Higher Ed website design and content: Data from 160 sites

Higher Ed website design and content: Data from 160 sites

27 minute read

Higher Ed website design and content: Data from 160 sites

27 minute read

Higher Ed website design and content: Data from 160 sites

Robert Mills

Founder, Fourth Wall Content
For higher ed professionals, finding the time and resources to analyze peer websites is often difficult. But it can be rewarding. It’s a great way to understand design and content trends in your sector, benchmark current practices, spot ways to stand out from the crowd, and identify opportunities for improving your website.

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What makes a college website effective?

Speaking of improving your website, to do so, you need to first understand what makes a college website effective?

Antonio Cruz, a mentor at Ivy Scholars, rightly said:

“What makes a college website effective is the ease of navigation and the ease with which information is found. While graphical tricks are aesthetically pleasing, they make it harder to find useful information, and from a practical standpoint, make websites worse.”

Kimberly Prieto, Senior Director of Product Management at Modern Campus added:

"It's critical for colleges and universities to create seamless pathways for their students to find the programs and services that are right for them. Folks have to see that you have what they want, and then they need an easy pathway to get to it. Dynamic, personalized content can enable you to keep a streamlined design while bringing the information that is directly relevant to the specific website visitor to the forefront."
Kimberly Preito
Senior Director of Product Management, Modern Campus

As you can see, ease of navigation, usability, and relevance are fundamental. However, various other elements of higher ed website design and content also play a role.

In his recent webinar, Paul Bradley shares how he did the hard work of analyzing 160 university homepages from UK and US institutions. He reports interesting findings on everything from core visual themes and content clusters to accessibility and SEO best practices.

The data comes from research done by Paul’s company, eQAfy, where the team helps higher education institutions to discover, log, and monitor their websites to improve performance and reduce risk exposures. As a result, the sites deliver their intended user experiences and meet their marketing and communication objectives.

Good to Know: This is an edited transcript of the webinar. (Alternatively, you can access the on-demand recording.)

Teardown of higher education website design and content

University Website Teardown Webinar Intro Slide
Slide titled “What You Can Learn From Tearing Down 160 University Website Homepages” from the eQAfy and GatherContent webinar of the same name  

In this webinar, I’ll report on some research we've carried out while testing our service. We look at web estates—large collections of websites that have grown up at many higher education institutions. We report most of our research on higher education websites on our website, so if you get the chance, take a look at it. But let's go ahead with the webinar and the agenda.

Higher Education Website Teardown Webinar Agenda
Webinar agenda, which covers higher ed website: 1) core visual themes, 2) content clusters, and 3) technical and SEO

We'll look at three things and split the webinar accordingly. They're roughly equal sections.

  1. First, we'll look at the visual themes common to college websites in the United Kingdom and the United States.
  2. Then, we'll examine the typical content clusters or groupings found on the pages in our sample group and, by extrapolation, what US and UK university and college websites have in general by way of content.
  3. Then finally, we'll run through some technical search engine optimization and accessibility practices that hide behind what we and website visitors see on those homepages.

Let's dive into the first part of the webinar. I will look at the relatively narrow set of visual themes that universities use on their homepages.

All of the data for the webinar comes from an instance of our web estate registry service that we use to test new code. This particular instance has details about 2,700 higher education websites. Those are sites in Australia, Canada, the EU, New Zealand, and a selection of more than 4,500 US institutions.

We routinely capture screenshots of how sites render on desktops—that's the format we will be looking at in today's analysis. But we equally look at tablets and mobile devices, and we capture a host of content, ViewX, and technical data, too. Let's step back and have a look at a few sites side by side.

9 visual themes common to college websites  

Firstly, in this section, I will describe and provide illustrations of the nine main visual themes used by US and UK universities.

The approach that universities use in terms of visual themes on their homepages is broadly similar in most English language jurisdictions. If you look at Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, you would see pretty much the same thing.

We'll look at structure and content in the next section of the presentation, but for now, we're just going to look at the visual themes. A reasonable generalization—but you're welcome to challenge me—is that higher education websites have three primary functions:  

  1. Student Recruitment
  2. Research Promotion
  3. Alumni Engagement

Now, of course, they have all sorts of other audiences: Faculty, staff, parents, media, government, etc. But by and large, the focus is on one of these three things. And as a result, we should see these objectives reflected in the visual media used on university websites.

Let's have a look at the nine main visual themes we've observed by looking at those websites. There are undoubtedly other bases for categorization, but these are the ones we've gone with.

Higher Ed Website Homepage Theme Examples
Examples of the nine main college website homepage themes

What We Are or What We Do. On the top left, you see the example of the visual theme we call What We Are or What We Do. In other words, "If you attend our institution, you will be doing this. It is what we are all about."  

Abstraction. This is not that widely used, but we will see some examples of it. In this case, it's saying, "We're communicating an abstract idea, so we chose those images."  

Research. The image there is trying to communicate, "We're research-focused. We want our audiences to understand this as soon as they land on our homepage."

Students. "This is what the students at our campus look like." It's often mixed with the theme immediately beneath it, which we call Campus Landscape.

Campus Landscape. In other words, "this is where you will be living and studying."  

Individuals. This is usually a selection of students, academic staff, occasionally, senior administrative staff. When the focus is a student, the implied message is, "This could be you at our institution."

Statements. This is an image reinforced with a tag or a strapline, perhaps reiterating a current branding or messaging exercise or a particular campaign.

News. "We're the sort of place that makes the news. We make the news through our students, through our academics and their work, or through our alumni. Here are the types of things we're doing." And it also, to a large degree, implies, "We're focused on the big issues."

Ranking. In other words, "Here's some objective evidence about how good we are or how much students like it here."

Now we're going to look at some examples of each of these, in order of popularity. I should point out many sites fit into multiple categories, which is mainly a positive thing. But, one way or another, these images align with three primary website objectives I stated earlier: Student Recruitment, Research Promotion, and Alumni Engagement. Let's have a look at what people use on those sites.

Undergraduate recruitment visual themes

When we interview higher education marketing and communication professionals, most respond that a primary goal of their university website is undergraduate student recruitment.

If you talk to people running medical programs at those institutions, or postgraduate or graduate marketing communications, they'll likely shift the emphasis to research promotion or even outreach to professionals. But if we stick with the undergraduate recruitment theme, here's a mix of visuals featuring students, primarily aimed at answering, "How would I fit into this place?"

1. Student-focused

Students Theme Examples
Four examples of the Student-focused theme

I suspect we all have our own reactions to the specific institutions and specific image choices on the screen, but this is by far the most popular approach in terms of visuals on university homepages. Just over 40% of US sites use student images, and there's very slightly more, about a 55% to 45% tilt towards UK sites using student images.  

2. Campus landscape  

Camus Landscape Theme Examples
Four examples of the Campus Landscape theme

The second most popular visual image is the Campus Landscape. That can be both exterior and interior. Again, it goes to answering a key undergraduate student recruitment question, "Can I imagine myself living and studying in this environment?"

About 30% of sites use a version of the campus landscape imagery and often fill it up with groups of students or students in situ in the campus landscape. It's pretty much evenly split between the UK and US in terms of using this particular approach.  

3. Statement

Statement Theme Examples
Four examples of the Statement theme

The third most popular choice is the Statement, often against a Campus Landscape background, as it is in each of these examples. It's an image reinforced by a tag or a strapline, perhaps reiterating current branding messaging or another kind of exercise.  

There's value in benchmarking. And as we can see, having a scout around the horizon is probably a good idea because you'll notice the university in the bottom left-hand corner and the top right-hand corner—two UK universities—are running very similar campaigns, perhaps drawing their common inspiration from Gandhi's "you must be the change you want to see in the world."

Statements are used at about 25% of the visuals on university homepages. It's about a 60/40 split between the UK and US. In other words, UK sites tend to prefer putting a statement with some kind of background image over the US in this respect.

4. Featured Individual

Individual Theme Examples
Four examples of the Featured Individual theme

Number four in terms of popularity is the Featured Individual. You might call it the proto student; it could be a researcher. It essentially exemplifies what you might achieve or what you might become at this institution.

I'd assert this is just a different way of answering the prospective student's question, "Is this place for me?" and I suspect it's an emotional question, seeking out an emotion-based answer. If you look at the images, you'll see that there are some stories about a broad mix of students, academic staff, and others if you look across the whole 160 pages.

Clearly, this is the basis of good storytelling, and when the focus is the student, the message very much is, "this could be you." Individuals featured in a context is used in about 20% of sites, and US and UK universities use this approach pretty equally.

5. Research

Four examples of the Research theme

Number five of nine is Research. For many institutions, it’s the number two goal of their website—that is, effective communication and promotion of research activity. And it also can be a very clear source of institutional differentiation. Institutions taking this approach are effectively saying, "We're research focused. We want our audiences to understand this immediately when they land on our homepage," and, as we'll see a little later, emphasis on research also shows up in other content elements.

Just as individuals provide an excellent basis for storytelling, research both has newsworthiness and provides strong story content. But for the sample of universities in this study, about 15% to 16% have research-led visuals. There’s a clear bias towards this being used in the US. About 80% of the slides using research as a visual theme are US institutions rather than UK institutions.

6. What Are We About

What We Are Theme Examples
Four examples of the What We Are theme

In sixth place, in terms of the proportion of sites using one of the nine themes, is what we term ‘What Are We About,’ and this approach very much focuses on missions, visions, and values. In other words, "If you attend our institution, you will be doing this. You will be sharing in this. You will be exemplifying this. This is what we're all about." Art, music, drama, and similar specialist institutions favor this approach as it strongly communicates what these schools offer prospective students.  

However, you'll note, the University of North Carolina homepage (that's one at the bottom left there) has also taken this approach to communicating its role and initiatives within its community.

About 10% of these sample sites take this approach, a bit more UK-biased. About 70% of UK sites to about 30% of the US sites took this approach. But I will note our sample is unbalanced because, if you look across all the institutions we drew upon, a proportionately more significant number of the UK institutions are arts, music, drama-focused. Nevertheless, this is an approach that is widely used.

7. News

News Theme Examples
Four examples of the news theme

Number seven is news, and news is the basis for storytelling. It essentially reflects that an institution is a place that makes the news for its students through its academics and their work and alumni. So this is often a snapshot of what specific individuals are doing, and it may also reiterate an institution's focus on the more significant questions or the greater research themes.

Now, I'm not convinced that news and events are that compelling to prospective students, but they are the homepage's only audience. It may be that alumni find this approach more compelling. Anecdotally, I've had several higher ed marketing professionals tell me that traffic and click-through rates on news stories are relatively low. Still, I'd be interested in further feedback on how well news and events content works.

Nevertheless, many institutions are organized around telling news stories, and about 10% of the sites in the sample (17 of the 160), use this approach—very much biased in terms of US institutions. 80% of that sample was US institutions, and 20% UK institutions.

8. Abstraction

Abstraction Theme Examples
Four examples of the abstraction theme

Eighth place goes to what we call Abstraction. “We're communicating an abstract idea, a big theme or message, and we needed an image to go along with it.” It's one of the least popular visual themes. I suspect largely because it's not focused, and it's hard to be sure that an intended audience has realized it was targeted at them.

US universities tend to avoid this approach; 85% of the examples were from UK websites. As you’ll note from the slide. We struggled to find a US institution that was doing this. But I did find one, and that's Nova South Eastern University; they're the one in the top left there.

9. Ranking

Ranking Theme Examples
Four examples of the ranking theme

Last place, perhaps surprisingly, goes to the visual theme of Ranking. In this case, institutions are saying, "Here's some objective evidence about how good we are and how much students like it here." There are many different ranking schemes and systems out there—some academically focused; others focused on student satisfaction. This is a bit of a tricky approach.

Prestigious institutions—the kind of institutions that students would love to go to, that professors want to teach at, that governments and donors want to fund—don't normally need to report their rankings. What's more, the places at the top of the rankings barely seem to change.

So my guess is this approach provides some reassurance and maybe works well when countering reputational issues (particularly those around student satisfaction). But I'm not convinced it has much impact on choosing a university. That's because I think choosing a university is largely an emotional issue, and it doesn't really seem to be strongly data-informed, but I'd certainly be happy to discuss that.

We've got nine themes in order of priority, and the bottom of them is the most data-based one—Ranking.

Typical content clusters on the pages in our sample group  

We now get into the second part of the presentation. One way or another, you’ve been exposed to 40 different university homepages, albeit grouped around similar visual themes. Now, we're going to break down key content elements that are common to university homepages.

Given that we've used snapshots of each homepage as it appears on first loading and specifically on a desktop, we're going to confine the observations to those elements that can be seen in that snapshot. (Clearly, there's way more content available if you start scrolling down the page. But we're just going to deal with the tip of the iceberg that's visible above the water's surface.)

Let's go to a stylized view of a homepage. I can probably imagine you saying, "Templates." Yes, most content management systems have some version of a template or similar scheme of the webpage layouts. University website homepages are no different, and it doesn't matter too much which content management system is used to publish content, whether that's WordPress, Drupal, or one of the many proprietary systems that are used exclusively in the higher education world.

Typical University Website Homepage Layout
Typical layout of a university website homepage

These pages are trying to solve a reasonably well-defined problem, and with thousands of institutions trying different approaches over probably the last 20 to 25 years, it's likely that those eventual designs will converge on a fairly tight set of solutions.

That convergence is actually quite clearly shown in those 40-odd sites that we've seen so far and in the balance of sites that were included in the sample. What we see in most cases is:

  • Top of the screen, a line of links, and some kind of menuing system
  • A main image and text overlay
  • More content
  • And, near the bottom of the page, social media links and often some obligatory regulatory and administrative links to content that perhaps doesn't get read very often

Let's have an example of a typical homepage, a little bit larger than the ones we saw earlier. This is the homepage for Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, as it appears on a desktop layout. It uses a carousel to load a sequence of images. We've simply captured the first of these, which promotes research activity.

Rutgers university homepage with a carousel of images

The layout aligns more or less with that idealized representation we saw in the previous slide. There’s a set of internal links and a site search functionality at the very top of the page, a logo, and some name clarification. Below that there’s the main menu, the central visual image, and, as you start scrolling down, more content before you reach the bottom of the page.

And here's what we see if we scroll to the bottom of the typical home page. I've actually swapped institutions here and chosen Yale.

Yale University Homepage
Yale university homepage

Again, showing it in the desktop layout and as we scroll past the final content items, we hit what is usually a set of regulatory and policy links, accessibility policies, privacy statements, copyright, and so on, all tucked away at the bottom of the page.

It's actually here that we most frequently find social media links rather than elsewhere. For prospective students visiting many websites in the course of assessing different institutions they might be interested in, I would imagine the consistency of layout is likely to make their task completion faster.

Now I did point out earlier that I was just going to talk about the content that's visible on immediately loading the page. But if you've ever wondered how much written content is actually presented on these homepages, the next slide provides some answers to that.

UK and US University Homepage Word Counts
90% of UK and US university homepages have word counts of around 1,000 words

We scanned and counted the number of words within the HTML tags on the UK and US university website homepages for this sample. That's every word, large and small, and, as you can see, the average site has about a thousand words on the homepage. Although, if you look along the horizontal axis on both of those charts, the distribution tail does extend out to multiples of that mean value.

Universities have multiple audiences, so there aren't many competing interests to get content on the homepage, which probably means that university homepages are more verbose than equivalent commercial government or other institutional websites. That little 90% marker is just to show that 90% of these sample websites fall to the left-hand side of that distribution, so they have less than 1800 words across both the US and UK websites.

Calls to action

University Homepage Calls to Action
Statistics on the use of “give,” “apply,” and “visit” calls to action across US and UK university website homepages

Now, it's currently prime time for the student recruitment process and it's always prime time to reach alumni. So we took a quick look at principal calls to action visible on the homepages in our sample.

  1. The first of these was a call to action for alumni to donate or give money. US universities overwhelmingly make it easy for alumni to do this. UK universities less so.
  2. The second readily-identifiable call to action was one where students could set up a campus visit or attend an open day in UK parlance. Four in 10 sites provided some kind of unambiguous button or link that would allow website visitors to make this happen.
  3. Then finally, the third one that appeared on mostly US websites was whether student hopefuls could apply for enrollment from the homepage or let's call it the landing page. Now, application processes do differ between the UK and the US, so applying now is less relevant in the UK. But over 50% of US schools or institutions made initiating the application process easy and immediate. The 15% that have that in the UK tend to be specialized arts-type institutions where the application process might be very slightly different.
University Website Homepage Layout
Typical layout of the homepages of university websites

So now, let's have a look at the extent to which UK and US university homepages follow the template we laid out in an earlier slide. Let's just remind ourselves of what that template's like. We have:

  • The top line of links
  • Some kind of menuing system
  • The main image and some text overlay
  • Way more content as we scroll down the page
  • Bottom social media icons
  • Regulatory and administrative links that somebody inside the organization says "must be on the homepage"

Logos

University Website Logo Placement
Statistics on logo placement across UK and US university homepages

Let's start with the top logos. Most UK and US university college websites placed the institution's logo or identifying mark at the top left-hand side of the page with the UK being very slightly more left-leaning in this respect.

Now, the eye-tracking studies—all web page reading or scanning we've seen—tend to show that users follow an F-shaped reading pattern. They start at the top line, they read left to right. They track down the left-hand side and then take another track horizontally across the page. If you want to identify whose site you've landed on, placing the logo on the top left-hand corner would seem to be a sensible thing to do.

However, we have a small number of institutions in the US that place the logo in the center. Harvard is one of those. And we have a few institutions in the UK that have placed it on the right-hand side. I can't say there's anything wrong with that, although that's not where it usually is; maybe that's a chance to break out.

One thing that I would observe is that most institutions spell their name out in full. Note the top example with the logo on the left there. TCU—Texas Christian University—clearly relies on name recognition from its abbreviation.

It'd be interesting to run an A/B test on that. To see what difference it might make (to either how long people stay on the page or where they go after landing on the page) if they actually spelled their name out in full on a different version. But there's a pretty standard set of practices here and one has to assume that after many years of trying this, this is narrowed down to what seems to work.

Homepage links

University Website Homepage Links
Top of page links on university websites including directions, directories, and resources

Now the next section is all of those links and let's just back up for a second. I've asserted that our discussions with higher education professionals have identified three main objectives for higher education websites. Those were Student Recruitment, Research Promotion, and Alumni Engagement. But there are usually two further subsidiary goals, and those are:

  1. Meeting the needs of current students
  2. Meeting the needs of faculty and staff or employees

These needs are often addressed through a multitude of links that have fought their way to the very top of the homepage. They can be grouped into three functional categories: Directions, directories, and resources.

On the side there you can see some of the types of things that appear under this. It’s usually a fairly narrow set, but across the entire sample of 160 sites, those were all of the different types of links that we actually found there.

Google Analytics or similar data gathered ahead of web redesign projects, when it's most often brought into play, can measure how frequently these types of links are followed. I think if you look at newer homepage designs, you'll see these links:

  1. Get drastically pruned
  2. And usually get moved lower down the homepage, and the net result is a much clearer, less cluttered view of what's going on.

It still allows the subsidiary audiences to achieve their objectives; they just have to scroll a little bit further down the page to get to them.

Site search

Site Search on University Website Homepages
Statistics on the availability of general and course finder site search functionality across US and UK university sites

The third element on the top line is site search of one kind or another, and search still matters. While user-centered design should identify the principal visits or journeys on a website, it's clear that higher education websites attract very wide audiences. Some visitors will have to search to complete their tasks because these are activities that are way out there in the long tail of all the activities that were identified.

As a result, all the sites in our survey have a general site search function that's typically located in the top right-hand corner of the page, save for the two websites that placed their logos there and they just swapped it to the other side of the screen.

But one of the big differences between UK and US university websites is that the former have dedicated course degree program search or finder capabilities. I know from design exercises that considerable effort goes into ensuring that prospective students can find accurate and current information about what they could study at specific institutions and UK institutions clearly address this. As you can see from the stats on the page, only 4% of the US sites in this survey have similar capabilities, one of which was Southeastern University.

Menuing system

University Homepage Menus
Main menu items across US and UK university homepages

Now, if we drop below that top line and go to the main menuing system, we find some interesting parallels between the two sets of sites we looked at here.

One of the principles of modern digital design is to start by identifying user needs and, if you ask enough end-users, designs will likely zero in on a common set of solutions. The menuing system appears to be an example of this.

The main menu is there to allow you to complete different tasks by focusing on a general set of needs and points you in the right direction. Other than some language differences—for example, the US tends to use the term academics, while the UK tends to use the term study—the main menu options are very similar.

Just to explain a little bit of what's laid out here:

  1. There’s a top set of blocks, and the darker color shows the most frequently used wording.
  2. The lighter colored blocks below them are less frequently occurring but alternative terms that appear in those main menu systems.

The typical main menu uses six, sometimes five categories and the order of the items reflects internal priorities. The further left research or athletics appears in US menus, the more prominent those activities are in that institution's life. And I would just note that athletics (or sports as it is more likely known in the UK) only appears on the main menu of one UK institution in our sample. It is not a prominent factor.

But an item that appears in the UK main menus almost all the time, but doesn't really seem to appear in the US main menus, is usually called Business or Business Services. This emphasizes the degree to which UK institutions attempt to engage with business and industry in general.

Still, if you look across most of those two menus, you’ll note a large number of similarities. For example, aspects of student life, something that's about the institution itself, and something that encourages you to understand what you might study at the place.  

Images and video

Images and Video Usage on University Homepages
Statistics on the usage of carousels, images, and videos across US and UK homepages

Let’s drop a tiny bit further down that template to the position that's most prominent and that's occupied by the visual imagery. Here I've illustrated it with an image from the UK's De Montfort University (DMU). It's a video designed to give prospective students a sense of what they should expect from one of the open days. Actually, I think it's a great image in terms of giving you a sense of what's going on there.

But if we look across all of the samples, still images predominate. They support powerful storytelling. Carousels are still widely used too. Although, they can be a bit tricky on mobile devices unless there's a clear indication to mobile users that there are more images available. (We know that for university websites, most people are engaging with them using mobile devices. It's just using mobile device images in this presentation is actually not that helpful.)

We can see that video is now present in about one in five higher education homepages, and it's most often done as it's shown here in some kind of screen-wide hero format. But what's interesting is that the implementations are broadly similar between the US and the UK in terms of how it's presented on the page.

Social media links

Social Media Links on University Sites
Statistics on the presence and placement of social media links on university homepages

We're skipping past all of that other content that isn't immediately visible, just to have a look at where social media plays a role.

Social media clearly can be very important for prospective students informing themselves about an institution. It's also a mechanism for broadening the distribution of research-related news, and it's a way of engaging with alumni. As a result, most institutions (that's more than 90%) ensure that links to their main social media networks are readily found on the homepage.

However, current practices place these links in the page footer, thus encouraging a scroll past a lot of other content. A few institutions have taken links to social media off their homepages altogether. I'd be interested to know if this has any material impact on social media activity or engagement.

From other studies that we've carried out, the set of social media networks that are being used is stabilized around five, and we see that reflected in the shot actually from Yale's social media listings. That's Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube.

If we put that all back together, this time taking a UK example rather than a US example, we can readily see the underlying template of the principal content elements on the visible portion of the page.

Ulster University Homepage
The Ulster University homepage as an example of the typical layout

Technical search engine optimization and accessibility practices

Now we're going to go to the last section. We’ll look at some of the technical SEO and web accessibility underpinnings that can improve the user experience of these pages, and we're going to see how well and how much they're actually implemented by UK and US higher education institutions.

If you activate Developer Tools in the Chrome browser, you can run a set of five audits for individual web pages you’re browsing. This slide showcases the results of running Lighthouse—that's the name of the application—audits for two university home pages along four dimensions:

  1. Performance
  2. Best Practices
  3. Search Engine Optimization
  4. Accessibility

In this case, if you look at the dashboard items at the top of the screen, the homepage performs relatively well.

Chrome DevTools Lighthouse Webpage Audit Results page

We collected similar data for all 160 pages in our sample. But rather than use Lighthouse, which processes one page at a time, we used our own service as it works on multiple pages. One way or another, though, it yields essentially the same results. So let's take a look at those results.

We're going to start with Best Practices. Google has a number of recommended best practices for website operations and website pages. The webpage recommendations are aimed at developers but there are four best practices worth knowing about, or that should be more widely known as they benefit every page on a website. Some of these are technical. In fact, all of them are technical, but they're something content people should be at least be aware of.

Google recommended best practices

Google Recommended Best Practices
Percentages of US and UK university sites following various Google recommended best practices

For years, the web has been operating with a version of the HTTP protocol known as Version One. In 2015, the people behind the engineering of the web published a new version of this protocol, Number Two. Google recommends you move to it ASAP, and we note that three-quarters of higher education websites in our sample have yet to do so.

One reason for making that transition is because of the item in the box next to it—HTTPS. This is the protocol that ensures communication with websites is secure and private. That is now being widely adopted and implemented by higher education institutions. The UK lags behind the US in respect, but it's catching up very quickly. It comes with a little bit of overhead in terms of how quickly sites load. Yet, moving your site to HTTP/2 eliminates this issue and gets you back on the performance track.

The last two items here are around making sure that all content on the website is well-exposed to its intended audiences. Google doesn't need to index every directory on every part of the webserver because some of the files on the webserver are not intended for public content or public publishing. So a Robots.txt file tells Google what you want indexed and what should be ignored.

Most websites have a file of this kind. You can see again, the US leads the UK slightly in this respect. But if you look inside those files, you'll notice that not all of the instructions are current or even accurate, so a little bit of work is required in there to make sure they work as intended.

Finally, if you want Google to better understand which pages have priority or which pages change most frequently, an XML Sitemap or maps are the places to do it. Again, most sites have XML Sitemaps, but our analysis shows that they don't get much love, and they can do so much more than make indexing more efficient. This is an area where it would be well worth spending a little bit of time and it seems to be an area in which the UK actually is a little ahead of the US.

SEO best practices

We're just going to take a look at some SEO practices that would back up what we're saying and have a discussion about the need for search engine optimization. I personally think it's largely passé because of the power of Google's search algorithms. All that monkeying around with keywords and the rest of it probably doesn't do much good. In fact, there are five technical things Google says you should do to give a site and its content the best treatment.

Google Recommended Technical SEO Best Practices
Percentages of university websites following various Google recommended SEO best practices

First, make sure the homepage is directly accessible and that the user's not being redirected all over the place. Google rewards performance in the UK and US.

Second, tell Google your page is intended to be mobile-friendly. Put a viewport setting in there so browsers know what to do with it. Everybody seems to be pretty much on top of that.

Third, tell Google which is the definitive version of a site for indexing. This is because you may end up with multiple page versions on a site, particularly when transitioning from HTTP-based sites to HTTPS-based sites. This is not as widely implemented as that should be across higher education websites.

And the last two? Very old-fashioned but still essential, give every page a unique title that Google can use when displaying it in search results. And give every page a unique description because Google can also use that in a search results summary. The page description side is less widely implemented. We often see that that's blank or that pages have duplicate descriptions, which isn't terribly helpful to Google.

Accessibility concerns and practices

Let's jump to the third category of testing behind the scenes, which is accessibility. Accessibility is gaining increased prominence in the US through actions by the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights and, in the UK, it's the same. The new prominence is through some EU rules on public sector websites and accessibility.

Rather than wade through a lot of statistics here, as we know, automated accessibility testing generates lots of data. You could wade through that analysis but what I've done here is summarized six conditions that account for about 80% of the "errors" you find on higher education homepages.

Uninformative link text, invalid hypertext references, and duplicate id attributes are among accessibility concerns
  1. The most frequently occurring error is where anchor text on links on webpages doesn’t convey useful information to page visitors or their screen readers. As you can see, that's “learn more” and “read more” type stuff where people really don't understand what will happen when they click on the link.
  2. The second is a slightly technical issue where links are used to redirect visitors around web pages. For example, to return them to the top or take them to some other section. These can be very confusing to visitors using assisted devices. This is one of the most frequent errors that’s identified in doing accessibility scans and something developers can readily fix.
  3. The third one is where elements on a page—for example, a paragraph that you think is important—are assigned an ID to allow users to jump directly there when they input a URL. If the IDs aren't unique, people using assistive devices find navigation very difficult. A combination of developers and content editors can fix this frequently-occurring problem.
Additional Accessibility Concerns and Best Practices
Additional accessibility concerns including missing alt text, unlabeled form elements, and duplicate alt text
  1. The next one we're going to take a look at is the one people are probably most familiar with. But it's actually not the most frequently occurring error we run across. Most images displayed on a webpage need a text description, so those using assistive devices know what the image's role is on that page. If you leave the description blank, it's confusing. It's readily fixed by content editors and content creators.
  2. The next item is one that's relevant to these homepages because every single one of them has a search box. Search boxes are a form; they’re asking for input. The placeholder text that's in there isn't always clear, so these forms need clear labels that an assistive device can read to avoid confusion. Developers can readily fix this as well and this is the fifth most frequently occurring error that we run across.
  3. This last one is a slight variance of the error above. If you have different images on the page, then the text description needs to be different for each of those images. But we frequently run across cases where the same text description is being used and it's confusing to those using screen readers. Unique description text simply reduces unnecessary ambiguity.
Good to Know: A note for these three conditions: Linked text, missing attributes, and repeated attributes. These are all ongoing content creation process issues, rather than one-time fixes.

University websites are complex!

Complexity of University Websites
How technical environments contribute to the complexity of university websites

Just to wrap up here, I've peeled back the covers slightly on some specific aspects of higher education website homepages, how their content is structured, and the type of visuals they use.

But we shouldn't be surprised that this whole system is difficult to manage because universities have built and operate very complex digital ecosystems. This is true both from a technical perspective (as shown in the diagram) and from an organizational perspective. Many different fingers are involved in this particular pie.

Why bother benchmarking?

Higher Ed Web Design and Content Strategy Conclusions
Conclusions related to higher ed website design and content strategies

In conclusion, there are three things that you can get from doing some kind of benchmarking and general scan of the horizon.

  1. Benchmarking can help you understand how others have attempted to solve similar problems, although systematically gathering data can be challenging.
  2. I can reveal best practices. From what we've seen of looking at those attempts to solve similar problems, and in the sample of websites we've looked at here, certain content and higher education web design practices are widely used. They're likely, for all intents and purposes, best practices.
  3. Finally, it’s within the content person's purview to use technical best practices, ensuring that users get the best experience and that the widest group of visitors are able to access the homepages. Although struggling a little on accessibility, by and large, universities do a pretty good job of getting the right stuff on the page.

Watch the webinar

If you want to watch Paul's presentation, you can access the webinar on-demand.

What makes a college website effective?

Speaking of improving your website, to do so, you need to first understand what makes a college website effective?

Antonio Cruz, a mentor at Ivy Scholars, rightly said:

“What makes a college website effective is the ease of navigation and the ease with which information is found. While graphical tricks are aesthetically pleasing, they make it harder to find useful information, and from a practical standpoint, make websites worse.”

Kimberly Prieto, Senior Director of Product Management at Modern Campus added:

"It's critical for colleges and universities to create seamless pathways for their students to find the programs and services that are right for them. Folks have to see that you have what they want, and then they need an easy pathway to get to it. Dynamic, personalized content can enable you to keep a streamlined design while bringing the information that is directly relevant to the specific website visitor to the forefront."
Kimberly Preito
Senior Director of Product Management, Modern Campus

As you can see, ease of navigation, usability, and relevance are fundamental. However, various other elements of higher ed website design and content also play a role.

In his recent webinar, Paul Bradley shares how he did the hard work of analyzing 160 university homepages from UK and US institutions. He reports interesting findings on everything from core visual themes and content clusters to accessibility and SEO best practices.

The data comes from research done by Paul’s company, eQAfy, where the team helps higher education institutions to discover, log, and monitor their websites to improve performance and reduce risk exposures. As a result, the sites deliver their intended user experiences and meet their marketing and communication objectives.

Good to Know: This is an edited transcript of the webinar. (Alternatively, you can access the on-demand recording.)

Teardown of higher education website design and content

University Website Teardown Webinar Intro Slide
Slide titled “What You Can Learn From Tearing Down 160 University Website Homepages” from the eQAfy and GatherContent webinar of the same name  

In this webinar, I’ll report on some research we've carried out while testing our service. We look at web estates—large collections of websites that have grown up at many higher education institutions. We report most of our research on higher education websites on our website, so if you get the chance, take a look at it. But let's go ahead with the webinar and the agenda.

Higher Education Website Teardown Webinar Agenda
Webinar agenda, which covers higher ed website: 1) core visual themes, 2) content clusters, and 3) technical and SEO

We'll look at three things and split the webinar accordingly. They're roughly equal sections.

  1. First, we'll look at the visual themes common to college websites in the United Kingdom and the United States.
  2. Then, we'll examine the typical content clusters or groupings found on the pages in our sample group and, by extrapolation, what US and UK university and college websites have in general by way of content.
  3. Then finally, we'll run through some technical search engine optimization and accessibility practices that hide behind what we and website visitors see on those homepages.

Let's dive into the first part of the webinar. I will look at the relatively narrow set of visual themes that universities use on their homepages.

All of the data for the webinar comes from an instance of our web estate registry service that we use to test new code. This particular instance has details about 2,700 higher education websites. Those are sites in Australia, Canada, the EU, New Zealand, and a selection of more than 4,500 US institutions.

We routinely capture screenshots of how sites render on desktops—that's the format we will be looking at in today's analysis. But we equally look at tablets and mobile devices, and we capture a host of content, ViewX, and technical data, too. Let's step back and have a look at a few sites side by side.

9 visual themes common to college websites  

Firstly, in this section, I will describe and provide illustrations of the nine main visual themes used by US and UK universities.

The approach that universities use in terms of visual themes on their homepages is broadly similar in most English language jurisdictions. If you look at Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, you would see pretty much the same thing.

We'll look at structure and content in the next section of the presentation, but for now, we're just going to look at the visual themes. A reasonable generalization—but you're welcome to challenge me—is that higher education websites have three primary functions:  

  1. Student Recruitment
  2. Research Promotion
  3. Alumni Engagement

Now, of course, they have all sorts of other audiences: Faculty, staff, parents, media, government, etc. But by and large, the focus is on one of these three things. And as a result, we should see these objectives reflected in the visual media used on university websites.

Let's have a look at the nine main visual themes we've observed by looking at those websites. There are undoubtedly other bases for categorization, but these are the ones we've gone with.

Higher Ed Website Homepage Theme Examples
Examples of the nine main college website homepage themes

What We Are or What We Do. On the top left, you see the example of the visual theme we call What We Are or What We Do. In other words, "If you attend our institution, you will be doing this. It is what we are all about."  

Abstraction. This is not that widely used, but we will see some examples of it. In this case, it's saying, "We're communicating an abstract idea, so we chose those images."  

Research. The image there is trying to communicate, "We're research-focused. We want our audiences to understand this as soon as they land on our homepage."

Students. "This is what the students at our campus look like." It's often mixed with the theme immediately beneath it, which we call Campus Landscape.

Campus Landscape. In other words, "this is where you will be living and studying."  

Individuals. This is usually a selection of students, academic staff, occasionally, senior administrative staff. When the focus is a student, the implied message is, "This could be you at our institution."

Statements. This is an image reinforced with a tag or a strapline, perhaps reiterating a current branding or messaging exercise or a particular campaign.

News. "We're the sort of place that makes the news. We make the news through our students, through our academics and their work, or through our alumni. Here are the types of things we're doing." And it also, to a large degree, implies, "We're focused on the big issues."

Ranking. In other words, "Here's some objective evidence about how good we are or how much students like it here."

Now we're going to look at some examples of each of these, in order of popularity. I should point out many sites fit into multiple categories, which is mainly a positive thing. But, one way or another, these images align with three primary website objectives I stated earlier: Student Recruitment, Research Promotion, and Alumni Engagement. Let's have a look at what people use on those sites.

Undergraduate recruitment visual themes

When we interview higher education marketing and communication professionals, most respond that a primary goal of their university website is undergraduate student recruitment.

If you talk to people running medical programs at those institutions, or postgraduate or graduate marketing communications, they'll likely shift the emphasis to research promotion or even outreach to professionals. But if we stick with the undergraduate recruitment theme, here's a mix of visuals featuring students, primarily aimed at answering, "How would I fit into this place?"

1. Student-focused

Students Theme Examples
Four examples of the Student-focused theme

I suspect we all have our own reactions to the specific institutions and specific image choices on the screen, but this is by far the most popular approach in terms of visuals on university homepages. Just over 40% of US sites use student images, and there's very slightly more, about a 55% to 45% tilt towards UK sites using student images.  

2. Campus landscape  

Camus Landscape Theme Examples
Four examples of the Campus Landscape theme

The second most popular visual image is the Campus Landscape. That can be both exterior and interior. Again, it goes to answering a key undergraduate student recruitment question, "Can I imagine myself living and studying in this environment?"

About 30% of sites use a version of the campus landscape imagery and often fill it up with groups of students or students in situ in the campus landscape. It's pretty much evenly split between the UK and US in terms of using this particular approach.  

3. Statement

Statement Theme Examples
Four examples of the Statement theme

The third most popular choice is the Statement, often against a Campus Landscape background, as it is in each of these examples. It's an image reinforced by a tag or a strapline, perhaps reiterating current branding messaging or another kind of exercise.  

There's value in benchmarking. And as we can see, having a scout around the horizon is probably a good idea because you'll notice the university in the bottom left-hand corner and the top right-hand corner—two UK universities—are running very similar campaigns, perhaps drawing their common inspiration from Gandhi's "you must be the change you want to see in the world."

Statements are used at about 25% of the visuals on university homepages. It's about a 60/40 split between the UK and US. In other words, UK sites tend to prefer putting a statement with some kind of background image over the US in this respect.

4. Featured Individual

Individual Theme Examples
Four examples of the Featured Individual theme

Number four in terms of popularity is the Featured Individual. You might call it the proto student; it could be a researcher. It essentially exemplifies what you might achieve or what you might become at this institution.

I'd assert this is just a different way of answering the prospective student's question, "Is this place for me?" and I suspect it's an emotional question, seeking out an emotion-based answer. If you look at the images, you'll see that there are some stories about a broad mix of students, academic staff, and others if you look across the whole 160 pages.

Clearly, this is the basis of good storytelling, and when the focus is the student, the message very much is, "this could be you." Individuals featured in a context is used in about 20% of sites, and US and UK universities use this approach pretty equally.

5. Research

Four examples of the Research theme

Number five of nine is Research. For many institutions, it’s the number two goal of their website—that is, effective communication and promotion of research activity. And it also can be a very clear source of institutional differentiation. Institutions taking this approach are effectively saying, "We're research focused. We want our audiences to understand this immediately when they land on our homepage," and, as we'll see a little later, emphasis on research also shows up in other content elements.

Just as individuals provide an excellent basis for storytelling, research both has newsworthiness and provides strong story content. But for the sample of universities in this study, about 15% to 16% have research-led visuals. There’s a clear bias towards this being used in the US. About 80% of the slides using research as a visual theme are US institutions rather than UK institutions.

6. What Are We About

What We Are Theme Examples
Four examples of the What We Are theme

In sixth place, in terms of the proportion of sites using one of the nine themes, is what we term ‘What Are We About,’ and this approach very much focuses on missions, visions, and values. In other words, "If you attend our institution, you will be doing this. You will be sharing in this. You will be exemplifying this. This is what we're all about." Art, music, drama, and similar specialist institutions favor this approach as it strongly communicates what these schools offer prospective students.  

However, you'll note, the University of North Carolina homepage (that's one at the bottom left there) has also taken this approach to communicating its role and initiatives within its community.

About 10% of these sample sites take this approach, a bit more UK-biased. About 70% of UK sites to about 30% of the US sites took this approach. But I will note our sample is unbalanced because, if you look across all the institutions we drew upon, a proportionately more significant number of the UK institutions are arts, music, drama-focused. Nevertheless, this is an approach that is widely used.

7. News

News Theme Examples
Four examples of the news theme

Number seven is news, and news is the basis for storytelling. It essentially reflects that an institution is a place that makes the news for its students through its academics and their work and alumni. So this is often a snapshot of what specific individuals are doing, and it may also reiterate an institution's focus on the more significant questions or the greater research themes.

Now, I'm not convinced that news and events are that compelling to prospective students, but they are the homepage's only audience. It may be that alumni find this approach more compelling. Anecdotally, I've had several higher ed marketing professionals tell me that traffic and click-through rates on news stories are relatively low. Still, I'd be interested in further feedback on how well news and events content works.

Nevertheless, many institutions are organized around telling news stories, and about 10% of the sites in the sample (17 of the 160), use this approach—very much biased in terms of US institutions. 80% of that sample was US institutions, and 20% UK institutions.

8. Abstraction

Abstraction Theme Examples
Four examples of the abstraction theme

Eighth place goes to what we call Abstraction. “We're communicating an abstract idea, a big theme or message, and we needed an image to go along with it.” It's one of the least popular visual themes. I suspect largely because it's not focused, and it's hard to be sure that an intended audience has realized it was targeted at them.

US universities tend to avoid this approach; 85% of the examples were from UK websites. As you’ll note from the slide. We struggled to find a US institution that was doing this. But I did find one, and that's Nova South Eastern University; they're the one in the top left there.

9. Ranking

Ranking Theme Examples
Four examples of the ranking theme

Last place, perhaps surprisingly, goes to the visual theme of Ranking. In this case, institutions are saying, "Here's some objective evidence about how good we are and how much students like it here." There are many different ranking schemes and systems out there—some academically focused; others focused on student satisfaction. This is a bit of a tricky approach.

Prestigious institutions—the kind of institutions that students would love to go to, that professors want to teach at, that governments and donors want to fund—don't normally need to report their rankings. What's more, the places at the top of the rankings barely seem to change.

So my guess is this approach provides some reassurance and maybe works well when countering reputational issues (particularly those around student satisfaction). But I'm not convinced it has much impact on choosing a university. That's because I think choosing a university is largely an emotional issue, and it doesn't really seem to be strongly data-informed, but I'd certainly be happy to discuss that.

We've got nine themes in order of priority, and the bottom of them is the most data-based one—Ranking.

Typical content clusters on the pages in our sample group  

We now get into the second part of the presentation. One way or another, you’ve been exposed to 40 different university homepages, albeit grouped around similar visual themes. Now, we're going to break down key content elements that are common to university homepages.

Given that we've used snapshots of each homepage as it appears on first loading and specifically on a desktop, we're going to confine the observations to those elements that can be seen in that snapshot. (Clearly, there's way more content available if you start scrolling down the page. But we're just going to deal with the tip of the iceberg that's visible above the water's surface.)

Let's go to a stylized view of a homepage. I can probably imagine you saying, "Templates." Yes, most content management systems have some version of a template or similar scheme of the webpage layouts. University website homepages are no different, and it doesn't matter too much which content management system is used to publish content, whether that's WordPress, Drupal, or one of the many proprietary systems that are used exclusively in the higher education world.

Typical University Website Homepage Layout
Typical layout of a university website homepage

These pages are trying to solve a reasonably well-defined problem, and with thousands of institutions trying different approaches over probably the last 20 to 25 years, it's likely that those eventual designs will converge on a fairly tight set of solutions.

That convergence is actually quite clearly shown in those 40-odd sites that we've seen so far and in the balance of sites that were included in the sample. What we see in most cases is:

  • Top of the screen, a line of links, and some kind of menuing system
  • A main image and text overlay
  • More content
  • And, near the bottom of the page, social media links and often some obligatory regulatory and administrative links to content that perhaps doesn't get read very often

Let's have an example of a typical homepage, a little bit larger than the ones we saw earlier. This is the homepage for Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, as it appears on a desktop layout. It uses a carousel to load a sequence of images. We've simply captured the first of these, which promotes research activity.

Rutgers university homepage with a carousel of images

The layout aligns more or less with that idealized representation we saw in the previous slide. There’s a set of internal links and a site search functionality at the very top of the page, a logo, and some name clarification. Below that there’s the main menu, the central visual image, and, as you start scrolling down, more content before you reach the bottom of the page.

And here's what we see if we scroll to the bottom of the typical home page. I've actually swapped institutions here and chosen Yale.

Yale University Homepage
Yale university homepage

Again, showing it in the desktop layout and as we scroll past the final content items, we hit what is usually a set of regulatory and policy links, accessibility policies, privacy statements, copyright, and so on, all tucked away at the bottom of the page.

It's actually here that we most frequently find social media links rather than elsewhere. For prospective students visiting many websites in the course of assessing different institutions they might be interested in, I would imagine the consistency of layout is likely to make their task completion faster.

Now I did point out earlier that I was just going to talk about the content that's visible on immediately loading the page. But if you've ever wondered how much written content is actually presented on these homepages, the next slide provides some answers to that.

UK and US University Homepage Word Counts
90% of UK and US university homepages have word counts of around 1,000 words

We scanned and counted the number of words within the HTML tags on the UK and US university website homepages for this sample. That's every word, large and small, and, as you can see, the average site has about a thousand words on the homepage. Although, if you look along the horizontal axis on both of those charts, the distribution tail does extend out to multiples of that mean value.

Universities have multiple audiences, so there aren't many competing interests to get content on the homepage, which probably means that university homepages are more verbose than equivalent commercial government or other institutional websites. That little 90% marker is just to show that 90% of these sample websites fall to the left-hand side of that distribution, so they have less than 1800 words across both the US and UK websites.

Calls to action

University Homepage Calls to Action
Statistics on the use of “give,” “apply,” and “visit” calls to action across US and UK university website homepages

Now, it's currently prime time for the student recruitment process and it's always prime time to reach alumni. So we took a quick look at principal calls to action visible on the homepages in our sample.

  1. The first of these was a call to action for alumni to donate or give money. US universities overwhelmingly make it easy for alumni to do this. UK universities less so.
  2. The second readily-identifiable call to action was one where students could set up a campus visit or attend an open day in UK parlance. Four in 10 sites provided some kind of unambiguous button or link that would allow website visitors to make this happen.
  3. Then finally, the third one that appeared on mostly US websites was whether student hopefuls could apply for enrollment from the homepage or let's call it the landing page. Now, application processes do differ between the UK and the US, so applying now is less relevant in the UK. But over 50% of US schools or institutions made initiating the application process easy and immediate. The 15% that have that in the UK tend to be specialized arts-type institutions where the application process might be very slightly different.
University Website Homepage Layout
Typical layout of the homepages of university websites

So now, let's have a look at the extent to which UK and US university homepages follow the template we laid out in an earlier slide. Let's just remind ourselves of what that template's like. We have:

  • The top line of links
  • Some kind of menuing system
  • The main image and some text overlay
  • Way more content as we scroll down the page
  • Bottom social media icons
  • Regulatory and administrative links that somebody inside the organization says "must be on the homepage"

Logos

University Website Logo Placement
Statistics on logo placement across UK and US university homepages

Let's start with the top logos. Most UK and US university college websites placed the institution's logo or identifying mark at the top left-hand side of the page with the UK being very slightly more left-leaning in this respect.

Now, the eye-tracking studies—all web page reading or scanning we've seen—tend to show that users follow an F-shaped reading pattern. They start at the top line, they read left to right. They track down the left-hand side and then take another track horizontally across the page. If you want to identify whose site you've landed on, placing the logo on the top left-hand corner would seem to be a sensible thing to do.

However, we have a small number of institutions in the US that place the logo in the center. Harvard is one of those. And we have a few institutions in the UK that have placed it on the right-hand side. I can't say there's anything wrong with that, although that's not where it usually is; maybe that's a chance to break out.

One thing that I would observe is that most institutions spell their name out in full. Note the top example with the logo on the left there. TCU—Texas Christian University—clearly relies on name recognition from its abbreviation.

It'd be interesting to run an A/B test on that. To see what difference it might make (to either how long people stay on the page or where they go after landing on the page) if they actually spelled their name out in full on a different version. But there's a pretty standard set of practices here and one has to assume that after many years of trying this, this is narrowed down to what seems to work.

Homepage links

University Website Homepage Links
Top of page links on university websites including directions, directories, and resources

Now the next section is all of those links and let's just back up for a second. I've asserted that our discussions with higher education professionals have identified three main objectives for higher education websites. Those were Student Recruitment, Research Promotion, and Alumni Engagement. But there are usually two further subsidiary goals, and those are:

  1. Meeting the needs of current students
  2. Meeting the needs of faculty and staff or employees

These needs are often addressed through a multitude of links that have fought their way to the very top of the homepage. They can be grouped into three functional categories: Directions, directories, and resources.

On the side there you can see some of the types of things that appear under this. It’s usually a fairly narrow set, but across the entire sample of 160 sites, those were all of the different types of links that we actually found there.

Google Analytics or similar data gathered ahead of web redesign projects, when it's most often brought into play, can measure how frequently these types of links are followed. I think if you look at newer homepage designs, you'll see these links:

  1. Get drastically pruned
  2. And usually get moved lower down the homepage, and the net result is a much clearer, less cluttered view of what's going on.

It still allows the subsidiary audiences to achieve their objectives; they just have to scroll a little bit further down the page to get to them.

Site search

Site Search on University Website Homepages
Statistics on the availability of general and course finder site search functionality across US and UK university sites

The third element on the top line is site search of one kind or another, and search still matters. While user-centered design should identify the principal visits or journeys on a website, it's clear that higher education websites attract very wide audiences. Some visitors will have to search to complete their tasks because these are activities that are way out there in the long tail of all the activities that were identified.

As a result, all the sites in our survey have a general site search function that's typically located in the top right-hand corner of the page, save for the two websites that placed their logos there and they just swapped it to the other side of the screen.

But one of the big differences between UK and US university websites is that the former have dedicated course degree program search or finder capabilities. I know from design exercises that considerable effort goes into ensuring that prospective students can find accurate and current information about what they could study at specific institutions and UK institutions clearly address this. As you can see from the stats on the page, only 4% of the US sites in this survey have similar capabilities, one of which was Southeastern University.

Menuing system

University Homepage Menus
Main menu items across US and UK university homepages

Now, if we drop below that top line and go to the main menuing system, we find some interesting parallels between the two sets of sites we looked at here.

One of the principles of modern digital design is to start by identifying user needs and, if you ask enough end-users, designs will likely zero in on a common set of solutions. The menuing system appears to be an example of this.

The main menu is there to allow you to complete different tasks by focusing on a general set of needs and points you in the right direction. Other than some language differences—for example, the US tends to use the term academics, while the UK tends to use the term study—the main menu options are very similar.

Just to explain a little bit of what's laid out here:

  1. There’s a top set of blocks, and the darker color shows the most frequently used wording.
  2. The lighter colored blocks below them are less frequently occurring but alternative terms that appear in those main menu systems.

The typical main menu uses six, sometimes five categories and the order of the items reflects internal priorities. The further left research or athletics appears in US menus, the more prominent those activities are in that institution's life. And I would just note that athletics (or sports as it is more likely known in the UK) only appears on the main menu of one UK institution in our sample. It is not a prominent factor.

But an item that appears in the UK main menus almost all the time, but doesn't really seem to appear in the US main menus, is usually called Business or Business Services. This emphasizes the degree to which UK institutions attempt to engage with business and industry in general.

Still, if you look across most of those two menus, you’ll note a large number of similarities. For example, aspects of student life, something that's about the institution itself, and something that encourages you to understand what you might study at the place.  

Images and video

Images and Video Usage on University Homepages
Statistics on the usage of carousels, images, and videos across US and UK homepages

Let’s drop a tiny bit further down that template to the position that's most prominent and that's occupied by the visual imagery. Here I've illustrated it with an image from the UK's De Montfort University (DMU). It's a video designed to give prospective students a sense of what they should expect from one of the open days. Actually, I think it's a great image in terms of giving you a sense of what's going on there.

But if we look across all of the samples, still images predominate. They support powerful storytelling. Carousels are still widely used too. Although, they can be a bit tricky on mobile devices unless there's a clear indication to mobile users that there are more images available. (We know that for university websites, most people are engaging with them using mobile devices. It's just using mobile device images in this presentation is actually not that helpful.)

We can see that video is now present in about one in five higher education homepages, and it's most often done as it's shown here in some kind of screen-wide hero format. But what's interesting is that the implementations are broadly similar between the US and the UK in terms of how it's presented on the page.

Social media links

Social Media Links on University Sites
Statistics on the presence and placement of social media links on university homepages

We're skipping past all of that other content that isn't immediately visible, just to have a look at where social media plays a role.

Social media clearly can be very important for prospective students informing themselves about an institution. It's also a mechanism for broadening the distribution of research-related news, and it's a way of engaging with alumni. As a result, most institutions (that's more than 90%) ensure that links to their main social media networks are readily found on the homepage.

However, current practices place these links in the page footer, thus encouraging a scroll past a lot of other content. A few institutions have taken links to social media off their homepages altogether. I'd be interested to know if this has any material impact on social media activity or engagement.

From other studies that we've carried out, the set of social media networks that are being used is stabilized around five, and we see that reflected in the shot actually from Yale's social media listings. That's Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube.

If we put that all back together, this time taking a UK example rather than a US example, we can readily see the underlying template of the principal content elements on the visible portion of the page.

Ulster University Homepage
The Ulster University homepage as an example of the typical layout

Technical search engine optimization and accessibility practices

Now we're going to go to the last section. We’ll look at some of the technical SEO and web accessibility underpinnings that can improve the user experience of these pages, and we're going to see how well and how much they're actually implemented by UK and US higher education institutions.

If you activate Developer Tools in the Chrome browser, you can run a set of five audits for individual web pages you’re browsing. This slide showcases the results of running Lighthouse—that's the name of the application—audits for two university home pages along four dimensions:

  1. Performance
  2. Best Practices
  3. Search Engine Optimization
  4. Accessibility

In this case, if you look at the dashboard items at the top of the screen, the homepage performs relatively well.

Chrome DevTools Lighthouse Webpage Audit Results page

We collected similar data for all 160 pages in our sample. But rather than use Lighthouse, which processes one page at a time, we used our own service as it works on multiple pages. One way or another, though, it yields essentially the same results. So let's take a look at those results.

We're going to start with Best Practices. Google has a number of recommended best practices for website operations and website pages. The webpage recommendations are aimed at developers but there are four best practices worth knowing about, or that should be more widely known as they benefit every page on a website. Some of these are technical. In fact, all of them are technical, but they're something content people should be at least be aware of.

Google recommended best practices

Google Recommended Best Practices
Percentages of US and UK university sites following various Google recommended best practices

For years, the web has been operating with a version of the HTTP protocol known as Version One. In 2015, the people behind the engineering of the web published a new version of this protocol, Number Two. Google recommends you move to it ASAP, and we note that three-quarters of higher education websites in our sample have yet to do so.

One reason for making that transition is because of the item in the box next to it—HTTPS. This is the protocol that ensures communication with websites is secure and private. That is now being widely adopted and implemented by higher education institutions. The UK lags behind the US in respect, but it's catching up very quickly. It comes with a little bit of overhead in terms of how quickly sites load. Yet, moving your site to HTTP/2 eliminates this issue and gets you back on the performance track.

The last two items here are around making sure that all content on the website is well-exposed to its intended audiences. Google doesn't need to index every directory on every part of the webserver because some of the files on the webserver are not intended for public content or public publishing. So a Robots.txt file tells Google what you want indexed and what should be ignored.

Most websites have a file of this kind. You can see again, the US leads the UK slightly in this respect. But if you look inside those files, you'll notice that not all of the instructions are current or even accurate, so a little bit of work is required in there to make sure they work as intended.

Finally, if you want Google to better understand which pages have priority or which pages change most frequently, an XML Sitemap or maps are the places to do it. Again, most sites have XML Sitemaps, but our analysis shows that they don't get much love, and they can do so much more than make indexing more efficient. This is an area where it would be well worth spending a little bit of time and it seems to be an area in which the UK actually is a little ahead of the US.

SEO best practices

We're just going to take a look at some SEO practices that would back up what we're saying and have a discussion about the need for search engine optimization. I personally think it's largely passé because of the power of Google's search algorithms. All that monkeying around with keywords and the rest of it probably doesn't do much good. In fact, there are five technical things Google says you should do to give a site and its content the best treatment.

Google Recommended Technical SEO Best Practices
Percentages of university websites following various Google recommended SEO best practices

First, make sure the homepage is directly accessible and that the user's not being redirected all over the place. Google rewards performance in the UK and US.

Second, tell Google your page is intended to be mobile-friendly. Put a viewport setting in there so browsers know what to do with it. Everybody seems to be pretty much on top of that.

Third, tell Google which is the definitive version of a site for indexing. This is because you may end up with multiple page versions on a site, particularly when transitioning from HTTP-based sites to HTTPS-based sites. This is not as widely implemented as that should be across higher education websites.

And the last two? Very old-fashioned but still essential, give every page a unique title that Google can use when displaying it in search results. And give every page a unique description because Google can also use that in a search results summary. The page description side is less widely implemented. We often see that that's blank or that pages have duplicate descriptions, which isn't terribly helpful to Google.

Accessibility concerns and practices

Let's jump to the third category of testing behind the scenes, which is accessibility. Accessibility is gaining increased prominence in the US through actions by the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights and, in the UK, it's the same. The new prominence is through some EU rules on public sector websites and accessibility.

Rather than wade through a lot of statistics here, as we know, automated accessibility testing generates lots of data. You could wade through that analysis but what I've done here is summarized six conditions that account for about 80% of the "errors" you find on higher education homepages.

Uninformative link text, invalid hypertext references, and duplicate id attributes are among accessibility concerns
  1. The most frequently occurring error is where anchor text on links on webpages doesn’t convey useful information to page visitors or their screen readers. As you can see, that's “learn more” and “read more” type stuff where people really don't understand what will happen when they click on the link.
  2. The second is a slightly technical issue where links are used to redirect visitors around web pages. For example, to return them to the top or take them to some other section. These can be very confusing to visitors using assisted devices. This is one of the most frequent errors that’s identified in doing accessibility scans and something developers can readily fix.
  3. The third one is where elements on a page—for example, a paragraph that you think is important—are assigned an ID to allow users to jump directly there when they input a URL. If the IDs aren't unique, people using assistive devices find navigation very difficult. A combination of developers and content editors can fix this frequently-occurring problem.
Additional Accessibility Concerns and Best Practices
Additional accessibility concerns including missing alt text, unlabeled form elements, and duplicate alt text
  1. The next one we're going to take a look at is the one people are probably most familiar with. But it's actually not the most frequently occurring error we run across. Most images displayed on a webpage need a text description, so those using assistive devices know what the image's role is on that page. If you leave the description blank, it's confusing. It's readily fixed by content editors and content creators.
  2. The next item is one that's relevant to these homepages because every single one of them has a search box. Search boxes are a form; they’re asking for input. The placeholder text that's in there isn't always clear, so these forms need clear labels that an assistive device can read to avoid confusion. Developers can readily fix this as well and this is the fifth most frequently occurring error that we run across.
  3. This last one is a slight variance of the error above. If you have different images on the page, then the text description needs to be different for each of those images. But we frequently run across cases where the same text description is being used and it's confusing to those using screen readers. Unique description text simply reduces unnecessary ambiguity.
Good to Know: A note for these three conditions: Linked text, missing attributes, and repeated attributes. These are all ongoing content creation process issues, rather than one-time fixes.

University websites are complex!

Complexity of University Websites
How technical environments contribute to the complexity of university websites

Just to wrap up here, I've peeled back the covers slightly on some specific aspects of higher education website homepages, how their content is structured, and the type of visuals they use.

But we shouldn't be surprised that this whole system is difficult to manage because universities have built and operate very complex digital ecosystems. This is true both from a technical perspective (as shown in the diagram) and from an organizational perspective. Many different fingers are involved in this particular pie.

Why bother benchmarking?

Higher Ed Web Design and Content Strategy Conclusions
Conclusions related to higher ed website design and content strategies

In conclusion, there are three things that you can get from doing some kind of benchmarking and general scan of the horizon.

  1. Benchmarking can help you understand how others have attempted to solve similar problems, although systematically gathering data can be challenging.
  2. I can reveal best practices. From what we've seen of looking at those attempts to solve similar problems, and in the sample of websites we've looked at here, certain content and higher education web design practices are widely used. They're likely, for all intents and purposes, best practices.
  3. Finally, it’s within the content person's purview to use technical best practices, ensuring that users get the best experience and that the widest group of visitors are able to access the homepages. Although struggling a little on accessibility, by and large, universities do a pretty good job of getting the right stuff on the page.

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About the author

Robert Mills

Rob is Founder of Fourth Wall Content working with clients on content strategy, creation and marketing. Previously, in his role as Head of Content at GatherContent he managed all of the organisation's content output and content operations.

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