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Information and insight from the A&M Webmasters

Building a Successful Website

May 2nd, 2011 by Erick Beck

We get a lot of comments about our university website. The question that is probably most asked is “how did you do it?” While the site is far from perfect – there a a lot of things that I personally don’t like – I do think that in the broad sense it can be called a success…or at least an improvement over what it used to be. With that in mind, here is how we made a successful (or at least better) website.

Know Who You Are
In our case this meant getting back to our roots. The previous version of the site strayed away from the traditional Aggie color scheme. It wasn’t bad, but it never had the die-hard support of Old Ags (it could have been worse, the designers’ first draft was green rather than maroon. Luckily that was rejected by the powers that be.) This is, at its core, basic branding. Your website is the online showcase for your university, and it needs to visually express who you are.

Know Your Audience
This simple axiom appears in every writer’s guide, but seldom seems to be applied to university websites. Know who you are writing for and what content they want. In our case we determined that the primary audience for www.tamu.edu is prospective students and their parents. We kept this as a guiding factor when deciding how to lay out the site, what the core organizational areas would be, what content would get linked to, and what information of our own to post.

This was a difficult decision, and yes we did take flack from some of our on-campus users who expected basic intranet content to be posted. While we did in the end leave faculty and staff sections, we made deliberate choices of what to put on and (even more so) leave off. In the end, our primary users actually have noticed this focus and have commented on how refreshing it is to be considered the center of our attention.

Network with Peers
I attended several web conferences over the last few years and had extensive conversations with peers about what they were doing, what worked, and what didn’t. The biggest takeaway is that we’re all facing pretty much the same problems. So don’t reinvent the wheel – find out how somebody has already solved the problem that you’re facing.

Satisfy Your User
This should probably have been listed first, because it is the most important thing you have to do. Users come to your site to perform a task. Generally speaking that task is to find content of some sort about your university. That means their experience with your site is going to be determined by whether they could find what they were looking for. There are a few components to this:

  1. Make the information available – there are many studies that will show what college bound students and parents are looking for. Use this research as a checklist and make sure your site contains every one of them.
  2. Make the content simple to find – your design should funnel people to the information they’re looking for. If users can’t find content, for them it’s the same thing as it not being there.
  3. Identify (from above) the most sought-after content on your site. Move that content towards the top of the site and make many prominent links to it from pages throughout the site.
  4. Once you have identified your core organizational areas, compare your structure to everybody else’s site. I went through that list once for each of our core areas and identified any element that somebody else had on their site that I had have missed on my own list. While doing these sweeps, keep a lookout to see if there is a core organizational area that you have left off. Our “Student Life” section, for example, was added precisely in this way.

This process is a lot of work. It’s long and tedious, but in the end it means that you will have identified the important content that you need to have, which in turn means your site will be more useful for your users.

Collaborate
This step might be different depending on your university organization. We are a very decentralized campus where every office is in charge of their own website. Our office has effectively no control, and often little input, in what goes on these sites, how they look, etc. These sites do, though, contain the information that visitors to www.tamu.edu want to see. So rather than being an all-encompassing website, www.tamu.edu instead is much more of an aggregator site that links users to content managed elsewhere. In order to do this effectively we must work with offices across campus…asking them for what content is most relevant, where links should go, etc. We aren’t experts on everything that takes place on campus, so we rely on this communication to make sure we’re sending people to the right information.

Site Integration
Those who read often know that his is my favorite soapbox. Your overall web presence cannot be successful if it consists of several separate sites that don’t integrate and interact with one another. We approached the university website knowing that events from the Web Calendar and the University News sites were going to play a central role in providing page content. These are all piped in through RSS feeds and incorporated into the site. We have expanded on the concept, making sure that calendar events get embedded in news stories, photos from the image repository get used in calendar events, top-10 search terms get used in our departmental site, social media links on our 2nd level pages, and many others. We are always looking for ways of cross-site content usage.

Be Flexible
Just because your site is published doesn’t mean it’s done – it is instead just the beginning. Realize that nothing is set in stone and that you should always be willing to make changes. With a project this big you will never have gotten everything perfect on day one. There will be links that need to be updated, content rewritten, and perhaps even large-scale revisions to be made.

We understood this and took the approach that the site would evolve over time. As people across campus gained familiarity with the site they sent in comments, suggested changes, and requests for more new content. One of these involved the addition of a new element that combined several of these principles — the Research page now contains a feature box that pulls research-related stories from the TAMU News site. Collaborating with the Division of Research, this same feed will also be incorporated into their own upcoming site.

We were also willing to admit our oversights and make changes to correct them. Our recent run through the NCAA Womens’ Basketball tournament revealed that we weren’t doing a good job on the athletic page of getting people to the information they wanted at the time. We therefore set up a new element on that page that would feature our teams whenever they are in big events and provide links to get visitors to the information they were coming to find.

Conclusion
While I would love to say there is some magic secret or formula what leads to success, for us it has always boiled down to old-fashioned hard work, and then some more hard work after that. I learn new things on each project, but these basic guiding principles help keep me focused and the end result hopefully on target.

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Monday, May 2nd, 2011 design, www.tamu.edu
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3 Comments to Building a Successful Website

  1. Great job guys!

  2. Leo Pardo on May 3rd, 2011
  3. How did you find the image scroller?

  4. Chris on May 3rd, 2011
  5. It was mostly through a Google search. We knew that we wanted to break away from the Flash slideshow that was on the old site and go with something that was more accessibility friendly. There are many similar javascript slideshow packages available online. We examined several and found the one that we thought offered the best balance of desired features and ease of use. Since we update the slides often we wanted something that could update content quickly and easily.

  6. Erick on May 3rd, 2011

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