Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Analysis of Navigational Links on Top 20 Home Pages - Part 2

An analysis of the labeling and terminology used in links on the top 20 home pages.

This Analysis is based partly on this post.

In Part 1, I looked at the most common navigational links on university home pages. In this post, I'll be taking a look at labeling and terminology.

Labeling is vital because the words and phrases that we use can have very different meanings to different people and audience groups. Ambiguous labels can confuse and frustrate users. And the use of non-standard labels can leave users lost at sea.

The value of understanding labeling is in being able to use terms and labels that your users both understand and expect. Some labels become so common as to be de facto standards; witness the "home page" and the "shopping cart". Everyone knows what these are, but there is no defined standard requiring that people call them that. Those standards arose solely through common usage.

In the same way that "home page" has become an ubiquitous label, other terms have risen to the point of de facto standards on university Web sites.

Academics and Research
"Academics" and "Research" are the two most common home page link concepts. As such, they need to communicate clearly, and you would expect - or at least hope for - some uniformity in terminology and labeling.

Term Number
Academics & Research 2
Academic Programs
Research & Innovation 1

Term Number
Research 15
Academics & Research 2
Research & Libraries 1
Research & Innovation 1

Both "Academics" and "Research" are overwhelmingly used in one permutation or another on virtually every site. Personally, I think that "Academics" seems potentially vague and ambiguous to me, but it is clear when you follow the link that "Academics" has a well-defined and accepted meaning. What do you find when you click on "Academics"? The following are the most common links:

  • Schools/Colleges
  • Departments/Academic Units
  • Undergraduate Education
  • Graduate Education
  • Advising
  • Centers & Institutes
  • Catalogs
  • Academic Support Services

It seems obvious that - unless we intend the term to mean something very different - we should follow the de facto standard that has clearly been created in labeling links to "academics".

“By creating a label we are building the site's information architecture. The labels define the categories of information, and the categories define the site's structure.”

Looking further into this you begin to realize that it isn't really just about labels and terminology; it's really about the structure of the site itself. By creating a label called "Academics" and placing the items in the above list there, we are building the site's structure. The labels define the categories of information, and the categories define the site's structure.

Audience Groups

Some audience group names can only be expressed in certain ways. "Alumni" are always referred to as alumni; "faculty" always as faculty. But other groups are a bit more open to interpretation. For example, there used to be some consensus that prospective students would be referred using that label, but more and more sites are now using "Future Students" to describe that audience group, though "Prospective Students" is still more common. This change may be occurring for several reasons. Universities may see "future students" as more hopeful, encouraging, and welcoming than "prospective students", or it may simply be a matter of trying to squeeze the phrase into a limited space.

Term Number
Prospective Students
Future Students

Once you get past "prospective students" to parents, friends, visitors, etc., it becomes something of a free for all.

Term Number
Visitors 7
Friends 5
Parents 3
Community 3

Other Terms


To me, "Athletics" and "Sports" carry two slightly different meanings, where "athletics" are the official university extramural sports and "sports" is that plus the recreational and intramural campus sports. But that's just my personal take.

Term Number
Athletics 10
Athletics & Recreation 2
Sports 2
Sports & Recreation 1

No real consensus here, though the word "employment" appears in eight of the labels.

Term Number
Employment 5
Jobs 3
Staff & Employment 2
Working at… 2
Job Opportunities 2
Employment Opportunities 1

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