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.

Duke University and the University of North Carolina (UNC) saw jumps in Google searches during the annual tournament. Duke and UNC finished No. 7 and No. 8, respectively, on the Google Zeitgeist list.

The reasons for why some colleges get enormous traffic from Google searches was called into question in June, when 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.

A two-year college in Georgia, for example, made the CampusSplash list.

South University – a for-profit school in Savannah, Ga. – was 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.

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.”

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