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2 Big Search Engine Trends to Watch in 2018 (And Why They Matter to Schools)
Red Abbott

As part of the Consulting Services group at Finalsite, I oversee our work for clients in the areas of search engine optimization, digital ads, social media, and school website analytics. And as 2017 winds down, I've got my sights set on what's coming your way next year so that we can help schools reach out and tell their story to as many mission-appropriate families as possible in 2018.

Google search is a particular area of focus for my team, for two important reasons: 50-60% of school site traffic comes from search engines, and 80-90% of that comes from Google! Those are numbers that are remarkably consistent across websites for hundreds of schools around the world.

So here are two things all schools should have on their Google radar as we head in 2018:

The Google Carousel: Coming Soon to a Search Result Near You

Go do a Google search for "punk rock bands." I'll wait.

Did you see something like this?

Google Carousel

That's a carousel and it's been around for a while. You'll see it when Google (a) understands that you are searching for members of a category, and (b) has confidence that it knows which of the entities in its Knowledge Graph belong in that category.

Searches for Higher Ed categories like "california universities" have been producing a carousel for a while, but for a long time schools in the K-12 galaxy (e.g., "private schools in philadelphia") continued to produce search results with a "local 3-pack" - the map feature we're so familiar with from all sorts of local business searches.

Then in early 2017 many (but not all!) K-12 school category searches saw the local 3-pack replaced by a full-blown carousel or a modified version with a grid of cards. But here at the end of 2017, the following remain true:

  • Some searches in the K-12 school space still show the local 3-pack
  • Some carousels show a mix of K-12 and Higher Ed entities

Why it matters

Based on this, it is safe to say that in 2018, will see Google continue to refine the carousel so that it provides the best possible "answers" to the searcher's "question." And to that I expect:

  • Higher Ed results will drop out of carousels for searches that are obviously K-12 in nature
  • Carousels will replace the map where it currently persists in K-12 category searches

What does this mean for you? Do your homework on the carousel's role in the searches you care about, and do what you can to prepare for its arrival on results pages that currently still show a local 3-pack. Claim your Google My Business listing, giving it a high-quality profile image and the best available business category. Oh - and make sure that you've got some positive Google reviews (more on that in a moment).

Read more about the carousel's role in Google Knowledge Graph.

Online Reviews Matter

What do you see when you google your school by its full name? (Do it on a laptop or desktop.) If you're like most schools, you get a Page 1 with:

  • Your website in the #1 spot in the main content column
  • A Knowledge Panel on the right side
  • Results from all over (Facebook, Wikipedia, Twitter, etc.) filling the rest of the page

What's also increasingly common is the prominence of reviews on Page 1 for a branded search, and there are two standard ways they appear:

1. In your Knowledge Panel

Take a look at this search for "university of pennsylvania".

upenn search results - reviews

Ignoring Penn's troubling culture of opossum abuse, let's focus on the fact that two review sources are presented in the school's Knowledge Panel, with an emphasis on the quantity of reviews. In Penn's case, there is more than 1,000 for each total review score.

2. In the traditional results on the left

Check out the primary content column for a search for "lochearn summer camp".

lochearn search results

Your eye may be drawn to the yellow stars in two results - "out of 5" scores based on the reviews on Facebook and something called "campratingz.com" directly in the search results.

Does either of these currently happen for you? Chances are, yes. But chances are also that you haven't had time to influence those reviews by enlisting your happiest parents to write some authentic positive reviews, and so you've got some easy wins right there.

Why it matters

So why are reviews a big deal? There are plenty of user statistics that back up the fact that positive views have a positive increase on website traffic, inquiries, and retention; whereas, negative reviews can hurt site traffic, inquiries, and retention.

Here are a few of the most compelling statistics that are relevant to schools:

  • 90% of consumers read online reviews before visiting a business. This means that after word-of-mouth or paid ads have done their trick, their first step involves reading reviews about your school, not necessarily visiting your website.
  • 84% of people trust online reviews as much as a personal recommendation. So, for prospective families who maybe haven't received a personal WOMM recommendation, online reviews matter twice as much!
  • 65 percent of people see online search as the most trusted source of information about people and companies. That's a higher level of trust than any other online or offline source.
  • Businesses risk losing 22% of business when potential customers find one negative article on the first page of their search results; and a business with two negatives on the first page of search results risks losing 44% of its customers. So, bear in mind that a 5-star rating based on one review could become a 3-star average tomorrow with a single bad review. A slug of positives insulates you against the impact of the inevitable small number of negatives you will receive over time.

Are you still here? Good! I hope we see search continue to evolve in 2018 to make it even easier for families to find all the schools that fit their needs. Within that reality, we'll be paying close attention so that we can help you tell your story to as many of those families as possible.

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