How to make your university’s website great

People, and not just technology, are key to building a successful university website, explains Joe Hoyle

August 25, 2016
Student using a laptop computer

The transformation of a university website is all about technology, isn’t it?

You might think so, but you’d be wrong.

I lead a team that transformed the external-facing web presence at London South Bank University. We took a sprawling mess of disparate domains, comprising 286,000 poorly performing pages, and turned it into a site that now ranks number one on Sitemorse’s independent index of 340 websites from the higher education and further education sectors. The key to our success is not simply technology; it is governance.

Sitemorse audits page content, code quality, functionality, accessibility and delivery infrastructure. It benchmarks against 1,200 tests, checks and measures across user experience, governance, risk and compliance, and search engine optimisation.

A few years ago, our site was out of control. The web team lacked the necessary tools and resources to manage it effectively. And it showed: we ranked 179 on the index. The site offered a poor user experience, and it was having a negative impact on our reputation and brand.

We exist in a digital world and a highly competitive market. The university’s primary digital asset was failing its users and putting the business at risk. Something had to be done.

We decided to throw the lot away and start again – a massive undertaking, and not for the faint-hearted. We worked at lightning speed. Project discovery, analysis and implementation took a year, and we launched a new site at the tail end of 2013, on time and on budget.

The outcomes included better search engine optimisation, user experience and engagement. The new site exceeded expectations for performance metrics and student recruitment, and we jumped 119 places on the Sitemorse index

For the first time, we had a content management system and centralised control of content production and development. We were pretty pleased with ourselves. Then, a year and a half after launch, our ranking dropped 51 places.

I took a long hard look under the hood and was not impressed with what I found. We commissioned Sitemorse to perform a “deep crawl”, which revealed more than 80,000 issues related to search engine optimisation, code quality, adherence to accessibility standards, functionality and content duplication.

Rarely did a large-scale university site enter the index’s top 10. The top positions were invariably occupied by smaller institutions, mainly colleges, with a smaller digital footprint. This raised questions:

  • Is it possible to manage a large-scale digital environment, with an array of content contributors, and maintain high quality?
  • Is this why institutions go through a bin and build cycle every few years?

I stepped back and reviewed what we were doing. If we were going to stop the rot, we had to offer better training and coaching for content contributors, improve workflow and approval processes, and bring quality assurance into every aspect of development and content production.

We introduced a range of tools to improve governance at an operational level. We also did the hard work and fixed thousands of issues.

It was a slog, but when the league tables for the HE/FE sector for the second quarter of 2016 came out, we ranked top – and we’re still there in the third quarter. We are the only site to exceed Sitemorse’s target score in all areas of assessment.

We rank higher than sites in other sectors, such as John Lewis, Amazon UK, MI5, Apple and GOV.UK. This is a significant achievement, given that we have one of the smallest teams in the sector. Including me, there are only four of us.

We learned an important lesson: digital transformation is about more than technology. We use the same content management system as many other institutions (called Squiz Matrix). It’s not the technology, but what you do with it that counts.

For what it’s worth, my advice to fellow web managers is to choose the right people, have a plan and take control.

People are key. They are your greatest asset. Look after them. It’s a well-worn mantra, but it’s true: hire for attitude and potential, train for skill.

You need a clear vision of what you are trying to achieve. Develop a strategy. Don’t get hijacked by internal politics, personal agendas and vanity projects. Champion your cause. Fight for your vision, team and budget.

You won’t get anywhere without effective governance. Take control through policies, procedures and routines. Train, train and train again. Ensure that quality assurance is at the heart of everything you do.

Sitting at the top of the Sitemorse ranking doesn’t mean we have the best website in the higher education sector, whatever that means. It does, however, provide evidence that the site is well optimised for search engines, built to international standards for code quality and accessibility, functions without errors and offers a fast, consistent user experience across all modern browsers and devices.

We’re not complacent. There’s more work to be done. It never ends. But we’re in a good place. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Joe Hoyle is senior manager for digital marketing at London South Bank University.

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