Making PhDs accessible: increasing traffic and conversion

Around a year ago, I was asked to update the Management School’s PhD pages. The brief was to make the pages more visible with the goal of increasing applications. You can see an archived version of the old PhD pages here for contrast. They’d been neglected for a while.

We were in the middle of totally revamping undergraduate and postgraduate taught courses, so it was a good opportunity to apply some of the principles we’d learned (and polish up the design at the same time). One year on, here’s what the analytics for the PhD in Management are looking like:

Bar chart based on the table below showing increased page views, entrances and 'apply' clicks.
Metric2017/182018/19Change
Page views7,78915,483+98.78%
Unique page
views
5,5279,413+70.31%
Time on page00:01:3900:01:11-28.64%
Entrances2,5244,488+77.81%
Bounce rate45.53%37.37%-17.91%
% Exit29.53%23.52%-20.36%
‘Apply’ clicks
from PhD page
325913+180.92%
Applications
started
1,1342,026+78.66%

Analytics for /management/doctoral-studies/phd_management/, 1 September 2017 to 31 August 2018 vs /management/phd/, 1 September 2018 to 31 August 2019.

Here are some of the techniques I used to help people find the pages and (hopefully) choose to apply.

Getting people to your page

Make sure users know your page exists. People typically first find out about web pages via search engines or by following links from other pages.

Search me

About two thirds of traffic to the University website comes from organic search. Making your page rank highly and appear nicely in search engines is an easy way to increase the number of people to see it. You might have heard this referred to as SEO: search engine optimisation.

I’m not going to get bogged down in the details of good SEO here. The broad idea is to find out the words your audience use to describe the topic you want them to discover, then use those words throughout your page – in headings, copy, urls, etc. 

This shouldn’t feel forced. If you’re writing good copy, formatting it well and giving your users a good experience then search engines will reward you.

In general:

  • Make sure you understand what you’re writing about
  • Help your audience achieve their goals
  • Think carefully when wording headings
  • Use meaningful urls
  • Design with mobile users in mind 
  • Make accessibility a priority

Change in search results

The new page has an improved position in search rankings for queries including [phd]. There’s a trade-off: fewer impressions overall. But the people who see the page appearing in search results are more likely to click, and more likely to get what they were looking for, which ultimately improves page rank further.

Metric2017/182018/19Change
Total clicks76116+52.6%
Total
impressions
3.33k2.40k-27.9%
Click-through
rate
2.3%4.7%+104.3%
Average
position
24.618.9+5.7 places

Search console data for queries including [phd], /management/doctoral-studies/management_phd, 8 Jun 2018 to 31 August 2018 vs /management/phd/, 8 Jun 2019 to 31 August 2019

Navigation

Not all of the people searching for your page will find it directly, so all pages should provide users with explicit and implicit clues about where other pages can be found. Direct links can provide an easy route to a specific page, but on larger websites it’s impractical and unhelpful to include links from every page to every other page.

By carefully considering the structure of your pages and standardising your approach you can help users to form a mental model of your site, and find information in the place they expect it to be. 

Before

Hidden routes to information about PhD study.

The old Management School homepage had a clear link to Postgraduate study, which users might expect to include PhDs, but that page only covered Masters courses. Research degrees only appeared in the left-hand navigation, which isn’t obvious for people browsing on their phones.

After

Three equally-proportioned boxes linking to undergraduate, masters and PhD courses.

The new homepage links to Undergraduate, Masters and PhD study. The number of users finding Management PhDs from the Management homepage rose from 465 in 2017/18 to 951 in 2018/19.

Improving conversions

A course page exists to encourage people to apply. People are on the page because they want to apply. So make it really easy to apply. Help people find the information that they need and make next steps really obvious: struggling to find the right button should not be a barrier to entry!

PhD in Management page screenshot showing clear links to 'Scholarships', 'Supervisors', 'Research', 'Our students' and the 'Apply' button.

Click the button: The apply button on the old page had been hidden in a tab. Giving it a prominent position on the new page helped increase the conversion rate from 4.17% to 5.90%. That translates to about 270 extra applications started every year, just from shuffling things around.

Need-to-know

Helping potential PhD students make an informed decision is crucial to giving them the confidence to apply. It’s a decision about the next three to seven years of their lives (not to mention their future careers) and not one to be taken lightly.

Potential students need to identify a supervisor and make sure that their research complements and is complemented by the department’s existing portfolio. For many people, one of the most important factors in deciding to pursue an advanced degree is money, so fees and funding is high on the list.

The old pages required people to wade through a lot of text to find the links that they needed – if they existed at all. The new pages put key information front and centre, so users can find answers quickly and take the next step of their journey.

Where do they go now?

The table below shows the top five pages which users went to immediately after the main PhD page. It’s not fair to say that the information was inaccessible before – with persistence people percolate through eventually. However, making the routes easy and obvious helps more people find the pages they need – and means they arrive in a better frame of mind when they do.

Next pageOld PhD pageNew PhD page% change
Supervisors/
staff
1332,228+1,575%
Apply325913+181%
Funding
(UK/EU and

international)
550708+29%
Fees
(UK/EU and

international)
441863+96%
Current student
profiles
208546+163%

Navigation summary data for /management/doctoral-studies/phd_management/, 1 September 2017 to 31 August 2018 vs /management/phd/, 1 September 2018 to 31 August 2019. Due to other site restructures, I’ve grouped some ‘Next pages’ together to provide a more direct comparison.

What’s next?

We know that recruiting high-quality research students is essential to building our capacity for innovative research, inspirational teaching and pioneering projects. We want to ensure that potential PhD students can find the information that they need to know whether or not York is right for them.

Over the next few months we’ll work with departments to develop a template for research courses, similar to the pages we already have for undergraduate and postgraduate taught courses. Then we’ll talk to course leaders and build new pages, ensuring information is clear and up to date, to reinforce York’s reputation as a research powerhouse, with the expertise and facilities to support enquiring minds.

Published by

Tom Lock

I'm Tom, a content producer at the University of York. Most of my work is focused on student recruitment. I also lead on features on the University homepage and convene the Style Council (who maintain York's in-house style guide).

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