Less is More for University Websites

    September 20, 2004

Many university websites are poorly organized, and filled with out-of-date content that has been directly published from print. Delivering a better service to students and staff faces challenges because of decentralized management structures and concepts such as academic freedom.

If the average university website were to sit an exam it would fail. In fact, every day a great many university websites are being examined by potential students and they are failing badly. Here’s just a small sample of the things university websites are failing at:

1) At least 40 different versions of its logo were counted on the many websites of one university. The university has only one official logo, but because there is no central management of the Web, things have gone out of control.

2) On the homepage of another university there is a large graphic encouraging you to apply online. However, when you try to apply you are told that it’s now too late. Obviously, the web team is too busy to remove this prominent graphic.

3) One university has a section about planning your first year. I tried three links on the page. One gave me a “page not found” error. The next one informs me I am too late to apply for this service, and the final one has events listed from last March.

4) A university promotes courses but there is no obvious way to apply for them. On this website, it is very clear that the content has been directly translated from print without any thought for how it can be made work on the Web.

Many universities are more like loose associations than coherent organizations. Often, staff give more loyalty to a particular school or department than to the overall university. There can also be a strong rivalry between the university administration and the lecturing staff, with the lecturers and professors keen to protect their academic freedom.

The result is that there are multiple websites for any one university, many taking a very different approach to design. Out-of-date, poorly written content is rife because there are no standards, no measures, and few staff resources. Instead of freedom of expression what we get is freedom to be unprofessional.

Much of the Web is beginning to move towards standard layout and design because that’s what people want. People like a navigation that is familiar, they like to know that the “Home” link will be in the same position on every page they visit. People like content that is well written, up-to-date, and accurate, and that basic demand is leading to more professional publishing processes being implemented.

Universities, on the other hand, are growing websites like mushrooms, and have an amazing capacity to publish large quantities of irrelevant and confusing content. I talked to one web manager who has tried to address this content quality issue. She interviewed heads of departments. A number of them were unable to explain in a coherent manner what exactly their department did.

I once stood in front of a group of university staff and asked the following question: What is an organization if it is not organized? “A university,” someone replied. In a world exploding with content, teaching the skills of organization, and concise, clear writing has never been more important. However, before universities should teach these skills, they need to apply them to their own websites.

For your web content management solution, contact Gerry McGovern http://www.gerrymcgovern.com

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