Irish University Rankings 2020: How to Improve Rankings on Google [Updated]

This is my new guide to improving Irish University Rankings 2020 on Google search results. In this guide you’ll find actionable tips on how to improve your university’s rankings as they’re shown on Google search results.

If there’s one thing we can learn from the lack of attention that the topic of third level funding is getting in the Irish general election 2020 is that universities are going to need to ramp up their efforts to recruit international students simply to keep paying the bills.

Despite the interest in the packed out hustings event organised by the Royal Irish Academy, IUA, THEA and USI the answers from many of the politicians there didn’t provide much reassurance for those of us concerned about the future of third level education in Ireland (for all the groundwork laid by the Cassells report). We’re sitting on a funding “timebomb” as Trinity Provost Patrick Prendergast has put it.

Even if we can all agree that university rankings shouldn’t be given the status they currently have, we do have to accept that the QS World University Rankings and the Times Higher Education (THE) world university rankings are around to stay.

So it’s important that we improve how Irish university rankings appear when people do Google searches for them – not just the actual rankings themselves. It’s also urgent that we do this because up to a thousand people are searching for “Irish university rankings” online every month in 2020 and having the wrong answers shown to them by the Google algorithm.

The first thing people are seeing when they search for Irish university rankings is not the actual rankings themselves but Google’s summary of the rankings. Unfortunately, Google is giving many people the wrong answers about Irish university rankings and that needs to be fixed if Irish universities are to attract more students in the increasingly competitive global higher education marketplace.

Repairing this distorted view of Irish university rankings as shown through the lens of Google search results is almost as important as improving university scores in the rankings themselves because it’s the first impression many people get about the status of universities and colleges in Ireland. 

And it can be fixed with the three step digital strategy that I’ll walk you through here involving everything from target audience analysis to Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and content strategy.

In summary, if you want to help improve how Irish university rankings are perceived, you’ll find this new guide handy. So let’s dive right in…

Table of Contents

  1. Focus on the right target audience for Irish university ranking searches
  2. Understand searchers’ questions about Irish university rankings
  3. Answer what people want to know about Irish University Rankings

Focus on the right target audience for Irish university ranking searches

First up, we have to be crystal clear about who our target audience actually is.

Sometimes it can be easy to get caught up in government funding battles and inter-university rivalry and lose sight of who is actually doing most of the Google searching around this topic. The answer can sometimes feels like stating the obvious: international students looking for good courses to do.

So it’s useful to constantly remind ourselves that we should be focussing on this target audience of students when it comes to improving how Irish university rankings are presented in Google searches. A very effective way to do this is by looking at who the ranking publishers like QS and THE (Times Higher Education) focus on themselves. That’s because they are commercial publishers and their success depends on getting their audience targeting right so that they can drive advertising sales. They’re effectively part of the interception economy that is creating extra layers between all our transactions.

And no matter what way you look at what they’re doing it’s clear that their efforts are pretty much all about targeting international students – and more to the point, potential students who are looking for courses.

Take for example the THE world university rankings website. You can’t even use it without answering an intrusive pop up that asks you who you are. The two main options it gives are “Student” and “Becoming a Student” – with “Working in Higher Education” in third place:

If you have the audacity to click “None of these instead” you get presented with other options including Parent and Government, but at this point it’s clear they’re not really interested in you as an audience segment (unless you work in higher education and are going to advertise with them).

The Quacquarelli Symonds QS Top Universities site goes for a different approach. You have to register to use their site fully, but you don’t have to declare if you’re a student or not. That’s simply because they just assume that you are one. They make this assumption that you’re a potential student looking for a university very clear by their focus on interest categories such as Study Level, Subject and Destination.

The QS team give more context to this in their “Who rules? The world’s top universities in 2020 report” introduction. In that report, they describe their role as helping students understand how their prospective university choices are perceived by other academics and, more importantly for students looking to pay their college fees, by “potential employers” across the world. 

They do also say that: “Whether you are a student, academic faculty, administrator, or policymaker, we hope you find it useful.” So, again, they have a whole range of target audiences listed but students are very clearly number 1 here too.

But the QS team go further in their direct marketing material to potential advertisers in the higher education sector. Remember that these sites can be best described as publishers who make their money from selling ads. The advertisers are typically education providers seeking to get the attention of students through their digital student recruitment campaigns. QS offer advertising placements across a range covering “Display Advertising, Sponsored Content or University Profiles.” Here’s how they pitch themselves in their emails to potential higher education advertisers:

Anyone who works in digital will smile at their reference to “170+ million page views per annum” because that’s not a very useful metric to quote. It’s common for publishers to focus on big vanity metrics like this instead of useful real numbers like the actual number of unique visitors or number of active registered users. But what is useful for us here to note as we segment our target audiences is their clear focus on giving advertisers access to this audience of “students seeking international study destinations.”

So taking the lead from the rankings services themselves, it’s clear that they’re putting the focus on students and potential students as the primary target audience. People working in higher education and policy makers are important audiences to them too – but they’re a secondary target audience when it comes to who actually does the most searching for university rankings.

This is many ways stating the obvious, but it’s useful to remind ourselves that it’s mainly students who are doing most of the Google searches for Irish university rankings – especially when many of them are being given misinformation by the Google algorithm as we’ll see later.

Understand searchers’ questions about Irish university rankings

Now that we’ve confirmed that most people searching for Irish university rankings are students, we need to try to figure out what questions these students are looking for answers to when they search Google for Irish university rankings.

There are a lot of Google searches for university rankings happening. As you can see from Google’s own keyword data below, there are up to 1,000 searches every month for “Irish university rankings’ and up to a million a month for “university ranking” in general. There’s also a lot of activity around more specific keywords like “qs ranking,” “times higher education” and “best universities in the world” at up to a hundred thousand searches a month each. 

So lots of people are definitely searching for Irish university rankings and related topics. But how is that search volume spread throughout the year and what are the seasonal trends? Again I’ve used Google data to spot the patterns.

As you’ll see in the graph below there are regular seasonal peaks. I’ve pulled this data going back 5 years so gives us a good timeline to work with. The blue line in the graph is the amount of searches for “College and university rankings” as a topic. The red line is the “QS world university rankings” and the yellow line the “Times Higher Education rankings”. 

Those big blue spikes are happening every September, coinciding mainly with spikes in searches for the THE rankings and also to some extent the QS rankings. Looking at this graph, it’s pretty clear that QS is winning the search wars at the moment in pure volume terms, because they’re being searched for by more people and also at other times of the year too. 

Zoning in on Irish searchers, interest in specifically “Irish university rankings” by people in Ireland itself doesn’t quite have the same regularity, but it’s interesting that the two biggest spikes in searches happened in September 2016 and September 2019 – both years when negative news about Irish universities and colleges dropping down the ranks made headlines. We do love a bad news story in this country.

Globally, as we can see in the map below, interest in the topic of college and university rankings is biggest in China (darker blues indicate places where these search terms are more popular). This isn’t hugely surprisingly as it’s such an important market for universities looking to recruit international students, but it’s interesting to see this backed up by Google search data.

So what information are students looking for when they search for Irish university rankings? Here Google itself can again help us answer that question…

Using the Google autocomplete feature we can see that Google’s algorithm knows people want to find the “best colleges in Ireland” and also how well specific Irish universities like Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and University College Dublin (UCD) rank. Students are also looking for a list of universities in Ireland that are suitable for international students and more general information about the universities in Ireland (such as fees):

More specifically, when it comes to search terms starting with the specific words “Irish university rankings,” people are looking for the most up to date information because they tend to add the current year to their search (i.e. “Irish university rankings 2020”. They’re also looking for Irish college rankings by subject such as medicine:

Looking at a typical Google “Search Engine Results Page” or SERP for short we can see the kind of answers to these questions that the Google algorithm believes are right. Remember that the SERP is tailored for each specific user so that different people will see different results – and that people who work in Irish higher education will likely see very different results to international students because of their own search history and location. 

Here’s what the top half of a typical SERP for a search for the keywords “Irish university rankings” shows up. As you’ll see not all the “universities” Google shows prominently are correct (although it does get TCD, UCD, DCU and now also RCSI right). It’s not even a complete list of Irish universities. And in this example, the National College of Ireland is also shown prominently even though it’s not a fully-fledged university. Plus instead of the recently transformed TU Dublin we see DIT and IT Tallaght still featuring prominently as separate “institutes of technology.” Changing “brand name” causes real issues when it comes to Google search results and SEO – and it looks like TU Dublin still has a lot of work to do here otherwise it simply won’t be found by prospective international students. The ranking of leading MBA colleges in Ireland that Google has also come up with could surprise some in the higher education sector too.

Search results also unfortunately still prominently show links to the negative media coverage around Trinity’s fall in the rankings in September 2019:

At the time this news story broke, Prof. Linda Doyle, Dean and Vice President for Research in Trinity College Dublin, posted this really clear and insightful video on Twitter. It gives more context to this change in ranking, and with over 12,000 views it shows the level of interest in this topic:

Google’s “People also ask” prompts are also very revealing showing that according to their search data, people are interested in finding out “Does Ireland have good universities?”, “Where is Trinity College ranked in the world?” and “Is UCD a good college?”

Answer what people want to know about Irish University Rankings

Now that we’ve focussed in our our main target audience (international students in this case) and understood what they’re looking for (reliable and up to date information on how Irish universities are perceived), it’s time to give them the information they want – and make sure they’re not misled.

Unfortunately, as we’ve seen some of the answers people are being given by Google’s results aren’t giving the full picture of Irish university rankings – and in some cases are plain wrong and misleading.

This snippet answer about UCD gives a seemingly good result but is in fact eight years old and well out of date at this stage…

To help fix these issues, there are three categories of actions that I’d recommend Irish universities act on urgently in order to improve how Irish university rankings are shown on Google search results. They can be summed up in these 3 quick tips:

  1. Update the most prominent content: Fixing wrong and out of date information is a quick way of improving the quality and accuracy of search results that appear in Google searches. But don’t waste time updating all your content – focus instead on the webpages and articles that the Google search algorithm is “surfacing” for important keywords.
  2. Create content that answers students’ real questions: Another important step is to create content online that answers the questions students are actually asking. Put yourself in their shoes and use Google data to find out what their most pressing questions really are. Then answer them in as much depth as possible using good Search Engine Optimisation techniques so that Google shows your answers high up in search results.
  3. Pay to play: Google Ads campaigns focussing on the most relevant keywords will also pay dividends in terms of getting the right messages out there more quickly than SEO can. And you might even consider advertising with the university rankings publishers themselves. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, as they say.

And finally… Is UCD better than Trinity?

Of all the searches around this topic online, my own personal favourite question that people still seem to be struggling with is the perennial “Is UCD better than Trinity?” Currently the answer is provided by a Reddit user, but there are lots of opportunities for the two universities to go head to head on this one…

Wrap Up

I hope you found my guide to improving Irish university rankings on Google search useful. Of course, as well as improving Google search results it’s also important to focus on the actual metrics that underpin the world university rankings in 2020. Even if it’s clear that the university rankings publishers benefit commercially from re-jigging their methodologies and weightings from time to time, by paying particular attention to the systems used, Irish university rankings in these league tables of the best universities in the world can be improved. 

Now I want to turn it over to you: Which of the tips from this guide are you going to try first? And what else do you think can be done to improve Irish university rankings? Let me know by leaving a short comment below right now or just send me a quick email.

Updated 2/2/2020: Added context around the Irish general election.

Updated 7/2/2020: Additional depth added to tips.

Leave a Reply