+
+

Insights from analysing 160 university website homepages

Insights from analysing 160 university website homepages

27 minute read

Insights from analysing 160 university website homepages

27 minute read

Insights from analysing 160 university website homepages

Robert Mills

Head of Content, GatherContent

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

In his recent webinar, Paul Bradley shares how he did the hard work and analysed 160 university homepages (from UK and US institutions), with some interesting findings to report. In the webinar, he covers 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 help higher education institutions to discover, log, and monitor all of 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.

This is an edited transcript of the webinar - alternatively, you can access an on-demand recording of the webinar.

Slide showing the eQAfy and GatherContent logos, and the title 'What you can learn from tearing down 160 university website homepages.'

In this webinar I’ll report on some research we've carried out while testing our service. We look at web estates (and what we mean by this is 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 blog, so if you get the chance, take a look at that blog, but let's go ahead with the webinar and the agenda.

Slide showing the presentation agenda: 1) Higher education website homepage core visual themes, 2) Higher education website homepage content clusters, 3) Behind higher education website homepages: technical and SEO

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

  • First, we'll look at the visual themes common to higher education websites in the United Kingdom and the United States
  • 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
  • Then finally, we'll run through some technical search engine optimisation and accessibility practices that hide behind what we and website visitors see on those homepages

All of the data referenced in the presentation comes from the original research that I mentioned earlier. Let's dive into the first part of the webinar. I'm going to look at the relatively narrow set of visual themes that universities use on their homepages. Now 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 2700 higher education websites. Those are sites in Australia, Canada, the EU, New Zealand, and a selection of the more than four and a half thousand US institutions.

We routinely capture screenshots of how sites render on desktops. That's the format we're going to 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 as well, all of which makes it a little easier to do today's analysis and benchmarking in general. Let's step back and let's have a look at a few sites side by side.

The 9 main visual themes common to higher education websites  

Firstly, in the section I'm going to describe and provide illustrations of the nine main visual themes used by US and UK universities. So that left hand image is a US university website that's an example of a theme that we call Research. On the right hand side, it's a UK university website and that's an example of a theme that we call Students, and I think in this case also a Statement.

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 generalisation, but you're welcome to challenge me, is that higher education websites have three primary functions:  

  • Student Recruitment
  • Research Promotion
  • 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, 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 that we've observed by looking at those websites. There are undoubtedly other basis for categorisation, but these are the ones we've gone with.

Slide showing higher education website homepage themes. These are: What we are/what we do, abstraction, research, students, individual, statement, campus landscape, news and ranking.

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 strap line, 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's 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 actually fit into multiple categories, which is mainly a positive thing, but one way or another, these images align with three primary website objectives that I stated earlier: Student Recruitment, Research Promotion and Alumni Engagement. Let's have a look at what people actually 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. Now, 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?"

Student-focused

Slide showing four examples from the students 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%, 45% tilt towards UK sites using student images.  

Campus landscape  

Slide showing 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 potentially filling it up also with groups of students or students in situ in the campus landscape, pretty much evenly split between the UK and US in terms of use of this particular approach.  

Statement

Slide showing four examples of the statement theme

The third most popular choice is what we call 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 strap line, perhaps reiterating current branding messaging or other 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, running very similar campaigns, perhaps drawing their common inspiration from Gandhi's "you must be the change you want to see in the world." Not sure about that, but 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.

Featured Individual

Slide showing four examples of the individual theme

Number four in terms of popularity is the Featured Individual. It can be the, 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's some stories there about a wide 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.

Research

Slide showing four examples of the research theme

Number five of nine is Research. Now for many institutions, it is 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% - 16% have research-led visuals. There’s a clear bias towards this being used in the US, where about 80% of that of the slides using research as a visual theme are US institutions, rather than UK institutions.

What Are We About

Slide showing 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 seem to favour 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 within its community. Now, unfortunately, I actually checked earlier today, this story is not rotated off the homepage, but actually it was a very good example of addressing those sort of mission, vision, and value type sentiments.

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

News

Slide showing four examples of the news theme

Number seven is news, and news is the basis for storytelling, and essentially reflecting that an institution is a sort of place that makes the news  for its students through its academics and their work, and through its alumni. So this is often a snapshot of what specific individuals are doing, and it may also reiterate an institution's focus on the bigger 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 well be that in fact alumni find this approach more compelling. Anecdotally, I've had a number of higher education marketing professionals tell me that traffic and click-through rates on news stories is relatively low, but I'd be interested in further feedback on how well news and events content actually works. Nevertheless, many institutions are organised 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.

Abstraction

Slide showing 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 actually one of the least popular visual themes. I suspect largely because it's not clearly focused and it's hard to be sure that an intended audience has realised that it was targeted at them. US universities tend to avoid this approach, 85% of the examples were from UK websites. As you will note from the slide, in fact we struggled, I 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.

I'm not sure what they were thinking. If you reload the site a few times, you will in fact see the words "Prepare to dominate" projected over the image of the fish swimming around in the ocean. That fades from the screen and I'm not really sure what that was trying to communicate to anyone, but they do have quite a good degree and program finder on that page, which we'll come to a little bit later in a different content.

Ranking

Slide showing four examples of the ranking theme

Then 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’s lots of different ranking schemes and systems out there, some academically focused, other ones focused around 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, 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 one that  is 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 databased one, the Ranking.

Typical content clusters or groupings found on the pages in our sample group  

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

Slide showing the typical layout of a university website homepage. Logo, internal links and search are at the top. Then below that is the main menu items. Below that is the main image and text overlay. Below that is more content. And at the bottom are social media icons and policy/regulatory links

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, and so what we see in most cases is top of the screen, a line of links, some kind of menuing system a main image and text overlay, more content and near the bottom of the page, some 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.

Slide showing the Rutgers university homepage with a carousel of images

We've simply captured the first of these (that particular image promotes research activity). The layout aligns more or less with that idealised 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, some name clarification, below that there’s a main menu, the central visual image and as you start scrolling down, more content, before you reach the bottom of the home page.

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

Slide showing the homepage of Yale university

Again, showing it in the desktop layout and as we scroll past the final content items, we eventually hit what are usually a set of regulatory and policy links, the 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 individual websites in the course of assessing different institutions they might be interested in, I would imagine 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.

Slide showing graphs of UK and US university homepage word counts. It shows that 90% of both stick to around 1,000 words

We've actually 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 access 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 have less than in the case of the US, about 1800 words and roughly the same in the case of UK websites.

Calls to action

Slide shows calls to action for 'give' (donate), 'apply' and 'visit (open days) used on UK and US university homepages. Give = 15% in the UK, 84% in the US. Apply = 15% in the UK, 56% in the US. Visit = 40% on the UK, 40% in the US

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 that are actually visible on the homepages in our sample. Now 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. The second readily identifiable call for 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 visitors to the website to make this happen.

Then finally, the third one that appeared on mostly US websites was whether students could apply to an institution directly from the homepage or let's call it the landing page. Now application processes 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 specialised arts type institutions where the application process might be very slightly different.

Slide showing the typical layout of a university website homepage. Logo, internal links and search are at the top. Then below that is the main menu items. Below that is the main image and text overlay. Below that is more content. And at the bottom are social media icons and policy/regulatory links

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, we have some kind of menuing system. We have a main image, some text overlay, we have way more content as we scroll down the page. We have some bottom social media icons and we have some regulatory and administrative links that somebody inside the organisation says, "must be the homepage."

Logos

Slide showing logo placement on UK and US university homepages. 98% of UK universities put it on the left, 0% in the centre and 2% on the right. 92% of US universities place the logo on the left. 8% in the centre, and 0% on the right

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. The UK being very slightly more left leaning than the US in this respect. Now the eye tracking studies, all web pages and web page reading or scanning that 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 who's site you've landed on, placing the logo on the top left hand corner would seem to be a reasonably sensible thing to do.

We have a small number of institutions in the US that place the logo in the centre, Harvard is one of those. We have a few institutions in the UK that have placed it over on the right hand side. Can't say there's anything terribly wrong with that, although that's not where it usually is, but maybe that's a chance to break out. One thing that I would observe is that most institutions spell their name out in full. You'll note the top example, with the logo on the left there. TCU, Texas Christian University, clearly relying 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


Slide shows the types of links used at the top of pages, including directions (campus maps, transport links), directories (a-z, campuses, colleges, contacts, people finder etc) and resources (accessibility tools,  careers, portal, student hub etc)

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. That was Student Recruitment. That was Research promotion, and Alumni engagement. But there are usually two further subsidiary goals, and that's:

  • Meeting the needs of current students
  • 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 the types of things that appear under this, not all of them. 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 will see that these links a) get drastically pruned and b) they 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

Slide showing site search on U and US universities. 100% of both has a general site search, but 70% of UK sites have a course finder/search capability, and only 4% of US sites have this

The third element at top line is site search of one kind or another, and search still matters. Now, while user-centered design should identify the principal visits or journeys on a website, it's clear that higher education websites actually attract very wide audiences and 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, the UK sites, 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 will see from the stats on the page, only 4% of the US sites in this survey have similar capabilities, one of which was that Southeastern University.

Menuing system

Slide shows the meaning systems of US and UK universities. These include things like 'about', 'study', 'student life', 'research' etc

Now if we drop below that top line and we go to the main menuing system, we actually find some interesting parallels between the two sets of sites that we looked at here. So clearly 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 and 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: there’s a top set of blocks and the darker colour shows the most frequently used wording. The lighter coloured 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 that research or athletics appears in US menus, the more prominent that those are 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 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 an item that's usually called Business or Business Services. This very much emphasises the degree to which UK institutions attempt to engage with business and industry in general. But if you look across most of those two menus, you will note there are 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

Slide shows carousel, image and video use on UK and US university homepages. The results show 34% of UK universities and 30% of US universities use a carousel. 44% of UK and 46% of US use images. 22% of UK and 24% of US use video.


Dropping 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 sample, still images predominate. They support powerful storytelling. Carousels are still widely used too. Although, I think that 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 the implementations are broadly similar between the US and the UK, in terms of how that visual is actually presented on the page.

Social media links

slide shows where social media icons are placed on university homepages. The results show that 80% of UK and 94% of US universities have them at the bottom of the page. 10% of UK and 0% of US have them at the top of the page. 2% of UK and 0% of US have them both top and bottom, and 8% of UK and 6% of US homepages have neither

We're skipping past all of that other content that isn't immediately visible there, just to have a look at where social media plays a role in there. 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. So as a result, most institutions (that's more than 90%) ensure that links to their main social media networks are readily found by the homepage. Now, 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 stabilised around five, and we see that reflected to a large degree 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 now the underlying template of the principal content elements on the visible portion of the page.

slide shows the Ulster university homepage which clearly shows the typical layout of a homepage.

Technical search engine optimisation and accessibility practices

Now we're going to go to the last section where we're going to look at some of the technical SEO and 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, so we’re into the last part of the presentation here.

If you activate the Developer Tools in the Chrome browser, you can run a set of five audits for individual webpages that you are browsing. This slide shows the results of running Lighthouse, that's the name of the application audits for two university home pages along four dimensions: Performance, Best Practices, Search Engine Optimisation, and Accessibility and in this case, if you look at the dashboard items at the top of the screen, the homepage performs relatively well.

Slide shows Chrome DevTools Lighthouse Webpage Audit results page

We collected similar data for all 160 pages in our sample, rather than use Lighthouse, which processes one page at a time, we used our own service as it works on multiple pages, but one way or another, 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 more that should be better known more widely. They're certainly worth knowing about and they benefit every page on a website. Some of these are technical. In fact, all of them are technical, but they're something that content people should be at least be aware of.

Google recommended best practices

Slide shows Google recommended best practices. HTTP/2 use is 23.1% for UK universities, 26.3% for US universities. 86% of UK universities have HTTPS, and 95% of US universities have that. Robots.txt - 76.3% for UK universities and 97.5% for US universities. 72% of UK universities have an XML sitemap, and 60% of US universities have this.

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. Now 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. See 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, 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 that content on the website is well exposed to its intended audiences. Google doesn't need to index every directory on every part of the web server because some of the files on the web server are not intended for public content or public publishing. So a Robots.txt file tells Google another index, 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 in fact, 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 place 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 Optimisation. 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 that Google says you should do and it gives a site and it's content the best treatment or Google will then give it the best treatment:

Slide shows Google recommended technical SEO practices: 98.8% of UK universities have a HTTP status code, and 98.8% of US universities also have this. 98.8% of UK universities have set a viewport, and 100% of US universities have done this. 98.8% of UK universities have supplied a page title, and 100% of US universities have done this. 86.9% of UK universities have supplied a page description, and 85% of US universities have done this.

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

The 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, there may be multiple page versions on a site, particularly when transitioning from HTTP based sites to HTTPS based sites. You can end up with duplicate versions of content, so tell Google which is the definitive version for indexing. 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. Google can then use it in displaying any search results and give every page a unique description, because can also use that in a search results summary. On the page description side, less widely implemented, we often see that that's blank, and what we also find is the page is in fact 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. Now 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 in fact, what I've done here is summarised six conditions that account for about 80% of the "errors" that you find on higher education homepages and we'll just quickly run through this.

Slide shows Accessibility concerns and practices. 1. Uninformative Link Text 2. Link uses an invalid hypertext reference. 3. id attributes are used more than once

The number one most frequently occurring error is where anchor text on links on webpages does not convey useful information to users who would be visiting that page or the screen reader. As you can see there, that's ‘learn more’, that's more ‘read more’ type stuff where people really don't understand what will happen when you actually click on that link.

The second one is a slightly technical issue and this is where links are used to redirect visitors around webpages, for example, return them to the top or take them to some other section. These can be very confusing to visitors using assisted devices. This is something developers can readily fix and something that occurs as one of the frequent set of errors that are identified in doing accessibility scans.

The third one is where elements on a page, for example, something like a paragraph that you think is important, can be assigned an ID to aid navigation 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 developer and content editors can help fix this frequently occurring problem.

Slide shows Accessibility concerns and practices. 1. Image missing ALT attribute. 2. Form element has no label. 3. Same alt text on images with difference src attributes.

The next one we're going to take a look at is the one that probably people are most familiar with. It's actually not the most frequently occurring error that 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.

The fifth item is one that's relevant to these homepages because every single one of them has a search box. Search boxes are a form, it's asking for input, the placeholder type text that's in there doesn't always work clearly enough for this purpose, so these forms need a clear label 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.

The last one is a slight variance on number four. This one is 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 in fact the same text description is being used and that's confusing to those using screen readers. Unique description text simply reduces unnecessary ambiguity.

A note for these three conditions, linked text, missing attributes, and the repeated attributes: they are all ongoing content creation process issues, rather than one time fixes.

University websites are complex!

Slide shows how technical environments make it complex. You have the content presentation on top (like comment systems, captchas, live chat, payment processing, mobile frameworks. Then you have content management - Web analytics, CRM, content editors, JavaScript frameworks, SEO adding, widgets, development tools, marketing automation, tag managers, web frameworks. Then you have infrastructure - Caching, databases, media servers, network storage, CDNs database managers, load balancers and web servers.

Just to wrap up here, I've peeled back the covers slightly on some specific aspects of higher education website homepages and how their content is structured and the type of visual images that they use. But we shouldn't be surprised that this whole system is difficult to manage, because in fact universities have built, and operate, very complex digital ecosystems, both from a technical - that's what the diagram is attempting to show - and from an organisational perspective. Many different fingers are involved in this particular pie.

Why bother benchmarking?

Slide shows conclusions: Benchmarking is worth the time and effort, but hard to extend beyond individual pages without specialised software. Analysing higher ed's design and content strategies helps understand where to follow accepted practice, and when to make changes that improve the user experience. Content strategists should be aware of key technical, SEO and accessibility best practices. Developers should know these as well and understand why higher ed webpages follow certain formats.

It's not entirely surprising that it is hard to make all of this work, but in conclusion, there are three things that you can get from doing some kind of benchmarking and general scan of the horizon. Benchmarking can help you understand how others have attempted to solve similar problems, although systematically gathering data can be challenging.

From what we've seen of looking at those attempts to solve similar problems, in the sample of websites we've looked at here, certain content and design practices are widely used and they're likely, for all intents and purposes best practices.

Finally, by and large, universities do a pretty good job of this, although, perhaps it's struggling a little on the accessibility, getting the right stuff on the page, which is very much the content person's purview should be supported by using the best technical practices to ensure that users get the best experience and that the widest group of visitors are able to access those homepages.

Watch the webinar

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

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

In his recent webinar, Paul Bradley shares how he did the hard work and analysed 160 university homepages (from UK and US institutions), with some interesting findings to report. In the webinar, he covers 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 help higher education institutions to discover, log, and monitor all of 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.

This is an edited transcript of the webinar - alternatively, you can access an on-demand recording of the webinar.

Slide showing the eQAfy and GatherContent logos, and the title 'What you can learn from tearing down 160 university website homepages.'

In this webinar I’ll report on some research we've carried out while testing our service. We look at web estates (and what we mean by this is 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 blog, so if you get the chance, take a look at that blog, but let's go ahead with the webinar and the agenda.

Slide showing the presentation agenda: 1) Higher education website homepage core visual themes, 2) Higher education website homepage content clusters, 3) Behind higher education website homepages: technical and SEO

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

  • First, we'll look at the visual themes common to higher education websites in the United Kingdom and the United States
  • 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
  • Then finally, we'll run through some technical search engine optimisation and accessibility practices that hide behind what we and website visitors see on those homepages

All of the data referenced in the presentation comes from the original research that I mentioned earlier. Let's dive into the first part of the webinar. I'm going to look at the relatively narrow set of visual themes that universities use on their homepages. Now 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 2700 higher education websites. Those are sites in Australia, Canada, the EU, New Zealand, and a selection of the more than four and a half thousand US institutions.

We routinely capture screenshots of how sites render on desktops. That's the format we're going to 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 as well, all of which makes it a little easier to do today's analysis and benchmarking in general. Let's step back and let's have a look at a few sites side by side.

The 9 main visual themes common to higher education websites  

Firstly, in the section I'm going to describe and provide illustrations of the nine main visual themes used by US and UK universities. So that left hand image is a US university website that's an example of a theme that we call Research. On the right hand side, it's a UK university website and that's an example of a theme that we call Students, and I think in this case also a Statement.

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 generalisation, but you're welcome to challenge me, is that higher education websites have three primary functions:  

  • Student Recruitment
  • Research Promotion
  • 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, 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 that we've observed by looking at those websites. There are undoubtedly other basis for categorisation, but these are the ones we've gone with.

Slide showing higher education website homepage themes. These are: What we are/what we do, abstraction, research, students, individual, statement, campus landscape, news and ranking.

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 strap line, 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's 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 actually fit into multiple categories, which is mainly a positive thing, but one way or another, these images align with three primary website objectives that I stated earlier: Student Recruitment, Research Promotion and Alumni Engagement. Let's have a look at what people actually 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. Now, 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?"

Student-focused

Slide showing four examples from the students 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%, 45% tilt towards UK sites using student images.  

Campus landscape  

Slide showing 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 potentially filling it up also with groups of students or students in situ in the campus landscape, pretty much evenly split between the UK and US in terms of use of this particular approach.  

Statement

Slide showing four examples of the statement theme

The third most popular choice is what we call 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 strap line, perhaps reiterating current branding messaging or other 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, running very similar campaigns, perhaps drawing their common inspiration from Gandhi's "you must be the change you want to see in the world." Not sure about that, but 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.

Featured Individual

Slide showing four examples of the individual theme

Number four in terms of popularity is the Featured Individual. It can be the, 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's some stories there about a wide 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.

Research

Slide showing four examples of the research theme

Number five of nine is Research. Now for many institutions, it is 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% - 16% have research-led visuals. There’s a clear bias towards this being used in the US, where about 80% of that of the slides using research as a visual theme are US institutions, rather than UK institutions.

What Are We About

Slide showing 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 seem to favour 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 within its community. Now, unfortunately, I actually checked earlier today, this story is not rotated off the homepage, but actually it was a very good example of addressing those sort of mission, vision, and value type sentiments.

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

News

Slide showing four examples of the news theme

Number seven is news, and news is the basis for storytelling, and essentially reflecting that an institution is a sort of place that makes the news  for its students through its academics and their work, and through its alumni. So this is often a snapshot of what specific individuals are doing, and it may also reiterate an institution's focus on the bigger 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 well be that in fact alumni find this approach more compelling. Anecdotally, I've had a number of higher education marketing professionals tell me that traffic and click-through rates on news stories is relatively low, but I'd be interested in further feedback on how well news and events content actually works. Nevertheless, many institutions are organised 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.

Abstraction

Slide showing 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 actually one of the least popular visual themes. I suspect largely because it's not clearly focused and it's hard to be sure that an intended audience has realised that it was targeted at them. US universities tend to avoid this approach, 85% of the examples were from UK websites. As you will note from the slide, in fact we struggled, I 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.

I'm not sure what they were thinking. If you reload the site a few times, you will in fact see the words "Prepare to dominate" projected over the image of the fish swimming around in the ocean. That fades from the screen and I'm not really sure what that was trying to communicate to anyone, but they do have quite a good degree and program finder on that page, which we'll come to a little bit later in a different content.

Ranking

Slide showing four examples of the ranking theme

Then 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’s lots of different ranking schemes and systems out there, some academically focused, other ones focused around 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, 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 one that  is 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 databased one, the Ranking.

Typical content clusters or groupings found on the pages in our sample group  

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

Slide showing the typical layout of a university website homepage. Logo, internal links and search are at the top. Then below that is the main menu items. Below that is the main image and text overlay. Below that is more content. And at the bottom are social media icons and policy/regulatory links

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, and so what we see in most cases is top of the screen, a line of links, some kind of menuing system a main image and text overlay, more content and near the bottom of the page, some 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.

Slide showing the Rutgers university homepage with a carousel of images

We've simply captured the first of these (that particular image promotes research activity). The layout aligns more or less with that idealised 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, some name clarification, below that there’s a main menu, the central visual image and as you start scrolling down, more content, before you reach the bottom of the home page.

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

Slide showing the homepage of Yale university

Again, showing it in the desktop layout and as we scroll past the final content items, we eventually hit what are usually a set of regulatory and policy links, the 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 individual websites in the course of assessing different institutions they might be interested in, I would imagine 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.

Slide showing graphs of UK and US university homepage word counts. It shows that 90% of both stick to around 1,000 words

We've actually 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 access 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 have less than in the case of the US, about 1800 words and roughly the same in the case of UK websites.

Calls to action

Slide shows calls to action for 'give' (donate), 'apply' and 'visit (open days) used on UK and US university homepages. Give = 15% in the UK, 84% in the US. Apply = 15% in the UK, 56% in the US. Visit = 40% on the UK, 40% in the US

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 that are actually visible on the homepages in our sample. Now 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. The second readily identifiable call for 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 visitors to the website to make this happen.

Then finally, the third one that appeared on mostly US websites was whether students could apply to an institution directly from the homepage or let's call it the landing page. Now application processes 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 specialised arts type institutions where the application process might be very slightly different.

Slide showing the typical layout of a university website homepage. Logo, internal links and search are at the top. Then below that is the main menu items. Below that is the main image and text overlay. Below that is more content. And at the bottom are social media icons and policy/regulatory links

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, we have some kind of menuing system. We have a main image, some text overlay, we have way more content as we scroll down the page. We have some bottom social media icons and we have some regulatory and administrative links that somebody inside the organisation says, "must be the homepage."

Logos

Slide showing logo placement on UK and US university homepages. 98% of UK universities put it on the left, 0% in the centre and 2% on the right. 92% of US universities place the logo on the left. 8% in the centre, and 0% on the right

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. The UK being very slightly more left leaning than the US in this respect. Now the eye tracking studies, all web pages and web page reading or scanning that 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 who's site you've landed on, placing the logo on the top left hand corner would seem to be a reasonably sensible thing to do.

We have a small number of institutions in the US that place the logo in the centre, Harvard is one of those. We have a few institutions in the UK that have placed it over on the right hand side. Can't say there's anything terribly wrong with that, although that's not where it usually is, but maybe that's a chance to break out. One thing that I would observe is that most institutions spell their name out in full. You'll note the top example, with the logo on the left there. TCU, Texas Christian University, clearly relying 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


Slide shows the types of links used at the top of pages, including directions (campus maps, transport links), directories (a-z, campuses, colleges, contacts, people finder etc) and resources (accessibility tools,  careers, portal, student hub etc)

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. That was Student Recruitment. That was Research promotion, and Alumni engagement. But there are usually two further subsidiary goals, and that's:

  • Meeting the needs of current students
  • 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 the types of things that appear under this, not all of them. 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 will see that these links a) get drastically pruned and b) they 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

Slide showing site search on U and US universities. 100% of both has a general site search, but 70% of UK sites have a course finder/search capability, and only 4% of US sites have this

The third element at top line is site search of one kind or another, and search still matters. Now, while user-centered design should identify the principal visits or journeys on a website, it's clear that higher education websites actually attract very wide audiences and 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, the UK sites, 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 will see from the stats on the page, only 4% of the US sites in this survey have similar capabilities, one of which was that Southeastern University.

Menuing system

Slide shows the meaning systems of US and UK universities. These include things like 'about', 'study', 'student life', 'research' etc

Now if we drop below that top line and we go to the main menuing system, we actually find some interesting parallels between the two sets of sites that we looked at here. So clearly 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 and 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: there’s a top set of blocks and the darker colour shows the most frequently used wording. The lighter coloured 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 that research or athletics appears in US menus, the more prominent that those are 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 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 an item that's usually called Business or Business Services. This very much emphasises the degree to which UK institutions attempt to engage with business and industry in general. But if you look across most of those two menus, you will note there are 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

Slide shows carousel, image and video use on UK and US university homepages. The results show 34% of UK universities and 30% of US universities use a carousel. 44% of UK and 46% of US use images. 22% of UK and 24% of US use video.


Dropping 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 sample, still images predominate. They support powerful storytelling. Carousels are still widely used too. Although, I think that 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 the implementations are broadly similar between the US and the UK, in terms of how that visual is actually presented on the page.

Social media links

slide shows where social media icons are placed on university homepages. The results show that 80% of UK and 94% of US universities have them at the bottom of the page. 10% of UK and 0% of US have them at the top of the page. 2% of UK and 0% of US have them both top and bottom, and 8% of UK and 6% of US homepages have neither

We're skipping past all of that other content that isn't immediately visible there, just to have a look at where social media plays a role in there. 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. So as a result, most institutions (that's more than 90%) ensure that links to their main social media networks are readily found by the homepage. Now, 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 stabilised around five, and we see that reflected to a large degree 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 now the underlying template of the principal content elements on the visible portion of the page.

slide shows the Ulster university homepage which clearly shows the typical layout of a homepage.

Technical search engine optimisation and accessibility practices

Now we're going to go to the last section where we're going to look at some of the technical SEO and 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, so we’re into the last part of the presentation here.

If you activate the Developer Tools in the Chrome browser, you can run a set of five audits for individual webpages that you are browsing. This slide shows the results of running Lighthouse, that's the name of the application audits for two university home pages along four dimensions: Performance, Best Practices, Search Engine Optimisation, and Accessibility and in this case, if you look at the dashboard items at the top of the screen, the homepage performs relatively well.

Slide shows Chrome DevTools Lighthouse Webpage Audit results page

We collected similar data for all 160 pages in our sample, rather than use Lighthouse, which processes one page at a time, we used our own service as it works on multiple pages, but one way or another, 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 more that should be better known more widely. They're certainly worth knowing about and they benefit every page on a website. Some of these are technical. In fact, all of them are technical, but they're something that content people should be at least be aware of.

Google recommended best practices

Slide shows Google recommended best practices. HTTP/2 use is 23.1% for UK universities, 26.3% for US universities. 86% of UK universities have HTTPS, and 95% of US universities have that. Robots.txt - 76.3% for UK universities and 97.5% for US universities. 72% of UK universities have an XML sitemap, and 60% of US universities have this.

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. Now 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. See 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, 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 that content on the website is well exposed to its intended audiences. Google doesn't need to index every directory on every part of the web server because some of the files on the web server are not intended for public content or public publishing. So a Robots.txt file tells Google another index, 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 in fact, 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 place 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 Optimisation. 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 that Google says you should do and it gives a site and it's content the best treatment or Google will then give it the best treatment:

Slide shows Google recommended technical SEO practices: 98.8% of UK universities have a HTTP status code, and 98.8% of US universities also have this. 98.8% of UK universities have set a viewport, and 100% of US universities have done this. 98.8% of UK universities have supplied a page title, and 100% of US universities have done this. 86.9% of UK universities have supplied a page description, and 85% of US universities have done this.

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

The 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, there may be multiple page versions on a site, particularly when transitioning from HTTP based sites to HTTPS based sites. You can end up with duplicate versions of content, so tell Google which is the definitive version for indexing. 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. Google can then use it in displaying any search results and give every page a unique description, because can also use that in a search results summary. On the page description side, less widely implemented, we often see that that's blank, and what we also find is the page is in fact 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. Now 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 in fact, what I've done here is summarised six conditions that account for about 80% of the "errors" that you find on higher education homepages and we'll just quickly run through this.

Slide shows Accessibility concerns and practices. 1. Uninformative Link Text 2. Link uses an invalid hypertext reference. 3. id attributes are used more than once

The number one most frequently occurring error is where anchor text on links on webpages does not convey useful information to users who would be visiting that page or the screen reader. As you can see there, that's ‘learn more’, that's more ‘read more’ type stuff where people really don't understand what will happen when you actually click on that link.

The second one is a slightly technical issue and this is where links are used to redirect visitors around webpages, for example, return them to the top or take them to some other section. These can be very confusing to visitors using assisted devices. This is something developers can readily fix and something that occurs as one of the frequent set of errors that are identified in doing accessibility scans.

The third one is where elements on a page, for example, something like a paragraph that you think is important, can be assigned an ID to aid navigation 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 developer and content editors can help fix this frequently occurring problem.

Slide shows Accessibility concerns and practices. 1. Image missing ALT attribute. 2. Form element has no label. 3. Same alt text on images with difference src attributes.

The next one we're going to take a look at is the one that probably people are most familiar with. It's actually not the most frequently occurring error that 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.

The fifth item is one that's relevant to these homepages because every single one of them has a search box. Search boxes are a form, it's asking for input, the placeholder type text that's in there doesn't always work clearly enough for this purpose, so these forms need a clear label 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.

The last one is a slight variance on number four. This one is 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 in fact the same text description is being used and that's confusing to those using screen readers. Unique description text simply reduces unnecessary ambiguity.

A note for these three conditions, linked text, missing attributes, and the repeated attributes: they are all ongoing content creation process issues, rather than one time fixes.

University websites are complex!

Slide shows how technical environments make it complex. You have the content presentation on top (like comment systems, captchas, live chat, payment processing, mobile frameworks. Then you have content management - Web analytics, CRM, content editors, JavaScript frameworks, SEO adding, widgets, development tools, marketing automation, tag managers, web frameworks. Then you have infrastructure - Caching, databases, media servers, network storage, CDNs database managers, load balancers and web servers.

Just to wrap up here, I've peeled back the covers slightly on some specific aspects of higher education website homepages and how their content is structured and the type of visual images that they use. But we shouldn't be surprised that this whole system is difficult to manage, because in fact universities have built, and operate, very complex digital ecosystems, both from a technical - that's what the diagram is attempting to show - and from an organisational perspective. Many different fingers are involved in this particular pie.

Why bother benchmarking?

Slide shows conclusions: Benchmarking is worth the time and effort, but hard to extend beyond individual pages without specialised software. Analysing higher ed's design and content strategies helps understand where to follow accepted practice, and when to make changes that improve the user experience. Content strategists should be aware of key technical, SEO and accessibility best practices. Developers should know these as well and understand why higher ed webpages follow certain formats.

It's not entirely surprising that it is hard to make all of this work, but in conclusion, there are three things that you can get from doing some kind of benchmarking and general scan of the horizon. Benchmarking can help you understand how others have attempted to solve similar problems, although systematically gathering data can be challenging.

From what we've seen of looking at those attempts to solve similar problems, in the sample of websites we've looked at here, certain content and design practices are widely used and they're likely, for all intents and purposes best practices.

Finally, by and large, universities do a pretty good job of this, although, perhaps it's struggling a little on the accessibility, getting the right stuff on the page, which is very much the content person's purview should be supported by using the best technical practices to ensure that users get the best experience and that the widest group of visitors are able to access those homepages.

Watch the webinar

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

Webinar Recording

Insights from analysing 160 university website homepages

Learn how data can help build more effective higher education websites, with data and examples from UK and US universities.

December 5, 2019

4:00 pm

Register now

Webinar Recording

Insights from analysing 160 university website homepages

Learn how data can help build more effective higher education websites, with data and examples from UK and US universities.

December 5, 2019

4:00 pm

Watch now
No items found.

About the author

Robert Mills

Rob is Head of Content at GatherContent. He is responsible for managing all of the organisation's content output and for their content operations. Rob also works on audience research projects and strategic initiatives to ensure their content meets both business goals and user needs.

He is a journalism graduate and has previously worked as Studio Manager and Head of Content for a design agency and as an Audience Research Executive for the BBC. He’s a published author and has written for industry publications including Net Magazine, Smashing Magazine, UX Matters, UX Booth and Content Marketing Institute. On occasion Rob speaks about content strategy and content operations at leading industry events or on podcasts.

Related posts you might like