Best Practices and SEO Analysis for European University Websites

image of European Map

Do Search or SEO Still Matter?

Yes, because audiences are still looking for answers and to complete tasks. But, making search work effectively has changed. Google’s successive search algorithm updates have shifted the focus from keywords to relevant content [1].

And, these changes have made it harder to delineate the factors that we should actually be paying attention to. Even ‘search professionals’ find answering that question tricky. For context read Google Ranking Factors 2019: Opinions from 1,500+ Professional SEOs.

Relevant Content

In case you skipped the link, there are two takeaways. A majority of SEO specialists believe Google does not use a universal algorithm for search responses. It looks as if the search algorithm evaluates a search query’s contents and ranks results based on the inputs.

This line of reasoning implies there is no one correct way to get pages or content to rank highly. On the other hand, there most probably is. Experienced SEO professionals overwhelmingly believe the single most important ranking factor is the relevance (or quality) of overall page content.

Technical Factors and Best Practices

The second takeaway is that SEO specialists also strongly believe that mobile friendliness, page loading speed and site accessibility are key factors in getting better rankings in search results.

Content strategists, creators and editors can address relevant content. While developers and web specialists can eliminate the technical and structural elements impeding SEO success and preventing audiences finding content that meets their needs.

In this post we report our results from a pan-European assessment of higher education websites, in which we looked at how well and to what extent the EU’s universities have implemented Google’s website best practice and SEO recommendation.

While the factors are somewhat technical, they are issues content specialists would be well advised to be familiar with, as there is little value in investing in content that does not reach its intended audiences.

What We Did

If you read either of our earlier posts Which Content Management Systems do EU Universities Use? or Where Do EU Universities Host Their Websites? or attended our recent webinar, Insights from Analysing 160 University Website Homepages you will know that we’ve loaded the main websites for the universities in the European Union’s 28 member states into an instance of our Web Estate Registry database: about 2,350 higher education institutions.

We’ve scanned and evaluated the homepage for each of the 2,350 websites to capture data on how well the EU's higher education sector performs against Google’s website best practice recommendations. And, by implication, how well these sites are set up to ensure their content reaches its intended audiences.

We split our test process in two. Part one tested whether the sites had implemented a number of Google’s website best practice recommendations. The second part of the process focused on specific elements that Google (and the SEO professionals in the article referenced above) recommend as being important in improving search rankings.

We scanned and recorded the results of our tests on 2,348 university homepages across 28 countries along 10 dimensions: generating about 23,500 data points. We’ve summarised the results in two ways. For each dimension, we show the overall result and the country-level results. We use the 2-letter ISO code for each country in the latter set of charts. If you are unfamilar with these codes we've included a table of the codes and countries, at the end of the article.

Google Recommended Best Practices

Recommendation: Deliver Content over HTTP/2

Webpages have become increasingly complex which, in turn, ups the amount of data to be downloaded and the number of different resources needed to render pages. The current HTTP protocol doesn’t load complex pages as efficiently as they could be and many of the performance-related work arounds cause problems of their own. 

A new version of the HTTP protocol (HTTP/2) solves many of these issues and boosts performance as a result. Google highly recommends implementing HTTP/2 on web servers so that as many of the resources needed to render pages use the most efficient method.

Despite being available since 2015 only 1 in 5 (21.7%) higher education websites across the EU has stepped up to HTTP/2. The user experience of visitors to the remaining sites could readily be improved by delivering content over HTTP/2.

Hover over the diagrams to view the percentage results for each category or country

Chart 1: EU Higher Education Main Website HTTP Summary by Protocol Version

Chart 2: EU Higher Education Main Website HTTP/2 Implementation Status by EU Country

Recommendation: Use HTTPS

Google has three reasons for recommending all websites implement HTTPS. First, HTTPS helps prevent third party interference with communication between a website and the browser a visitor is using. As a result, HTTPS protects website visitor privacy and security, because it prevents third parties from passively listening to communications. And, given the high levels of trust that higher education institutions enjoy, replicating the same level of trust in online interactions just makes sense.

Finally, future web developments, such as image capture, audio recording, progressive web applications or enabling off-line experiences require HTTPS to process permissions from end users before execution. Google takes HTTPS implementation so seriously that it is progressively upping the urgency of its in-browser warnings when visiting non-HTTPS sites.

Across the European Union 70% (70.7%) of higher education websites have implemented HTTPS, with universal adoption in Denmark and the Netherlands. We anticipate adoption to accelerate as browsers increasingly alert and warn users when they are visiting sites that have yet to implement HTTPS.

Hover over the diagrams to view the percentage results for each category or country

Chart 3: EU Higher Education Main Website HTTPS Implementation Summary

Chart 4: EU Higher Education Main Website HTTPS Implementation Summary by EU Country

Recommendation: Implement a robots.txt file

A well configured robots.txt file explicitly directs Google (and other indexers) on how a website should be indexed. In practice, not every section of a website is intended to be publicly available. And, robots.txt files can contain directives to exclude certain website areas from indexing and further directives to ensure other content is always indexed.

A robots.txt file can also include one other important instruction: the location of any XML sitemaps. XML sitemaps are structured lists of website pages, their publication date and information about the frequency with which they change.

In early 2020, we will be writing in more detail about XML sitemaps and what they can tell us about the age of website content.

Two out of every three websites we checked had robots.txt files, located in the web server’s root directory. We did not analyse if the directives in these files were appropriate, simply that the file could be parsed without error. Visual inspection of a sample of the file contents suggests that many robots.txt files are copied from other sites and may not contain appropriate directives for their new homes.

Hover over the diagrams to view the percentage results for each category or country

Chart 5: EU Higher Education Main Website robots.txt Implementation Summary

Chart 6: EU Higher Education Main Website robots.txt Implementation Summary by EU Country

Google Recommended SEO Best Practices

Recommendation: Ensure Web Servers Respond with Successful HTTP Status Codes

Google may not index pages when the web server returns an ‘unsuccessful’ HTTP status code. When a browser successfully requests a webpage a web server responds with status code of 200 (technically a range of response codes from 200 to 299 are possible). A page’s location (URL) can change, in which case a server needs to re-direct the browser request to the new location (URL). In this situation, the response code will be 301 (also considered successful). Again, a range of server response codes for this behaviour exists from 300 to 399.

On the other hand, if a page cannot be located or a server fails to respond a requesting browser will see response status codes in the 400 – 499 and 500 – 599 ranges.  These codes are deemed unsuccessful, the latter range usually reflecting some internal issue with a site's server. These codes are useful diagnostics for a webteam, but are not something site owners want visitors to encounter or see.

We tested a total of 2,348 EU university homepages and 97% (96.6%) of them returned successful status codes, but 79 of them (3.4%) responded with codes in the 400 to 599 ranges.  It makes sense to monitor and regularly test web server responses to ensure appropriate service levels and business continuity.

Hover over the diagrams to view the percentage results for each category or country

Chart 7: EU Higher Education Main Website HTTP Response Code Summary

Chart 8: EU Higher Education Main Website HTTP Response Code Summary by EU Country

Recommendation: Add and Set a Viewport Meta Tag

Higher education website content is viewed on many different devices (mainly mobile devices), so it is important that browsers understand how to render a webpage when they encounter it. As Google favours search query content that is mobile friendly, it make sense to ensure that a site's webpages are mobile friendly.

Including a Viewport meta tag on webpages lets browsers understand how to render pages depending on the device that is being used. Furthermore, specific Viewport meta tag settings control the scaling and width of the content being rendered.

Given the importance of mobile friendliness for both user experience and SEO purposes it is mildly surprising that 16% of the sites we tested did not have any type of Viewport meta tag present.

We note in passing that some of the sites that set Viewport meta tags should consult Google’s best practices advice and adjust their width and scaling settings accordingly.

Hover over the diagrams to view the percentage results for each category or country

Chart 9: EU Higher Education Main Website Viewport Implementation Summary

Chart 10: EU Higher Education Main Website Viewport Implementation Summary by EU Country

Recommendation: Set a rel="canonical" Link

Large websites can readily have multiple pages with similar content or pages accessible by multiple URLs. In both situations, Google will consider such pages to be duplicates and will select one page as the ‘true version’ of the page and crawl that one more frequently. And, defaulting to Google's preference may be OK.

On the other hand, you can use a canonical link to specify which page is the true version and direct Google accordingly. The correct page will then appear in search results. And, as recommended earlier, ensure the link specified in the rel=”canonical” link uses HTTPS not HTTP.

Google’s recommendation to specify canonical links is followed by just under half (47%) of the EU’s higher education main websites. Sites in Sweden and Finland are particularly attentive to this recommendation.

Hover over the diagrams to view the percentage results for each category or country

Chart 11: EU Higher Education Main Website rel="canonical" Implementation Summary

Chart 12: EU Higher Education Main Website rel="canonical" Implementation Summary by EU Country

Recommendation: Ensure Every Page has a Title

By providing webpages with a title, content creators help Google understand whether pages are relevant to search queries and they help visitors using assistive devices by providing an overview of a page’s purpose.

Higher education institutions have always been keen to have their content found via search and this imperative is now being matched by the need and desire to ensure that content is also accessible.

Google has some specific recommendations about page titles. Ensure that every page has a concise, but descriptive title: visitors should understand what the page is about from the title. Eliminate vague terms like “Home” or “Start”, but include branding as appropriate (“Example University”) and avoid repeating the same title over hundreds of pages with different content.

The good news is that we found 97% of the university homepages in our study had titles. The bad news is that a high proportion of these did not follow Google’s guidelines, making the pages less accessible and less search friendly that they could have been. And, 69 (2.9%) institution’s main website page lacked any type of title: not even “Home”.

Hover over the diagrams to view the percentage results for each category or country

Chart 13: EU Higher Education Main Website Page Titles Implementation Summary

Chart 14: EU Higher Education Main Website Page Titles Implementation Summary by EU Country

Recommendation: Ensure Every Page has a Description

Adding descriptions to each page lets the page content be concisely summarised. And, the page descriptions may be included in search results, which makes it easier to understand if a search result is relevant.

Moreover, descriptions can include tagged structured data, which can increase the value and impact of page descriptions in search results. As is the case with page titles, Google recommends that different descriptions are used on pages with different content and that every page has a description.

Higher education institutions across the EU are less fastidious about implementing page descriptions than page titles: 40% of homepages were missing any description text. This particular Google recommendation clearly needs significantly more attention from higher education web professionals.

Hover over the diagrams to view the percentage results for each category or country

Chart 15: EU Higher Education Main Website Page Description Implementation Summary

Chart 16: EU Higher Education Main Website Page Description Implementation Summary by EU Country

Conclusions

While we crunched through a mass of data for more than 2,300 different university main websites across the EU, many of these institutions individually ‘own and operate’ similar numbers of sites, sub-sites and microsites.

In the absence of an exercise similar to the one we report in this study, it is likely these institutions do not know whether they are following website or SEO best practices on all of their web properties. And, they may be missing opportunities to ensure all their content is accessible, readily searchable and provides a good user experience.

As Ian Lurie points out in his blog post, A Developer’s Guide to SEO, “Developers don’t do SEO. They make sure sites are SEO-ready.” And, institutions can’t know if they are SEO-ready if they don’t look in all the right places.

If you are interested in specific institutional results, please be in touch.

[1] Footnote: In this article we exclusively refer to Google (as its overall search market share is around 90%), but the points we make equally apply to other search engines, which may be more relevant in certain regions.

If you aren't familiar with the 2-letter ISO country codes in the charts here's the complete list:

Country ISO Code Country ISO Code Country ISO Code
AT Flag
Austria AT
DE Flag
Germany DE
PL Flag
Poland PL
BE Flag
Belgium BE
GR Flag
Greece GR
PT Flag
Portugal PT
BG Flag
Bulgaria BG
HU Flag
Hungary HU
RO Flag
Romania RO
HR Flag
Croatia HR
IE Flag
Ireland IE
SK Flag
Slovakia SK
CY Flag
Cyprus CY
IT Flag
Italy IT
SI Flag
Slovenia SI
CZ Flag
Czechia CZ
LV Flag
Latvia LV
ES Flag
Spain ES
DK Flag
Denmark DK
LT Flag
Lithuania LT
SE Flag
Sweden SE
EE Flag
Estonia EE
LU Flag
Luxembourg LU
GB Flag
United Kingdom GB
FI Flag
Finland FI
MT Flag
Malta MT
FR Flag
France FR
NL Flag
Netherlands NL

 

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Blog photo image: unsplash.com