The typical way university websites are redesigned is to go look at what other universities have done and build something like that. There has been buzz about looking at corporate sites as part of the design process, but little of that has actually been done. In today’s world, though, we probably should take a page from the corporate playbook.
The trend online in business is to have everything online. Look at car insurance, for example. The website for any insurance company does not just describe the products and give you a number to call a local agent. It instead offers you the opportunity to create an account and sign up right away.
The corporate world is also much better at identifying and agreeing on the customer (i.e. the target audience.) They define measurable goals and set benchmarks for what successful completion of the goal is. The site has a defined purpose. The example insurance company website, for example, might have a goal of increasing policy purchases by 7% over the next six months. How many of us have that precise of a goal? How many of us instead have a goal of just providing information to whoever is interested in looking at it?
Whoever the target audience is, the goal should be to engage with them. Active engagement leads to conversions. Drive customers to your products, whatever they may be. For a university this might be a completed application, registration for a campus visit, or even the completion of a “send me more information” form.
Take a look at some of the for-profit educational institutions. Because of their profit motive they have been among the leaders in applying these principles. Compare their navigational elements to yours and see where they are putting their focus (not that this is something we should strive toward, but it is important to consider.)
There has been a focus shift in the role of websites. They originally centered on the organizational structure, then moved to focus on the user, and they are now becoming about the engagement process and driving conversions. Many of us are in isolated IT or communications groups. In order to effectively migrate our sites to this new paradigm, we must reach out to those who are setting our mission goals and find out what our priorities should be.
Rolling a couple of presentations into one post, the theme here is website optimization, from both a technical and content standpoint.
Website download speed correlates directly to user experience, which in turn correlates to conversions. Tying back to the first of these posts, you should have some measurable goal for your website that you can track in conversions. This is how we can align our digital strategy to the mission of the university.
Perceptions of website speed:
- Response time 0 – 100 ms => instant access
- Response time 100 – 300 ms => site is working properly
- Response time 300 – 1,000 ms => perceived delay, consider adding a spinner
- Response time > 1,000 ms => attention is likely to be wandering
- Response time > 10,000 ms => They have probably left by now
In looking at the above figures, keep in mind that network latency is a huge issue. Even assuming no network slowdowns, the location of the client and server can add enough overhead to make your site perceptibly slow. This is why the best thing you can do to optimize your code is to decrease the number of http calls.
For optimizing content on the page, there are several myths that need to be dispelled. This can be a challenging process, though, because they are often deeply ingrained.
- The “3 click” rule has been disproven for many years. Evidence shows that users will continue to click for over 20 links if they perceive they are making progress to their eventual destination.
- The Boston Globe is seen as one of the leaders in online publication. They have done extensive A/B testing and have shown that the concept of “the fold” does not apply on websites. In fact, depending on design, heatmaps of many sites show that site use can be stronger below the fold.
- Carousels are not effective in increasing user engagement. Focus instead on a single content element that is the most compelling
Content must also be well written. We say that “content is king,” but a king needs his kingdom and that is what the website provides.
One of the worst offenders of bad content is still the “click here” link. This is becoming increasingly true as fewer people “browse” the web and instead rely on search. Your SEO suffers every time you write “click here.” Search engines give added weight to linked text, so the best practice is to include key words that you want searched in the link. Do you really think people go to Google and type “click here” to find your site?
What is the most important page on your campus? According to one presentation it is your campus calendar.
There are three important audiences (in increasing order of importance) for a calendar:
- Internal audience – people who want to know what is going on
- Internal audience – groups on campus who want their event promoted
- External audience – the calendar gives a sense of place and shows what the campus is like.
The identification of this last audience rings home to me. In the last revision of the university website I had many people ask why we should include calendar events on the front page and worked hard to remove it altogether. Keep in mind your site audience and their needs, though. For the university website, we very intentionally slanted content toward prospective students and their parents. For these people it is very important to understand what campus is like through seeing the types of events that take place here.
The external audience also comes into play for marketing purposes. We have many high profile events and speakers who come to campus. Use your calendars to show what is happening this week that you want the world to know about.
A few tips to consider when creating calendar sites or events
- Use imagery. Photos and graphics draw the user’s eye and help to flesh out your event
- Don’t settle for a static location for the event – include it on a map so that people can see exactly how to get to the event.
- Push events to your digital signage. If your digital signs have geolocation, target events which are geographically close to the sign’s location.
The University of Alabama has created a web professionals community similar to the Go Web team that we are currently putting together. They have good buyin – 78 members from 30 departments. They have a decentralized structure similar to us, so face many of the same challenges.
Their goal is to help the university by helping its people, which is very similar to the goals of our own campus group. They went through several phases to get where they are now — first as a blog, then as a purely social group, and then as a group that meets to talk about issues and have topical presentations.
A few thoughts from what they are doing:
- Use Slack and Listserv lists to stay in constant communication
- Their central web team acts as a steering committee, but does not seek to dominate communications for force the group to follow their own agenda
- Start small and scale up
- Group meetings to watch webinars or streaming conferences is a great way of both learning new ideas, saving money by pooling costs, and participating as a group
- Encourage meetings which are centered around members sharing success stories. Don’t just focus on technical conversations.
- Webex presentations of vendors demonstrating a product are great ways of stimulating campus-wide discussion on a platform
- Actively look for academic licensing opportunities. They are leveraging BitBucket’s academic license to allow for private repos
- When planning a presentation, try to begin planning 3 months in advance. Have a backup in case the primary speaker has to cancel. Roundtables often make for good backups as well.
There were so many great takeaways from the conference last week that I can’t adequately sum them all up in one post. I will therefore break things up over a couple of weeks so that each one remains easily to follow and retain.
Going in to HighEdWeb I was already starting to think in terms of how to better frame everything we do to align more closely with the mission of the university. Too often we get caught up in projects because we think they are “cool” or invest importance in the project for the project’s own sake or because it is important to us personally. We instead need to think in terms of how the project can best serve the goals of the university as a whole.
This was brought home in the first of the track presentations that I attended. Beloit College produced an amazingly cute and funny video starring their campus squirrels. Everyone loved it and talked about it…but it didn’t actually drive increased admissions numbers.
Another presentation described a web team that many of us are familiar with. They were in an environment where they were seen as order takers and no one in their organization would say “no” to a new request. This led to a mass of projects and priority being given to those who yelled the loudest. They were able to turn the situation around. Their advice is to go to leadership with a definite plan. These people probably already know about the problem, and if you get in front with a plan they will likely support you. Understand, though, that this might wind up increasing your work load for at least the short run. The key to to have a plan, identify priorities, and focus your resources on the priorities. Don’t be afraid to outsource projects that are not on the priority list, just be sure to contract for post-launch support as well.
After a packed three days, the conference is over now except for the trip home. As always, I will be coming back loaded with ideas, and as always it will probably take another six months to clear our plate and be able to start looking at any of them. I do hope, though, that several of the presentations and conversations from the last few days will work themselves into initiatives – both for Marcomm and the university – over the next year. I will try to go over my notes and post some of the highlights here, but in the meantime I encourage you to review the #heweb2015 Twitter feed to get several interesting insights and outtakes.
One of the most effective ways to get more readers is when readers share your content through social media. One of the most effective ways to increase your search engine rankings is when websites link to your content. It doesn’t just happen. But also, it can’t be forced.
- Is there a correlation between shares and links?
- What content gets both shares and links?
- What formats get relatively more shares or links?
In their summary, Content, Shares, and Links: Insights from Analyzing 1 Million Articles, the researchers reported:
What we found is that the majority of content published on the internet is simply ignored when it comes to shares and links. The data suggests most content is simply not worthy of sharing or linking, and also that people are very poor at amplifying content. It may sound harsh but it seems most people are wasting their time either producing poor content or failing to amplify it.
Shares are much easier to get than links. Sharing can be almost effortless for your readers. Getting links requires more work – from you. And settling for “average” results may not be what you want. Just as most people have a higher than average number of legs, most articles get a lower than average number of links (slightly above zero). In a random sample of articles, 75% had no external links, and 50% had less than five social shares. Of course, there are notable exceptions, and the article that received 5.7 million shares blew the curve.
What content is most likely to be shared? (Hint: it’s not infographics)
- Lists: yes
- Videos: yes
- Quizzes: yes
- “Why” posts: yes
But getting lots of shares doesn’t mean you will earn a lot of web links. Or vice versa. Off-beat quizzes, videos, and cat pictures might go viral as they’re shared around the world, but websites aren’t as likely to link to them. The conclusion? People seem to share and link to content for different reasons.
What content is most likely to be shared and linked to?
- Deep research
- opinion-forming content
- content from popular domains
- major news sites
- authoritative, research-backed content
By the way, longer content consistently receives more shares and links than shorter-form content. An article that’s 1,000-2,000 words long is twice as likely to get linked to as an article that’s less than 1,000 words long. Compared to a short article, a 3,000-10,000 word is twice as likely to be shared and three times as likely to be linked to.
As I mentioned yesterday, we are rolling out the first set of updates to the university site today that have been requested by offices across campus. One of these affects the page footer, specifically a couple of links in the Admissions section. While these changes have been live on the web pages, we just pushed it out to github yesterday.
This shouldn’t affect most of you, but if you have downloaded the template files from github you might want to either grab the updated version or make these changes in your own code.
Thank you to everyone who has made comments about the new university web site over the last few weeks, whether that was a “great job” or a “can you include my link too?” or even “I liked the old version better, can you put it back?” We really do listen to suggestions, and continue to make adjustments based on this feedback.
Rather than immediately making each change based on individual requests we will, at least for for the next month or so, be rolling them into a series of scheduled releases. Anything that is actually broken or in need of immediate attention, of course, will be fixed right away, but the bulk of the updates will be scheduled on a weekly or bi-weekly basis until we get everything rolled out. The first of these is scheduled for tomorrow.
Now that we have a little breathing room and a little time since the site has gone live, we are starting to look at what’s next on our list. We have several other projects that we have been working on but have never had the opportunity to fully devote resources, so hopefully we will soon be able to announce several initiatives.
As promised, we are releasing a set of templates for the university site that you may use on your own projects. This will be the first of several sets that we intend to release. We recognize that the layout of the header and the navigation elements may not work for everyone, so we will be providing some alternatives down the road.
The first round of templates is now available on the TAMU github mirror. You will need to log in with your NetID in order to download the code.
We are providing a basic header/footer option as well as page layouts for a couple of our second and third level pages. We are currently not providing the code for the university home page. We think it is important to make sure that the university home page is unique, and that your own site home pages are customized to meet your individual needs.
The templates are fully responsive, brand ready, and have been reviewed by the university web accessibility team. If you have any questions for further needs please give us a call.