Show Me the Data - A Blog About University and College Websites

Rock-solid websites are the foundation of effective digital marketing, communications, e-commerce and social media campaigns.

But, you can’t know if your higher education website is rock-solid without checking it.

We study higher education websites to identify and benchmark the critical issues and we publish the results here.

Our automated higher education website quality assurance service is founded on our research so you can find and fix issues from privacy and security, through social media usage and SEO, to website analytics and content.

39 Steps to Better Higher Education Websites

39 Steps to Better Higher Education Websites

(Revised 5 January 2018)

Our inspiration isn't Alfred Hitchcock or John Buchan, but Atul Gawande's book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right.

Don't have time to read the book? Read the original article instead: The New Yorker 10 December 2007 The Checklist. The thesis is that even experts benefit from systematically working through a process to ensure that important steps aren't missed or performed out of sequence.

The same 'pre-flight checklist' works for setting up and maintaining websites by confirming key website elements are in place. Otherwise you're potentially playing website Jenga.

What follows is a 39-point university or college website checklist to configure critical items from web server performance through SEO to Google Analytics.

(Download a PDF version of the complete checklist)

1  Browser Caching. Implement browser caching to set page expiry dates. Expiry dates instruct browsers to load cached pages rather than downloading and refreshing pages. The result is faster page loading for an improved visitor experience.

Test if a server has browser caching implemented: Google PageSpeed Insights

More details on browser caching

2  Enable Compression. Enabling compression on a web server reduces the amount of data being exchanged, significantly improving page loading times. All browsers support this approach.

Test if a server has compression enabled: gzip Compression Test

More information about gzip compression

3  Enable Keep-Alive. Ensure Keep-Alive is set on a web server to handle multiple HTTPS/HTTP requests and reduce latency for an improved visitor experience.

Test if Keep-Alive enabled: Keep-Alive Test

More information about Keep-Alive setting

4  Enable HTTPS. Implement secure web server connections by using HTTPS and significantly improve data privacy and security for all site visitors.

Test an HTTPS connection quality: SSL Labs HTTPS Test

More information about HTTPS

5  Enable Canonical Redirection. To eliminate ambiguity browsers and search engines need to understand which of a www or a non-www is a site's definitive version. Once decided a web server's redirection capability will ensure browsers redirect automatically. The same capability may also be applied to HTTP and HTTPS versions of a site. Site visitors benefit by being directed to the preferred or secure version of a site and its content.

More information about web server redirection

6  Implement Content Security Policy Settings. CSPs are designed to enhance website security by preventing certain types of attack. They work in conjunction with browsers and can be configured either in web server headers or in on-page meta elements.

More information about Content Security Policy

7  Establish a Development Environment.

Establish a development version of the main website for testing and evaluation. Make changes in the development environment and promote tested modifications and updates to the production environment. This approach minimises embarrassing glitches being installed on live sites at the most visible and least opportune times. Everyone benefits.

8  Eliminate Inline HTML Styles. Inline HTML code becomes progressively more difficult to manage, so avoid it. Use CSS to establish site-wide styling for consistent and accurate propagation of formatting changes. Moreover, CSS is cached, so pages load faster for website visitors.

More information about the perils of inline HTML

9  Implement Sass, sCSS or LESS. CSS pre-processors add significant additional capabilities to CSS that improve implementing site-wide font, colour or other variable changes.

More information about CSS pre-processors

10 Use Path-only References. Path-only references increase flexibility when making changes. For example, use <a href="/blog.html"> rather than <a href="">. In the latter case, subsequently changing the domain name or access scheme (HTTP/HTTPS) would result in visitors encountering 404 errors.

More information on path-only references

11 Determine the Site-wide Character Set to Use. In almost all cases this should be UTF8. Set the definition in the web server header or an on-page meta element. A defined character set ensures all characters are interpreted and rendered correctly by browsers and UTF8 is the preferred solution.

A discussion about character sets for websites

12 Determine the Default Site Language. The language definition can be set in web server headers or in on-page HTML element attributes. The latter approach suits comprehensively multi-lingual sites.

The ground rules for declaring languages on web pages

13 Google Search Console. Register for Google Search Console (the new name for Google Webmaster Tools) and add the relevant website(s). The console's tools provide essential website information.

More information on Google Search Console

More information on Bing Webmaster Tools

(Download a PDF version of the complete checklist)

14 Install robots.txt. Install a robots.txt file in the website's root directory and use the file to control which folders/subdirectories search engines index. Include a directive telling crawlers where to find an XML sitemap.

More information on robots.txt

15 Implement an XML Sitemap. Use a third-party application or a CMS's in-built tools to install 'sitemap.xml' in a website's root directory. The sitemap provides search engine crawlers with additional information about website content.

More information on XML sitemaps

16 Submit an XML Sitemap. Submit and test the relevant sitemap.xml file to Google's Search Console. Confirm that the sitemap is being automatically updated as content is changed.

More information on submitting XML sitemaps to Google

17 Use a CDN. Content Delivery Networks host images and other static files needed to render page content on strategically located servers. Site visitors experience noticeably faster page speeds as the relevant files load from the nearest server. If a site serves an international audience and those visitors use mobile devices for access, the speed improvements will be particularly noticeable. However, most 'commercial' users will need to pay for using a CDN.

More information about the benefits of CDNs

18 Canonical References. To ensure search engines can resolve definitive site versions use the rel='canonical' meta element. It points to the preferred site version, for example, indicating the non-www version is preferred to the www version, or vice-versa, as appropriate.

More information about using canonical references

19 Prioritise Rendering Visible Content. The content that displays 'above the fold' should be of most interest to site visitors, so treat it that way. Configure pages to load resources that render visible page elements first, reduce unnecessary network round trips to fetch content and load page footer elements last. Site visitors appreciate faster page loading.

More information about prioritising visible content loading

20 Re-locate render-blocking JavaScript. When page content has to wait for CSS and JavaScript files to load, visitors experience this as a website slow down. Re-locating the relevant files to load later or asynchronously improves performance, particularly on mobile devices.

More information about managing CSS and JavaScript

21 Compress CSS, HTML and JavaScript. Minifying page rendering files reduces their size and improves page-loading speed. A number of free tools exist to compress CSS, HTML and JavaScript files.

CSS minification tool, HTML minification tool and JavaScript minification tool

More information about minifying page-rendering files

22 Compress all Images. Large, uncompressed images on web pages contribute to slow page loading. This typically arises because content creation workflows do not include an image compression step. Free online services can be used to substantially reduce file sizes without compromising image quality.

Online service to compress PNG files and online service to compress JPG files

More about compressing images without loss of quality

23 Run Google's Page Speed Insights. Submit the site's home page to confirm that items 19, 20, 21 and 22 have been completed.

More information about Google Page Speed Insights

24 Run Google's Mobile Friendly Test. Run, at minimum, the home page through Google's Mobile Friendly Test to identify any systemic mobile display issues or robots.txt file directives blocking page rendering file access.

Run a Google Mobile Friendly Test

More information about the Google Mobile Friendly Test

25 Implement Structured Markup. Search engines can better understand and present search results if key website content is encoded using structured markup tags. These supplementary tags allow addresses, contact details, events and the like to be readily identified in search results: thus, aiding site visitors in readily reaching key content.

Test structured markup implementation

Overview of structured markup use on web pages

26 Implement Social Media Markup. Facebook, Twitter and Google have specified web page meta tags to optimise content sharing. At minimum, implement Facebook's Open Graph markup, as it is used by default by most social media networks.

More about Facebook Open Graph social media markup

More about Twitter cards – social media markup

More about Google+ social media markup

More information about improving social media sharing

(Download a PDF version of the complete checklist)

27 Ensure Every Page has a Unique Title. Every page on a site needs a title and the title should be unique and describe the content to be found on the page. Search engines display page title in search results conveying important information to would be site visitors.

Test a title for a single web page

Test titles for all pages on a website

More information on structuring web page titles

28 Ensure Every Page has a unique Description. Every page should have a unique description summarising its content. Search engines display the description in search results directly beneath the page title.

Test a description for a single web page

Test descriptions for all pages on a website

More information about structuring web page descriptions

29 Enforce Page Structure. Search engines and page reader software can understand content better if pages follow a hierarchy of one <h1> </h1> main title element followed by multiple sub-title elements used in order, that is <h2> </h2> before <h3> </h3> and so on.

More information on page structure and accessibility

30 Tag all Images. Every image on a site should have a title attribute and an alt-image attribute to aid search engines and page reader software. The title attribute shows up on screen when a cursor hovers over an image. The alt image attribute shows up in search results or provides a description to page reader software.

Test a web page for alt-image attributes

Test alt-image attribute for all pages on a website

More information about the alt-image attribute

31 Keep HTML Clean. Creating content in Word ensures accurate spelling and grammar. However, copying and pasting text from Word directly into most CMSs can introduce proprietary text "tags" and other non-standard code into the resulting HTML.

Tool to clean Word text for use in HTML

32 Repair Broken Links. Links that take visitors to 404 error pages are both irritating and a sign of neglect. Repairing broken links forms part of regular site maintenance.

Test a web page for broken links

Test all pages on a website for broken links

More information about broken links – 404 errors

33 Use Browser Development Tools. Modern browsers include development tools or add-ins to identify page issues. Use the JavaScript console to determine if on-page scripts conflict or do not complete execution – failed scripts can impact page rendering.

More information about Firefox Developer Tools

34 Mobile Friendly Content. Google's Search Console allows all of a site's pages to be tested for mobile compatibility. Given the high proportion of mobile traffic to university and college websites it is important to confirm that content and visitor interactions work properly.

Test a single web page for mobile friendliness

Test an entire website for mobile friendliness

More information about Google's definition of mobile friendly

35 Cross-browser Support. Visitors will access sites using a variety of desktop, mobile and in-app browsers. It is critical to test that content and user interactions render and operate correctly for each of the browsers being used to access the site.

More information about cross-browser support

36 Website Accessibility. Regulations in many jurisdictions oblige public institutions, including universities and colleges, to meet offline and online accessibility standards. Even in the absence of regulatory requirements good design practice should emphasise accessibility and ease of use.

More information on university and college website accessibility

37 Implement Google Analytics. Don't just install Google Analytics, and assume it will collect useful data, actually implement it. Google Analytics needs to be configured to ensure it ignores spam, visits from the web team and can record goals and events. In the event that Google Analytics is not philosophically acceptable, try Piwik instead.

Test if Google Analytics is installed

Test if Piwik is installed

More information on Google Analytics

More information on Piwik

38 Implement Google Tag Manager. Google Tag Manager allows non-technical staff to test and event tags and triggers to record and analyse visitor interactions – it's the natural complement to Google Analytics.

Test if Google Tag Manager is installed

More information about Google Tag Manager

39 Regularly Test Site Performance. Updating content, implementing new pages and installing CMS updates can all impact site performance. Tools such as WebPageTest provide performance summaries and the ability to isolate specific performance issues.

Test website performance

More information about WebPageTest

(Download a PDF version of the complete checklist)



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Higher Education Website QA


Rock-solid websites are a foundation of effective digital marketing, communications and social media campaigns.

You’ll only know if a site is undermining campaigns, harming reputations or creating risk exposures by checking it.


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