Struggling to keep site content in tiptop condition?
No wonder. Most university and college websites are too large to manage manually. How do we know? Because we’ve measured them. And we’ve developed three ways to handle this.
Managing any website is a constant struggle, adding and updating content while making sure it is all accessible and doesn’t contain errors. And, the task can be even harder for large and complex university and college websites being managed on slimmer resources than the equivalent commercial sites. In this post, we show you why higher education websites are hard to manage and we offer three solutions to meet the challenge.
We all have a sense that university and college websites are large, often exceeding millions of pages. In fact, you can perform a rough check using Google’s Advanced Search tool, typing in the top level domain (drop the www.) into the domain or site: box near the bottom of the screen. Go on, give it a try!
However, higher education websites are more like icebergs – 7/8ths of the content lies below the surface. In practice a typical site has a ‘gateway’ home page designed to connect visitors or consumers to the information they seek. But that information exists on one or more of hundreds of sub-sites that combine to be the overall university or college website. The sub-sites typically comprise either distinct sub-domains (e.g. science.example.com) or sub-directories of the main domain (e.g. example.com/science/).
To give our discussion context, we analysed the underlying structure of a research university’s two-million-page website that pulls in multiple faculties, departments, schools, institutions, research centres along with administrative and student-oriented functions via a main gateway, landing page.
The institution had re-organised its website recently, as evidenced by the number of link re-directions and out-of-date links observed while gathering our data. We may have missed some links to affiliated institutions and some subs-sites, but we have captured the overall scope and scale of the site and the results likely accord with page counts at other higher education institutions. Our analysis is based on 326 sub-sites we identified.
We plotted our results in the following histogram.
The left hand vertical axis represents the proportion of all sites into which each category on the horizontal axis falls. In other words, 18% of all the sites have fewer than 10 pages or sites with more than 475 pages but fewer than 700 pages represent about 6% of all sites examined.
The horizontal axis corresponds to the ‘bins’ that we used to analyse the overall data for the 326 sub-sites. We could have divided the data into equal-sized groups, but the distribution of site sizes is easier to following using the format presented below.
There are a few specific points that are worth drawing out in more detail.
Approximately 20% of the sub-sites are very small, having fewer than 10 pages. A reasonable conclusion is that these sites can be maintained manually, unless their pages contain unusually large numbers of links.
About 15% of the sites have more than 10 but fewer than 75 pages. In our estimation, at the lower end of this range one could perform purely manual maintenance. At the upper end of the range it becomes increasingly difficult to keep track of content changes, content moves, changes to links from other sites and other updates.
The bulk of websites (≈60%) fall into range of more than 175 and fewer than 10,500 pages – roughly from the page count of a novella to that of an old fashioned encyclopaedia. In our judgement, it is not possible to know that page structure, SEO components, image tagging, links and spelling are correct on all pages for sites in this size range using purely manual maintenance methods. And, this size range encompasses three out of five higher education websites.
Finally, a small number (≈5%) of sub-sites fall into the very large category (more than 10,500 pages) where it is simply not feasible to manage the content and maintain quality assurance manually. Fortunately, this is not the type of site being maintained by most departments, faculties or research institutes.
The average university or college departmental website maintenance person needs help to ensure that a site is in top condition and can meet its goals. You can use the histogram or this post to explain to your boss why the former statement is true.
Three practical suggestions
In light of the evidence we’ve highlighted about the size (and potential complexity) of the hundreds of sub-sites at the typical university, what can you do?
The first option is the cut the site back down to a reasonable size. The simplest way of doing this is to use Google Analytics, or your preferred web analytics tool, to carefully measure which pages and what type of content is actually being accessed. This exercise may reveal that a high proportion of visits are to a small sub-set of pages and that hundreds of pages are never visited and can be retired. Your web analytics data can help prove the case for a pruning exercise.
The next option is to experiment with pooling or sharing website maintenance resources across departments or research centres: ideally carving out a dedicated individual for this task and then providing training, as needed. Regular rather than spasmodic attention to website issues improves problem identification and resolution before issues impact the perceived quality of the website.
A third option is to get some software-based assistance to ease maintenance. This might range from using a service like IFTTT for notification of new content to using services that can automate content checking and verification.
There are a number of services and applications that can be used to run regular website content audits, examining the hundreds of pages and thousands of site links finding everything from potential spelling errors, to out-of-date PDFs to links that don’t work. And, these services do the work for a fraction of the cost of additional staff (that you’ll almost certainly not be able to get the funds to hire). Moreover, these services can help keep your content in top condition every day of the week, every week of the year.