2021 Niche Higher Education Website Benchmarks

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2021 Niche Higher Ed Website Benchmarks

Summary

  • Institutions brought less traffic to their sites in 2021 than in 2020, but a higher share of new users. They also stayed longer on the site each time they visited. 
  • Bounce rates were up across the board, and only mid-sized private 4-year colleges saw their sessions per user increase. The majority of visitors left without taking any action. Retaining an audience is as important as attracting an audience.
  • TikTok is making the biggest impact on traffic to 2-year colleges, it was the second-highest social source behind Facebook. It was the fourth-largest source for 4-year colleges behind Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. In both cases, however, it was poor at bringing an engaged audience. Unexpectedly, it was the largest social traffic source with for-profit colleges.
  • As institutions get larger, the volume of social media traffic increases but also contributes a smaller percentage of site traffic.

Methodology

These benchmarks are based upon website traffic data for the 2021 calendar year aggregated across 442 higher ed institutions. All institutions included use Google Analytics to track and report on their website traffic, and all granted Niche read-only access to their Google Analytics. In order to calculate industry benchmarks for key traffic metrics, the data across all institutions was pulled via the Google Analytics API and the average value among all institutions was calculated for each metric. 

The key traffic metrics benchmarked are: 

  • Total Sessions 
  • Percent New Sessions 
  • Bounce Rate 
  • Average Session Duration 
  • Pageviews per Session 
  • Sessions per User 
  • Average Page Load Time 

Additionally, for those with Google Ads connected Niche benchmarked:

  • 2020 ad spend
  • CPC (cost per click)
  • Clicks

Benchmarks were determined for traffic on a site-wide level, as well as for traffic across various search engines, social networks, and paid sources. Not all institutions had traffic from every source. The benchmark for traffic from a specific source is the average among all schools with traffic from that source. 

Results

Colleges received less traffic to their websites in 2021 than in 2020, but a higher share of that traffic was new users. When considering 4-year colleges, only small private institutions (enrollment under 648 students) and large public institutions (enrollments over 15,098) saw decreases in sessions, but enough so to bring down the overall average. Bounce rates were up across the board, the majority of visitors left without taking any action. Retaining an audience is as important as attracting an audience. As a group, public institutions had the fastest loading pages and lowest bounce rates. Private colleges were second best, while for-profit institutions had the highest page load times and bounce rates. Overall, almost no sites met the three-second threshold as a best practice.

Search traffic fell considerably in 2021. This is significant because search traffic constitutes the largest percentage of traffic to higher ed sites; followed by direct/referral traffic, social, and paid. Only DuckDuckGo and Chinese search engine Sogou saw increases in traffic to higher ed sites. The largest decrease came from Google, averaging over 62,000 fewer sessions. This may be caused by a combination of less intent and the rapid increase in zero-click searches caused by Google’s knowledge panels, most recently rising to 65% of searches on Google. 

As institutions get larger, the volume of social media traffic increased but also contributed a smaller percentage of site traffic. Instagram Stories, LinkedIn, and YouTube saw increases in traffic being directed to higher ed websites. TikTok made the biggest impact on traffic to 2-year colleges, it was the second-highest social source behind Facebook. It was the fourth-largest source for 4-year colleges behind Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. In both cases, however, it was poor at bringing an engaged audience. Of note, it was the largest source of social traffic to for-profit college websites.

Digital marketing brought less traffic to college websites in 2021 than 2020, but a higher share of new traffic. Mid-sized colleges tended to bring in more paid traffic than their small or large peers of the same type. For-profit colleges received the most paid traffic. Based on connected Google Ads accounts, only small 4-year private colleges reduced their Google Ads spending. The average college spent over $600,000 on Google Ads in 2021. Public colleges spent the least (averaging $103,591) and for-profit colleges spent the most (averaging $1,383,539). 

All tables can be expanded in a new tab by clicking on them. Tick marks show the change in traffic versus 2020.

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2021 Higher Ed Search Traffic
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Will Patch

Prior to coming to Niche in 2019 Will served 9 years at Manchester University in roles as an Admissions Counselor, Associate Director for Admissions Operations, Social Media Coordinator, and ultimately as Digital Strategist. Will surfaces tactical insights from user behavior and surveys to help higher ed build recruitment strategies. In addition to the Enrollment Insights blog, webinars, and podcast; Will is a frequent conference speaker and podcast guest. He has presented at NACAC, AACRAO-SEM, AMA Higher Ed, CASE V, EduWeb, and EMA. Will's work has been featured in Forbes, Inside Higher Ed, CNBC, CNN, the LA Times, and The New York Times among other outlets.

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