Summary: Both PPC and SEO are commonly used marketing strategies. But which one is better for drawing student applicants to the higher education industry? Like many things in life, the best answer is a sensible middle ground.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to search engine marketing: earned or paid. First, you have search engine optimization (SEO), where you create content hoping to earn an audience from organic Google searches. Then there’s pay-per-click (PPC) advertising where you create an ad unit and buy space on the search engine results page (SERP), without having to claw your way to the top of the organic search queue. Both of these tactics aim to increase visibility on the SERP and attract searchers to your website.
That’s the process in a tight nutshell. SEO and PPC have many factors in common. They’re both dependent on market research, testing, and sometimes the whims of Google updates (or other platforms but we focus on Google here). They both rely on keywords, and both aim to pounce upon the opportunity of a user search to unite their intent with what we’re selling.
Both SEO and PPC are effective strategies for higher education, so it shouldn’t be an either-or situation. When researching a life-changing decision like enrolling in college or continuing education, people head to a search engine to find answers to their most important questions. While other brand-building strategies will help spread the word about your school, if you want to reach a larger market and attract more students, you need to rank highly on the SERP or use Google Ads to claim the top spots.
Let’s take a look at how these two strategies compare and what insights you can learn from individual campaigns that will help you optimize your overall search engine marketing strategy.
Differences Between PPC and SEO
One of the biggest differences between SEO and PPC is that SEO is “free” which PPC costs money. Well, that settles that, you might be tempted to think. Not so fast: SEO is “free” only if you don’t count the grueling man-hours it takes to create that content and plaster it onto a well-maintained website. You have to do the market research, hire the talent, have them crank out pages of content, and then comes the painstaking chore of maintaining a website and keeping it in SEO-friendly shape.
Now you might be tempted to flip over to the other side, saying “Let’s just cut out the middle man and all that time, and go with PPC.” But there are downsides to the PPC route. It, too, requires research and careful creation of ad content, plus unique well-optimized landing pages for each campaign. You may need time to test the ad unit, pull it down, tweak it, and put it back up. There is a misconception out there that PPC ads produce instant results, but that’s not always the case unless you got extremely lucky on the first try. We find that 30 days gives you enough data to optimize campaigns so that they’re performing at their best. Finally, the PPC ad is working only as long as you keep paying the tab. Once you take the ad down, your marketing has disappeared from the web.
SEO content marketing, on the other hand, is everlasting as long as you keep paying the server bill. Write a solid piece of content on a site that’s peaking into top Google ranking, and you have a reliable feed of traffic. SEO is a game where it is tough to claw your way to the top, but once you’re on top, it’s easier to maintain your rankings. From a cold start on a brand new registered domain, you typically need a minimum of six months to achieve first page rankings for target keywords. That figure assumes a less saturated market, at least on the local scale. For highly competitive markets, it could take even longer.
Strengths and Weaknesses: SEO and PPC
In the first place, universities and colleges are naturally adept at SEO. Schools are expected to have a website anyway; in fact, schools were among the first adopters of the World Wide Web. Website domains ending in .edu are also favored by Google as reputable sources of information. Since you likely have a website already, you obviously have some content and an established digital presence to work with. SEO and content marketing, then, is just a simple extension of what you’re doing already.
SEO is good for:
- Sustained traffic, year in, year out
- Maintaining visibility—it’s easier to stay at the top of search results once you get there
- Establishing yourself as an industry thought leader
- Keeping your brand identity in the public’s mind
- Long sales cycle where the buyer conducts extensive research
Nobody makes a snap decision about which school to attend; the decision can take months, if not years. During that time, people research different programs, career paths, and seek answers to any questions that arise. When they visit a search engine with their latest question, SEO ensures that your content is found.
As higher education and your student body evolve, you can write more SEO content to answer their questions and concerns regarding tuition and financial assistance, career practicality, compatibility with lifestyle, etc.
But PPC advertising has a few tricks up its sleeve as well.
PPC is good for:
- Driving fast traffic and leads
- Adding visibility to under-performing programs
- Getting new offers out fast, such as new courses or programs, new locations, etc.
- Keeping high visibility during peak application season
- Focusing marketing only on segments with the highest conversion intent
- Buying a seat at the table for highly competitive keywords
- Having a more nimble marketing campaign that’s easier to adjust for new demands
PPC offers a lot of flexibility. You can test ad messaging and offers quickly, and increase investments in the highest-converting campaigns. If you’re experiencing low enrollment in one program, you can ramp up an ad campaign to try to boost your numbers. You can run several campaigns concurrently, each focusing on a different market sector.
You can tailor your message and keyword strategy to target the raw high school grad, the established professional looking to retool their resume, or the stay-at-home mom who is itching to realize her career dream now that the kids are older.
So which is it, SEO or PPC? No rule says you can’t use both!
SEO and PPC: More Than the Sum of Their Parts
Knowledge, they say, is power. The higher ed industry should be no stranger to that axiom. Marketing, just by coincidence, happens to be highly data-driven. Behind every SEO blog post or PPC ad is a mountain of market research and testing. On top of that, both of the digital marketing wings enable their unique dataset.
SEO and PPC are more powerful when used in conjunction. You can use market research and performance metrics gained from one hand to strengthen the other. The results and feedback you get from either marketing strategy help to refine both approaches. Here’s how they work together:
- More campaigns give you more data
- Keyword research metrics from individual campaigns help to optimize the overall search marketing strategy
- A piece of SEO content that is ranking highly could indicate a growing interest in a new topic, which you could complement with a PPC ad campaign to increase visibility
- A PPC campaign that is driving high conversion rates can help you refine your SEO content to use that compelling messaging
- Greater oversight allows you to see your campaign’s strengths and weaknesses, such as opportunities to double-down on a keyword or points where competitors are ahead
- You can claim more real estate on the SERP, increasing conversions and leads
- The combined strategies enhance your brand reputation and increase exposure
If you run both PPC and SEO in conjunction, then the two coordinated approaches give you an advantage on both sides. It’s like playing poker where you get to see two hands at the table instead of one. Meanwhile, a strong SEO campaign combined with a steady PPC presence gives you a double shot of brand exposure to your audience. Users figure “well they’re on top all the time, they must be the best.”
You might think that the younger generations, particularly the marketing-jaded Gen Z, would be more skeptical about open, aggressive marketing. But you just happen to be in an industry where perceived marketing power lends to your appeal.
In higher ed, you are selling success. What looks better on your resume: a famous, well-known school or an obscure institution nobody’s heard of? Students are motivated to attend school in the first place to build a successful life. So your very appearance of a thriving status within the education industry enhances your reputation with students, provided your marketing isn’t cranked up to late-night TV infomercial levels.
SEO and PPC: The Smartest Schools Use Both
Check it yourself by searching Google for common phrases related to university marketing. You will see that the top names that pop up, again and again, have both a PPC presence and a website with strong SEO content. They are using both sides of search engine marketing to reach their audience.
In melding the strengths of SEO and PPC, it is first important to understand how each tactic works in isolation, and what data points you can reap from each. Then you can develop a strategy to use both to reach your school’s goals, both in the short and long term. You can continuously optimize your overall strategy as you review marketing campaigns and assess metrics gleaned from A/B testing. It’s the smartest strategy in the digital marketing information arms race.