Duke University's Google search ranking is well below that of several small campuses.

Why is a two-year college in Georgia among the country’s most Googled campuses? It could be happy coincidence, web search experts say.

A compilation of the 20 most searched-for colleges and universities on Google was published June 15 by CampusSplash, a website offering news and advice to college students.

The top-20 list made waves in social media, but one question was asked again and again: How did a handful of tiny schools rank among higher education’s largest, most visible institutions–like the University of Florida, which ranked No. 1, or the seventh-ranked University of Arizona?

The answer could be generic names.

South University – a for-profit school in Savannah, Ga. – is the second-most Googled college in America, according to the CampusSplash rankings.

And Central College, a 130-acre private liberal arts campus of 1,650 students in Pella, Iowa, ranked No. 16 on CampusSplash’s top-20 list, just five spots behind Harvard University and one spot ahead of Duke University.

“It’s definitely exciting in the sense that we’re getting traffic from Google,” said Jacob Oyen, Central College’s online communications director, who added that appearing high in generic web searches translates into a steadily high bounce rate from the school’s home page. “Just because they Google us, it doesn’t translate into more people coming to our school.”

Generic school names can help a campus rank high in thousands of variations of Google searches, meaning prospective students and parents search for “universities in the south,” for example, see a link high in the results, and often click on it, said Allen Gannett, co-founder of CampusSplash, a Washington, D.C.-based site launched last winter.

“Some colleges get a massive amount of free attention by having these kinds of names,” he said. “This has major benefits for the college. People who would have never stumbled across your school now see it on Google.”

Gannett pointed to American University, ranked No. 3, and No. 4 National University as more beneficiaries of school names that always rank high in searches for colleges and universities in the US.

“People have said to me, ‘There’s no way American University is one of the most Googled schools,’” he said, “and they’re probably right. … These are schools with some fantastic names.”

Oyen said Central College It officials don’t rely solely on the good fortune of Google’s search results. The college’s website is moving away from an admissions-based approach centered around student recruitment and toward a news-driven strategy targeting readers interested in compelling stories.

“The hope is that we’re creating thought provoking pieces that can be shared [on social media sites] and open up communication channels,” he said. “This is a relatively new idea for us.”

CampusSplash used Google’s traffic estimator to create the most-Googled list – a tool bemoaned by some web analytics experts.

“I wouldn’t put too much weight on these rankings,” said Karine Joly, a writer for HigherEdAnalytics.com, a site that shares strategies for connecting with college audiences and increasing web presence. “The results are highly dependent on the size of the institutions, obviously, and might be skewed by many things [and] events.”

Joly said colleges looking to draw more search clicks should focus on proper HTML coding – ensuring all pages have “descriptive, useful title tags” – and becoming consistently active on popular social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook.

Google has begun factoring social media activity and clicks into its search results, and will continue to incorporate social sites as the company grows its brand new Google + social networking site, said Joly, founder of the professional development site HigherEdExperts.com.

Facebook’s list of the most popular colleges and universities is chock full of the country’s biggest-name campuses.

Harvard is the most “liked” campus on Facebook, with more than 376,000 followers, according to a May ranking published by MainStreet.com. Ohio State University ranks second with 293,000 “likes,” and the University of Michigan ranks third with 287,000 followers.

In fourth place, Texas A&M has 268,000 Facebook fans, and No. 5 ranked University of Texas at Austin has 251,000 “likes.”

Gannett said the University of Florida likely grabbed CampusSplash’s top spot because of its popular football program, its large student enrollment, and its status as a public campus. Students, especially during the country’s economic downturn, are increasingly looking toward public colleges during web searches, he said.

“When the economy improves, I’m sure we’ll see the Harvards of the world higher up on the list,” Gannett said.

Editorial assistant Raishay Lin contributed to this report.

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