Today’s helpful resource is the Plainlanguage.gov’s web language guidelines. While the whole thing is worth at least a skim, we’ve already covered a lot of the content in depth (see, for instance, the content redevelopment series). But I want to just briefly dive into the section labeled Follow Web Standards. There are four items that get their own subsection:
Don’t cut and paste the text of print documents to create web content. People are more likely to leave your webpage, potentially costing you time and money, because they will not take the time to find what they are looking for.
Print writing is different from web writing.
If you’ve created print materials, you’re going to need to rework them if you want them to be effective on the web. Make sure you’re speaking directly to the page visitor, and using conversational, but clear language. The purpose of print content is different than the purpose of web content.
Five years ago I tried to take my dog hammock camping. She got cold overnight, and I had to put her in the car to get warm. When I wrote up the trip on my personal website, I linked to a dog sleeping bag manufacturer, since I naïvely thought my dog would sleep in one and keep warm (spoiler alert: she will not).
A couple weeks ago, I got a backlink request from a website that wrote up a guide to buying a dog sleeping bag. This request fit the form of a standard backlink request template so well that I based a fill in the blank backlink generator request on it:
This isn’t the exact email I got, but it’s close enough to get an idea of the structure of a request. They try to include a little information about you, which they can look up online (like your job title). They include something vaguely complimentary (like calling your post “amazing”). Then they explain how their site would fit perfectly in with your content before wishing you well.
I think the process goes like this. Someone writes a vague template, based on a script available on some SEO website. Then they search for some term like “College scholarships” or “Student Resources”, and go through the top 50 or 100 pages, emailing the site owner with an email customized just enough that it won’t feel generic, unless you get a lot of backlink requests.
So how do you respond?
Consider not responding at all. There are ways to automate gathering contact information (using a WHOIS record or various screen scraping techniques), so it’s entirely possible that your request was sent by a script, instead of a person. Don’t feel bad about ignoring a computer.
Definitely don’t click on the link they sent you. If someone sends you an unsolicited link, never ever ever* click on it. If you’re really curious, at least Google the url first. See what you can learn about the page. Don’t just trust the text of a url – there’s ways to spoof that too.
You can also just forward those requests to us. Believe me, we get a lot of them. Our general rule is to not respond to backlink requests for commercial websites, and to avoid including links to commercial websites in our pages. We sometimes make exceptions for local, non-profit organizations. But since those organizations are part of our community and usually know someone at Lane, they tend not to reach out using a form email.
Remember, linking to a website from your page can provide an implicit endorsement of that page. Make sure you trust what you’re linking to.
Back in the resource pages post, I briefly mentioned backlink requests. Since if you don’t get these regularly they can be difficult to identify and understand, I thought we could dig into them. Backlink requests aren’t evil, and getting backlinks can certainly help your Search Engine Optimization (SEO). But the people making the requests don’t necessarily have the interests of our students in mind, so you should know how to spot requests and why they’re sent.
A quick refresher. Search engines mostly work by looking at how pages link to each other. Pages that get linked to a lot (that have a lot of inbound links) are considered more authoritative. Links from those pages are worth more than links from sites with fewer inbound links. If you have a website that you’re trying to get to rank higher in search, getting other sites to link back to yours will help.
One way to make that happen is to ask. You can do that many different ways. For instance, you could find a website with a broken or outdated link, and suggest to the website owner that they link to your site instead. Or there’s the testimonial strategy, where you write a testimonial and offer it for free to another website, with an expectation they’ll attribute your testimonial to your site. Offering a guest blog post is another. The most straightforward is to ask directly. And the easiest place to ask for your link to be included? A resource page.
College websites are particularly attractive targets. While as mentioned above, Google certainly provides a lot of search engine weight to links, there are all sorts of other factors they consider. One of those is domain name. Not every domain is easy to get. Anyone can purchase a .com, a .org, or dozens of others. But some, like .mil, .gov, and .edu are very hard to get. If you want an .edu domain, you need to be an accredited post-secondary educational institution. And you can only have one.
Because an external agency has guaranteed the validity of the domain, Google is thought to give .edu sites a little boost over sites with more open domains (part of why you probably don’t want a .com for your department!).
When someone sends you an email, requesting you put their link on your site, ask yourself if they stand to gain financially from an increase in traffic on their website. The link they’re sending you might not sell anything directly. But that page might link to something that does or to a page with advertising – linking to a page on a site provides a boost to that page’s rank, which in turn provides a smaller boost to all the pages that page links to.
We should also remember that linking to a site provides something of an endorsement of that site. Particularly on resource pages we’re effectively promising students that we’ve validated these resources as good and trustworthy. Make sure they are.
Next post we’ll look at the structure of a backlink request and how to respond.
As mentioned in the broken links post, there are a lot of pages on the Lane website that are what I’d call “Resource pages”. These pages don’t necessarily provide a lot of content on their own, but have a lot of links on them to help visitors find useful resources on other pages. I’ve heard some conflicting opinions on resource pages, so I wanted to dig into if these pages are problematic, or generally helpful.
Our resource pages are often full of broken or moved links
While we’ve made some progress on how many broken or moved external links there are still thousands of broken links on the site. Because resource pages tend to be full of links to external sites, they naturally collect bad links. I’ve spent a lot of time during the last week fixing pages, and I keep coming back to resource pages, just because they have so many links.
It only takes a few bad links on a page before visitors start to wonder if the other links are any good. If I’m on a page with a couple bad links, for me it’s an immediate indicator that this page hasn’t been reviewed in a while, and I probably shouldn’t trust it.
They’re only helpful sometimes
Resource pages are usually put together out of a genuine desire to be helpful. But they’re not as well used as you might think. Here’s some data for the last year on 5 different pages I’d consider to be resource pages:
External links on page
% of external links clicked
At best, only about half the links on a resource page are even clicked. And sometimes, that number is a lot worse.
There’s also a whole set of people who are never even going to see your resource page. In user experience discussions, we sometimes talk about searchers (who use the search box) and browsers (who explore the site using navigation). While obviously you can be both at different times, finding a resource page as a searcher feels like a long shot to me. More likely, you’d just perform a search on Google itself and not look for anything on our site.
To me, it feels like resource pages are for browsers. People who came to the site for something else, and then stumbled on these pages and have time and interest in what was is them.
Of course, that’s just my conjecture. So I thought I’d check the data.
This surprised me. While pages 3 and 4 certainly match my thinking, pages 1, 4, and 5 don’t. 1 and 2 actually have a higher than average entrance and bounce rates – an indicator that these pages are being found via search and attracting traffic. But the higher than average bounce rate is an indicator that we’re not retaining that lands on those pages. The people who find those links aren’t staying around.
I did a quick check on Google Webmaster Tools to see what people were searching for. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough queries listed for Pages 2 or 4 to learn much, but Page 1 stood out. There were a lot of queries referencing a specific service that actually has a page of its own, but was linked from this page. That’s a potential issue: it means that searchers aren’t finding the page they’re looking for, but instead have to land on the resource page first, then figure out what link to click.
That said, at least page 1 provided context for the links. Some resource pages are literally just collections of links, without even headers, making it very difficult for people landing on the page to find what they’re looking for.
Can hurt us in SEO
To understand this one, you’ve got to know a little bit about how Google works. This will, of course, be a gross oversimplification. If you’re interested, the wikipedia page has considerable detail.
Here’s a simple directed graph:
Pretend each one of those circles is a web page, and each arrow represents a link from one page to another. Google uses those links to infer importance, and gives each page a score. If we start with each page having a score of 1, and we allow each page to transfer a third of its score to a linked page, we get something like this:
If each page has a base score of 1, and gives a third of that rank across every link, you end up with A and B keeping their scores (no one links to them), C having a score of 1.66, and D a score of 1.55. So if there’s a search, and these 4 pages are in the result set, they’ll end up with C first, and D second. Links from C are more valuable than other links, but can still be beat out by lots of low value links.
You can likely predict how people try to game this: link farming. If you get a bunch of websites to link to your page, you’ll get ranked higher. For a while, you could even pay for links to your page. Google has since adjusted their algorithm to account for that and now, if they see your page as a link farm, they’ll bump it down in the rankings. So how do they know if you’re a link farm?
We’re not entirely sure. But we think one way has to do with the ratio of outbound to inbound links – that is, links to other sites vs links to your own. If we have a page with a few dozen outbound links, like on some of our resource pages, then suddenly that ratio isn’t so good. There’s no strict rule about what that ratio should be, and since Google doesn’t publish either its actual algorithm for ranking pages, or what your score is, we can’t really know if our resource pages make Google see us as a link farm. But it’s something to keep an eye on.
You should also be alert to backlink requests. These often show up as an email, where someone will ask you to include a link to their page on your page. It’s possible that their site is actually helpful, but more likely they’re reaching out trying to capitalize on your page’s score to improve their own.
Internal resources are just as bad
Of course, that doesn’t mean you should just start packing your page full of internal links either. There are a number of pages on the site that are entirely internal link resources pages, often including an abbreviated steps to enroll or a subset of our one master resources for students page. As previously mentioned, the intent is good, but if enough people add pages like that, we’ve just added more pages for our visitors to sort through, and set up a circumstance where pages can be out of sync (that is, content doesn’t match, and we tell students potentially conflicting things). What starts out as an attempt to fix a broken navigation on our site can end up exacerbating the problem.
There’s a place for resource pages
For instance, here’s a budget page. If I do an analysis like with the pages above, the numbers will look terrible. And this page definitely doesn’t provide any links in context. And compared to some of our pages, I can’t imagine it gets a lot of traffic. But that isn’t the point. This page gets used a lot in the budget planning cycle, as emails and presentations refer people to this site as a place to find specific resources. While it may be one of the most plain pages on the site, the headers make it quite functional. Sometimes a resource page is the right choice.
So what’s the conclusion?
As with anything else complicated, it depends. There’s a place for resource pages, but if you’re thinking about putting one together, you should think long and hard about if that’s the best solution. For instance, if you’re putting that page together because you genuinely think it’s important students learn about each of those links, you might be better off communicating a few resources every so often with a targeted population, or regularly posting resources to social media, or you might be better off working resources into each of your other pages, surrounded by related content.
If you absolutely must have a resources page, then make certain to put some context with the links, so that page visitors know why you’re bothering to put this link on a page. Be sure to revisit your links once in a while, and fix any broken or moved ones. And watch out for backlink requests!
If you have a page and you’d like to know if it’s working, reach out! We can dig into how people are finding it, what they’re clicking on, and if they go on to other pages.
We’ve getting to the stage of the web redesign where it’s time to think about content. And our website has a lot of content. Even though our website is smaller than it’s ever been, it still has more than 3000 pages and some 10,805 external links.
While I’m pretty good at clicking links, I can’t possibly click all of those. Instead, the website has a service which checks some links every fifteen minutes. Right now, every external links on the site gets checked every 3 days. Here’s a terrifying statistic: about 1 in 4 external links on our site needs to be updated somehow.
The vast majority of those are 301 errors. The page isn’t really broken, it’s just moved. Much of that is due to Chrome’s move to mark HTTP pages as not secure. But even though those links still work when we click on them, it’s important that we update them. Eventually, server redirections stop working, and if we don’t update the link before then, the link will eventually turn into a 404.
404 links are pages that can’t be found. Those are the next biggest category of broken links on our site. A 404 is the worst. We’ve all encountered them. You think you’ve found a helpful link, but when you click it, you’re left guessing about what was there. And they make us look bad, like we dont’t even have the decency to keep our pages updated.
Here’s another terrifying statistic: out of the 3439 nodes on our site, only 1 in 3 has no problematic links on it.
We need to do better. Lori and I are going to spending a lot of quality time over the next few weeks trying to fix some of these. I’m afraid this is another place where you can expect some nagging emails from us: if a page 404s, we may not have any idea what we should link to instead, and we may be asking you for help.
There’s one particular type of page which tends to have a lot of links with errors: resource pages. There’s a few dozen pages on the site which are little more than collections of links to other sites. While these page are often well meaning – they’re trying to help students find resources we’ve verified as being helpful – they’re sometimes misguided. We’ll dig into those pages deeper in a later post, but for now, when Lori or I find broken links on these pages, we’re just going to remove the link and move on.
Our new goal is to cut the number of links with errors in half before Fall term. Wish us luck!
In the mid to late 90s, you could count on most websites having some sort of under construction or coming soon message on them. Often as a gif. Mental Floss reports this was due to people seeing a website as a project, like a film or a book, that would be eventually completed. Website design reflected that process: outline your chapters, then fill them in. Hence the placeholder messages and gifs, just so people didn’t get confused when they got to an empty page.
As of right now, the phrase “coming soon” appears on the Lane website 15 times. In 10 instances, buried in the text is a promise that more information on a certain topic is coming soon. On 4 pages, the phrase “coming soon” is the only text on the page.
“Coming soon” and “Under construction” are aspirational messages. They’re a way to tell a visitor that we’ve thought about content we know they’ll care about, and remind them to check back later.
But these intentions often don’t work. Remember those four pages that just have a “coming soon” message? Here’s the last time they were edited:
March 30th, 2020
February 20th, 2020
October 19th, 2018
October 16th, 2017
The other pages have a similar range of edit dates. “Coming soon” sometimes seems to mean forever. If I’m browsing the web and I that message, I don’t set up a calendar reminder to come back and check later. I move on.
Here’s a scenario. There’s some new program, and we know about 90% of the information. But we’re waiting on the state to tell us about the application process. We need to alert students to the program, but until the state gets back to us, we can’t tell them how to apply.
First option better than just saying “coming soon”? Add a date. Simply saying “information on the application process will be released by May 15, 2020” creates a whole different impression of the page. But what about when there’s no date?
A good option is to use that opportunity to drive people to another communications channel: “We’re currently waiting for application information from the state. Follow us on Twitter to be updated as soon as application information becomes available.” As an alternative to social media, this could be a great time to get an email list going, which you can repurpose later to promote other programs.
Sometimes that won’t be appropriate either. As a last resort, at least add a note about when someone should check back: “As of April 27th, we are yet to receive application information from the state. We will post an updated message here by May 11th.” Then you can keep updating that message, even just to tell people that you still don’t know anything new. Not only does that help to demonstrate to the visitor that there will actually be information here, it forces you to remember to actually go back and update the page.
Coming soon messages happen with new pages too. Someone will be thinking about how to redesign their site, and they’ll create some empty pages as placeholders, or they’ll be thinking about some cool new feature on their site. Except then something doesn’t work out, or some more pressing task comes up, and we end up with a page that just says “Coming soon”.
Solution? Always have your content ready first. We’ll actually be adopting this rule as a policy going forward for the web team. While we’ll be happy to talk with you about what a webpage could look like, we won’t actually create the page until you can show us some content first.
Over the next week or two, expect some nastygrams from Lori or me as we try to clean up some of these content gaps. And if you’re having trouble trying to think around a difficult “coming soon” situation, let us know. We’d love to help.
The other day, Lori pointed out that the phone number format on one of the mockups from iFactory was different from what we normally use. In accordance with AP style, we use (541) 463-3000. But the new mockups use the format 541-463-3000. And it’s pretty common to see phone numbers formatted with two dots: 541.463.3000. Does the format matter?
Yes. It turns out google is better at recognizing some formats as phone numbers than others. That post tested ten different formats, and found that the one we use and the one iFactory used are the ones best recognized by Google. The double dot notation? To quote the linked blog: “The phone number format you should avoid at all costs is #3: [###.###.###].”
Of course, that doesn’t settle which of those two is best. So I checked to see if there are any accessibility considerations with phone numbers. There are, but they don’t relate to visible format. All phone number formats are terrible, and something like (541) 463-3000 would probably be read to a blind person as “five hundred forty-one [pause] four hundred sixty-three three thousand”. There’s a fix for that, using aria-label on a surrounding link, but that just adds something for my todo list, and doesn’t solve the debate here.
And that’s how I found myself at 10pm, doing a survey of college websites, to see how they format phone numbers:
Portland State, Gettysburg, NYU, SNHU, WGU, U Phoenix, UVA, Middlebury, GA Tech, U Maine
Idaho, UVM, Dickinson, Michigan State, Kentucky State, U Penn, UConn, Binghamton, Dartmouth, Cornell, Ithaca, Notre Dame, American
This, for a variety of reasons, is not a scientific study. They’re just the first 50 colleges and universities that came to mind (and now you know I don’t follow college sports), and I didn’t check their style guide. I just looked at the first contact number I could find. As I said, not a scientific study. Just evidence of a person who’s too far down this rabbit hole to give up, far too late on a weeknight.
Of course, that left me with a clear winner. And I had to know why. From a blog post in 2006, I learned AP changed their preferred style, and Lane hasn’t kept up. A quick email to someone who owns a recent AP style guide verified it.
So we’ll probably go with 541-463-3000. The parenthetical format, (541) 463-3000, feels like it come from an age when area codes were mostly optional. And for many of us, me included, that’s no longer the case. Just please don’t use the dotted phone notation on your pages!
As part of our website redesign, over the last two months I’ve visited each and every page on the Lane website. As part of that process, we’ve cut a lot of pages, and at just 3413 nodes, the Lane website is now smaller and more svelte than it was when we launched it back in 2011 (and that includes more than 100 nodes that aren’t even real pages!).
But also as part of that process, I discovered that there were two categories of pages that had a lot of pages, and a lot of good information, but not necessarily a lot of value.
The first was contact pages. By convention, we try to have a page, usually located at a url like lanecc.edu/department/contact, which contains contact information for a department. This is an important page, and the way we structured things was an attempt to bring some standardization to the Lane website. But it also resulted in duplicate information (contact information is sometimes on the department homepage, and some departments also created employee directory pages). We’ll likely to contact pages differently next time around.
The second chunk was frequently asked questions pages. There are probably forty or fifty pages on the website that are full of FAQs. And while often the information in them is helpful, just by presenting that information in the FAQ format we may be making it less likely students will find and understand what we need to tell them.
For a good overview of why FAQ pages can be less helpful than other content, you should read this A List Apart article. A brief summary of issues:
Duplicate content – many times information on a FAQ is contained elsewhere
Lack of order – FAQ content doesn’t tend to flow question to question, making it harder to understand and process
Repetitive structure – since all the content gets phrased as questions, you’re often introducing extra words to the page that get repetitive to read
Increased cognitive load – often a student will come to your page with a specific question, phrased differently from how you’ve asked it, resulting in increased processing to determine if your question matches their question
I also think FAQs are problematic for people that aren’t searching for an answer to a specific question. If you’re just exploring a site, trying to determine if a program is for you then a FAQ often fails to guide you through content in a meaningful way.
If you happen to be stuck at home with some time to do website edits, one thing that would be really helpful is working on your FAQ page. Here’s my suggestions for slimming down, or dumping, your FAQ:
Read through your questions, and make sure you still feel like each question is important. If one isn’t important, remove it. You might be surprised by how much old content is out there.
Find any questions in your FAQ that have answers elsewhere, whether on your site or another page on our website, and get rid of them. Reducing duplicate content is possibly the most helpful thing we can do. We’ve found that many people have tried to be helpful by copying content from elsewhere on the website, ostensibly to simplify things for their audience, but almost always this ends up making the website bigger and more confusing.
Find any FAQ questions that are related to some other page on your site, and incorporate them into the content on that page. For instance, if you have a question like “What prerequisite courses do I need to take before applying to this program?”, consider moving that content to your program application page under a heading “Required Prerequisite Courses”
Are there any groups of questions that are related, and which could be combined into just a paragraph or two of more effective content, either on a new page, or as a new section on an existing one?
After all that, you may still be left with some FAQ questions which just don’t fit in anywhere. And that’s ok. Sometimes a FAQ provides the right solution. But even just shortening the length of your FAQ page can help students to better find information and improve the quality of your other pages.
As always, if you’re working on something like an FAQ and have a question, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The other day, I saw this blog post about tidying up your website using the Marie Kondo method. While I think peak Kondo-mania is likely behind us (unless she’s renewed for a second season, of course!), as our date for content migration approaches (probably late this upcoming spring!), that post got me thinking about how her tidying principles can help provide a good frame for tidying and improving websites here at Lane. There are six principles:
Commit yourself to tidying up
Like any other tidying project, working on cleaning up your website is going to take some time. The most Kondo-like advice, of course, is to carve out an entire afternoon. But at the very least, try to find a regular time to dedicate to tidying your website and cleaning out the ROT. Even an hour every other week is enough time to make a considerable impact.
Imagine your ideal lifestyle
If you spend a minute imagining what your dream website would look like, I’d be willing to bet a lot of your dreaming is related to the look and feel of the website. Don’t get me wrong, website appearance is important. But design alone is never enough to capture, retain, or influence an audience. As you imagine your dream website, I’d encourage you to think first about what your website goals. What specific behaviors are you trying to influence through your content? What actions are you trying to get visitors to take?
The Lane website has a surprising number of pages that aren’t really about getting anyone to do anything, but are instead about documenting internal processes, documenting old projects, or displaying mandatory information. Some of this is unavoidable. Our privacy statement isn’t about to be tidied up. But imagine a page that’s just a photo gallery. They may be compelling photos in that gallery. But because they’re buried in a gallery on their own, no one is going to find that page and take the time to look through the photos. Instead, choose some outstanding pictures and work them directly into your content. If you really need to have a gallery, use a dedicated photo site (like your Lane Google Photos account), and link to it.
As you imagine, try to think about how all the pieces of your online presence – photo, video, social, and copy – support each other and to tell a compelling story and influence an action. Think about how you can show, rather than tell.
Finish discarding first
Our largest pieces of the site have over 130 pages, and hundreds of attached files. Not only can that seem overwhelming, but thinking about all that content can make your head spin. By discarding first (even just a sentence here or there!), you’ll get a better understanding of your content and where the gaps are, and maybe spot some opportunities to combine pages into one, more cohesive page.
Tidy by category, not location
The advice in that blog post is spot 0n – don’t just think about if you need this particular page, think about if you need all the pages like that. So, for instance, don’t just think about if you need a page describing Underwater Basket Weaving 201, which hasn’t been run in three years. Think about if you need pages describing your Underwater Basket Weaving courses at all – after all, the course descriptions should be in the catalog, which got a pretty spiffy update this year.
Follow the right order
One of the Google Analytics reports we’re happy to provide you is a page popularity report. For each of your pages, we can help you discover how many times it was viewed, how many times it was viewed by different people, how long they were on that page, and if it was their first or last page. I’d recommend you use these reports from the bottom up: start with your least popular pages. Since you already know they’re not being seen as often as you probably wish they were, you already know they need to change. Look elsewhere on your site to see if there’s a place they can fit in or, even better, see if you can get rid of them entirely. You can email Lori or me for help getting one of those reports.
This one is complicated. Because the web isn’t your house, and how much a page brings you joy isn’t really the goal. The real goals relate to helping increase access to education and helping students meet their educational objectives. So find joy in what that page does, and in the goals it helps accomplish. If you can’t relate that page to a goal, thank it for it service, and say goodbye.