University homepage from Web standard and usability perspectives

Universities websites are redesigned to produce better marketing performance. That is a a good news for Web Standard and Usability experience. The homepage is the first impression of the entire protal. Therefore, the redesigning of the homepage is among the top priority of site redesigning. This article lists some significant web standards, usability and marketing efforts about the homepage of some top-tier universities in the world and Asian – Pacific regions.


  • Homepages are assessed based on structural content (XHTML) and layout (CSS).
  • Table-based or table-less structure, which are critical to the future redesigning or mantainace of the portal.
  • Usability basis (search, download time, navigation structure, text size etc..)
  • Information Architecture (audience-based and topic-based, primary navigation)
  • Marketing effort (media syndication, use of metadata, their Google PageRank, the use of Google Web Statistics – Google Analytics)
  • How Asian institutions maintain their dual-language portal.


With a strong belief that topt-tier universities will perform better in their Website, I searched at The Higher Education Supplement 2006. Some pretigious names, like Cambridge, Harvard, Oxford, Imperial College Lodon, MIT, Stanford, Princeton and Caltech Institute of Technology were picked up. This article is mainly for Australian audience. So Australian Group 8 universities were in the selection. Asian big names, National University of Singapore (NUS), Peking University (PKU) and Tokyo University (TU), were analysed. Interestingly, they not only are in the top-tier list of THES but also maitain a dual-language portal. Over the last decade universities have been progressively offering courses in an online learning format in the hope of attracting both “mature learners” and providing more flexible course offerings. Hence, online distance learning has spawned the development of online universities such as the US based Phoenix University.

Reputation of some business school is more extensive than those of their super universities. So some famous names of business schools are selected in the Financial 2007 MBA rankings. There were some apparent overlaps in this selection such as: the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) is a school of the University of New South Wales. The Melbourne Business School is a joint venture and one of the stakeholders is the University of Melbourne. The Harvard Business School is a faculty of Harvard University and the Stanford Graduate School of Business is a faculty of Stanford University. However in practice, these business schools operate largely independently of their parent organisation.

Assessed institutions are briefly illustrated in my Editgrid spreadsheet.


1. Web Standard and table-less design

There are quite a few institutions qualified both structural content (often XHTML 1.0 Transitional) and layout (CSS).

Australia: The University of Adelaide, The University of Melbourne, Monash University and The University of Western Australia.

Britain: Cambridge and Oxford

The US: Stanford University

Oxford homepages validates as XHTML 1.0 Strict but it is a entire-table layout.

Monash University homepare has a table-free layout and provides an ability to resize the text size directly from the page, not from the the browser (tool). The University of Queensland even though does not validate as XHTML 1.0 Strict, but it enables assessibility for mobile users.

Common mistakes, for which institutions fail to validate XHTML 1.0, include:

Suprisingly, Harvard homepage does not have a DOCTYPE (Document Type Declaration). The recognition and adoption of Wed Standards are obviously yet uneven across institutions.

There are no business schools that are compliant with both XHTML 1.0 and CSS mark-up.

2. Usability

Because the research could not conduct an effective environment to conduct a usability test with listed institutions, we selected some usability metrics from Nielsen and Tahir (2002) to assess the usability of their homepages. Some key metrics are: download time, search, sitemap, about & contact info, privacy policy, typeface (San Serif vs Serif) andresizeable font size(*). The maximum posible usability score is 30 . The usability scores of universities are listed in table (1).

PekingUniversity 17
National University of Singapore 22
University of California, Berkeley 23
the University of Adelaide 23
Cambridge University 24
Melbourne University 24
Harvard University 25
Phoenix University 25
The Australia National University 26
The University of Western Australia 26
the University of Queensland 26
Oxford University 27
Imperial College London 27
Monash University 27
Tokyo University 27
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 28
University of Sydney 28
Stanford 28
University of New South Wales 29
Princeton University 29
California Institute of Technology 30
Average 25.8

There are six universities achieving very high scores (28 to 30), 4 from the U.S and 2 from Australia. Peking University gets the lowest score of 17. The average usability score of a university homepages is 25.8. Business schools’ usability is slightly lower than that of institutions (table 2).

ColumbiaBusinessSchool 19
New York University: Stern 19
Insead 21
University of Chicago GSB 21
The Wharton Business School 24
Melbourne Business School 27
Australian Graduate School of Management 28
Stanford Graduate School of Business 28
London Business School 28
Harvard Business School 30
Average 24.5

4 business schools score very high (28 to 30) on the usability rating scale, 2 from the U.S.A, one from England and one from Australia. The Stern business school, in the U.S.A. gets the lowest score of 19. In term of high usability:

These figures suggest that American institutions put more effort in usability when compared with institutions from other parts of the world.

What can be learnt from institutions in the bottom of usability assessments? There are a few usability concerns in the lowest-ranking institutions:

  • No search utility (Colombia Business School and New York University: Stern) or the search box is too small (less than 10 characters).
  • No or less visible links, “Contact” and “Privacy Policy” (PKU).
  • Small text size, less than 12 pixels .
  • Broken or invalid links.

3. Information architecture

3.1 Topic-based and Audience-based

There are two main classifications for Web-site top-level structures. They are the audience-based or topic-based structure:

  • Information for (audience-based): Prospective students, Current Students, Faculty, Staff and Alumni and Family etc.
  • Information about (topic-based): the University, Courses, Library, Teaching and Learning, Research and Services etc.

Back to the study, 19 of the 31 institutions incorporate elements of both a both topic-based and audience-based structure. It is the illustration of the so-called “current industry standard” in information architecture of the university homepages (Ruwoldt & Spencer, 2005). All Australian and British universities adopt this trend. In addition, most Australian-based institutions add ‘International Students’ as a category in the primary navigation or sub-level, reflecting their internationalised marketing purpose.

3.2 Primary navigation

Left-hand rail, links across the top ,i.e. University of New South Wales or Harvard, and categories cascading in the middle of the page, aka or Yahoo-style, such as University of Berkeley are dominant in primary navigation structures. 16 of the 31 institutionsuse these navigation structure although they are space-consuming.

Visual-effect menus using JavaScript, drop-down and fly-out menus , such as University of Tokyo and are also popular. There are total of 11 institutions using this approach despite debates about their usability shortcomings. The key benefit of those approaches is to save the screen real estate for other important information. The disadvantage is that visitors cannot see the sub-categories of a main category unless they “mouse” over the category.

A few institutions mixed two approaches:

Types of primary navigation in universities’ homepage are varied because they need to organise a bundle of information (various faculties, departments and programs) in a limited space. In business schools, the trend is contradict. there is plenty estate for present information. Hence, JavaScript drop-down or flyout menus are not applicable for them. In fact, most business schools use solely left-hand rail, links on tops or Yahoo-style menu or their combinations in the homepages. Only London Business School and Melbourne Business School use Drop-down menu.

4. Marketing effectiveness

4.1. Media Syndication

How many news or events appear in the homepage? Statistics in this study are shown in table 3

Discipline Mean number – news items Mean number – events items
Business school 7.8 2.4
University 2.4 0.96
Overall 3.76 1.39

In business schools, there are usually up to 8 news and 2-3 events because they have relatively more space. For a university, there are typically two news items and one event. Those numbers are much less than those in a business school because the university needs to save the screen real estate for other items. Summing up, current practice is to have 3-4 news items and 1-2 events appearing on an institution’s homepage. In addition such dynamic media items such as news, events or announcements should be syndicated using RSS. 30 out of 31 institutions surveyed used RSS for syndication.

At present, the use of podcasts by institutions is mostly for teaching and learning activities. In the near future it is highly likely that podcasts will be widely used for media and marketing events and public relations (PR) activities. Indeed some universities have started to use podcasts to promote their branding. For example, Sydney University has started to use podcasts to publish their public lectures under the link ‘Listen to our public lecturers’. Likewise, the Australian National University uses podcasts to publish its public talks.

4.2 Metadata

What is the difference between the University of Sydney and Sydney University? Most people will think there is little difference. But to the search bots (i.e. Google), this variation is significant. The following figure (figure 1) presents the number of search results with the keyword: Sydney University.

Sydney University

Figure 1: Google search results with the keyword: Sydney University

And figure 2 illustrates the number of results with the keyword: the University of Sydney.

the University of Sydney.

Figure 2: Google search results with the keyword: the University of Sydney.

While the conventional name of the university is “the University of Sydney” the number of search results with this keyword is 11% less than a less formal name “Sydney University”. Examining the HTML code of the university’s homepage, there is something inconsistent in the way it names itself (figure 3).

metadata of HTML code of Sydney University Homepage

Figure 3: metadata of HTML code of Sydney University Homepage

Similarly, the University of Melbourne: keyword “the University of Melbourne”: 688,000 responds, keyword “Melbourne University”: 852,000 responds. It is a difference of 24%.

Institutions can pay millions of dollars to have their banners appearing in other Web pages to improve their Web accessibility. But, just a small rephrasing in their metadata keywords can improve their accessibility up to 11% for the University of Sydney and 24% for the University of Melbourne. This illustrates the significance of controlled vocabulary in improving accessibility and Search Engine Optimisation (SEO).

In fact, of the 31 institutions, there are 10 not using metadata in their homepages. They include 3 from Asia, 1 from France, 2 from Australia and the other 4 from the U.S.A. Most Australian institutions actually provide more that just minimal metadata. They use not only the frequent metadata tags “description” and “keywords” but also Dublin Core Metadata schemas to improve their accessibility. Monash University even goes beyond this and has its own metadata schema bases named “monash”. Figure 4 will display a sample of Monash metadata.

Monash metadata

Figure 4: Monash metadata

In general, British and Australian institutions make considerable use of metadata compared to others. All British institutions and 82% Australian institutions use metadata. However, there are various concerns relating to thesaurus design and controlled vocabulary in their metadata, that the scope of this study cannot cover.

4.3 PageRank

Google PageRank™ is to measure how relatively important a page is. It is a whole number between 0 and 10. It does not rank the academic quality and teaching practice of an institution; but partially indicate the significance of the website in the WWW.

Although, PageRank is yet a reference Web metric rather than a precise Q&A indicator, the rank of those institutions’ page can reveal many interesting on their online marketing effectiveness.

  • MIT is the only institution with a rank of 10. It should be acknowledged that only a few corporations or portals in such a high rank, i.e. Microsoft, Yahoo or W3C
  • Most US and British leading universities are ranked of 9 but the Imperial College London (8).
  • Australasian universities, including Australia Group 8, , Peking and Tokyo, are ranked of 8, except the University of Adelaide (7) and NUS (9) .
  • All business schools’ pages are ranked less than those of the universities.
  • The exceptions are Harvard, Stanford and London Business School (8). Their rankings equal to those of Australia group 8, Peking or Tokyo

MIT (10)stands out from other universities; because it is always quoted as the leading technology and computing university. The US and British leading universities are still the dominant power in academic and teaching; therefore, their ranks are higher than those of Australasian colleagues.Business schools’ domain is smaller than that of universities. It explains the lesser number of inbound links to business schools. As a result, business schools’ homepages are often ranked less than those of universities.

4.4 Google analytics (GA)

GA generates Web statistics about the visitor to a website. It can be a useful indicator to improve content quality and navigation structure of a website. In the sampling, there are up to 16 institutions using GA to record the statistics of the traffic to their website.

5. Issues of Dual-language

5.1 Why some universities still use dual languages

Despite their position in the World Top University League, Asian universities (National Univeristy of Singapore, Peking University and Tokyo University) ’s major traffic is domestic.In detail, 78% population of Singapore is Chinese and 57.7% NUS web surfers are from Singapore. 86.6% visitors of PKU is in China (mainland) and 70% web traffic of Tokyo University comes from Japan. To promote their international reputation and mantain their local user base, they must use a dual-language mode in their website.

5.2 And their solutions

NUS, Tokyo and Peking University share a similar solution to maintain a dual-language mode for their portal. They separate their local language pages and English pages into distinct information flows.

dual-language mode of Asian institution websites in the study.

Figure 5: dual-language mode of Asian institution websites in the study.

The default homepage of NUS and Tokyo University is English (2) whereas in Peking University (PKU), it is Chinese (1). NUS and Tokyo uses an identical layout for their (1) and (2) but PKY applies totally different layouts for its (1) and (2).

  • The NUS arranges its Chinese pages in a subfolder. For example, in NUS, (1) (1.1) (1.2) etc. are in a directory and (2), (2.1), (2.2) etc. in another directory. With an assumption that visitors use exclusive English or Chinese, this approach is efficient.
  • Tokyo maintains the dual-language mode in the same directory. It differentiates pages by appending a postfix for the page name. For instance, (1) is named index_j.html (j for Japanese), and (2) is name index_e.html (e for English).
  • PKU totally differentiate the layout and the content of their English and Chinese sub website

Maintaining a dual-language mode for institutions is a traumatic task in this way. As generating content in English, the Webmaster created an equivalent (translated) content in the local language with an identical layout (in case of NUS and Tokyo). In PKU, the task seems harder because of different layout.


In Web standards, Australian institutions appeared to be more compliant. In usability, U.S institutions are more advanced. There is no golden model for institutions from this study but the following institutions have actually well done in terms of the main assessment areas of this study:

  • Stanford University is the leading institution because of XHTML Strict 1.0, CSS, table-less mark-up and very high usability score (28 out of 30).
  • Oxford University and Monash University share the second position because of XTHML Strict, CSS mark-up and 27 out of 30 usability score.

Compared to institutions from other countries, Australian institutions are more unified in terms of their use of information architecture and compliance with Web standards and CSS mark-up. Moreover, in their homepages, they often include ‘International Students’ as an audience option, which demonstrates that Australian universities have a strong focus on international students.

Again, Australian institutions changed their homepages more freqently than the US, UK and Asian institutions does. For instance, the recent changing face (homepage) of the University of Melbourne, Melbourne Business School and AGSM and the extreme makover of the Univeristy of Sydney, University of Adelaide’s portal (redesigning).

Business schools tend to present the content like a news portal. It allows a much higher number of media items on their homepages than that in universities. It is noteworthy that business school are typically an independent unit or a partnership with a university and the size and its offerings are smaller and fewer than those of the entire university. It results in the need to display less information in a business school’s homepage relative to that of the whole university. Such specialisation seems to promote the use of additional utilities such as search, jobs or ‘enlarge the text size’ and especially news and events items.

The original post is here.


  1. Alexander, D. (2005) How usable are university websites? A Report on a Study of the Prospective Student Experience, AusWeb05: Proceedings of the 11th Australasian World Wide Web Conference, Southern Cross University, Lismore, pp 303-320.
  2. DeWeaver, L. & Ellis, A. (2006) University Web-Marketing: A Report Card, in AusWeb06: Proceedings of the 12th Australasian World Wide Web Conference, Southern Cross University, Lismore pp 9-14.
  3. Digital Inspiratio (2005) Prevent Google Analytics from tracking your visit. Retrieved 12 -Dec, 2006, from
  4. Monash University. (2004) Search and metadata. Retrieved 13-Jan, 2007, from
  5. Nichani, M. (2006) The Changing Face of University Websites. Retrieved 15-Dec, 2006, from
  6. Nielsen, J. & Tahir, M. (2002) Homepage usability: 50 websites deconstructed. Indianapolis, Ind: New Riders.
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  8. Ruwoldt, M. L. & Spencer, C. (2005) Navigation and content on university home pages. AusWeb05: Proceedings of the 11th Australasian World Wide Web Conference, Ausweb2005, Southern Cross University, Lismore, pp 431-434.

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