'Frankensite' monsters loom as universities lose control of content

Warning that incoherent online offerings could cause reputational damage. Hannah Fearn writes

February 18, 2010

Universities have been warned that they are losing control of their websites, with scholars and departments posting conflicting material and creating "Frankensites".

The websites are often hard for visitors to navigate because of a lack of "digital governance" in universities, according to Precedent, a digital-marketing consultancy. With so many people able to contribute to sites, which often include individual pages for each academic, the result is often incoherent and potentially damaging, it said.

Alec Rattray, senior consultant at Precedent, said too many cooks were spoiling the broth, and urged universities to be clearer about the rules and responsibilities governing web development.

One common problem is that universities "don't always have world-class IT" and often use a range of different computer systems to manage their sites, he said.

Mr Rattray recommended that universities set up steering groups responsible for their websites and how their brands are presented online.

He said that a key aim should be to educate staff about the need to build institutions' reputations on the web: "People will buy into the notion that we all have responsibility here." The potential to build - or damage - an institution's reputation online has been documented.

A league table measuring what was being said about universities online, compiled in 2008 by Portfolio Communications, ranked the University of Oxford in 79th place, far below many of its less "prestigious" rivals.

Leeds Metropolitan University, Sheffield Hallam University and Southampton Solent University were judged to have the most positive "buzz" online.

Responding to the concerns raised by Precedent, Julia Weston, marketing and communications manager at the University of the West of England, said her institution had acknowledged that it had a problem with the size and fragmented content of its site.

She said it was investing in a new content-management system to tackle the problem. "We're a very big university and like most businesses, our website has grown organically over the years," she said.

"There are quite a few different issues. One is branding: we want to build a consistent brand across the website and there are some areas still to be branded. Another is that different academic schools and departments are using different technologies."

Ms Weston agreed with Mr Rattray that the use of different systems meant there was inconsistency of design and navigation on sites.

The system adopted by UWE aims to ensure that all staff use the same technology to upload content, she said. Staff are also being trained to use the technology and write for the web, and are being taught the basics of search-engine optimisation.

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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