I have finished the second round of my SEO research, gathering a set of recommendations and best practices that can apply to any organization. As with the previous report, I will post sections of it here spread across the next several weeks. I hope to turn this into a presentation format and eventually be able to do consultations with offices across campus, and perhaps present it at a uweb meeting.
For all the hype about search engine optimization, at its heart it is about marketing. While the techniques used might be technical in nature, the end goal is to better position our pages on the search engine return page (SERP) so that more people will see it and click through to our site. A 2011 study indicated that the #1 position in Google’s search results received 18.2% of all click-through traffic, the second received 10.1%, the third 7.2%, the fourth 4.7%, and all others below 2% each. Clearly, then, it is in our best interest to be ranked as highly as possible.
In order to make recommendations regarding changes we should make in our sites’ search optimization, we must first lay down the guidelines that should be followed. In many ways SEO is very formulaic. Know the rules, implement them on your page, and monitor the search industry for any changes made to the algorithms that determine rankings.
Google is very open about how you should build pages to achieve the best results, but they do not go into explicit detail on weights given to each element of a page when calculating page rankings. SEO firms, through a combination of listening closely to what Google/Bing developers say publicly, patent research, and code testing have helped fill in some of these areas to allow for more specific recommendations.
As you read through the following posts, please keep in mind that these recommendations are meant only as a brief overview. They touch on the important parts of each topic, but I am well aware that much more could have been included. If you feel strongly about something that wasn’t mentioned, please feel free to leave comments and start a conversation.
For those of you not on the uweb mailing list, this announcement was sent last week:
IT Risk Management will be sponsoring a meeting room to view the Environments for Humans Accessibility Summit on September 9-10.
The summit will feature several notable web accessibility experts speaking on a wide-range of topics over a two day period. Attendees can join us at no cost. Come for two full days of sessions, or come and go as your schedule allows.
RSVP required. Email firstname.lastname@example.org by Friday, August 1 to reserve a seat.
Any of us who have a credit card, online social media profile, or anything else that stores personal data has received one of those “we respect your privacy” notices, which are typically several pages of fine print telling what they will actually do to share your information. Similarly, every time we sign up for an online contest we always do a cost analysis — is the free t-shirt that they’re giving away worth the hassle of dealing with all the spam we will surely get as a consequence?
We are not immune here at the university. It is a matter of state law that our web sites have to post a privacy statement informing users what we do with the information we collect about them. In most cases this is just server logs, and most of the time we don’t do much with them. Privacy statements, then, have become considered more of a nuisance that we have to bear with rather than — to refer back to my previous post — a matter of hospitality aimed at making a better user experience.
We have even made it easy, creating a generic statements page on the university site that you across campus can link to. Most of us do so without thinking. Have we actually read the privacy statement there? If so does the information that our webservers collect actually match up with what is disclosed there? Given the number of different environments on campus I suspect not.
While this practice might be understandable [I can't legally say excused] for generic log information, we are equally lax when it comes to forms which collect personally identifiable information. That is not excusable, either from a legal perspective or from providing a good customer experience. The latest Noel Levitz e-expectations report for the first time contains an entire section examining the issue of student and parent attitudes toward privacy, and it shows that both groups are concerned about how their personal information is treated.
Even sharing contact information on an official application for admission was rated as a concern to many students and the majority of parents. Things like signing up to “receive more information” or signing up for an online event were concerns for over half of both groups. If there is concern over even these more official channels, then we certainly need to be more visible in our day-to-day contact forms.
We have many ways of requesting information from visitors here on campus. I will make the assumption that all of them have legitimate purposes. I also know that we have been asked several times by various groups on campus to share the information that we collect. I am not a lawyer so I can’t say whether we could legally do so, but doing so without disclosing it to the visitor would certainly be unethical. In the spirit of “hospitality” instead of “service” we need to go further, though, and be very up-front and transparent to our users. They are trusting us with their personal information, so it is our responsibility to let them know we deserve that trust.
Sometimes the best ideas for what we, or any industry, do comes from the outside. I have recently started reading Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business which, as the title suggests, is aimed primarily at a business audience. In it he describes the process by which he created a highly successful collection of restaurants in New York City. The lessons he learned and the techniques that he used can transcend industry and be applicable even within something as unrelated as web development.
His basic premise centers around what he calls “enlightened hospitality.” This concept completely changes the importance placed on the various stakeholders for the overall enterprise. [I leave it as an exercise for the interested reader to track down the specifics. An entire management class could probably be composed from them, but that is beyond the scope of this blog.] It has proven enormously effective, though. Companies that Meyer has identified as embodying the spirit of enlightened hospitality, such as Chipotle and Google, have been among the most successful over the last several years.
Make no mistake about it, we are in the hospitality business. Students have a choice of where to attend, and it is largely on us to affect their decisions. (Note the Noel Levitz report referenced in my last post about university web sites being the most important influencer in a student’s decision.) Hospitality is something that comes natural at A&M. We are known for and pride ourselves on the friendliness of our student body. Talk to anyone in the visitor center and they will tell you that if we can get prospective students here for a visit the experience is often enough to cement their decision.
We need to convey that same openness. Too often we treat our web sites as a tool to inform our audience of what they need to know. Hospitality, though, is not a monologue. It is a dialog. We need to talk with our prospective students and parents, not at them. This creates the atmosphere where they feel included in the conversation, which is the first step in making them feel welcome and at home.
We are already, starting to put this into practice. I have briefly mentioned in the past that we are in the process of redesigning the university web site. The biggest change that I see in the new version will be that, if we do our jobs right, it will reflect this concept and be more inviting than the current version.
Each year the Noel Levitz consultant firm publishes an e-expectations report on the expectations of graduating high school students and their parents. This is an invaluable report series for gaining insight into what we should include on our web sites. We use it as a set of guidelines, making sure that all of the most important elements that they cover are available and easy to find. This year’s report is out, and as usual it has some important takeaways for us to consider.
I encourage you to download and read the full report, but here are a few highlights:
- Both parents and students rated college websites as the most influential resource when making up their mind. It is also their preferred method of doing research and the source which they consider the most reliable.
- Access to mobile devices is nearly universal among this demographic, but only 71% of students use them to access a university site and only 45% of parents did so.
- Paid advertisement is becoming more effective. Thirty one percent of students have clicked on a paid ad in search or social media channels. These tend to be the students who have not yet decided which school to attend — i.e., potential recruits.
- Social media continues to be big and continues to grow, but patterns are changing. Other than Facebook and Twitter, all other major channels doubled in usage since last year’s survey. Visual media such as YouTube and Instagram have passed Twitter in popularity. Google+, important to SEO as we have seen, has become viable with 30% of students on that platform.
- Privacy is still a concern, especially among parents. Collecting information is important for us as a university, but we need to let the students and parents know that we respect their privacy and will be using their information responsibly.
Web developers can be funny (in case that’s news to you). Myself, I get tickled by the Vanilla JS website. According to the Vanilla JS team, “Vanilla JS is already used on more websites than jQuery, Prototype JS, MooTools, YUI, and Google Web Toolkit - combined… It is the most lightweight framework available anywhere… your users’ browsers will have Vanilla JS loaded into memory before it even requests your site.”
Yes, frameworks and libraries can speed up common web development tasks. But you have to learn how to use them first. And then, what about tasks that are not so common? Then you have to figure out the “jQuery way” or the “SASS way” to solve the problem. Or the “Zend way” or the “Node.js way” or the “AngularJS way.”
I have the same problem with WordPress themes and plugins. They offer widgets to do common tasks, but if they don’t do what you want, you have to figure out what they are doing – what function you have to fix, in what file. The other day, I felt a little challenged because I couldn’t find some of the CSS for our new Canvas-themed WordPress site. “But wasn’t it in your stylesheet, Michael?” No, since themes are “highly customizable,” the options panel was generating a separate set of styles. (Note to team: the options panel can be disabled.)
Veteran Linux users will recognize the underlying problem. That’s why they like to use the command line, because it does exactly what you want – as long as you don’t mistype anything. When people who feared code started to blog, they often remained prisoners of their fears. For example, simply to change
<?php echo get_the_title(); ?> to
<?php echo get_the_title()," | My Blog"; ?>, they would have to install a WordPress plugin. They had to do things the hard way because they didn’t know an easier way. Part of being a professional web developer, of course, is knowing the easier way – working directly with HTML, CSS, etc.
Handholding is fine as long as you can get your hand loose when you need to.
For several weeks I have been talking about Google as a search engine company. That is true, but let’s also remember that they are a for-profit corporation. While their search engine is the reason we go to their site, the primary source of their revenue is from selling ads. Yes, I am sure they would love for us all to use their search because it’s theirs, but in the end they want us to use their search because that’s where the ads (or at least many of them) are.
Google has a deep understanding of this, and almost everything they do ultimately has some tie to improving their search returns. Google has become the dominant search engine because they have historically anticipated what people want from a search and produced the best returns. The better the quality of the search the more people they have using the service, and the more people using the service the more ads they can display. They therefore realize that it is in their own best interest for us to publish quality web pages. In order to continue improving their search returns they need us to produce better content. To that end, they have introduced several online resources that help us do our jobs better.
Reading the products page on the Google Developers site is exhaustive. I had intended to do a list of the more useful items there, but the length of the article that would have created changed my plans. Instead here are two new offerings.
This is actually the product that prompted this post. It is a new package that provides an optimized set files to get you started on a new HTML5 project. It has everything you need to make the site responsive for mobile and optimized for download speed.
Another relatively new feature, this site aims at providing a curated set of best practices for web development. Think of it as an online boot camp for webmasters. It is primarily geared toward developing on a mobile platform but the lessons and tips presented are useful anywhere.
Google made a big announcement on Monday regarding search returns for mobile devices. They recognize the growing importance of mobile and are taking steps to make mobile search more user friendly. People grow frustrated with they click through to a site and can’t read its content, so Google will begin posting notices on the search return page for entries that contain primarily technologies that may not work on mobile devices. The prime example would be Adobe Flash, since it does not run on iOS devices.
Here is an example of what they say it might look like:
It may be some time before we see how this actually plays out. I did a quick search for sites that I know contain flash — even those which are 100% flash driven — and I am not seeing the notice in my search results. My Android phone does support Flash, but even on an iPad I couldn’t find an example of a site with a notice.
In doing this search I noticed that many sites are already moving from Flash to HTML5 animations anyway. Even those which haven’t are starting to do a better job of replacing the Flash content with at least static image content. Still, I think the fact that Google is taking this step is a clear signal that we need to meet our users’ needs however they come to our sites.
Great article from our colleagues in the Tarleton web services group on how to (and how not to) format your page so that readers can find the important content — http://tarletonweb.blogspot.com/2014/06/end-bloodletting-in-digital-visibility16.html
If you are a regular follower of this site you will have certainly noticed a big pickup in the frequency of posts over the last couple of weeks. That was intentional and not just a matter of posting content about my new SEO project.
As a campus we have struggled in creating a cohesive community of web professionals. I have been asked several times about whether there is an organization that lets us share thoughts and ideas or something that we can point new employees to so that they can become familiar with our local environment. I have tried to get more activity in the uWeb group, but given our time constraints it is hard for us to get away for in-person meetings. While I won’t abandon that effort, I hope that increasing the posts here will be the next best thing.
To that end I have asked my entire staff to start adding posts. This will hopefully give the added benefit of having a broader viewpoint that my voice alone, and introduce them to you as well. Charlie introduced himself last week, and Michael has already been posting occasionally, but now the others should be following shortly.
I have also invited a few others from across campus to be guest bloggers. This will allow us to keep you informed about events and projects beyond what Marcomm is involved with. If any of you would like to similarly write about something that would be of interest to campus give me a call and we can get something set up.