If at the start of 2020 we could have known that our lives would be dramatically changed, could we have been more prepared for the events that have taken place over the last few months? COVID-19 has taken over the lives of most of the world and while families work to develop some type of normalcy, so do businesses and organizations.


Once it was apparent social distancing orders would remain in place, BrightEdge, began investigating what was going on within the digital world and how the drastic shift in online behavior changed search results. Through our research, we have discovered not only that SEO is more important now than it ever has been before, but also where the patterns in search trends currently are and where they are headed in the future.

Distance learning searches saw record highs in March 2020


One of the greatest shifts in both off and online behavior can be seen in education. As schools closed and classes moved online, search trends saw a spike for how to practice “distance learning”. Instant shows that “distance learning” saw a 2,452% increase in search volume, “virtual learning” saw a 2,983% increase, and “online learning” saw a 513% increase beginning in March 2020.
Examples of distance learning keywords that saw increases - BrightEdge

Distance learning searches saw a decline beginning in October 2020

Between September 2020 and October 2020, queries about virtual or distance learning saw a steady decline. As it was apparent some schools were remaining closed during the 2020 year or others were going back with new sanitation guidelines for cleaning classrooms, less people were wondering about the virutal learning topic. Below you can see the decrease in searches around the same keywords that saw a surge in March 2020.

Virtual learning update 2021- BrightEdge

So, what are users searching for as it relates to school? Vaccinations. College students and their parents are inquiring about vaccinations for university students. It would benefit all universities to add vaccine-based information to their websites. Below you can see the immediate increase in vaccine-related searches beginning in November 2020.

Research on Vaccines for Higher Education

Interestingly, there was a drop in searches for “how to apply for college” in March 2020, April saw an increase in searches for the same keyword. April also saw increases for “virtual campus tour”, “college campus”, and “how to apply for college online”. 

College application keyword sees increase in search volume - BrightEdge

While most college prospects typically apply for school by February of senior year, there was a distinct rise in interest of college admissions in April 2020. Could this mean that these topics are recovering and might even see search volumes higher than before? If so, universities should be strategizing around these topics and keywords in order to improve their presence in the higher education category.


BrightEdge research shows there are four stages that industries are navigating through in response to the pandemic. They include rebounding, accelerating, recovering, and stabilizing.

Research on higher education shows the category is recovering from COVID-19 - BrightEdge

Higher education is in the recovering stage, as admissions adapt to a new virtual landscape and transform the ways they connect with future students.


Though social distancing has altered the way universities can interact with prospects, leveraging digital marketing and SEO efforts while understanding the new user journey should be at the forefront of your strategy. User behavior is shifting towards digital experiences from prospective universities. A great example of this is the increased search trend for “virtual campus tour.”

BrightEdge research shows spike in virtual tour searches

Since future students are prohibited from physically exploring campuses, nearly all of the school search has moved online – including campus tours. This is a prime example of the shifting user journey in light of COVID-19. Schools that provide a familiar experience for students and their families to tour their campus and adapt to an online interaction will be at the forefront of this new approach. 


Other digital experiences you could offer students can include the following:

  • Optimized how-to videos and demos on how to fill out application forms, financial aid forms, or how to sign up for courses online
  • Virtual hangouts with advisors or counselors

Using video to connect with users and generate traffic and views


Video content is resonating with consumers and you should do as much as possible to utilize the channel.


For example, Harvard Law School closed its doors to students and staff on March 10, 2020. Shortly after, Harvard saw a drastic spike in search volume for “Harvard online classes.” Why? Because the prestigious university began offering some of their courses online for free and to everyone. With a pricey tuition and a strong reputation, Harvard’s law courses were already enticing for top students. Offering them for free during the pandemic was a brilliant marketing move to expand their student body. Anyone interested in paying a nominal fee, can get certificates, assignments, tests, and even receive a final grade.

Harvard successfully does online learning and digital marketing - BrightEdge

As universities and the world shift to online approaches to offline problems, it’s important to harness the power of SEO. Use your knowledge of SEO and the BrightEdge platform to drive successful results and attract students to your website and your school. 


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By Margaret Blank

At the moment I am an expert-analyst in the field of search engine optimization, leading several projects and consulting on website optimization and promotion, I am actively involved in various thematic seminars and conferences.

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