What technologies are powering education websites?

When you think of higher education institutions that are succeeding in 2015, schools with innovative programs, formats or cost structures often come to mind. Rarely does a .edu website register as a top differentiator, but that may soon change as those on the losing side of the downward trend in college enrollments are starting to feel real budget pain.

We used Google’s technology profiler “BuiltWith” to find out what technologies 1,989 colleges and universities across the nation are using to power their websites. Our analysis provides a glimpse into how schools are leveraging the Internet to grow enrollments. Here is what we found when it came to content management systems (CMS), advertising technologies, web analytics platforms and third-party technologies.

Higher education websites in 2015: summary findings

Technology is largely under-used in the higher education space when it comes to supporting enrollment efforts of the college through the .edu website. Most institutions use open source website platforms devoid of advanced marketing capabilities. Few schools are aiding enrollments by leveraging the digital advertising channels and supporting media efforts available to them. Those that do struggle to configure analytics platforms sufficiently to effectively measure the impact of online marketing efforts on enrollment growth.

Investing in these foundational areas can result in dramatic enrollment growth when leveraged effectively. Opportunities exist relative to each of these technologies.

Higher education content management systems

Why it matters: At the heart of a good college website is the content management system (CMS) or website platform. Investments in CMSs range widely from the popular open source platform, WordPress, on the low end to enterprise-level solutions like Sitecore on the high end.

Each platform has benefits and detriments. Here’s what is currently in use in higher ed today:

  • Between WordPress, Drupal and Joomla, nearly 3 out of 4 (71 percent) schools use open source software
  • Siteimprove, ExpressionEngine, Ektron, OmniUpdate, Microsoft SharePoint, DNN Software are the most popular proprietary platforms
  • OmniUpdate is the only higher-education-specific technology with a tangible market share
  • Ektron, Acquia (paid version of Drupal), Microsoft, Automattic (paid version of WordPress) are the only Gartner Magic Quadrant platforms featured
  • Other Magic Quadrant platforms such as Adobe, EpiServer and Oracle were not found in our analysis

CMS used in higher education

Summary: It’s clear from our analysis that most colleges and universities are getting by with free and low-cost website platforms. The few that have paid for a proprietary platform don’t appear to agree on a standard within the industry.

The opportunity: Platforms like Ektron and Episerver — two entities that merged in January 2015 to offer an even more valuable product — offer more sophisticated marketing features than the open source platforms and often come with a service level guarantee. Look for increased adoption of these middle-of-the-road CMS platforms as schools try to stand out online and attract new enrollment without having to invest in a top-of-the-line CMS.

Online advertising platforms used in higher ed

Why it matters: Just as the CMS powers the majority of a school’s online marketing efforts within the main .edu website, online advertising channels such as AdWords, Doubleclick and AdRoll  work to drive the bulk of a school’s paid digital efforts.

Here are some insights from the digital advertising tactics currently utilized within higher ed:

  • Only a third are using Google’s online display advertising (Doubleclick = 35 percent)
  • About a third are using paid advertising (29 percent)
  • 22 percent are trying to monetize their properties with Google’s AdSense platform
  • A handful (17 percent or fewer for each technology) are using other advertising platforms such as AppNexus, AdRoll and Rubicon Project
  • A similar amount are using Facebook or Twitter Ads

Ad technology in higher ed

Summary: Online advertising efforts are used by schools to drive new enrollments, but the adoption is slow compared to other industries. According to our analysis, schools are just as likely to invest in low-end advertising tactics like AdSense as in the major levers of enrollment growth like AdWords. This is a telltale sign of an industry struggling to pull together cohesive, effective online advertising strategies.

The opportunity: Only one in three are using standard tactics such as display advertising and PPC at a time where today’s student spends as much time online as they do watching TV and listening to radio combined. These channels have yet to be adopted by many colleges for a variety of reasons but can be effective drivers of short- and long-term enrollment growth for schools that find the dollars to invest. Finding budget for a few small tests in high-yield digital channels is a good way to build a case for a greater focus on digital advertising channels as a part of the overall enrollment and advertising mix.

Education & web analytics technologies

Why it matters: Web analytics fall into a critical group of technologies designed to measure and explain the performance of online marketing efforts. Web analytics platforms can be very accurate even at the low end of the price spectrum, but many schools lack the in-house talent to properly configure the platforms to effectively measure everything that goes into the digital strategy.

Here is how colleges and universities are utilizing web analytics technologies:

  • Nearly everyone in higher education is using Google Analytics (95 percent)
  • Only a third (34 percent) are using the updated Google Universal Analytics
  • Only one in five (20 percent) have goals properly configured

Supplemental platforms:

  • 16 percent use New Relic (monitoring)
  • 13 percent use Crazy Egg (heat maps and visual analytics)
  • 4 percent use Hubspot (all-in-one marketing platform)
  • 4 percent use WordPress Stats (onboard website analytics platform)
  • 3 percent use Piwik (open source analytics)
  • 1 in 10 use comScore (10 percent) or Quantcast Measurment (9 percent)
  • A handful use social media analytics platforms e.g., Facebook (10 percent), Twitter (4 percent)

analytics in higher ed

Summary: Our findings show most schools are implementing a base level of analytics technologies, but a much smaller segment is demonstrating any effort towards increasing accuracy or the scope of what can be measured online.

The opportunity: This is one of the few areas where less may be more when it comes to technology investments. Google Analytics is the universal favorite and for good reason. The free platform is feature-rich and, if properly configured, can handle even the most sophisticated of digital campaigns.

The biggest opportunity lies in accurately configuring Google Analytics. Only a handful of schools are tracking goals or migrating to the newer version of Google Analytics, Universal Analytics, which is a sign that more effort or education is needed in this area.

Where does your school excel or struggle when it comes to your website and its supporting technologies? Do you find yourself ahead of the curve, in the middle of the pack or struggling to keep up when it comes to your education website? Leave us a comment below.