Google continues to refine the search experience for its users with the Panda 3.4 updates reminding us all that what Google gives you today they can always take it away. For college and university CIO’s and CMO’s there is an important lesson or two to be learned from this round of changes which resulted in some organizations seeing their search prominence fall off in the rankings from one or more of Google’s penalties.
Higher Education Business Models
If your institution is considering a move into the online education business to diversify offerings, grow market share, or increase revenue it is essential that you account for the role of Google in your business plan. And, if those plans include international growth you will have to account for a few of Google’s international competitors.
It is not surprising that papers such as Rethinking Higher Education Business Models or IT-Based Transformation in Higher Education fail to account for the essential role of Google and search engine marketing in acquiring prospective students and making the business model work.
These papers simply consider the change in delivery or the underlying technology as being enough. That’s the naivete of “if you build they will come” I suppose and why so many online businesses fail.
Sure you can move face to face enrollment over to online but that’s not growth, which requires a completely different strategy.
Panda 3.4 Search Quality Changes
Google released Panda 3.4 in late March using a phased roll out just as they had done in previous monthly Panda updates. This time Google simply used a single Tweet to announce the release of Panda 3.4 catching many off guard.
It wasn’t until early April that Google released the details of the 50 search quality changes included in Panda 3.4.
Now, Google makes hundreds of changes every year that go unnoticed. But every so often they implement major changes to improve search quality which produces noticeable effects on businesses of all kinds who see changes in page ranking and organic search traffic.
Of the 50 search quality changes in Panda 3.4 the ones that are receiving some attention which will also affect colleges are:
- High-quality sites algorithm data update and freshness improvements
- Better handling of queries with both navigational and local intent
- Better interpretation and use of anchor text
Panda 3.4 Unintended Consequences
Soon after the Panda 3.4 changes rolled out several webmaster forums exploded with complaints of losing 90% or more of their organic search traffic. These weren’t blacklisted spammy sites or sites with low quality content. Many were longstanding legitimate sites that for whatever reason Google eliminated them from search results.
As you might imagine that was devastating for those affected. Compounding the problem is that there is no real support organization to contact for assistance or recourse.
As it turns out it appears there was one or more errors in Panda 3.4 changes which ultimately were corrected. But for those affected, it was essentially a three or four day outage for their business.
Live By Google…
No one ever questions receiving an increase in search traffic from Google even when it is an unusual spike. We just assume it is because we are smart, doing everything right and ignoring for the moment it may just be the Google honeymoon effect.
But when Google search traffic drops off unexpectedly or even disappears altogether we assume something is wrong and inherently unfair. Worse yet, if it is because of something you did, like paying for links or worse, it can take months to recover your standing and some never do.
So if you are considering launching an online degree program which will be entirely dependent on Google for organic search results and paid search results from AdWords to acquire prospective students, you have to understand your business risk from this dependency and plan for it.
That means a contingency plan for dropping off in SERP prominence or being out bid in paid search as hundreds of other colleges chase the same strategy. This could potentially drive the CPC rates through the roof for the keywords of common degree programs.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Launch a Google search for “online MBA programs” or “online nursing” or any of the programs being considered. Now decide what it will take for your program to rank high enough in the SERP to produce enough applicants and eventually graduates to satisfy your business and education plan.
Better yet, spend some time with Google’s traffic estimator modeling your budget for the required number of clicks for your conversion model and enrollment goals.
What will you have to do improve your ranking and what will that effort cost? And, what will it cost you to keep it there long term?
The point is Google search is not the same as the yellow pages. Everyone is not equal and in a national or international online business model one simple change by Google can make or break you overnight.
UPDATE: The team at Search Engine Land posted a great list of the Winners & Losers From Google’s Webspam Update which offers additional insight into the Panda 3.4 changes.