The Word “Online” in Higher Education Marketing

Let’s talk for a minute about the word “online” in the world of SEO.

Online education isn’t what it used to be. Students, parents and educators alike are embracing the benefits of taking classes online, at a distance, as scheduling allows. More and more universities are offering the very same courses at a distance, with the same paper diploma at the end. As a result, millions of working adults are able to pursue a quality higher education. Enrollment is booming, profits are up. Even employers are shifting towards indifferent acceptance when it comes to what method a person used to receive his/her degree, according to a recent study.

With this sea change toward legitimacy in online learning, I pose a very simple question: how has search behavior changed for the search term “online“?

Let’s look at Google Trends:

Take a search like “online criminal justice degrees”. This is a term similar to one we optimized a couple years ago for a client, landing them on page 1. The term brought in a lot of traffic and was indeed a great success, building engagement and driving enrollment. Criminal justice is a hot topic these days, and remains a popular degree for a number of our clients. So, what about the “online” modifier?

(This is US-traffic only.) “online criminal justice degrees” peaked in late 2007, and has been on the decline ever since. Strange, no?

What about another program? Perhaps something with a little more lasting appeal, less influenced by cultural whims or temporal popularity. Something like that great American institution of business!

But this too peaked sometime in 2007. Searches for “online business degrees” are almost half what they were five years ago, according to Google Trends.

One more: let’s try for “online education degree”. This one has all the markings of adult learning: either degree completion, or a later-stage masters degree. It is in the sweet spot for taking classes online.

What is going on here? Even “online education degree” has dropped from 2007. Perform similar searches yourself at Google Trends and see what you find.

Could it be that, despite the soaring popularity of online programs, students are slowly dropping the word “online” from their searches? Is it possible that online learning has become so commonplace in higher education that prospects are coming to expect it? Could it be that optimizing webpages for the concept of “online learning” is slowly becoming less important than optimizing for the program name itself?

That is precisely my thesis, and I think the data backs it up.