Inspiring students through your website search

Tailoring search results can help lead prospective students to your courses

By Anna Bravington – Account Director, Redweb 

Whether studying a course straight out of school or later in life, deciding what you want to do is a hard decision – I well remember choosing my degree course, being torn between the arts or technology: did I want a career that would make me the most money or would I prefer something that was enjoyable but with potentially less financial rewards? Choosing what career to take is a big ask for a young person.

There are careers counsellors, helpful online articles, and plenty of online quizzes that can help you look at courses and careers that might suit you, like the UCAS ‘The Buzz Quiz’, but colleges and universities should look at how they can use their own websites to help prospective students choose a course that suits them.

There is an assumption that a potential student already knows what they want to do by the time they hit the college or university website – this is why most course finders are just tailored to a word-based search where users can search for a course name – but perhaps this is not the case. A study in Dec 2015 found that nearly 27% of university freshers had either dropped out by December, or were contemplating dropping out by the summer – one of the reasons being they were “not liking the course they had chosen”. It seems that even once students have chosen a course and started it, a worryingly high percentage find it is not the right course for them. So, the more help universities and colleges can give a student on picking a course, the better.

Making a good first impression

Your website is an important touchpoint for prospective students, in this digital age it can often be their first interaction with your college/university. Last year, digital marketing specialist Bray Leino Yucca reviewed and ranked UK university websites to highlight how important it is for educational organisations to have a good website to entice the visitors. Alan Thorpe, Bray Leino’s Yucca Digital & Data Director says: “Universities today need to be more conscious of their online presence, as many aspiring students use websites as a major factor in their decision-making. Parents and teachers, too, are likely to carry out extensive research to support people in their choices.’

So, it seems to be a perfect place for education institutes to start helping and inspiring those prospective students. I recommend starting with course search – look at how it can inspire the website users and tailor your courses to their likes/dislikes, like the UCAS Buzz Quiz mentioned above, rather than assuming they know exactly what course they want to take.

Tailored Results

The biggest advantage of using your own course search to inspire prospective students to decide which career/course suits them, is that you can tailor the results to your own courses, so there is a tangible outcome for the student – a set of actual courses that fit their personality and needs.


For example, when I went through the UCAS Buzz Quiz I mentioned above, one of the career options it said would suit me was a Barber, but then it only gave me a rough idea of what I’d need to do next. If I was looking on a local college’s site the results could give me an actual course that I could take, saving me time – as I wouldn’t need to search for a career on one site (like the UCAS Buzz Quiz), then a course to match on another site (a college or university site).

Your course search doesn’t have to be as all-encompassing as the generic online careers inspiration sites. For example, if you’re a university that only offers arts degrees, then you could help prospective students narrow down the type of arts course that suits them best e.g. some courses might suit technically trained, process driven students, and others might suit students that like freedom and autonomy.

Business benefits

Guiding users to a course choice has multiple business benefits for your organisation, too. Firstly, it reduces the risk that when prospective students go through a standard word-based course search if they don’t put the correct wording in the search box the search may come back with no results, as the search can often be so specific e.g. they type in ‘computing’ but all the courses are listed as “computer” – it’s not a match, so no courses appear in the search results.

It also benefits your organisation, as you can tailor results to your business goals. For example, say you’re in a drive to push STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) courses to female students – if a potential student matches several different careers/courses equally and some of them are STEM, then you can push those STEM courses to the top of the results to help make them more prominent to the user.

With an ‘inspire me’ type of search, you will learn about the user as they go through the search – their likes/dislikes, personality traits, possibly their age/gender

With an ‘inspire me’ type of search like I’m suggesting, you will learn about the user as they go through the search – their likes/dislikes, personality traits, possibly their age/gender – collect this data as it is invaluable for understanding your audience: you can use it to target your marketing, and you can use this new information to tweak content and courses, this information means that you can also tailor text and images in the search results to help match the users profile. This is particularly good when trying to entice them into a course that they might not have thought about, for example into gender stereotypical roles. Showing a photograph of a person matching the searcher’s gender can help overcome stereotypes in their thoughts. This also works for age, background, etc.

These ‘inspire me’ types of searches are great to include in marketing activity to funnel prospective students in to your site. This type of gamification is becoming increasingly popular as it leverages people’s natural desires to join in and learn. That’s why we see so many posts on social media along the lines of “take this quiz to find out your personality type”. With a search that helps a student decide on a course or career for themselves, you are not only being helpful, it’s an enticing proposition too. From a brand point of view, it shows your organisation in a good light – a place that will go that extra mile above other colleges/universities to ensure students choose a course that suits them best.

Utilising Technology

If your organisation’s website CMS (content management system) has the ability for personalisation (dynamically changing content based on the user type) then an ‘inspire me’ type search can work with your existing technology. It can enhance the user profiles with the data about the website user gathered from the search. It can also help build user profiles quickly as the search will gather lots of information about the user very quickly. You can then use your personalisation engine to tailor the search results to the user.

If you don’t have a website technology that includes a personalisation engine, then the ‘inspire me’ type of search can be built as a standalone feature in your site, which gathers its own data. You can also use Google Analytics with it to track users and conversions to see once they’ve used the search if they go on to view courses/contact you/download a brochure etc.

The ‘inspire me’ course and career searches are only a small portion of the website, but they can make a large impact for marketing, brand building, user engagement and data gathering. I mentioned earlier that a college/university website was a major factor in a student’s decision-making process, so being as helpful and memorable is the key – the ability to stand-out from competitor’s websites. The course search is a great place to start.