A cartoon  ridiculing the tone-deaf design of many college home pages, published on July 30 week on the website xkcd and circulated widely in social media circles and on campuses, has highlighted the frustration many people have with what they consider to be poorly designed college websites.
As the social media sphere chorused a resounding "amen," marketing experts weighed in: college home pages have become clogged with useless objects such as mission statements, letters from deans, and press releases, several told Inside Higher Ed . A big part of the problem, said Elizabeth Scarborough, CEO of the marketing firm SimpsonScarborough, is that website design is often left in the hands of administrative committees rather than marketing executives who recognize that it is the customer — not the dean, not the provost, not the president — that is always right.
But while xkcd might have served as a wake-up call for some institutions, many Web designers and marketing consultants have actually been studying what website visitors want from college websites for some time. And while their research has uncovered no magic templates, they do suggest some widely applicable guidelines — e.g. that students prefer basic info to fancy features — that might inform more effective strategies on some campuses.
About a week before xkcd published its much-ballyhooed cartoon, the higher ed consulting firm Noel-Levitz released  a study of how prospective students are using colleges’ websites, based on more than 1,000 responses from college-bound high-schoolers.
The authors of the study  offer some confident conclusions, but the data points do not exactly jump off the page. A quarter of respondents said they had removed a college from their list because of a bad experience on the institution’s website, and 92 percent said they would be disappointed with a college if they could not find what they were looking for. However, only half of those who had removed a college from their list because of a bad website experience — 12 percent of all respondents — said their “bad experience” was related to being unable to find the information they wanted. And only 16 percent of survey-takers said being unable to find what they are looking for on the website would actually move them to drop a college from their list, whereas 76 percent said they would just find the information elsewhere.
Still, there is no denying the website is an important marketing tool for admissions offices, and knowing what prospective students want is valuable. In 2007, the consulting firm Eduventures asked 5,505 prospective students about the relative importance of various pieces of information and features on a college’s website. Academic majors topped the first list, with 70 percent of respondents calling that information “very important.” Admissions criteria and tuition costs were the other most valued pieces of information. By contrast, most students did not care about student or faculty profiles. They expressed even greater indifference toward things like videos, interactive features, blogs, and podcasts. (Mission statements and presidential letters, mocked by the cartoon and critics, were not included in the survey.)
Of course, part of the dilemma for colleges is that prospective students are not their only audience — though some argue they are the most strategically important. Faculty, staff, current students, alumni and job-seekers also account for a good chunk of traffic to a college’s website. Trouble is, trying to be everything for everyone results in cluttered pages that are more likely to turn off all demographics, experts say. Meanwhile, focusing on one type of visitor while keeping content economical might leave other audiences feeling shortchanged. “Many institutions struggle with the navigation constructs of their home pages, fearing that an emphasis on one market (such as prospective students) will alienate other markets (such as alumni, faculty, or their community),” wrote the authors of a 2009 Noel-Levitz report . “The result is a home page that serves too many masters and none of them effectively.”
One problem with using nationwide data or broad-based best practices is that just as many institutions are different, the audiences of different institutions may want different things. And parsing those demographics effectively requires self-study more than adhering to broad principles, say several consultants who take contracts for such work. Still, even professionals sometimes struggle to figure out the percentages of how home page audiences divide up so they can probe their desires, says Stephanie Geyer, associate vice president for Web strategy at Noel-Levitz. “I suspect that would be hard data to come by reliably,” Geyer says. “You could set up a survey on the site, but you’re not necessarily going to get a reliable sample at any given time.”
Some institutions have tried attacking this challenge in creative ways: Ashland University, for example, uses visitors’ IP addresses to figure out whether a guest is accessing the site from on campus or not, says Geyer. If the visitor is not on campus, she is automatically redirected to the prospective students’ portal; if not, she is sent to the current students’ portal.
Others have suggested the possibility of colleges orienting their websites to search, rather than navigation. Michael Stoner, president of the higher ed consulting firm mStoner, made a pitch for Google-like simplicity on college websites in a 2006 blog post.
“Reduce the complexity,” Stoner wrote. “Chuck the dozens of links. Get rid of a lot of the extraneous words and images. Keep it clean. Make it scannable. If the School of Engineering achieves a large number of page views consistently, then link them from the home page. But not the School of Business if they have a tenth as many… Visitors actually reward simplicity if they can easily find what they want!”
Many colleges let visitors query their sites using Google-powered search boxes, but the more content there is in the domain (some university websites index millions of documents), the less likely it is that searchers will find what they are looking for. “Identify pages on the website that are seldom if ever visited,” says Bob Johnson, president of Bob Johnson Consulting. “Eliminate them. Almost nobody will notice. And it will help your navigation and search engine.”
Geyer, meanwhile, disagreed with letting search principles be the guiding light of website design, citing data Noel-Levitz collected in a 2009 survey indicating that only 15 percent of prospective students “go right for the search box or site index,” while the other 85 percent prefer to follow links. However, this might not necessarily mean they prefer navigating over search a priori; the report does not indicate whether students might behave this way because they have found college websites’ search boxes to be dead ends in the past. And the data show more students use Google to find college websites in the first place than by any other method.
But choosing to make search the central principle of a college’s website might be a risky endeavor unless the institution is able to procure decisive evidence saying that is what the consumer wants. After all, the one thing all the experts contacted by Inside Higher Ed agreed on was that user preferences and data, rather than campus politics and hunches, should guide website architecture. It may only be a starting point, but given how loudly the xkcd cartoon resonated in administrative corridors, getting to that starting point could be a pretty large step for many institutions.
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