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A fresh look at Google Analytics for international student recruiters

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Google Analytics (GA) is an essential tool to inform your recruitment strategy, monitor online campaigns and improve your website user experience
  • To distill actionable insights from GA, it’s essential to set up conversion tracking correctly to see which actions prospective students take on your website
  • A new version of GA is on the way: GA4
  • To be ready for the switch, it is advisable to set up tracking in GA4 on your website as soon as possible

The following is a guest post by Guus Goorts, Netherlands-based author of the book Successful Student Recruitment with Google Ads and online marketing trainer specialised in the higher education sector.

Editor’s note: Just as we published this item, on 16 March 2022, Google officially announced that it its current Universal Analytics framework will stop processing data on 1 July 2023. This means in effect that the new Google Analytics 4 framework described below must be used from that date forward.

As a marketer working in the education sector, you need to collect and analyse data to know whether your campaigns are achieving their goals. It’s very likely you already have Google Analytics (GA) installed on your website for this purpose. The question is: Are you optimising insights from GA in order to improve your recruitment results?

Google Analytics: why do we care?

There are three key areas where GA can play an important role in driving marketing success. To start, insights from GA should inform strategy. For example, when deciding on focus countries, you’ll want to see whether your website is already receiving significant visits from particular (sometimes unexpected) countries that you can build on.

Secondly, GA is an excellent tool for monitoring online campaigns. It can shed light on quantity (“Are we getting any clicks from our listing on that study portal site?”) and quality (“Do visitors generated by this campaign actually engage further with us?”).

When you’ve launched a new campaign, GA can tell you within days whether it is performing to expectations. This allows you time to have the difficult but essential conversations right away, when there is still time and budget to fix things.

Finally, GA can help you to improve your website user experience. On the path to enrolment, prospective students can face numerous roadblocks. If a frequently visited webpage isn’t well optimised, it can easily cut the results of any advertising you do in half.

It’s easy to spot the main “roadblock pages,” and it often requires only minor changes to your website to remove these obstacles – if you know where to look.

Setup essentials

At first sight, GA seems quite user-friendly. You can click around without any prior knowledge and see all kinds of “interesting” statistics about your website.

GA tracks what website visitors do at three levels: visits, engagement, and conversions.

The first two work right out of the box.

Web visits are measured as users, sessions, and pageviews on your site. Other things being equal, more is better. If you launched a campaign yesterday and it is hardly bringing any new visitors to your website, that needs fixing right away.

Engagement metrics include average time spent on the website and number of pageviews per visitor. The scores of this metric will vary depending on traffic source and landing page, the first page a visitor arrives on. If engagement is low, it could mean any or all of the following:

  1. You are not addressing the right audience;
  2. Your messaging is not resonating;
  3. There is a roadblock on your landing page.

Conversions refer to actions that people take on your website, such as filling in a form, signing up for an event, or submitting an application.

Conversions are the acid test for online campaigns and website user experience. If your conversion rate is low, you’ll have no chance to follow up with prospective students on your website and it is very likely that they will forget about you.

Conversion tracking takes some setup work. It usually also requires minor changes to your website or some setup in Google Tag Manager. The full process is beyond the scope of this article. You can find a step-by-step description in Google’s support pages.

Before you start tracking conversions, it will be useful to find out whether your institution already has plans to implement GA’s next version: GA4.

The advent of GA4: what’s changing?

Google has announced that the current version of GA (Universal Analytics, UA) will be replaced by a new version: GA4.

This is not just a marginal upgrade. GA4 is an entirely new piece of software. It is not compatible with your existing Google Analytics setup. Even the reported numbers will look different.

Why the change? Since UA was introduced some 10 years ago, the Internet has changed:

  • We access websites through multiple devices.
  • Webpages have become much more interactive, and longer. There are “one-page websites” and sites with foldout text and embedded videos.
  • Some sites have an accompanying app.

GA4 has been adapted to these new behaviours. There are two key differences between GA4 and the original GA:

  • Where UA models website visits as a sequence of pageviews, GA4 treats all actions (“events”) on your website equally, whether it’s a scroll, a video view, a click or indeed a pageview.
  • GA4 is much better at tying multiple visits to the same user. This is important, because your campaign might not lead to a conversion upon the first visit, but the same prospective student may come back after a few days and sign up for a webinar.

So what should you do? Wait it out a little longer, or switch over as soon as you can? At the time of publication, switching over from UA to GA4 is comparable to moving house:

Universal Analytics is like your current house. You’ve been living there since 2012 and know your way around. Everything works. But your needs have changed. It’s time to move.

GA4 is like your new house. Much more spacious and practical. Most of the basic functions are already there, but it is not quite ready to live in comfortably.

I’ve set up GA4 for a number of websites and despite the hype, it is not a mature piece of software yet. Many features we take for granted in Universal Analytics are simply not available on GA4 yet.

There’s no doubt: in a year or two, Google will stop supporting UA. So my advice today is to set up tracking in GA4 as soon as you can and run it in parallel with your existing UA setup.

Once the time to switch comes, you will have collected a few years of historical data, making the transition a lot smoother.


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