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15 Tips for A+ Higher Education PPC Campaigns


As the higher education climate becomes more competitive, colleges and universities can’t afford to have their pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns be anything less than a fine-tuned lead-generating machine.

As enrollments decrease nationwide, colleges and universities will have continued difficulty acquiring new students. What makes this even more difficult is that a lot of institutions don’t realize their PPC accounts might not be following some simple best practices.

Fear not. We’ve outlined 15 helpful tips below to help you maximize the success of your higher education PPC campaigns.

1. Account Structure is Key

If there is one thing that can set a sturdy foundation for your account, it’s having a good account structure. This will keep you organized, help manage your campaigns more efficiently and clearly convey information to the rest of your team.

So what exactly makes a good account structure? A great start is to make sure your campaigns and ad groups use a naming convention that is easily identifiable. Taking a course in cryptology shouldn’t be a requirement for anyone to figure out the intent of a campaign.

Outside of naming conventions and organization, how the campaigns and ad groups are structured themselves can have a huge impact on how your account performs. One mistake colleges and universities often make is having too few PPC campaigns with too many ad groups within them.

When this happens, it’s difficult to determine the full potential of some ad groups because they all share the same campaign budget. Further segmenting accounts structured this way will provide greater insight and control over your account.

Here’s an example of a solid PPC account structure for a university:

  • Campaign Name: Undergraduate Search
  • Ad Groups: 
    • Degree Programs
    • Bachelors Degrees
    • Online College
    • College Classes

2. Double Check Your Remarketing Display Audience

Just when you think you are only running a remarketing campaign, out of the blue you see a spike in traffic. You check your remarketing audience and see there hasn’t been a surge in your audience pool, so why the sudden change?

This usually catches a lot of universities off guard and, in a lot of cases, can be easy to miss. This happens when setting up a new remarketing campaign and not going through all of the settings. By default, within the campaign targeting settings, there is an option to allow “expanded audience” which is set to conservative.


On the ad group level of your display campaign, select settings and click on “edit ad group targeting.” At the bottom of this window, you’ll notice another settings section that says “automated targeting.” Make sure “no automated targeting” is selected.

Why would you want to expand your audience if you’re only running a remarketing audience? Exactly, you don’t.

Even if you’re creating a new remarketing campaign by copying from an existing one, it’s still worth double checking the settings as getting caught by surprise is never fun.

3. Don’t Serve Display Ads to Mobile Apps

Mobile apps aren’t necessarily a bad place to serve your ads, especially if the app is relative. But more often than not, a prospective student playing a mobile game or using their free flashlight app isn’t really thinking about enrolling in courses at your college.

This used to be pretty easy to avoid, as the mobile app settings were easily accessible through the main display campaign settings and could easily be excluded in a matter of seconds.

Unfortunately, that’s no longer the case and these settings are buried in the campaign’s main targeting settings. Now it’s a matter of excluding these apps by excluding each category that doesn’t relate to your audience or ad. At the moment, there are hundreds of categories and subcategories, so it’s easy to miss

On the campaign level, select Placements, then App Categories. Make sure to expand all categories so you don’t miss any that aren’t worth targeting.

The process may be tedious, but it’s well worth the extra effort to have a much more fine-tuned display campaign.

4. Use the Correct Match Types

It’s always good to use a variety of match types for your keywords to ensure your ad is being served for the specific and valuable search terms you’re targeting.

Sometimes though, focusing too much on a certain match type of a particular keyword can limit your performance and opportunities.

For example, if your account primarily uses the phrase and exact match keyword types, you may be missing out on other opportunities by limiting other search queries people may convert on.

On the flip side, if you’re using just a broad keyword or single word, you need to stop. Broad match keywords are more likely than not to generate a lot of non-relative traffic and can waste a lot of money.

Using this type of modified broad match is the targeted keyword sweet spot.

If you find that your campaigns fit in either of these categories, don’t fret. A great way to help increase performance and limit irrelative traffic is to use more broad modifier match keywords. This match type is great as it narrows down search queries that are highly relative to what you are targeting and allows you to discover new opportunities.

This isn’t to say one keyword type is better than another, but focusing on only one match type can definitely affect your overall account performance.

5. Check if You’re Using Negative Keywords Correctly

Using negative keywords is an essential part of running an effective and optimized account. Take this for an example: If your university doesn’t offer online courses, you may want to specify that keywords related to online programs shouldn’t trigger your ads.

By applying negative keywords to campaigns, you’re able to better control what keywords do and don’t trigger your ads.

Where this can start to get tricky is how you use your negative keywords. In a lot of cases, people may be applying negative keywords by adding them directly from the search query section to the respective ad group or campaign.

This isn’t wrong but after a while, managing keywords this way can be a lot of work as chances are there are a good number of negative keywords you wouldn’t want to trigger any of your ads regardless of the campaign or ad group.


Having a clear and specific keyword list can make it easy to share with other campaigns and know exactly what keywords you’re excluding.

When dealing with negative keywords that are out of context, the possibilities can be endless.  We provided some great examples of what kind of words could be contained in searches that may trigger your ads generating non-relative search queries and traffic.

  • Udemy, Lynda, Masterclass, Coursera
  • (masterclass course)
  • Free, freemium
  • (free online programs)
  • Jobs, careers, job application, wages, stipends
  • (careers in online university programs)
  • Login, sign in, password
  • (….online college course login)
  • Reunion, gathering, meetup
  • (college class 2002 reunion)
  • Supplies, books, store, calculator, audio book
  • (supplies needed for engineering degree)
  • Report, exam, thesis
  • (what is the exam like for the computer science program)

This is why making sure to add these negative keywords to a shared negative keyword list is important and applying it to various campaigns is the best solution to streamline the management of your account.

There are, however, certain instances where you would want to add negative keywords to your campaign or at an ad group level to prevent overlap between other keywords that you’re targeting in another campaign or ad group.

By using this structure, your negative keywords on the campaign and ad group level are clean from any out-of-context keywords. Also, the search query information these keywords are generating is highly relative and gives you clear data that isn’t clouded by other terms.

6. Check if Your Keywords & Ad Groups Are Cannibalizing Each Other

Making sure you’re targeting all keywords that are valuable to you is essential. Sometimes though, what you’re targeting may not be triggering your ads due to another dominating ad group or keyword.

When this happens, you need to determine which keywords and ad groups are generating the majority of your traffic and if they should be paused based on their results. If you decided to keep a keyword or ad group, then you may want to break it out into a separate campaign.

Breaking out keywords or ad groups that generate a large amount of traffic into a separate campaign will provide you with more control and insight into how that keyword operates. In addition, you can see how other valuable keywords perform now that they are no longer being cannibalized.

7. Don’t Exhaust Your Daily Budget Too Early

There is nothing worse than running out of budget early in the day and your boss asking why they can’t see the ad you just launched.

Sure, it’s nice that paid search accounts let you know if your account is “limited by budget,” but unfortunately it doesn’t really tell you exactly when this happens.  Knowing that piece of information can make a huge difference in how your account performs.

Using the day and hour reporting module in the overview tab can be another helpful way to quickly determine if your campaign budget is being exhausted.

One way to determine this is to run a report that gives you the breakdown of your account or campaign performance by the hour. Once you have determined exactly what time of the day your budget is exhausted, you can start looking for areas to maximize the budget further.

Lowering bids and setting up ad schedules are a few ways to optimize your account further to make sure your budget isn’t exhausted early in the day.

8. Include the Right Device Types

Depending who your intended audience is, you may find that certain groups favor one device type over another.

More than ever, mobile device traffic continues to increase over desktop traffic and it also costs less too. In fact, a recent survey of college students found that 94% of them want to be able to use their mobile devices in class!

It’s likely that prospective undergrad and graduate students are doing a lot of their initial college searches on their mobile devices, but using desktop computers to perform more robust research. In light of this, make sure that your decisions to exclude certain devices is based on data that your account has aggregated.

If you chose to exclude a certain device type several months ago, it’s worth testing that excluded traffic again gradually to see how it performs. User behavior changes all the time and if you aren’t testing and updating your account to reflect this changing climate, your organization will be left by the wayside.

9. Eliminate the Appropriate Demographic Information

In the likely event that your account has campaigns ranging from associates to doctoral degrees, then you want to make sure you’re not serving ads to every demographic in every campaign.

Eliminating age demographic data will make your campaign more targeted. Your institution may already have degree enrollment data that can support your decision to exclude a specific age group, but looking at the data your paid search account has gathered is going to be the most important factor.

10. Leverage All Available Ad Extensions

With all of the different ad extensions available now, it can seem like a hassle to leverage them all. While that may seem like the case, this is probably the easiest thing anyone can update in their account to increase their ads’ click-through rate.


On top of that, ad extensions do exactly that — they extend your ad which can dramatically increase your real estate. By leveraging all ad extensions that are applicable to your campaign, you stand out from the competition and have the potential to take up more space.

What else could you ask for?

11. Tread Lightly When Bidding on Branded Keywords

Branded keywords are those that include your college or university name. Bidding on branded keywords can have a place in your account, but it should only be to protect yourself from your competition. The best way to tell this is to run an auction insight report or search for your college’s name and see if a competitor’s ad shows up.


You can see in the search above that Florida Tech Online and Maryville University are targeting their ads to people who search for the University of Phoenix.

Most of the time, bidding on branded keywords — especially if they are in a campaign with other non-branded keywords — isn’t doing you any favors.

When branded keywords are targeted with non-branded ones, your campaign gives you the impression that your account is performing well when it’s really the branded terms doing all of the heavy lifting. When this happens, you won’t have a clear idea of how everything else is performing, and that can leave your account with a lot of missed opportunities.

If you feel that you need to protect yourself from competitors that are bidding on your brand name, then make sure to set up a separate campaign and create a filtered view that allows you to only view non-branded campaigns so you can better optimize your account without getting any mixed signals.

12. Focus on Your Geo-Targeting

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could be everywhere? Well, paid advertising makes that a possibility, but sometimes it’s easy to get a little carried away.

Unawareness of how certain locations are performing and spending in areas where you don’t convert can really have a negative impact on your account. It’s crucial to understand where your best performing areas are and to target those locations. This is a great way to maximize your budget and get the most for your spend.

This can be especially important for online programs that make it easy for students in different states to attend classes. But while an online master’s degree in criminal justice may be open to students all over the country, you can quickly exhaust your budget if your targeting doesn’t get any more granular than just “United States.”

Sometimes this can be difficult to determine the right locations to target by using just your account, so leveraging enrollment data where applicants are based is a great way to make a decision without suffering from analysis paralysis.

13. Track the Conversions That Matter

There’s a lot of account information that can be helpful to you and your team. But just because it’s available, doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be counted as a conversion.

When tracking conversions, you want to make sure you’re tracking enrollment leads or early stage leads — like people downloading your eBook or signing up to receive a course catalog. Anything else that doesn’t fall into either of those categories should be reconsidered.

At the end of the day, you want to make sure that your conversion data is effectively contributing to your department’s goals, which in most cases is increasing enrollments and giving you a return on your investment.

If your conversions don’t contribute to that main purpose, then it’s best that you don’t include them. This way, all the information you’re reporting on in your account will be accurate and provide you with the information you need to make effective decisions.

14. Don’t Focus Too Much on a Low Cost Per Acquisition (CPA)

Everyone wants to keep their cost per acquisition, or CPA, as low as possible. But sometimes a low CPA doesn’t always mean better performance.

A great example of this closely relates to the previous topic of tracking conversions that don’t matter. If there are a lot of conversions that don’t have a high value or any value to your organization, then your account’s CPA is going to be low.

While it’s still important to get entry-level and high-funnel conversions, your focus should always be on generating high-value conversions at a low CPA.

If you find that focusing on a low CPA isn’t providing you with valid enrollment leads, it may mean you need to re-evaluate your account. Your desired CPA may not be in line with the quality of conversions you need to meet your team’s goals.

15. Don’t Let First Position Get the Best of You

Being number one isn’t everything.

But, if for whatever reason, you feel the need to be in the absolute top position of the search engine results page, that’s perfectly fine. Just know that a lot of other advertisers will be benefiting from your decision and eating your lunch too!

The main reason why the first position isn’t everything is simple: It costs too much money to stay there. Regardless of what your budget is, everyone has a limit.

Whether an institution has the ability (and budget) to stay in the number one spot or not, it still comes down to a simple concept: Getting the best ROI possible. The top position doesn’t always do a good job of this.

What everything boils down to is this: People will always click on ads that are at the top of the page. Ads that are targeting the top of the page but not the first position will cost less for people to click on — sometimes a lot less.

When your position is top of the page but lower than number one, it allows your ads to serve more often and will likely get you more clicks. More clicks help you get more conversion opportunities. And more conversions for spending the same amount of money (or less) means you’re serving your audience while maximizing your campaign success.

You can read more on ad position here.


Your university’s goals, target audience and other unique factors will determine the additional ways you can maximize your campaign success. Our PPC department would LOVE to talk to you more about this.

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