Our blog’s preamble states that we conduct research to generate the data for evidence-based decision making about websites, but one of the consequences of examining website and page construction in detail is uncovering many examples of less-than-best practice.
And, the quality of college and university website foundations matters, because it has direct, measureable effects on the experience of visitors or ‘consumers’ using those websites. So, two of our objectives of regularly assessing website quality are to determine which issues occur and how widespread they are.
However, when the research focus is only on college and university websites it is too easy to conclude that higher education websites are not as well implemented as others.
In this post, we summarise the results of a study we’ve just completed that provides a number of points of comparison. Given that all websites are ‘results-oriented’, where better to go for comparison than to an activity dedicated to results: professional football (or, soccer, as some call it)?
Team Line Ups
To provide context for the state of higher education websites we’ve compared some characteristics of the websites of the top 20 universities in the Times Higher Education Rankings for 2017 with the sites operated by the 20 football clubs of the (English) Premier League.
What follows is a side-by-side comparison of these two groups of websites.
A common view of college and university websites is that in spite of being a foundation of communication programmes, they generally operate under severe resource constraints. Small teams do everything from content creation and editing, through data analysis, to major development work and they do this with meagre budgets for fancy tools and access to outside expertise.
On the other hand, the English Premier League, is the ‘big money’ league of professional football: flush with cash from television deals, merchandising and ticket sales. These teams surely have all the resources they need to make their websites pitch perfect (sorry)? Let’s have a look.
We start with a comparison of the relative site sizes as given by Google’s estimate of the total number of indexed pages for a domain. If you want to perform the same test, you can use our guide.
Table 1:Estimated Total Number of Web Pages for Each Domain (for example: 'arsenal.com')
Gathering up all the pages under the core domain name for a higher education institution (e.g. ‘ox.ac.uk’) results in massive total page counts. In practice, college and university websites are confederations of faculties, schools, divisions, institutes, research centre and the like. They hold content from course calendars to faculty and staff union agreements and everything in between. As a result, in aggregate they are large. Very large.
On a strict domain-to-domain comparison, Everton Football Club, just slides into 19th place on overall size with an estimated 1 million plus pages. The majority of the football team sites have fewer than 100,000 pages.
However, the top-level analysis tells only part of the story. We have previously looked at the distribution of the sizes of the sites that comprise a full university website: we analysed how many and how large were the ‘sub-sites’ comprising a major research university with an estimated aggregate total of 4,000,000 indexed pages.
If we compare the size of the Premier League football team websites to the sub-sites from our earlier study we see that most Premier League team websites are comparable to the larger 15%-20% of a university’s component websites. Premier League team website sizes are comparable to those of typical faculty, school or other significant sub-units within colleges and universities.
Graph 1: The blue bars show the relative frequency of sub-sites of different page sizes at a major research university with an estimated aggregate total of 4M pages. The majority of Premier League team websites are broadly comparable in size to the top 15%-20% of the sites at a major research university.
In other words, when we deconstruct university sites, the scale of the content management tasks for a faculty/school/division website are broadly comparable to those of major commercial sites, such as the Premier League team sites in our study.
We also speculate that the pattern of content updates is broadly similar for the two sets of sites. Both experience ‘busy periods’ running from August to May. Although the volume and frequency of weekly content updates to the Premier League team sites during that period is likely more intense.
Which Content Management Systems?
Given that there is some similarity between the scope and scale of the two sets of sites and we’ve mentioned content management, our second comparison is between the content management systems these organisations have chosen.
Table 2: Educated Guess of the Content Management Systems Used to Support the Main Websites for each University and Premier League Team.
This comparison has three caveats:
- We have only attempted to detect the content management system hosting the home page. In some cases, the site reports the CMS using thetag. In all other cases, we have made an ‘educated guess’, using a number of heuristics we have developed: thus, from time to time we will be wrong.
- In general, college and university websites are not hosted on a single CMS: they comprise a mix of main CMSs, legacy CMS(s) and other CMSs used to host faculty, staff, research centre and institution websites.
- Premier League teams use single CMSs and some clubs have ‘outsourced’ the technical foundation of their sites to EFL Digital and are hosted on a common platform. Unlike the 20 university websites we’ve examined in this review, some of the Premier League team websites have obscured the underlying CMS, so our educated guess may need correcting – which we would be happy to do.
Higher education has embraced open-source software: 65% of the university main websites run on Drupal or WordPress. The ‘football’ world has only cautiously adopted open-source: 10% of the sites run on Drupal.
We note that Sitecore has made headway with Premier League clubs, which matches our experience of higher education institution's using Sitecore, where the emphasis is on customer experience (or personalisation) rather than simply serving out content.
The balance of the Premier League clubs seem to be running versions of Ektron CMS (that’s our ‘educated guess’), and we understand from a press release that a transition is underway to an Episerver platform in 2017. Episerver and Ektron merged in January 2015.
In general, higher education institutions seem to be converging on a set of content management systems that can meet their evolving requirements. This transition likely reflects the needs of a maturing market, in which evolving functionality and more complex customer support requires greater vendor investment. Under these circumstances vendors have an incentive to spread costs over larger customer bases, which in turn promotes consolidation by acquiring competitors and their customers.
User Experience - Speed
Next, we compared a visitor’s experience on landing on these site’s home pages:
- All the sites pass Google’s Mobile Friendly test;
- A majority of the websites has yet to implement HTTPS (1/3rd HTTPS vs 2/3rd HTTP), which would improve visitor privacy and security, and avoid Chrome-browser visitors receiving increasingly stringent security warnings.
Google, Moz and Kissmetrics all reinforce the need for websites to load rapidly. We conducted a set of tests using the WebPageTest tool to simulate and measure the response of each site for visitors connecting via broadband from a remote location (for these tests, Japan). Our results reflect the average of three tests for each site. The time, measured in seconds, represents WebPageTest’s estimate of the time taken to start ‘painting’ the home page.
Graph 2: The blue line shows the time to first paint from slowest on the left hand side to fastest on the right hand side for the Premier League team websites. The orange line shows the analogous information for the university websites. Note that many of the sites take longer than three seconds to start loading.
As the graph reveals, most sites take longer than three seconds to load, although the results are mixed. One university website has a consistent problem loading its home page, while at the other end of the scale a university website was the fastest in starting to load.
User Experience - Content
The next set of measurements examined ease of access to a site’s content. While, the specific goals of a university website are different from those of a Premier League team, the general objectives of informing, influencing and offering a venue for interaction are the same for both groups.
First, we looked at the relative page complexity for each set of sites. Our site scans gather data about links, content files and the miscellaneous files (resources) needed to display a page’s content. We selected the average number of links per page as a straightforward complexity measure. The chart shows the average value (indicated by the circle marker) and maximum and minimum values for each set of websites.
Graph 3: The vertical lines show the maximum, average and minimum values for the number of links per page for the university and Premier League team websites. The values were obtained by dividing the total number of links found on a sample of 1,000 pages and dividing by the total number of pages.
Somewhat counter to our initial instincts we anticipated the Premier League football website pages being more complex, that is having many more links (internal and external) than the university websites. But, it turns out the reverse is true.
Diving a little deeper, we counted the total number of images found across our 1,000-page samples to calculate an average number of images per web page. Our hypothesis was that Premier League team websites would have greater image density, and our results supported this view. However, as the graph shows, some Premier League team website pages are particularly image heavy.
Graph 4: The vertical lines show the maximum, average and minimum values for the number of images per page for the university and Premier League team websites. The values were obtained by dividing the total number of images found on a sample of 1,000 pages and dividing by the total number of pages.
Given the importance of images to both sets of websites, we next looked at how easy it would be to find the images, through the text associated with the ALT attribute or discover more data about the image from the text in the Title attribute within an tag. In the case of the former, the text associated with the ALT attribute is searched by Google and in the case of the latter, the text appears when a cursor hovers over an image, providing additional information. For example, the tag for the image in Chart 4 is:
img title="The vertical lines show the maximum, average and minimum values for the number of images per page for the university and Premier League team websites.
The values were obtained by dividing the total number of images found on a sample of 1,000 pages and dividing by the total number of pages."
src="images/easyblog_images/247/images-page.png" alt="Graph 4 compares the number of images found on the pages of the university and Premier League websites"
width="977" height="484" data-style="clear" /
Graph 5: The vertical lines show the maximum, average and minimum values for the proportion of images missing a Title attribute on the university and Premier League team websites. The values were obtained by dividing the total number of images with missing Title attributes found on a sample of 1,000 pages and dividing by the total number of pages.
The Title attribute is not a required element within an tag, so it is frequently omitted, which appears to be the practice for most university and Premier League football club websites. Hover the cursor over Graph 5 to observe the potential benefit of including an image Title attribute.
Graph 6: The vertical lines show the maximum, average and minimum values for the proportion of images missing an ALT attribute on the university and Premier League team websites. The values were obtained by dividing the total number of images with missing ALT attributes found on a sample of 1,000 pages and dividing by the total number of pages.
The ALT attribute is a required element of an tag, whether it is blank (alt =””) or carries a text value (alt=”the red football”). Supplying a valid ALT attribute both boosts SEO and helps in meeting website accessibility requirements: it makes sense to ensure that the attribute is used. Our review found that just over 40% of the sampled university web pages and close to 60% of the Premier League football team websites were missing an ALT attribute. Could do better.
Our final set of content measurements, looked at the use of basic SEO-related items: the presence of Titles, Descriptions and Keywords. Although in the case of the latter, Google clearly states that keywords are not used. Sometimes, content management systems insert author names or blog category descriptions into a meta keyword description, which likely does no harm. But, don’t bother with keywords.
If site visitors are using search engines to track down relevant content, all pages need titles, that will appear as the clickable links in search engine results.
Graph 7: The vertical lines show the maximum, average and minimum values for the proportion of pages missing a title tag on the university and Premier League team websites. The values were obtained by dividing the total number of pages with missing title tags found on a sample of 1,000 pages and dividing by the total number of pages.
The good news is that only a small proportion of web pages are missing titles: although one site in the sample group of university sites had a cluster of pages with missing titles, which may have been a transient anomaly.
Graph 8: The vertical lines show the maximum, average and minimum values for the proportion of pages missing a description tag on the university and Premier League team websites. The values were obtained by dividing the total number of pages with missing description tags found on a sample of 1,000 pages and dividing by the total number of pages.
Missing page descriptions is a widespread issue. About 1 in 5 of the Premier League team websites had missing descriptions, while the university websites had, on average, 45% of their pages missing descriptions. The same site in the sample with missing titles, had a very high proportion of missing descriptions: potentially a CMS configuration issue.
Graph 9: The vertical lines show the maximum, average and minimum values for the proportion of pages with keywords on the university and Premier League team websites. The values were obtained by dividing the total number of pages with keywords found on a sample of 1,000 pages and dividing by the total number of pages.
Premier League teams are enamoured with inserting keywords on web pages, even though these have no SEO value and don’t help site visitors: university websites are much less likely to bother inserting keywords. While there is no harm done, we believe this practice can be symptomatic of pages not receiving regular review and spasmodic rather than periodic site maintenance.
Finally, we looked at how often visitors attempt to link to content but encounter a broken link or ‘404’ message.
Graph 10: The vertical lines show the maximum, average and minimum values for the proportion of pages with broken links (links that return 404 responses) on the university and Premier League team websites. The values were obtained by dividing the total number of broken links found on a sample of 1,000 pages and dividing by the total number of pages.
The Premier League team sites had on average a broken link rate of just under two broken links per 100 pages, compared to about seven broken links per 100 pages for the sample of university websites.
The exercise revealed the Premier League team websites are broadly equivalent in size to those run by faculties, schools and other units within universities. Higher education has adopted open source solutions to manage those sites while Premier League teams have yet to do so, as enthusiastically.
On the other hand, university sites load faster and are more 'complex', when measured in terms of the number of links per page.
Premier League team websites have fewer broken links and are generally better at making sure pages have titles and descriptions, so their content can be found. On the other hand, while the Premier League team websites use more images, they don't make the images as accessible or searchable as university websites. Overall, both sets of sites have room for improvement.
Regular site scans can identify the issues discussed above, along with a host of others. Site audits generate the data that can be used to understand and make appropri
ate CMS configuration changes or address individual page content and set-up issues. By addressing these issues site visitors obtain the best possible experience and investments in marketing and communications programmes are not undermined by basic site set-up problems.
[PS. All copyrights, trademarks and other rights are duly respected.]
Don’t have accurate and current information on all the websites you own? Not able to monitor and check each website’s content quality and risk status? Let’s talk about how we can help.