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TAMU Webmaster's Blog

Information and insight from the A&M Webmasters


Building a Successful Website

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 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.

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 want to see. So rather than being an all-encompassing website, 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.

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, 3 Comments

Calendar Upgrade Details

Since many of you have heard about the calendar upgrade project and have already asked what we’re doing, I’d like to mention a few specific improvements that you’ll see in the new version. Most of them are fixes from elements in the current generation of calendar code that do not work well or at all. Note that several of these input fields are in the collapsible “Additional Details” box, don’t forget about it.

* Subtitles
Michael has recommended to several of you not to use subtitles because of the way the page is formatted. This will no longer be a problem, and we actively encourage the use of subtitles to add information to the event.

* Images
We encourage you to submit images with your calendar events. A combination of interesting event and good artwork will increase the likelihood of your event being chosen to go into the slideshow at the top of the page. We’ll update you with specific image dimensions as we get further along.

* Website
Please give us a link to your event’s web page. Using this box will make the link clickable and sets it off from simply printing it in the event description

The sponsoring office will now show up on an event description. If we don’t have you already in the list let us know and we’ll be happy to add you.

* Description
We are going to start truncating the descriptions in the event listings pages in order to make the entire page more uniform and readable. We highly encourage you to enter detailed descriptions, though, that can be seen on the full event details page. One of the things I have noticed during this rewrite is the number of events with interesting titles but descriptions that don’t really tell me what it’s about or make me want to attend.

* Ongoing Events
This is a big one that should please a lot of people. Currently only the first day of an event is shown on the weekly and monthly calendar views. Now we will be able to show each day of multi-day events. This should save a lot of work for those of you who had been making a separate event for each day to make sure it showed up.

* Short URLs
Using the API we can assign a short URL to each page on the calendar. This automatically gets wrapped into the new Twitter “share this” icon.

* Organization of Event Types & Sub-calendars
We have created one master list combining event types and sub-calendars, and moved from pull-down menus to printed links. This should help the problem of finding specific topical events. Please review this page, and if you think your calendar has been mis-categorized please let us know.

Also send along any other suggestions you might have, it’s never too late to make a better product.

Making these updates has given me a much better view than I’ve had in the past regarding how the calendar is being used, some common mis-perceptions, and some areas where we haven’t done a great job in communicating how to best use it. As we get into the process Michael and I will be posting a series of hints and best practices to help everybody get the most out of the system with the least effort.

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Thursday, February 24th, 2011 Calendar 3 Comments

No Rest for the Weary

We had a little drama during the upgrade process, and had to do the site migration separately from the hardware updates instead of catching everything all at once, but we are finally live now. There were a few bugs in the process, and I’ve spent most of this morning fixing those as well as making the inevitable deluge of post-publication requests for content and link changes, but I’m satisfied that we’re largely stable now, that the new site is an improvement over the old one, and that the new architecture will be much more robust than what we had before (major shout-out to Tom Golson and the CIS team for their work on this part of the project.)

Don’t let this make you think we’re putting the site on hold. This is the face of the university, so we will be continually working with folks around campus on making improvements to sections throughout the site.

Finishing this project will let us focus for a short time on a few internal projects, but I already have a two-page list of what still needs to be done for the larger public TAMU-web, so we’ll definitely be rolling out some big things soon.

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Tuesday, January 18th, 2011 3 Comments

Website up, mostly

The new site is now up! Mostly…

Due to a couple of snafus we were not able to make the migration to the new hardware that we had planned. We will reschedule that for the weekend, so by next week we should be on the new machines.

We thought it important to get the site published on schedule, though. We had told too many people to expect it today to abandon the entire project. So we instead put the new code onto the old hardware and waved a few magic wands. This process did cause a few bugs to creep in, but hopefully most of those will be minor and will not affect a lot of people.

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Friday, January 14th, 2011 2 Comments

University Website Launch

We have listened to all the comments we’ve received on the new www.tamu.eduwebsite, made a few changes, and are just about ready to launch the site. The plan is to flip the switch on Friday morning. The change will involve site code, physical hardware, and NetAp settings, so there are a lot of moving parts. I don’t expect there to be a lot of downtime associated with the change, but be patient with us that morning.

The feedback we’ve gotten from our demos has been consistently positive, so I hope this will be a welcome upgrade of the university web presence.

We won’t be resting after this site goes up, we have a lot more to come. Jeff has been working on a new registration system for the Visitor Center and we’ll publish that soon. After that we’ll be looking at updating our own departmental website, revisiting the campus calendar, creating a new version of the mobile site, and launching a virtual tour.

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Wednesday, January 12th, 2011 No Comments

University site mostly finished

We’re putting the finishing touches on the new university site as we head into the holidays. While there are still a few minor tweeks, the content and layout is pretty much settled. Please take a chance and visit the site – it still isn’t too late to let us know what is missing or needs updating –

We still need to coordinate deployment with CIS, but the tentative plan is to publish in early January before the students return for the spring semester.

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Wednesday, December 15th, 2010 2 Comments

Website Preview

We previewed the prototype for the new university website to Brand Council this morning, so most of the campus communications offices now have an idea of where we’re going. I’m happy to say that their response was overwhelmingly positive.

We would now like to extend an invitation to our followers here to preview the site as well (and send us your feedback!) The URL is

Please keep in mind that this is still a working prototype so few things are set in stone, and there is some placeholder content still in place. The exact makeup of the page content is still changing, and will change more based on the comments you send us. We thought it important, though, to get your feedback before anything became final.

As a frame of reference – the site’s main audience is potential students and their parents. To that end we have emphasized those content areas that are most referenced by that group.

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Wednesday, November 10th, 2010 Web Content, 4 Comments

Back to Reality

The trip to eduWeb last week was well worth it.  I noticed several new trends and picked up some ideas that we can incorporate into our web presence.  I’ll post some of those observations once I have a chance to review my notes and organize my thoughts.

While catching up from the trip on Friday I kept running across the cartoon that somebody posted about what should be on a university website.

cartoon depicting topics of what is on a university website vs. what should be

I must have seen this cartoon on at least a dozen blogs, mail lists, personal emails, and Facebook posts.  When it started making the rounds of the local uweb listserv I figured I had to reply.  I know it was sent tongue-in-cheek, but it does bring up an important point that we (ironically those of us in the IT world more-so than others) tend to forget.

My thoughts are best summed up by a comment Brian Niles left on the highedwebtech blog. For better or worse, the main website at any university is now mostly about marketing the university to the outside world – particularly prospective students and their parents.  [Pardon me while I don my flame-retardant suit.]  Online resources for the campus community really belong on a campus intranet, in our case the Howdy portal, various divisional websites, and our departmental intranets.

Of course nothing is ever absolute and we should expect there to always be overlap.  Most of the elements on the right side of the image are already on our campus website, and I believe I can say that all of them were already being incorporated into the new version we’re creating.  That being said, when choosing the content for the site we do approach it largely with an external audience in mind, and this trend will likely grow more pronounced over time.

The main university website is no longer the primary method of conveying online information to all audiences.  As the internet has evolved it has gotten more sophisticated and allowed us to tailor the content to particular groups.  That doesn’t mean the on-campus audience gets left behind, it just means that we need to present their content separately from what we give to the public.

It also means that we need to take as much care in crafting the websites aimed at our on-campus audience as we do those aimed at the public.  I have no doubt this cartoon was drawn by somebody working on a campus and was frustrated at not getting the information he was looking for.   The problem, though, was that he was looking in the wrong place, and we as web managers didn’t have a complete university web presence aimed at filling his needs.

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Monday, August 2nd, 2010 3 Comments

Campus Input on New Features

As we get deeper and deeper into the redesign of the university website we are starting to run into issues with some of the content and with usefulness of some of the pages. John and I will be visiting with several of of across campus to solicit feedback on specific sections, but for the more generic areas I want to use this forum to get your opinions on certain topics.

My first question is about the phone list at – does anybody actually use it, and how useful is that page to you? I’m embarrassed to admit that the content of that page is the same as what we inherited three years ago, and I suspect it was originally written quite a long time before that. I like the concept of having a phone numbers page for the more prominent offices on campus, but that list is a hodgepodge that I can’t say is necessarily the numbers that need to be featured.

So from a usefulness standpoint what would be most helpful to you? Should we scrap the concept and instead feature the directory search, or try to rework that page to bring it up to date? If the latter, how detailed should the list become, and where should we draw the line between what to include and what to leave off?

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Thursday, July 15th, 2010 3 Comments

Browser Support

Departments and offices on campus will frequently ask to consult with us whenever they begin a new redesign process (we love talking to you, please continue to do so.)  One of the most frequent questions that comes up, despite being a topic that has been rehashed a dozen times in the last two years, is which browsers have to be supported.

My answer usually surprises folks — “all of them.”  This is my attention grabber that then lets me make a point and go into a longer explanation of content, the levels of accessibility, usability,  “browser support,” and the differences between these terms.

As a public university we have an obligation to make our information available to everyone, and as a web professional I think we have a mandate to do the same.  So the informational content of the page should ideally be accessible no matter what user agent the visitor decides to use — the latest version of IE, Safari on iPhone, JAWS speech reader, lynx textual browser, or even Netscape 1.0.    All of these can render the basic HTML that delivers the content, so there is no reason the site design should be such that the information is not delivered.

Note that the above makes no reference to what the page looks like.  Indeed, on various user agents it will almost certainly look different, possibly even bad.  But the information is there and is available.  Only once this bar has been met should we get into the question of what most of us mean by browser support — those which we want the general appearance and experience to be the same.

This, then, limits us to browsers that support web standards plus those for which we are willing to make exceptions and add hacks… largely IE 6.  Analytics shows us that usage of IE 6 has finally fallen to a low enough percentage that we need no longer consider it mainstream.  Unfortunately it is still high enough that it can’t be ignored.

I don’t buy into the argument that a site has to look and act exactly the same for every visitor on every device.  Minor differences are expected as each rendering engine treats the base HTML and CSS slightly different.  So let’s extend that concept and go back to content accessibility – can we create an experience in IE 6 in which the content is delivered and the page looks OK?  Not perfect, not exactly what other browsers will see, but good enough to deliver your information and not create a negative experience or perception of our organization.  That can be done easily enough using IE conditional comments and a separate style sheet to overwrite and tweak the default style.

So, long answer to a short question.  “Do we have to support IE 6?”  Yes… so long as you understand that support doesn’t necessarily mean providing the same experience as modern browsers, it just means making sure those who insist on using it can still get your information and not be turned off by the process.

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Friday, January 29th, 2010 Browsers/Plug-ins No Comments