How COVID-19 Is Influencing Web Traffic and Analytics
How COVID-19 Is Influencing Web Traffic and Analytics


How COVID-19 Is Influencing Web Traffic and Analytics

May 26, 2020By Greg Zguta & Travis Koury

The global pandemic is impacting virtually everything about our work and institutions. The website is not immune: Several months into our “new normal,” we’re observing changes in website analytics that reveal how visitors are using higher education sites. Website traffic is down in many places. We spent some time looking at analytics from March and April of 2020 for a few dozen higher education websites, informed by our panel discussions with higher ed admissions and marketing leaders in March and May.

Pageviews are down across the board

In year-over-year comparison of March and April 2020 with the same months in 2019, total pageviews are down about 11% overall. Only a handful of institutions saw increases for that period in 2020, and some of those increases are attributable to marketing campaigns going on this year that may not be equivalent to last year’s activity.

We saw similar decreases in pageviews of admissions pages on the site, an average of about 6%, but with a much wider spread between institutions, with some seeing large, double-digit drops in pageviews and others with equally large increases in pageviews. Campaigns are, again, a big driver here in both directions. We also know the backdrop of where the admissions cycle is for most institutions at this time of year, and the ways in which institutions communicate with admitted students and how they interact with prospective rising seniors.

Sessions are down, but only slightly down on average

With pageviews down, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see sessions down as well. But our review shows sessions down from 2019 by less than 1% on average. Individual institution results vary widely, from double-digit decreases to double-digit increases. A majority of institutions saw a decrease in sessions, but in several cases traffic was substantially higher in 2020. Again, a significant driver of the strong growth at some institutions is campaigns.

An obvious takeaway from both the pageview and session data during March and April is that the pandemic is disrupting web traffic patterns in inconsistent ways, just as it has affected so many other things.

However, a key observation around the changes in pageview and session traffic both point to how visitors are interacting with .edu websites during the pandemic. Messaging on COVID-19 pages is extremely important in how all audiences are interacting with the site.

COVID-19 pages are the new homepage

Across the board, new pages created to address the COVID-19 response on campuses are in the top five pages viewed. Many of these brand-new pages are the second-most visited page on the site, behind the homepage. We know institutions have different, and evolving, approaches to detailing their COVID-19 information. The approaches range from a single page with frequent updates and additions to news or blog oriented microsites and multi-page sections of the site devoted to the response.

Regardless of the approach to presenting the information, it is clear that all audiences — internal and external, prospective students and current students — are looking to these pages for the latest information on COVID-19 at the institution.

Where process meets strategy

Whether a university’s COVID-19 page is a standard content page, a landing page, or a microsite, these pages should serve the purpose of keeping its communities updated and informed.

A content strategy is nothing without its process. During a recent panel, Aimee Patton, director of digital marketing at Park University, made this point clear: “We put up a COVID-19 webpage and made sure we had a process for how we get approved content for that page. We didn’t want a mishmash of all sorts of information from all over the place. We wanted to make sure that the right communication was going up and was approved by the president and executive leadership before we put any information up on that page.”

Different institutions will have different processes. It’s important to keep your COVID-19 messaging and communication simple and concise. Although people may have more time on their hands, they’re more fatigued than usual and could be burned out on the amount of information they’re taking in daily.

Future impacts

Year-over-year comparisons in the future will be influenced by activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is even more true for institutions tracking internal and external visitors separately.

Starting in March 2020, everyone became an external visitor to your site. Filtering internal IP addresses went out the window when everyone moved off campus, and this must be taken into consideration when reviewing your analytics. Taking small steps now could set you up for big successes down the road.

Strategies for success

  • Use annotations. Your analytics should note key changes such as when you put up COVID-19 pages, when online learning started, and when in-person classes (hopefully) resume.
  • Monitor search. Look at search closely to understand how visitor search patterns have changed. One client of ours noticed a large uptick in traffic on academic program pages that respond directly to the pandemic — e.g., nursing and healthcare.
  • Tailor COVID-19 page content. People are looking to institutional websites for information now more than ever. So publishing new, updated information as it is available — everything from COVID-19 updates to extensions on deadlines — becomes all the more important
  • Improve transfer student pages. The burden of a transfer should be moved away from the student when possible. Improving transfer student pages is a good place to start because, unfortunately, many of them aren’t great. As people want to stay closer to home, it’s possible we’ll see a rise in vertical, horizontal, and reverse transfers.
  • Show virtual community. Institutions are finding innovative ways to showcase their community in a virtual space. This is the time for authenticity. If you want to see a great virtual accepted-students experience, check out Wilkes University.
  • Communicate around key decision drivers. Parents and students are looking for flexibility. They’re looking for programs that will help people whose financial positions might change drastically in a short time. They’re now looking for quality of instruction, particularly online.

While many of these findings such as decreases in web traffic may be unsurprising, it’s important to keep the big picture in mind: We’re not exactly sure what the future holds. One way we can deal with the current situation is to listen to our audiences and give them the information and content they need. We must remind ourselves that there is no playbook for this unprecedented time.

How are higher ed professionals navigating enrollment and marketing hurdles during the COVID-19 crisis?

If you’re curious what other higher ed marketers are doing during this time, we gathered 11 enrollment marketing professionals to discuss their responses to the pandemic, new recruitment tactics, and their web and digital strategies in a three-panel series, Enrollment Marketing During COVID-19.

More than 1,800 higher education professionals tuned in live for our panel series, and many were able to ask questions and take away tangible advice and resources to adapt their enrollment marketing strategies moving forward.

Receive instant access to Enrollment Marketing During COVID-19 panel videos for:

  • Four-year institutions
  • Community colleges and transfer students
  • Web, video, and digital strategy

Stream the Series

  • Greg Zguta Director of Client Support I've been working on education web projects since the late 90's and enjoy visiting campuses and watching how technology has transformed higher education since I got my first email account at Oberlin College in 1992. Back then, I mostly used the web to check weather radar and sports scores . . . I suppose technology hasn't transformed everything yet.

  • Travis Koury Marketing Specialist As marketing specialist, Travis Koury shares mStoner’s thought leadership and service offerings across a multitude of channels. He thoughtfully applies digital marketing best practices to ensure higher education marketing and communication professionals can easily discover and access mStoner’s helpful resources, primary research, and on-demand content.