Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Pimping Your Campus

Yesterday, I asked our provost how budget cuts would affect recruitment and recruitment strategies (see this post).

As Provosts are wont, she gave a very long and detailed answer that appeared to be mostly in a foreign language. However, I did catch a few key phrases.

One thing in particular stuck with me. She said that they've done research that shows that we have much higher conversion rates (is that the term you recruitment folks use?) if they can just get the people to visit the campus. She said that a lot of people come, see the campus and want to immediately enroll.

And it's true. Chico state has a beautiful campus located at the edge of a lively small town downtown area. Chico, our Provost said, is seen as an appealing destination, particularly once people see it.

That made me think that that is one the main messages our Web site should be communicating. At every turn, it should be saying, "This is a beautiful place. This is a great place to live."

bottom line: we need to pimp our campus (as in more effectively advertise it's beauty and desirability).

As you may know, in my other life, I'm a professional photographer, and I enjoy shooting our campus. A while back I was playing with an idea for a small photo book showcasing the campus as a beautiful natural environment through the seasons. I uploaded a mock up to the Web... and pretty much left it there.

As it is, I don't think this is much of a tool for promoting our campus, but I do think that it could be turned into something that could be very effective in at least communicating to people that this is a special, beautiful place, and you should come visit.

I'd be happy to hear your impressions and thoughts.

Y'all come visit, y'hear!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Page Titles - Best Practices

Title tags are vital from both usability and SEO perspectives. We use the following format for page title tags: Page Title - Department Name - University Name.

I just finished writing up these standards for our own Web site and realized that they are practices that all universities could benefit from.

Although technically optional, title tags are one of the most vital pieces of information that you can put on your Web pages.

Why? There are several reasons:
  1. The Title tag is what appears at the top of your browser window, in the title bar and identifies the page users are viewing (see image, below).
  2. The Title tag is what appears in the tabs in the browser window, and identifies the content of each tab (see image, below).
  3. The Title tag is what appears in the user's Bookmarks or Favorites when they bookmark your page.
  4. Search engines like Google place a lot of weight on Title tags when ranking search results.
Browser Title Bar:

Browser Tabs:

As a result of the importance of the Title tag, we at Chico State have developed a set of best practices to use when assigning Title tags to your page.

Page Title Standards

Use the following format for page title tags: Page Title - Department Name - University Name


Faculty and Staff - Geography and Planning Department - CSU, Chico
Academic Services - Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs - CSU, Chico
Current Students - College of Business - CSU, Chico


You want to include your department name and the university's name in all Title tags so that users searching for "geography faculty chico" will find your page. If you don't include your department name or the university name, you dramatically reduce the odds that your page will turn up in the search results.

Also, the order in which the elements appear is also important. Since browser tabs can only show the beginning of the page title, you want to have the most specific information (the current page's title) first, followed by the department and then the university. Pages titled like "CSU, Chico - Department Name - Page Title" will all appear as "CSU, Chico" in the browser tabs (see images, below).

Wrong: University Name - Department Name - Page Title

All the pages below are different, but you can't tell which is which by the page title, since they all start with "California State University, Chico".

Browser Tabs

Right: Page Title - Department Name - University Name

Page titles with the specific page's title first:

Browser Tabs


Home Page Titles

Home page titles should just be the department name and the university name: Department Name - University Name.


Office of the President - CSU, Chico
Geography and Planning Department - CSU, Chico

Do not use "Home" or "Welcome" in your home page title. Nobody searches for "home" or "welcome" and they take up valuable space in the browser tabs (see images, below).

Wrong: Welcome/Home - University Name - Department Name

All these home pages are different, but we can't tell which is which.

Browser Tabs

Right: Department Name - University Name

These home pages all use just the department name and the university name.

Browser Tabs


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Analyzing the Future - Part 5 - Page Structure

An examination of the organization of page content from a semantic perspective. Sounds scary, but it's mostly about clean, simple, accessible, and well organized HTML on your home page.

In previous posts in this series, I've looked at home page content from a number of different perspectives (navigation, page dimensions, page elements). This time, I wanted to look at the structure of content from a more semantic perspective.

HTML coders (the good ones, anyway) are obsessed with good semantic code; nice hierarchical structures, valid XHMTL, etc. But you can have a well-formed, semantically perfect page that is an incomprehensible, poorly organized and impossible to use site.

The goal is to have good semantics and good organization. If you do that, the odds are that you'll also have good accessibility as well.


As usual for this series, I victimized my usual 18 standard sites.

For this analysis, I turned off all CSS and and replaced all images with ALT text using the Web Developer Toolbar in Firefox. This provided me with a semantic view of each page, stripped of the fancy graphics and colors designed to fool me into wanting to attend their school.

I ended up looking at pages like this:

Why would I look at pages like this? A couple of reasons. First, to be able to see the real organization of information on the page, and second (and more importantly) because disabled users using screen readers and users on cell phones often access your pages just like this.


I saw a lot of variations in page organization, and a variety of good and bad practices.

Only two sites used table-based layouts. Yea!

Eight sites had some sort of "Skip to..." navigation at the top of the page, though NC State kind of went overboard with six different "Skip to..." links at the top of the page. "Skip to Content" was the most popular, with "Skip to Navigation" a close second.

A couple of sites put all their links at the bottom of the page. This might have been deliberate in order to focus on the content, but home pages tend to be portal pages, so navigation should be prominent and easily accessible.

Search boxes tended to be toward the top of the page, but not always. I think for disabled users, search boxes must be very difficult to find on most Web pages.

Semantically, sites were all over the map. Some sites, like UT Knoxville and Loyola Marymount, followed valid heading organization. Other sites, used a mix of only H4 and H5 tags, all H3 tags, etc., etc. Some used no headings at all.

There were also a few pages (e.g., University of St. Thomas) appeared to be all links and little content.

Recommendations and Best Practices

Based on my examination of the 18 home pages, I came up with a list of best practices to look for:
  • Complete separation of content and presentation (via CSS-based design)
    • This includes CSS-based layout instead of table-based layouts
  • Semantic HTML
    • Based on properly ordered and nested heading tags (H1, H2, etc.)
  • Presence of descriptive ALT tags for all non-content free images
    • Images that are just pretty pictures can have empty ALT tags
  • Presence of navigational shortcuts at the top of each page
    • e.g., "Skip to Content" links
  • Reasonable mix of content and navigation
    • Who wants a page that's nothing but links? It makes your home page look like a link farm.
  • Prominent placement of search box
    • Typically very near the top of the page, or the placement of a navigational shortcut to the search box at the top
  • Prominent placement of the name of the institution
    • This should be your H1 tag (ya think?)
What would the "perfect" page look like? Well, the actual content would depend on your site, but you can see a sample bare-bones page here, or look at the layout below.

Sample Page:

Hypothetical State University


News & Announcements

News Item 1

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Nullam suscipit, tortor quis sollicitudin porttitor, diam metus aliquam ante, ut sodales felis purus ac quam. Mauris ut erat in ipsum laoreet lacinia. More...

News Item 2

Vestibulum ante ipsum primis in faucibus orci luctus et ultrices posuere cubilia Curae; Donec varius tempus urna. Phasellus porta blandit lacus. Nunc nec arcu et metus sodales ullamcorper. Mauris vitae leo id sapien sagittis lacinia. More...

More News...

Events Calendar

February 14, 2008

Valentine's Day Massacre - Have a bang at the SMC Cartage Garage!

February 20, 2008

Integer mattis dolor vel felis. Aliquam viverra nunc eget leo. Pellentesque interdum urna non purus.

More Events...

Hypothetical State University
123 Main St.
Anytown, USA 12345
Copyright © 2008 HSU

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

What is the Purpose of a University Web Site?

Yesterday our CIO was going over the new Web governance structure being implemented at our campus. According to him, one of the missions of this new Web governance structure is to "determine the purpose of the university's Web site."* It seems like a reasonable question.

Now, I've taken a small poke at that issue in a previous post, but I got afraid and ran away from it because it seemed big and scary.

But it's a real issue... or is it?

If you put it in the terms of, "does our university Web site have a purpose?", you better hope the answer is "hell yes!" instead of "not that I'm aware of", but trying to define that purpose is not so easy.

Of course, you're all saying, "the Web site doesn't have a single purpose." And let's face it; it's not even one Web site; it's many Web sites, under the control of many different people, and serving many different audiences and needs.

As a result, I'm not personally convinced that we can come up with a "definitive" answer to this question. I believe that we have to take a more molecular view of the site. That is, I think that we can say, "OK, we need to do this. And we need to have that. And there has to be this component", without having to have a complete "big picture" view.

Not that I don't believe in the "big picture" approach, or even agree with it; I do. I just feel that the Web as an environment, as a tool, and as a platform is too complex and evolving too rapidly for definitive, big picture answers.

Of course, that doesn't change the political reality that the CIO expects the Web governance suckas (er... committee members) to determine the purpose of the university's Web site.

Personally, I plan to be sick that year.

I'm sure some of you have encountered this issue. How have you approached it? Dealt with it? Defused it? Succumbed to it?

*(for the sake of simplicity, I'm assuming here that he was referring to the campus's public Web site,, and not all the other Web-based applications, such as the portal or the LMS).