Tagging Improves Website Content Sharing
Most higher education organisations complement their website communications strategy with a presence on each of the major social networks. Readily recognised icons 'invite' site visitors to follow and join the stream of posts, tweets and pins. This approach is largely about broadcasting, initiating conversations and then participating in the ensuing reactions and responses.
An equally important approach encourages visitors to share content they discover with their networks and bring attention to a site. An argument can be made that shared content may communicate with stakeholders more effectively, as it comes across as authentic and spontaneous. Facebook,Twitter and Google+ recognise these benefits and facilitate sharing on their networks through content 'tagging' that helps other applications understand the content's structure.
Facebook introduced its Open Graph markup schema in 2010, with the objective of better integrating content for sharing on Facebook's network. Open Graph uses meta tags (structured markup) encoded in the head section of web pages to describe to Facebook and other applications how to 'process' relevant page content.
Twitter recommends its own set of meta tags to ensure correct formatting of material shared on its network. In practice, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn all recognise Open Graph meta tags and process shared material accordingly. The underlying encoding for a web page using all three schemes looks like this:
Given that any meta tags are inserted programatically, and have no material impact on page loading speed, a web page might as well include all the relevant structured meta tags and be as effectively shared as possible. In the absence of meta tags, applications parse web pages and attempt to use the title text, associated page description and any images that can be found. In many situations, page content elements cannot be unambiguously identified and as a result incorrect or incomplete data will be used when sharing the content. Sometimes visitors will even need to edit or complete any text being shared and when this occurs sharing can be abandoned.
Accurate image identification is important as tweets that include images attract more 'likes' and are re-tweeted more frequently. Unfortunately, many content sharing add-ins or older social sharing buttons don't make effective use of any meta tags (if present) and won't include or present images for inclusion in the tweet or post.
The presence or absence of meta tags isn't a technical issue. It is about higher education marketing and communications departments realising the full benefits of the communications and messaging they work hard to craft and disseminate. Facebook and Twitter actively support these efforts by ensuring that material shared to their networks can have its full impact.
How Many Higher Ed Websites Use Social Media Markup?
Given the importance of content sharing on social media, the more than six years since Facebook introduced Open Graph and its acceptance by other social media networks, we decided to confirm higher education's adoption rate for social media markup. We reviewed the news and events web pages of 150 Canadian higher education websites, checking source code for implementation of:
- Facebook Open Graph;
- Twitter Cards; and,
We chose the news and events web page on the basis that the material on these pages would be the content that marketing and communications departments would most want shared and distributed across the social media networks. During the course of our review we noted that in many cases, where social media markup had been implemented, it was not present on the home page, but did exist on the news and events pages. It is hard to understand the benefits of this approach. We also noted that on many news and events pages no social sharing buttons were present to facilitate content sharing or that the buttons were located in the page footer. In either case the process of sharing content is being made more difficult.
The Review Results
Our survey shows that about 40% of higher education websites have some form of meta tags/markup present in the HEAD section code of their news and events web pages. The balance of 60% of websites have no meta tags in place and thus have an excellent opportunity to improve site visitor's social media experience. Moreover, even those sites that have implemented meta tags have generally done so on only a subset of site pages: placing meta tags on all pages facilitates content sharing across an entire site.
Graph 1 summarises our findings. About 16% of the sites we checked had implemented both Facebook's and Twitter's recommendations: we are less concerned about Google+ as only six percent of higher education sites have an official Google+ account. The meta tag implementation rate more than doubles for the sites using Facebook's Open Graph protocol.
The relatively low Twitter markup implementation rate is surprising as 90% of the sites we surveyed have an official Twitter account and are active participants on Twitter and would further benefit if the format of content shared from their sites ('Mentions') used Twitter as effectively as possible. However, the situation is readily remedied, as discussed below.
There is an excellent opportunity to improve social media content sharing effectiveness. Website visitors will find it easier to share interesting content if, at minimum, Facebook's Open Graph meta tags are implemented. A more complete, but not strictly necessary, solution would be to implement the additional tagging for Twitter, as little additional effort is required. And, the benefits are not technical. Site visitors will enjoy a better website experience and any objectives for wider dissemination of relevant content can be more readily met.
About 40% of the higher education websites we surveyed are managed using Drupal, WordPress, or Joomla! content management systems (CMS). Each of these CMSs has add-ins/plug-ins/extensions that add structured markup to site pages.
We tested the social media sharing buttons on all the news and events pages, where these had been implemented. In many cases the underlying code/script supplying the content sharing functionality did not recognise relevant images associated with articles or posts and did not include an image with the content to be shared. Updating or upgrading the sharing add-in would increase the impact of the shared content.