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The surprising tool that could help to increase student enrolments

Site search is one of the most powerful tools you have for understanding your users' intentions.
Jeff Dillon

Jeff Dillon 29 Nov 2022

Are conversions on your higher educational institution’s website lower than expected this year? Your institution is not alone -according to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, total student enrollment across United States colleges and universities fell by 3.5% this year. And while there are many aspects that influence conversion, one which is often overlooked is the performance of your site search. A well-implemented site search can offer a 150x return on investment and, given the falling enrollment figures, every prospect to your website counts.

How can site search be used as a conversion tool?

University search is one of the most powerful tools you have for understanding your users' intentions.

When users search for a term, they are effectively having a direct conversation with you. They are telling you exactly what information they want to find on your website. This lets you know what content you need to display prominently and where there are gaps in your content.

The conversion rate for search users is typically 2-3 times higher than those who browse. On information-heavy sites, 43% of users typically head straight to the search bar. And this makes sense, on large sites with many thousands of pages, it can be difficult for users to find the information they are looking for using navigation alone. This highlights just how critical a good search function is in driving conversations on a higher education website.

What makes for a good site search?

A good search experience will ensure the most relevant search results are returned to the user immediately. The search results will 'encourage the click' both through design and by providing custom summaries of each search result so that users know what page in the search result listing contains.

In addition, search should be used to promote and showcase content that users did not know they were looking for but is highly relevant to that individual.

In higher education, it is also important to remember that search can be extremely subjective. For example, a prospective student searching the term “engineering” will have a very different intent than an existing student or faculty member. So a great search should include filters to allow users to refine the search term, or include an element of personalization.

What metrics measure search ease of use?

Search analytics provide metrics that indicate how easy your site search function is to use, and by making improvements to them you can increase the number of conversions on your website.

Those metrics are:

  1. The percentage of sessions that use search
  2. Search refinements

Monitoring the percentage of sessions that use search

The percentage of sessions that use search is a good metric for gauging how well your site search is currently performing.

As simple as it sounds, a good search starts by being easy to find.

From a survey we conducted across hundreds of institutions in North America, we found that 43% of visitors use search functions at some point in their journey.

So, if your search sessions are falling way below that average, it’s likely there is one of two reasons:

  • Your search bar is too hard to find
  • Visitors don't trust the search function on your site

Measuring search refinements

The search refinements metric tells you the percentage of visitors to your website who have to reformulate or rephrase their search, in order to find what they are looking for.

Imagine, for example, the search word “science”. If you have an unknown visitor on your website, that search term could mean many different things. So, after searching for it, they would be presented with a range of results, including blog posts, news articles, department pages, and so on. They might then reformulate their search to “computer science”, at which point they will likely uncover a number of additional pages and may then need to refine their search again to “computer science program”, in order to find what they’re actually looking for.

If you’re seeing a high percentage of search refinements, this is an indication that your search engine is failing to deliver relevant and precise search results to visitors. Given that 55% of visitors will abandon a session if they can't find information quickly, every time you are asking a visitor to add a search refinement, it increases the likelihood that they're going to give up on their journey and look elsewhere.

What's the solution to this? In Google Analytics look at which terms are giving the highest rate of search refinements, and then coach those search results for greater relevance until the search refinements drop. But there is another, less obvious, way to reduce search refinements. Make better use of search filters.

Different people want different things from the same search query. Filters (we call them facets) give users the power to find the exact thing they want. And this makes sense. Somebody who searches for ‘accounting’ might be interested in either undergraduate or postgraduate study. Or they might want to ask someone from the accounting department a specific question. If you give them filters, they can quickly find what they are looking for.

The British Columbia Institute of Technology does a really good job of this, allowing people to find the content which matters most to them by filtering by an array of different categories.

What are your users searching for?

When you’re in Google Analytics looking at your session report, you can also review what keywords users are searching for. We’d recommend you review this report on at least a biweekly or monthly basis.

Keyword reports will give you a good indication of trends and seasonal searches. You can then cater content to these search experiences. For example, if you see an increase in users searching for programs for the next semester, you can put an emphasis on on-site content that is aimed at prospective students. This in turn will boost conversions.

These simple metrics will offer great insight into the ease of use offered by your search engine and, therefore, the impact it is likely to be having on your conversion rates.