steadily gone down in popularity from a high in July 2013, to less than half that in June 2018. Meanwhile, the relative popularity of “community colleges near me” (the red line) is so low as to barely register.

However, If we remove “community college” and look at only “community colleges near me” (now in blue), a different trend emerges.

A graph indicating a rise in searches for "community colleges near me."

Now we can see that the popularity of this search has risen steadily over the past five years. Because the “… near me” search paradigm (as well as other long searches) became more common following Hummingbird’s release, it’s likely the decline in “community college” searches is due to a shift in volume to more specific phrases.

Again, here’s another graph from Google Trends, this time with the “community colleges near me” overlaid with data from the searches “community college New York,” “community college California,” and “community college Texas.”

Community college searches by state decreasing in relation to searches "near me."

Once more, we’re seeing a decline in popularity from the searches using specific states, but a simultaneous rise in popularity of searches using the more natural “near me” phrasing.

Does the volume add up?

As we said, the more specific a phrase, the lower its monthly volume. However, lots of highly specific phrases add up over time, meaning that a loss of volume for one particular keyword doesn’t necessarily mean an overall loss of volume once you include related keywords.

For instance, here’s the volume data for the searches “community college New York,” “community college California,” “community college cost,” and “community college enrollment.”

"community college new york" search volume of 11–50.

"community college California" of 51–100

"community college Texas" showing results of 11–50 a month.

"community college cost" search results showing average of 51–100 a month.

"community college enrollment" search results showing 11–50 a month.

On their own, each of these searches may not seem like much, but together they begin to comprise a body of search terms that can be highly relevant to community colleges. And there are many more like them.

Finally, here’s a comparison, again from Moz, of other search terms similar to “community college Texas.”

multiple related searches to "community college texas" showing wide interest, albeit spread out through a range of search terms.

You’ll notice that the terms with the highest monthly volume on this list are also more specific, with “northeast Texas community college” bringing in more monthly volume than simply “community college Texas.” This shows that, while more specific searches are usually lower in volume, even a very specific search phrase can sometimes be relatively popular.

Younger generations google community colleges as part of consumer research.

One thing that is clear from these results is that people do research community colleges online, and their searches are growing more specific. This is in keeping with a lot of other marketing data across industries. Consumers, especially younger generations, are spending more time researching purchasing decisions, and as they do, their queries become more sophisticated and precise.

For community colleges who want to reach these audiences, having an online presence that speaks to these needs is a growing necessity. This is why we’ve created digital marketing campaigns and micro websites as part of our CareerFocus content marketing package. Our services can help you reach the audience you need, and provide them with the crucial information they desire as they search for smart education options in their life.