Search Engine Advertising mistakes that the top 5% University marketers avoid

Over the past weeks, we examined the Search Engine Advertising (SEA) campaigns of 10 Dutch Universities of applied sciences. While we had no access to their campaign dashboards, we used SEMrush, a tool that captures and archives advertising campaigns for analysis. While it doesn’t provide a complete picture, we know the data that it does have to be accurate from examining our own campaigns.

SEA can bring drastically more exposure to specific programmes and in exactly the countries where you want to recruit. But unless managed really tightly, SEA is also prone to eat up your precious advertising budget without bringing anything in return.

Here are the key pitfalls that we have identified in the SEA campaigns we examined:

Mistake 1: Spreading the budget too thinly

Have a look at the ads below. Which ad am I most likely to click?

If you thought it was #3, you were right. I wasn’t searching for an MBA in London, Dubai, San Francisco or Silicon Beach, LA.

Yet, ads #1 and #2 showed. This should have been prevented by using “Netherlands” as a negative keyword.

Showing ads that don’t match what prospective students are searching for can be damaging in several ways:

  1. Lower quality score. Proportionally fewer people will click the ad, signalling to Google that these ads are of lower quality. As a result, they will show your ad in a lower position (even when it is relevant) and/or at a higher cost per click.
  2. Wasted ad budget. The people who do still click irrelevantly placed ads are not qualified prospective students. The ad budget spent on getting them to the site was wasted. On top, they may still take up staff time by asking questions. Both this time and budget could have been put to better use.

Mistake 2: Not articulating unique selling points

Have you briefed your search engine campaign manager on the key “unique selling points” of your institution and the specific programs being advertised?

In all likelihood, when your ads show, they are going to show among competing ads that offer similar courses. Just saying “Hello, we offer this program” is not enough to convince prospective students to click your ad among all of the options presented.

Why should people click your ad? What are the strengths of your programme, institution, city?

Make it specific, or you’ll end up saying what everyone else is also saying:

It’s often tough to summarise key selling points in a few words. In the above example, I really like the “8 to 1 Student Ratio” because it’s specific and therefore more believable than general claims.

If you have good rankings and accreditations, be sure to include them!

Mistake 3: No fitting landing page

The above points were all about getting the right people to click your ads. But what happens after they click? Planning the right landing page is essential for successful campaigns. Some things that often go wrong:

  1. One general landing page: Whether someone had searched for an engineering degree or physiotherapy, all get directed to your school’s homepage. Don’t make people think: they won’t. Instead, they’ll hit the ‘back’ button. So send them directly to the programme page.
  2. Information overload: Just because someone is exploring a certain course, doesn’t mean you have to hit them over the head with the entire 3-year structure of the program. Focus on your key selling points and what prospective students can do to get to know more. (open days, webinars, chats, newsletters etc.)
  3. Mobile friendliness: Don’t send mobile visitors to a page that is not optimised for mobile! I understand that your website revamp is going to take too long to materialise, but if you’re willing to spend several euros for a single click, you owe it to the campaign to develop a simple landing page on a subdomain. We use Instapage for this and are quite happy with how it can be used to build good looking, mobile friendly pages quickly.

Mistake 4: Not measuring campaign results

Without measurement, there is no systematic way to improvement.

Often, campaigns are only evaluated based on the number of website visits generated. It’s great that lots of people click your ad, but what percentage of these visitors are real prospective students?

The solution to this is to track which visitors take a further step towards enrollment on your website. These are actions like:

  1. Sending an enquiry;
  2. Registering for an open day or webinar;
  3. Signing up for a newsletter, or
  4. initiating a chat.

You could in fact track results all the way through to enrollment, but this takes full CRM adoption and often becomes complex because people engage in different ways along their journey of choosing a school. Tracking the first step is much simpler and so there is no reason not to do this immediately.

All it takes is setting up goal completions in Google Analytics.

This data should then be channelled into AdWords, so that the campaign manager can see which ad copies and keywords actually get people to take the next step and prioritise those.

In conclusion

The pitfalls described above are actual issues we have identified when researching the campaigns of 10 Dutch Universities of Applied Sciences.

Search Engine Advertising is a powerful tool. For best effect, it needs to be used carefully.

Do you wonder if any of these pitfalls apply to your campaigns? Simply drop me an e-mail at and I’ll be happy to have a quick look and provide feedback without further obligations.

Alternatively, feel free to reach out and connect with me on LinkedIn.