By Mark Dirks, President/CEO of Beacon
See if this sounds familiar.
You have just finished an extensive process to reimagine and redesign how your school engages with students, parents, alumni, and faculty online. You’ve sat through endless meetings with various stakeholders and departmental decision-makers, observed numerous focus group sessions, and reviewed countless pages of content. Finally, after months of planning and work, your new website launches…and it’s perfect!
The new design is responsive, engaging, and intuitive. You’re proud of your baby, and you should be. You’ve invested a lot of capital, resources, and patience into your new site. You did it the right way, and you’ve been rewarded with a beautifully designed marketing centerpiece that showcases your school and brand. You are beaming with happiness.
But, as you reflect back on this massive effort, you feel pangs of anxiety. Will your new website deliver the results you expect? How do you protect the investment, keeping up with changes within the school, technology, new design trends, and best practices effectively?
In other words, how do you keep your higher ed website healthy?
You Can’t Manage What You Don’t Measure
Students are tested regularly. Accounting books are audited regularly. HVAC systems require quarterly filter changes for optimum performance. Automobiles require annual inspections and tune-ups. Yards require regular mowing and trimming. People get annual health check-ups. How about your website?
Here are seven website health management areas that need regular, proactive “measuring” in order to stay ahead of potential issues, maximize ongoing performance, and extend the life of your website.
||With the number of lawsuits filed for website accessibility issues, can you really afford NOT to do this? Accessibility requirements change regularly, as does testing protocol and best practices for remediation. It’s more complex than regularly scanning your website. You must apply changes without negatively impacting the features and character of your website. To stay safe and compliant, colleges and universities must define and track their goals, as well as monitor internal workflow with respect to WCAG Level A and AA issues at a minimum.|
|Search Engine Optimization||For most higher ed websites, content changes frequently by many different content contributors. In addition, search engines (especially Google) change their algorithms often, which can significantly impact your school’s positioning when prospective students are searching on keywords related to your school. SEO is typically the top traffic driver, so this is another area where being proactive pays off. If you take a reactionary stance by simply waiting until you see rankings or traffic fall, then you will experience an unpredictable void while working to regain rankings. We regularly see problems with title tags and meta descriptions, technical problems that inhibit efficient crawling, broken links and redirects that cause poor UX, slow load times, and search engine confusion. Maintain and continuously improve search engine results by crawling your website at least quarterly to detect common SEO problems and facilitate active remediation.|
|Google Analytics Tracking||Every college and university is competing for attention on the internet. Those that are tracking activity, analyzing results, and making adjustments to stay ahead are winning. But we all know that bad data drives bad decisions. Questions remain unanswered with poor tracking. Are you fully leveraging Google Analytics and using best practices? Do you regularly look for anomalies (alerts) and explain them? Do you track audience segments accurately? When features and content on your website change, do you re-validate tracking accuracy? Quarterly reviews of your implementation and data collection practices (features, goals, filters, etc.) ensure optimal utilization and data quality.|
|Platform Compatibility Testing||When you launched your new website, hopefully you thoroughly tested to make sure it was interpreted properly and consistently across a variety of browsers and devices. A poor user experience with a specific device and/or browser could damage a student’s perception of your school. With so many browsers and devices on the market, it’s tough to test every combination. We recommend setting up a “test lab” with the 10 most used platforms by your users (browser/device combinations), then test at least five of your most popular templates against them. Ideally, you should produce side-by-side reports for your site versus global usage for comparison and trending purposes. Then, analyze any design/interface issues to support specific remediation recommendations.|
|Server Performance||Slow pages drive everyone crazy in the fast-paced internet world. Your target audience has relatively no patience. Slow page speed will drive bounces away from your website (to your competitors) and negatively impact SEO results, usability, and general engagement. Set up a test plan to grade your page speed on a regular basis to pinpoint resource hogs. Testing should focus, at a minimum, on your home page and the five most viewed pages (e.g., news, calendar, academics, admissions, etc.).|
|User Engagement||You can do all of the above really well, but if your website fails to engage students, parents, and alumni, then it’s not doing its job! Are they responding to your calls to action like scheduling tours, signing up for email, requesting information, calling the Admissions office, or filling out online forms? It’s the old “leading the thirsty horse to water, yet they don’t drink” adage. Stay proactive by regularly analyzing site search usage (for trends, usability), device utilization, and general page activity (via heat maps). The insights you gather directly from the data will help you identify critical issues and really fine tune your marketing strategy.|
|User Experience||Colleges and universities have the luxury of having their “customers always in their store,” so to speak. Your website was certainly a factor in choosing your school, so why not ask them since they are on campus? Ask freshmen specifically what impacted their decision. Use Parents Weekend to ask parents the same questions. Learn how current students use the website, their likes and dislikes, as well as their ideas for improvement. Demonstrate your desire for continuous, proactive improvement through qualitative analysis. Conduct regular audience surveys and collect online user recordings to facilitate analysis, drive insights, and support recommended improvements.|
Website Health Management Programs
What type of resources are needed?
A general practitioner is not enough. You need true specialists in SEO, accessibility, Google Analytics, user interface design, digital marketing, and multi-device/browser compatibility testing. Maintaining top health in these areas requires resources that stay up with ever-changing policies and practices, can quickly assess issues and translate them into action plans, and most importantly, protect the integrity of the marketing strategy behind your website.
You will need to assess your internal resources to identify which (if any) have the necessary skills and/or can be trained appropriately. Then look for “specialists” to fill gaps, particularly for monitoring and remediation consultation, such that website modifications can still be handled by internal design and development staff.
Health is not valued until sickness comes.” – Thomas Fuller
It’s much more expensive to treat an illness. So, protect your investment. Keep your website healthy, and enjoy the long-term benefits as it:
- Reaches and engages the right students consistently and effectively,
- Maintains ADA compliance to deter legal issues,
- Drives admissions applications and enrollment opportunities,
- Continuously optimizes the visibility of academic programs and key differentiators,
- Remains tuned for SEO best practices and preserves analytics data quality, and
- Instills confidence that the user experience accentuates your brand.
Beacon has helped many great universities and colleges get the most from their websites for over 20 years. Good health starts with well-managed best practices, which is the foundation of our “Brains. Beauty. Brawn” approach to web design and development, and also flows into Beacon’s ongoing support and health management programs.