Website Design Strategy

5 Web Design Best Practices for Universities

Summary: Modern digital audiences demand an updated website. Find out how search engine optimization, streamlining your web experience, and designing for mobile helps your university website stay on top.

We hope this doesn’t come as shocking news, but websites are kind of important for just about any kind of business. Higher education is no exception. In terms of digital marketing, your school’s website is your “front door” to the rest of the world. In the mobile age, visitors don’t ask people directions or look you up in the phone book; they Google you and let your online presence lead them from there.


Unique School Website Design Challenges

Universities have to pay more attention to their online presence than most industries because they operate under a different set of expectations:

  • Their clients, students, are disproportionately young digital natives who use the web to research their career path.
  • Students look to universities as a progressive place to advance their career into the future, while a shabby website makes it seem like you’re stuck in the past.
  • The public looks to universities as natural thought leaders where talent congregates, so a school has “no excuse” when they have an impoverished web presence.
  • Universities have to keep up a thriving image, lest they get a reputation for sub-par standards.

At the same time, designing a university website has several unique challenges. For your average storefront business, a WordPress website that includes a few pages paired with a Google My Business listing goes pretty far. But a university’s online presence has to meet a higher standard:

  • University websites are typically huge, so there’s a lot of information to organize
  • Young adults may be adept at searching and finding sites on the web, but they are also faster to get impatient with slow websites and clumsy navigation
  • A university needs to present many voices in chorus in their media experience, combining messages from the dean and faculty, then professors and facilitators, right down to the student ambassadors and alumni
  • Yet the university must also present a united brand identity
  • There’s some stiff competition out there for students’ attention, especially among higher learning institutions

That competition is likely to be a steady factor that universities have to contend with. Enrollments are declining nationwide by a factor of about 3.3%. This is due partly to natural population fluctuation, the global pandemic, and the hesitancy students feel about making big decisions during times of economic uncertainty.

In the face of all this, a university must put as much effort into its online presence as conceivably practical. There is no “plan B” here; students are not going to look you up in a directory and just drop in. Here are five best practices for designing a superior higher education website:


1. Prioritize Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

There are three faces of SEO: the on-site content, the off-site factors, and the on-site engineering. You must include enough content to snag Google’s attention and make it aware that there’s important information to index here. You must build your campus reputation to nurture inbound links and traffic referral factors so Google knows your site is well-trusted. And you must make sure that your site is responsive and capable of receiving visitors from a mostly-mobile audience.

You have to build SEO into the site from the ground up. The days are long gone when Google simply scraped text off your page and served it up in search results from there. Now, Google takes into account things such as:

  • Are there a lot of inbound links showing your site is useful?
  • Do users spend some time on the site as opposed to just leaving right away?
  • Is your site a source of authoritative, trustworthy content?
  • Does your site match the perceived intent of the users’ search?
  • Is your site mobile-friendly?
  • Is your site fast to load and responsive?

In short, Google has leaned much harder on user experience (UX) than it has in the past. It does this to stay competitive by giving users what they want.

The most important factor feeding into SEO and UX is information architecture—or how the site is structured so that users can navigate it and find what they want. There are some specialized aspects of website organization that apply to higher education websites. Before embarking on a major website redesign, it’s important to consult with SEO experts to ensure that you don’t experience major traffic losses.


2. Use an Intuitive University Website Navigation

How to direct all that incoming traffic, and create a smooth flow of the information it seeks? It is sometimes helpful to break traffic down into groups:

  • Content traffic: Students, parents, and new visitors want to find out all about you. “About us,” your mission statement, dean’s blog, admissions, academics, news and announcements, and so on. This type of traffic is recommended for the menu bar at the top of pages.
  • Grouped traffic: You have more audience than just students; you will be serving faculty, staff, alumni, and press. Give these visitors their own section, with an out-of-the-way link listing in the sidebar or page footer. That way they can find their specific information without the clutter of the site getting in the way.
  • Utility traffic: Your student body will also use the site, with all its features. There’s the course management system, academic calendar, policy updates, and guides to housing, parking, cafeteria menu, and other trivia. You will want easy navigation to your “hot spot” sections right in the main page front section.

People do expect a university to have a lot of content. Hey, “content” is half of what education is all about, right? So it’s OK to have a lot more information than your average site, as long as it says “we have a lot to offer” without being overwhelming. Instead of presenting huge navigation menus, consider splitting up your navigation based on the user’s intended purpose. The types of traffic we outlined can guide you towards what navigation systems you need.

It is best to have several concurrent, redundant systems of navigation. “Breadcrumbs” are often necessary for maneuvering large sites with many categories. Your front page should be the main navigation hub, so include a link from every page on the rest of the site back to the front. Have a tag system so browsing students can easily follow one topic through multiple departments. Have an on-site search feature to assist lost users and test it to make sure it works.


3. Think “Mobile First”

It’s challenging enough to build a high-bandwidth school web portal on a desktop web browser. But now you have to shrink it down to a hand-sized mobile interface too! There are two Google standards that together make a mobile-ready website: AMP and CWV. AMP is “accelerated mobile pages,” a special version of your website’s pages that are set up for mobile. CWV is “Core Web Vitals,” a new set of website stats that Google is rolling out to measure sites’ responsiveness and convenience to use on mobile.

The good news is, as long as your web design team is on the ball and you’re using modern content management systems that are up to standards, you should have less trouble meeting AMP and CWV. Sites that are set up for AMP tend to also score higher on CWV, which is a good thing.

Here’s a little check-list to keep in mind for mobile users:

  • Use lightweight graphics and videos to ensure fast load times
  • Kill superfluous Javascript and plug-ins, as unused code is bloat
  • Make sure your text is big enough to read on a small screen and easy to navigate links with a finger
  • Watch out for pop-ups that block the whole screen
  • Keep it simple, and collapse complex menus when not in use
  • Make sure interactive widgets respond promptly
  • Do not use flashy, busy designs just to show off
  • Serve it all from a fast website

Designing for mobile is a tedious challenge at times, but this is how the world works now. Generation Z—your emerging and future student base—spends an overwhelming amount of time on mobile Internet, with Millennials not far behind. You must make create an excellent mobile experience.


4. Invest in Good Content

Good content comes from a good university. A university website has to rise above being a mere web portal. It is a production. You should have as much content as possible that’s aimed at wowing visitors with your spectacular school and its amenities. Have virtual video campus tours, embed photo galleries of your highest achievements, and never miss an opportunity to brag about a milestone on your blog channels. Share the success story of every graduate, and collect at least one glowing testimonial from every alumni.

Let Your Students Contribute

Young adults, especially, are more moved by the sense that they’re hearing from their peers, which is why influencer marketing is such a hot property. A young student might be too jaded from media over-exposure to put much stock in your P.R. department. But show them a student just like them, and they’ll pay attention. This is the beautiful thing about university testimonials because every student has a story. Tell the compelling story of a student’s journey to graduation and career success, and you will captivate the audience. Narrative skills come in handy here. Everyone has a dream, a vision for their place in the world, a problem they knew that only they could solve. Diplomas change lives, so your student graduating signifies a date with destiny, a change in the fate of the world. Wring it for all the melodramas you can.

Beyond testimonials, let your students share their experiences on your website. Part of your content strategy should include user-generated content (UGC) that you incorporate throughout your website. UGC can be social media posts, student-directed video campus tours, behind-the-scenes photographs of the lab, event photographs, or student blog articles. Monitor your social media channels, hashtags, and student blogs for content that might enhance your website and brand image. Consider creating a designated section on your website that serves as a repository for your UGC. Some schools even showcase this content on their homepages.


5. Channel Your Creativity

Remember that you’re not just competing with other schools. You’re competing with the whole social media and entertainment world and all the distractions it brings. This is, again, just the world we live in now.

A simple, clean design defines NYU’s website. Not only is it enjoyable to view, but it’s also easy to use. Web pages load lightning-fast (even with video!) and it’s easy to get around using their intuitive navigation.


That means you must create a captivating website that sets your school apart. Students engage daily with entertainers and social media influencers that create stunning photography and engaging content. They expect the same from brands. Invest in high-quality photography that showcases your school’s best features. Between TikTok and YouTube, students spend a substantial amount of the day consuming videos and it’s often their preferred medium. Video content complements the written word and should be used liberally throughout your website. While high-quality productions have their place, students also desire authenticity and will accept lower-quality video, as long as it’s genuine, unique, and entertaining. If you don’t have a big budget for video content, don’t worry. The camera in your pocket is often good enough.

While visual design is important, it shouldn’t detract from the functionality of your website. Remember that beyond looking good, websites must adhere to SEO best practices,  load quickly, and allow users to navigate easily.


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