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What You Can Learn about PPC Advertising from a For-Profit University Spending $60,000,000+ Per Year

There’s been controversy recently surrounding for-profit universities related to how much they spend on marketing, how much federal funding they receive, and the value of the degrees they hand out.

An article from The Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that, over the last three years, 23.5% of The University of Phoenix’s revenue was spent on marketing and recruiting (for a total of $3 billion) while the university made a profit of $1.2 billion. CIR also found that a large amount of federal funding was used to pay for University of Phoenix classes, including the following:

“Nationally, the University of Phoenix received nearly $1 billion from the new GI Bill over the last five years. In all, 80,000 veterans of America’s recent wars spent their GI Bill money at 89 of its campuses and its online college, Department of Veterans Affairs data shows.”

During that same time period, The University of Phoenix in San Diego received $95 million in GI Bill funds, more than any other traditional campus in America and more than the 10-campus University of California system combined.

That’s a lot of federal funds flowing from the GI Bill to The University of Phoenix, which may seem ok, until you consider the following stats from The University of Phoenix in San Diego:

  • The overall graduation rate is only 15%
  • It’s associate degree costs $395 per credit (almost 10 times higher than a public community college)
  • More than a quarter of students default on their loans within three years after leaving school

These numbers look even worse after you learn that the California Student Aid Commission considers a graduation lower than 30% and a loan default rate more than 15.5% to be an indication of an education that’s below standard.

You can learn more about these stats and this alarming trend by reading the full CIR article.

However, we’d like to focus on something else. We’d like to take a look at how well oiled the University of Phoenix marketing machine is. Despite the controversy, really knows how to reach its target market effectively and how to get people to sign up for classes. Let’s take a look.

Marketing Spend

First of all, The University of Phoenix spends a lot of money on marketing. The total marketing spend over the last five years according to the CIR article is $3 billion. Some of this goes to T.V. commercials and other traditional advertisements, but a good percentage is spent on PPC ads.

You can find this out by doing an iSpionage search for “” (something you can do yourself by entering the URL into the text box underneath the orange header in the sidebar over to the right).

Next, you can scroll down to the estimate of last month’s stats where you see that The University of Phoenix spent between $4,375,039 to $5,846,081 on PPC ads and received approximately 67,735 to 86,080 clicks while bidding on 33,934 Google keywords and 23,720 Bing/Yahoo keywords. That’s a lot of money spent and a lot of clicks from PPC ads.


When you move over to the right in the iSpionage dashboard, you see the monthly ad estimate for the last twelve months plus the current month. This shows that the monthly PPC spend ranges from $12,912,864 in August to $2,174,684 in January. (It’s important to keep in mind that these are estimates based on publicly available data. The actual spend may be higher or lower than what’s estimated.)


So the University of Phoenix is spending a lot of money on PPC ads. But traffic and PPC budget only tell part of the story. What The University of Phoenix is really good at is converting visitors into students. The reason they can spend so much on advertising is because their ads convert. Let’s take a look at their ad copy and landing pages to see what best practices they’re using.

Ad Copy & Landing Pages

When we scroll down to The University of Phoenix’s top ads in Google we see that three of the five top ads based on iSpionage’s proprietary Ad Effectiveness Index (AEI) are focused on specific types of terms: nursing and adult education.

This is smart because one of the best practices for PPC ads is to make sure the ad copy matches the search intent as much as possible. If someone is searching for nursing, an ad with a headline that says “Nursing Programs” will do better than a headline that says “Get a Degree.” Both will get clicks, but the first will be more effective.


Not only do they have ad copy that matches the keyword being searched, but they also group their keywords according to what people are searching for. The nursing ad previously mentioned has 4,006 nursing related keywords associated with it, and the adult education ad has 18 related keywords associated with it.


Grouping related keywords together like this allows you to show ad copy that matches what people are searching for. The tighter your keywords are grouped, the more effective your campaigns will be.

Moving on you can click on the destination URL for the nursing ad being used for 4,006 keywords, which takes you to this landing page:


Once again, this follows a best practice by taking visitors to a landing page that matches both the search intent and the ad copy. The searcher is looking for a nursing program, the copy advertises for nursing, and the landing page is about nursing. This is much better than a landing page for a general degree being matched to a specific search for nursing. Smart marketers make sure to match their landing pages and ad copy with the search intent.

The University of Phoenix also directs searchers to a well-designed landing page that focuses on the searches intent and not just the website’s homepage, another big mistake that a lot of people make. You always want to make sure to drop PPC traffic onto a landing page that very closely matches what people are searching for and not on a general page or on the website’s homepage where they have to search around to find what they’re looking for.

Moving on to look at more data, we can see a list of’s top competitors as shown below. Not surprisingly, eight out of the ten are other for-profit universities that send over $1 million on PPC ads monthly, and one out of the other two ( is related to for-profit universities.


As you’ve seen so far, The University of Phoenix does an excellent job with their PPC ads and web marketing. They have a very large PPC budget, and convert enough of the traffic to stay in business and to earn over a billion dollars in profit. There’s a lot that PPC marketers can learn from the best practices employs, including:

  1. Making sure the ad copy being used closely matches the searches intent.
  2. Grouping related keywords into specific ad groups.
  3. Remembering to make sure landing pages also match both the searchers intent and the ad copy used.

Even if you don’t agree with a for-profit university like the University of Phoenix receiving so much money from the GI Bill, there’s still a lot that you and not-for-profit schools can learn from’s marketing. Specifically, if you follow all three of the lessons mentioned above, you’ll be well on your way to optimized ad campaigns that perform well and earn more revenue for your business.


Joe Putnam Headshot
Joe Putnam is the blog editor at iSpionage. You can discuss this article with him on Twitter at @josephputnam.