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PPC Advertising 101: Tips for Schools, Colleges, and Universities

PPC Advertising 101: Tips for Schools, Colleges, and Universities

More and more schools, colleges, and universities are using Pay-Per-Click (PPC) advertising to more effectively connect with prospective students — and it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in Google AdWords or PPC to get started.

Every day, prospective students are on their computers, tablets, and phones searching for opportunities to advance their education. Associate, bachelor’s and advanced degree programs. On-campus and online. Today’s lesson is on using PPC ads for schools to increase the odds that their search leads them to your college or university.

Today’s lesson is on using PPC advertising to increase the odds that their search leads them to your school.

Perhaps your school is already running a Pay-Per-Click campaign, perhaps your competitors are, or both. Either way, one thing is certain. In the highly competitive higher education PPC market, more and more colleges and universities are seeing the value of using Pay-Per-Click services to connect with prospective students.

PPC Advertising 101

Just as its name suggests, Pay-Per-Click advertising is a method of online marketing in which you only pay when your ad is clicked. The most popular form of PPC is Google AdWords, but colleges and universities are also running successful ad campaigns on social media and other platforms.

Search PPC enables any advertiser to create an ad campaign — strategically targeting keywords and audience types. A search engine (platform) then displays the ads to the viewers the advertiser is trying to reach. Google AdWords is an example of search PPC.

Advertisers bid on keywords and audience types, taking into account the value of displaying a carefully constructed ad to a targeted viewer at the exact moment their search is occurring. (Google provides extensive keyword search data and suggested bids.) Essentially, it allows any advertiser to buy visits to their website rather than relying solely on unpaid “organic” search.

PPC Campaign Essentials

Opinions vary on best practices for PPC success, but most experts recommend focusing on:

  • Constructing smart, well-crafted ads and campaigns.
  • Building landing pages to welcome your new visitors.
  • Monitoring your account daily to make adjustments based on performance.

Among the many benefits of paid search ad campaigns:

  • Advertisers can fine-tune their campaigns to reach only the most relevant viewers.
  • Even when the ads are not clicked they still get wide exposure, boosting your target audience’s awareness of your university and its programs and other offerings.

Many colleges and universities are using PPC ads to promote specific educational programs or more broadly to drive increased traffic to their website. From there, a range of strategies can be employed to nurture the new leads and build relationships, with the goal of converting prospective students into enrolled students.

According to higher education consulting firm Ruffalo Noel Levitz, PPC advertising is widely used at both public and private four-year institutions. And though the survey reported mixed reviews on the perceived effectiveness of PPC, it also revealed an opportunity: to construct highly effective PPC campaigns that outperform the competition by focusing on the best practices described in the next section of this guide.


Increasingly regarded as a key pillar of an effective digital marketing strategy, PPC is a prime opportunity for schools to reach students directly. Done right, PPC can be a cost-effective method for lead generation. A poorly managed campaign, however, can become very inefficient and costly.

PPC and Google AdWords Strategies for Higher Education

So, what goes into an effective paid search ad campaign for colleges and universities? A lot — but don’t worry, we’re here to walk you through it. In the rest of this post, we’ll cover:

  • Types of PPC ads: Everything you need to know about the different types of paid search ads.
  • Extensions: A comprehensive guide to using extensions with Google search ads.
  • Ad platforms besides Google: Find out why it’s so important for colleges and universities to look beyond just Google for paid search advertising.
  • Keyword research: Your crash course on keyword research, including valuable dos and don’ts.
  • Negative keywords: What they are, and how to use them.
  • Audiences and targeting: Learn the differences between the types of audiences, and how to segment your target audience within the structure of your ad account.
  • Budgeting and bidding strategies: The ins and outs of creating a budget for your school’s PPC campaign, plus the basics of bidding.
  • Creating effective ads: The secrets to creating the best search ads for your college or university.
  • Offers: How to create offers that make prospective students click on your ads.
  • Landing pages: Best practices for building landing pages that support your offers and drive conversions.
  • Measuring success and optimization: Discover the KPIs that tell you whether your PPC ads are working, and what to do to optimize your campaigns based on the data.

Types of PPC ads

There are countless opportunities to customize your PPC ad campaigns to reach your target audience in a variety of ways. Here we’ll discuss four of the primary options offered by Google. (This video helps explain some of the basics.)

Search Network Ads

This is the simplest and most common option, best used when you want your ads to appear next to Google search results that are displayed to users who are searching your keywords and are therefore most likely to be searching for your specific product or service.

According to Google, “Search Network only campaigns are usually focused on getting people to take action such as clicking your ad or calling your business. These campaigns show ads to people who are actively seeking out information.” (See video)


Display Network

This option enables you to advertise on popular websites whose content is relevant to your business, while promoting awareness of your brand and what you have to offer with images and video in addition to just text.

Made up of millions of websites that agree to show Google text, image, and video ads, the Display Network emphasizes target audiences and demographics more heavily than keywords and, according to Google, allows you to “reach customers while they’re browsing online.” (See video)

Google makes it very easy for even new users to combine the key features of both networks, while providing controls that enable you to schedule ads to run at certain times, in certain geographical areas or on certain websites.


You probably already have some experience with remarketing. Example: You visit a local college website and browse a page describing its MBA program. Later you notice an ad touting the same college’s MBA program on a different website or on a social media platform such as Facebook.

According to Google: “Remarketing lets you show ads to people who have visited your website or used your mobile app before. When people leave your website without buying anything, for example, remarketing helps you reconnect with them by showing relevant ads as they browse the web, as they use mobile apps, or as they search on Google.”

RLSA (Remarketing Lists for Search Ads)

Want to take remarketing to an even more sophisticated level? Google’s RLSA option gives you even greater power to reach users based on their behavior on your site (for example: creating campaigns that target viewers who have not only visited your website, but who have also browsed your page offering MBA program options).


Extensions apply only to Google Search Ads. They’re snippets that appear beneath your ad. There are five different types or extensions:

  • Site links link to a specific page on your website.
  • Callout extensions let you add short bits of text beneath your ad.
  • Structured snippets highlight specific aspects of your school’s curriculum, services, programs, etc. These look similar to callout extensions.
  • Dynamic image extensions let you insert an image beneath your ad.
  • Call extensions add your phone number, which is clickable from a mobile device.

Why use extensions? Because they make your ad richer, more eye-catching, and bigger. Size is a factor here. Callouts, structured snippets, and dynamic image extensions in particular make your ad take up more space on the Search Engine Results Page (SERP), which pushes down lower-ranked ads. In the competitive space of higher education PPC advertising, this is a big win.

There are, however, a few things to keep in mind when using extensions. If you choose to include a call extension, and people use it, you’re missing an opportunity to send them to a landing page (more on those later) with a form to collect their information. If you get a lot of calls from prospective students ready to apply or enroll in your programs, this might not matter so much. But, if your calls are coming from people wondering what’s for lunch in the dining hall, or other low-quality prospects, you should remove the call extension. Bonus tip: If you’re not able to monitor calls, Google Ads lets you record them so you can listen later and figure out whether it’s worth using the extension.

Finally, depending on factors like type of browser, device, screen size, etc., not all extensions will be shown to everyone who sees your ad. So, be sure that your ad copy stands on its own and is effective without any extensions.

Ad Platforms besides Google

Google AdWords is the dominant platform for PPC ads. However, it’s especially important for colleges and universities to take advantage of both social media advertising platforms and lesser-used search engines. That’s because higher education search terms are quite competitive on Google, which means you’ll end up paying a lot for each click. A search engine like Bing is often overlooked, but it does get a lot of searches, and keywords are much cheaper compared to Google.

Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn should also be a part of any college or university’s paid search ad strategy. Your prospective students are likely hanging out on one or more social media platforms. And, social platforms offer robust targeting, so you can get very precise with who you want to target, and with what message.

Whether you’re targeting by search keyword or social media interest, being specific allows you to truly pair programs with people – earning more interest, better clicks, and more conversions as a result.

Keyword research

So, now you know what types of paid search ads you might want to run, and where. How do you get started with keyword research to start crafting your campaigns? Here are some tips:

  • Consider your PPC as one big college fair. Is your first question to a prospective student “what do you want to study?” If so, the answers to that question will be a perfect place to start your keyword selection and advertising setup, too.
  • Put together a list of topics, programs, features (such as online learning), and “pain points” your prospective students might be facing, and analyze them based on their business value to your school or university.
  • There are numerous tools available to help with keyword planning. At Vital, we use SEMRush and Google AdWords Keyword Planner, both of which give you limited forecasting that allows you to roughly predict how many clicks your search terms will get.
  • Take a look at what your competitors are using in their PPC ads, and identify whether there are terms you’d like to beat them at with better-crafted ads, or if there’s a gap in their strategy that you can exploit.
  • Take advantage of Google Suggest, which will give you ideas for relevant keywords related to ones you’ve already chosen. Similarly, check out the “people also ask” section at the top of the search results page.
  • Consider your audience’s intent and where they might be in their college selection process. For example, someone looking for where to go to grad school might search for something like “Top MBA Programs in (State),” so it’s a good idea to include location modifiers.
  • Don’t bid on your competitors’ brand terms. This is a fairly common practice in industries where search terms are less competitive than in higher education. For example, if you run a sandwich shop, you might want to bid on the brand names of other local sandwich shops so people see your ad when they search for a specific competitor’s restaurant. However, this isn’t such a great idea for higher education, for two reasons. First, user intent. People searching for a specific university by name probably aren’t in the “shopping for a degree program” stage. Second, the price of higher education search terms means you’d likely be wasting big money on clicks that aren’t likely to generate the kinds of leads you want.

How can you tell if you’ve picked the right keywords? It depends on the platform and the objective of your ad. For Google search ads, look at your click through rate and/or your conversion rate. For display campaigns, or remarketing for brand awareness, keep an eye on impressions. Google AdWords gives you a Search Terms Report, which provides a look at some of the search terms that your ad is showing up for. This will help you determine whether your targeting method aligns with the ad’s real-life performance. Use the Search Terms Report to fine-tune your keyword strategy and help find negative keywords. (More on those in a moment.)

One final thing to know about keywords is that Google lets you choose to run your ads for a broad match, a phrase match, or an exact match.

  • Broad match will show your ad to people who search for your term, as well as variations of it (such as plurals vs. singulars, misspellings, and differing punctuation), and related keywords.
  • Phrase match lets you pick a specific phrase, or set of keywords, and display your ad only to people searching for terms that include that phrase. The phrase must appear exactly in the search, but it can be accompanied by other words, as well. For example, if your phrase is “online master’s degree,” your ad will show up in searches for “online master’s degree in psychology,” but not for “online psychology master’s degree.”
  • Exact match is just what it sounds like. You choose the exact words you want your ad to appear for, in the exact order, and Google will show your ad only to people who search for (exactly) that phrase.

Negative keywords

Negative keywords are words and phrases you don’t want your ad to show up for. When you’re running a PPC campaign for your college or university, negative keywords are essential to help control the costs of your campaign. Without negative keywords, you’ll end up spending a whole lot of money on clicks you don’t want.

How to choose negative keywords? Look at your Google Search Terms Report, with an eye to finding keywords and phrases that make you think, “Somebody searching for this is not going to want what my school is offering.” For example, if your Search Terms Report reveals that your ad for your on-campus undergraduate programs is being shown to people searching for programs not in your geographical area, you can use location-based negative keywords to weed out these searches. You should be keeping a very close eye on your Search Terms Report and adding to your negative keywords list often, because searches are always changing.

Pro tip: Just like with regular keywords, you can use broad match, phrase match, and exact match for negative keywords, to make sure you don’t accidentally rule out qualified searches.

Audiences and targeting

Once you have some initial keywords figured out, it’s time to choose the audiences you want your PPC ads to be shown to. The simplest form of audience targeting is by demographics (age and gender) and location. Vital’s PPC team has found that, as a general rule, our college and university clients see higher conversion rates from older audiences. This may be because younger people looking for colleges are getting their information from guidance counselors, word of mouth, and other sources, and so are less likely to be conducting their searches on Google.

Location targeting is critically important for higher education paid search advertising. You can even target down to the zip code! It seems counterintuitive, but Vital has found that local ads don’t convert as well for colleges and universities, possibly because local searchers are more likely to be current students or employees. No matter what you choose to target for demographics and location, you’ll be able to analyze your ads’ performance and make bid adjustments based on what you’re seeing.

For segmenting your audience within the structure of your ad campaign, you have several types of audiences to consider:

  • Remarketing audiences. We covered this above, but in case you need a refresher: a remarketing audience consists of people who have clicked on an ad, or visited your website or landing page in the past, but left without converting. Targeting a remarketing audience lets you show ads to these people and keep your school top-of-mind as they continue to “shop around.”
  • Custom intent audiences. Once you have a set of keywords that are working really well for you, you can set up custom intent audience targeting. This allows you to show display ads to people whose search histories demonstrate an intent to shop for degree programs like those you offer, even if they’ve never searched for your school or visited your website. Pretty cool!
  • Affinity audiences. These are “buckets” Google creates, based on search history, websites visited, interests and hobbies, family structure, political leanings, etc. Because this segments people based on cultural or political affinities, this type of audience targeting may not be as relevant to higher education advertising.
  • Inmarket audiences. Google uses its profile data to determine when people are “in the market” for certain purchases. To use an example outside of higher education, if someone searches for “birthing centers near me,” Google can determine that they’ll be in the market for diapers and strollers soon.
  • Vital’s college or university ad management best practice tip: An easy way to structure your audience segmentation within Google Ads is to create campaigns based on the programs your college or university offers. Within each campaign, you then create individual ad groups based on keywords and audiences. Getting more granular, instead of lumping all your ads together under one campaign, helps in the long run because you can distribute your budget to make sure every ad gets visibility. Which brings us to …

Budgeting and bidding strategies

It’s worth repeating again: College PPC campaigns can be expensive. The price of keywords varies drastically based on a number of factors, including competition, search volume, quality score on your landing page (more on that in a bit), ad rank, and your ad’s previous performance. You can get a general idea of what you’ll spend on a given keyword by using Google’s Keyword Planner. You can use the information from the Keyword Planner to determine how you want to distribute your budget across various campaigns.

Bonus Q & A: Why are college and university PPC keywords so expensive? Is it even worth it to run a PPC campaign for your college?

A: Keywords are expensive for two reasons:

  • Competition. According to the Washington Post, there are “some 5,300 colleges and universities in the United States, everything from beauty schools to Harvard.” As the cost of higher education has risen, so has the pressure to attract and retain students. Digital marketing, including PPC, is an important strategy colleges use to reach potential students. Hence, there are a lot of marketers bidding on common higher education search terms, and this drives up the price.
  • Search volume. A Pew Research study found that, between 2002 and 2017, the total number of college applications more than doubled, reaching almost 10.2 million applications per year, submitted by about 1.5 million prospective students. It’s a safe bet that many of those 1.5 million students conduct at least part of their college search online, leading to a huge amount of search volume for higher education terms. For example, the search term “top medical schools” receives a whopping 7.7K searches per month globally. The higher the search volume, the more valuable the keyword, and the higher the bidding price.

As for whether it’s worth it for your college to run PPC campaigns, the answer is a resounding YES. If your campaign is well-planned and well-managed, you’ll see a tremendous return on your investment. Plus, if you aren’t running paid search ad campaigns, you can be sure your competitors are, and you’ll be missing out on huge amounts of clicks and conversions. Finally, because of how competitive higher education keywords are, it’s extremely difficult to rank organically for these terms. So PPC is not just your best chance to capture searchers — it may be your only chance.

Once you have your budget in place, it’s time to think through your bidding strategy. Here are the key things to know:

  • You can choose to bid manually or automatically. If you bid manually, you choose exactly how much to bid for each keyword, every time. Your ads will be displayed based on your bid, plus all your data (ad rank, quality score, etc.), and your competitor’s data. You can track ad performance and see how many impressions you’re missing, and for what reasons — such as being outbid or constrained by your budget — and make adjustments accordingly.
  • If you use automatic bidding, Google uses a formula to determine your bid. It takes your monthly budget for each campaign and divides it by 30.4 to get a daily budget. It then bids on your behalf on the keywords you’ve selected for that campaign. It will also add up to 20% more to your daily budget if its data and algorithms determine that the extra spend will get you more clicks, conversions, or whatever your goal is.
  • With automatic bidding, Google uses machine learning, algorithms, and data to determine when to show your ad and to bid for you within the constraints of your goals and budget. It is able to analyze a lot more data than any individual marketer could, and it learns what works as the campaign progresses, then adjusts its bidding strategy automatically to optimize your ROI. At Vital, we find that, as long as your campaign is well-structured and your keywords are on-point, automatic bidding produces great results after an initial learning period of a few weeks.

No budget is limitless. Get the most out of yours by starting a campaign that is as effectively targeted to your school’s specific degrees and programs as possible.

Creating effective ads

One of the key recommendations offered by Google in a step-by-step guide to creating effective campaigns is this: Think quality.

Google AdWords uses a formula called Quality Score — a metric that influences everything from how much you pay to where your ads are placed and how well they perform. The system includes many complexities, but Google boils it down as follows: “Ads that relate to what your customers are looking for and that link to relevant content get higher Quality Scores.”

Advertisers with higher Quality Scores receive more ad clicks at lower costs. That’s why it’s crucial to select the keywords most likely to connect the people you’re trying to reach with the products and services you have to offer. (Google calls keywords “the guts of your campaign.”)

Smartly written ads built around keywords that guide interested viewers to relevant, carefully crafted landing pages will increase your Quality Score and boost the effectiveness of your campaign.


An offer is anything you provide to your audience in exchange for information collected through a form. Your PPC ad copy should be written with both searcher intent and the offer in mind to maximize your Quality Score. The ad will direct potential students to a landing page that features information they are looking for, often as a download, with the goal of getting them to fill out a contact form.

To make your ad as effective as possible — and improve your ad rank, which Google uses along with your Quality Score to determine how much you should pay to show up in search results — your offer should match search intent. For example, if your keywords are “best MBA programs,” a good offer might be a downloadable MBA Preparation Checklist. If your keywords are more top-of-funnel, like “how to choose a college,” you might offer a Top Undergraduate Programs Comparison Chart that includes your school along with your competitors. (Of course, you’ll want to take the opportunity to paint your school in the best possible light.)

Other ideas for offers for higher education PPC programs include:

  • A virtual campus tour. This would be a great fit for a YouTube ad rather than a text-only search ad, because of the visual component.
  • A downloadable course catalog.
  • A video interview with a current student.
  • Anything that helps prospective students understand your college’s culture, facilities, and programming.

Do some research into your competitors’ offers. It’s a great idea to make sure you offer similar assets — and an even better idea to think outside the box and get creative, because your prospective students are seeing a lot of ads, as you compete to get their attention!

Landing pages

Best practices also require that you create landing pages for viewers clicking on your ads. Rather than sending prospective students to your homepage, you’ll want to guide them to an attractive, helpful page that offers them more information about the program they’re interested in, while making it easy for them to access additional resources, make contact, or actually launch the enrollment process.

Landing pages are special web pages crafted exclusively for ads. When someone clicks on your ad, you don’t want to send them to just any page on your website. There’s too much distraction and too many opportunities for them to navigate off the page, plus you can’t control the user experience. Instead, you should guide users to an attractive, helpful page that addresses the specific intent of the search and provides exactly the user experience you want.

The result? Much higher conversion rates.

Here are some best practices to keep in mind when designing and building landing pages for your college’s PPC ads:

  • Include all the information you want them to see. You don’t want them to have to go anywhere else for answers or information.
  • Make sure the copy is relevant to the intent of the search. If your search keywords are “liberal arts colleges in the midwest,” your landing page should include those words in the headline, and the offer on the page should be of interest to someone searching for midwestern liberal arts colleges.
  • Include some kind of conversion opportunity. Most likely, this will be an inline form. Make the experience as frictionless as possible to avoid losing your audience before they convert. Ask for as much information as you need on the form, but no more.
  • Your landing page should not have any exit points or links to anywhere outside the landing page. Strip out any navigation in the header and the footer. The only exit should be your brand logo’s link to your school’s homepage, and the conversion call-to-action.

For more about optimizing your school’s entire website for SEO, check out this blog post on SEO for Higher Education: Leveraging Organic and Paid Search Strategies to Draw Students to Your Site.

Measuring success and optimization

Closely monitoring your campaign will allow you to see which ads and keywords are performing well — giving you the data you need to continually fine-tune your efforts and ensure that you are getting the most for your money. Here’s an easy three-step process for measuring success and continually optimizing your school’s PPC ad campaign:

  1. Determine your KPIs. Your KPIs will vary based on the goal of your campaign, its platform, and its basic structure. If you’re running a brand awareness campaign, measure impressions. If your ad is a video, measure video views. The three biggest KPIs that are relevant to the majority of PPC ads are: click-through-rate (or CTR), conversion rate, and cost per conversion.
  2. Set goals. In PPC advertising, goals are whatever action you want people to take when they see your ad. In Google Ads, this is called a conversion. You’ll want to set goals for conversions so you know what success looks like. Track these conversions often — at Vital, we monitor our PPC clients’ goals daily.
  3. Adjust your ads. Now that you’re tracking KPIs and measuring them against your goals, you can apply your brain power to figure out what makes an ad successful — or not. Depending on what you find, you’ll then make adjustments to your ad’s keywords, negative keywords, ad copy and design, and/or landing page copy and design.

Here are a few scenarios to walk you through the process:

Scenario: Your ad has a high click-through-rate (CTR), but a low conversion rate. 

Diagnosis: Most likely, there’s a problem with your landing page, because your ad copy is resonating, but your searchers aren’t getting a compelling payoff on the landing page.

Solution: Rework your landing page’s copy and design to make sure it speaks to the searcher’s intent.

Scenario: Your ad has a low CTR, but a high conversion rate.

Diagnosis: This could be a problem with your keyword strategy, which means the ad is getting shown to people who have no intent to pursue what you’re offering. Or, it could be a problem with your ad copy.

Solution: Take a close look at your keywords. Do you need to add negative keywords to weed out unqualified searches? Switch from an exact match to a phrase match? Make adjustments and then reassess to see if your CTR increases. If not, try tweaking your ad copy to make sure it meets the intent of the search. You can run an A/B test to try out different copy strategies and see which gets the higher CTR.

Scenario: You’re seeing a lot of missed impressions.

Diagnosis: Due to your ad rank, you’re getting outbid. Or, you’re constrained by your daily budget.

Solution: Take a look at your analytics to see what time of day your ad is being shown, and when people are clicking through. You can set constraints to make sure that the ad shows up and you bid evenly throughout the day, rather than blowing through your budget in the morning, when your audience may not be online. You can also follow the recommendations in the creating effective ads section to try to boost your quality score and ad rank, which will lead to your ad appearing in more searches.

Scenario: Your ad isn’t showing up for relevant keywords.

Diagnosis: When you look at your Search Terms Report, you may see terms that are highly relevant to your audience, with a high conversion rate, but you’re not targeting them.

Solution: This is an easy one! Start actively bidding on any terms you discover through the Search Terms Report that seem relevant and high-value.

All in all, PPC advertising is regarded as a key pillar of an effective digital marketing strategy — one that more colleges and universities are using to vie for the attention (and tuition dollars) of prospective students as the higher education landscape grows ever more competitive.

Of course, there’s much more to this conversation. So please contact us if you’d like to talk further about Pay-Per-Click advertising and how it fits into a smart, well-coordinated digital marketing campaign.

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