Google’s most popular colleges of 2011

NCAA basketball powerhouses made the Google Zeitgeist list.

Two of the universities on Google’s top-10 most searched list for 2011 made the cut thanks to far-reaching scandals, campus tragedies, and public relations nightmares.

The search giant’s 11th annual Zeitgeist list, which ranks the most popular people, events, and news items of the past year, includes the colleges and universities most frequently search for on Google.

Colleges have long vied for search-engine supremacy with careful use of web analytics, engagement with website visitors, and a consistent social media presence. But if Google’s Zeitgeist rankings are any indication, bad news might be the best way to make the vaunted list.

Penn State University (PSU) topped Google’s top-10 college list thanks to a massive search spike during the recent scandal involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who was charged with 40 criminal counts of sex abuse of minors in early November.

In fact, PSU’s search presence was fairly low throughout the year outside of the enormous increase is searches from Nov. 6-12. The PSU Google searches tapered off just one week after the Sandusky scandal made national headlines, according to the Google Zeitgeist chart.

The University of Phoenix – the lone online school to make Google’s list – ranked No. 4 among higher education institutions. And while the for-profit school saw far more consistent Google searches than many of the top 10 colleges, searches increased when, for instance, news about a probe into the university was released.

Another search increase came in mid-January 2011, when news organization covered a 42-percent drop in the University of Phoenix’s enrollment numbers.

The NCAA’s most prominent basketball programs seemed to experience major Google search increases during the NCAA Tournament, which begins in mid-March and runs until early April.