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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

March Madness – Lessons Learned, Part 3

Looking back we can read analytics and web logs to get a good idea of who came to the site during March Madness and what they were looking for. That’s the easy part; the hard part is evaluating our performance and taking away lessons to learn for the future.

From a technical standpoint we did a good job. The site stood up to the increased load, and would have been able to handle considerably more if it had come. The content that we posted, though, was not as pro-active as was the technical measures that we took. The web calendar was probably our most successful measure in this respect. We did take active measures to get the event information posted there as soon as possible and to get the event linked from the main university web page.

Given the fact that analytics showed (and common sense would suggest) a significant uptick in the number of people visiting the Athletics page, I’m disappointed in how we handled that content. We didn’t make any significant changes to that page until after the championship, and in retrospect we could have made finding things a lot easier for visitors looking for information on the women’s basketball team and their tournament run.

Improving on this process is going to be one of my goals for this year. While we will never have access to the detailed information that the Aggie Athletics site has, we can and should make an effort to be more responsive to what people are looking for at the time. With that in mind, I have made some small updates to the Athletics page to highlight the Equestrian Championship that our team is competing in this weekend. This feature can hopefully continue to grow and evolve as our teams compete in other title events, and in so doing make the university web site more valuable to those interested in keeping up with the Aggies.

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Monday, April 11th, 2011 No Comments

March Madness – Lessons Learned, Part 2

Last time I talked about the games leading up to the championship game. For us there was no large, measurable increase in traffic until the day of the championship. This is where there is a real difference in the impact from the men’s tournament and the women’s game. Having talked to web offices in other schools, increases in web visits there are reportedly noticeable by the Sweet-16 round.

On Tuesday we finally experienced a significant increase in overall traffic. According to Google Analytics (i.e. actual numbers are probably slightly higher than indicated here) experienced 107,400 page views on 54,000 visits. This represents a slightly more than 25% increase over normal Tuesday traffic. The skew of what visitors were looking for was different too – the Athletics page was by far the most popular interior page, while it is normally fourth or fifth. Overall numbers would have likely been considerably higher, but as soon as the game was over I pointed the Athletics link away from our own page and over to Aggie Athletics because they had more up to date information.

The calendar reached almost double its previous high in numbers of visitors. About half of this was for the game itself, and half was for the welcome-home event planned for the team the next day. We did not immediately feature the latter link on the university website, so visitors were by this time actively reading the calendar for related events.

Because we weren’t sure what kind of traffic to expect, we talked to CIS administrators on Monday and decided to add some extra insurance to make sure we didn’t fail. The setup that they developed for made it relatively simple to add a few more virtual nodes behind the scenes to pick up any additional load that might hit. Their solution worked beautifully, and even when demand was peaking the machines never slowed down or presented a problem. (Many thanks for a job well done!)

From a technical standpoint I think our response was a success, particularly since this was our first time experiencing this sort of thing and we didn’t know exactly what to expect. I think our biggest problems were on the content side. More on that next time…

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Thursday, April 7th, 2011 No Comments

Error Reporting Made Easy

Read any web design book, blog, or article, and they’ll tell you that a good, user-friendly, custom 404 page is one of the most important elements that you can add to any site. And they’re right. But we as web administrators know that “good” and “user-friendly” are wide open for interpretation. Most of the time users hit the page, ignore it, and go about their business. Users seldom bother to report the broken link, and when they do they very often don’t include all (or sometimes even any!) of the information we need to track down and fix the link.

With our new website we’ve tried something different, making it as easy as possible for users to report bad links. We did this on purpose – we knew that with the new design there would be plenty of them. The university site had been poorly limping along on a very bad information architecture for years. Directory structures were illogical and poorly named, and the access file contained almost two hundred redirects for sites that had been on the server but moved years ago. We decided to clean house with this new version of the site, knowing there would be some (a lot) of short term pain, but that in the end it would be a better environment.

We have left or recreated many of the most-used redirects and old directories through a combination of symlinks and rewrite rules, but with the amount we started with there are still many that are now causing 404 errors. Enter the new custom error page…

Screen capture of 404 Error page

The most important thing we did on the page was to add a “Report this broken link” feature and make sure it was prominently highlighted. Through a few server side include tricks the mailto link will open the user’s mail client and populate the first line of the message with the requested page and the referring page, if applicable. This insures that we have all of the information we need to find and fix the broken link.

With this feature prominent on the page, we have increased the number of reports from several per week to several per hour…and not all to the newly non-redirected site. Several have been to files that have not been on the server for years, but are still linked from somewhere on the Internet. Bad links that have existed for years but have never been reported. The difference, it seems, is in making it easy for the user to do so.

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Tuesday, January 25th, 2011 Web Content, No 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

Wanted…Your Videos

One of the elements that we wanted to add to the new university site, as well as other sites we’re developing for campus, is a tighter integration to our other static sites and to our social media. For the purposes of this post, that means video on YouTube.

If you have explored the new development site for you will have noticed that the second-level pages link to YouTube channels and playlists that are relevant to the page topic. We had considered using inline videos on these pages, but thought linking to the playlists would give greater exposure to more videos.

Over the next several weeks we will be going into YouTube to refresh and add new content to these playlists, as well as create new ones for areas that don’t currently exist.

The great thing about YouTube is that we can pull your video in through these channels and feature it on the university website. I therefore encourage you all to start making more video available and visible. If we don’t already subscribe to your site send us the information and we’ll add it.

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Thursday, December 16th, 2010 Web Content, 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