Tough research question on web site use

An academic-oriented cartoon that is making the rounds is also making college web-site designers think twice – and the marketing department think even more.  It skewers the utility of many of the items found on the front page of a college web site:

Cartoon of content on college web sites
Unviersity website, from

First you laugh. Then you realize that folks already on campus have very different needs from the general public. (Some colleges, mine is one, handle that by having secondary pages specialized for different groups. Most of us bookmark one of those pages and never see the home page again.)

Research design for web intentions?

But then you have to face a tough question: how would you find out what people were looking for, but did not find, on your web site?  There are a few obvious answers

  • words or phrases they typed into a search box
  • the words or locations they clicked on but didn’t stay more than a second

But these only tell you about folks who are persistent and web-savvy enough to enter the web site if a first look doesn’t show what they’re looking for.  All the rest – those who come or click their way onto the front page but don’t stay long or click through to anything else – are a mystery. No one knows what they were seeking.

Does SEO actually match what web users are seeking?

This would be an esoteric question of social science research if it were not for the millions of dollars poured into web-use research each year.  Most of it goes to Search Engine Optimization – designing your web site so that the search engines will list you near the top when folks search on terms particularly relevant to you. Notice that the audience here is a computer program, not a human being.  The search engines do keep track of whether you stay on the site or click through – if not, your rankings drop. But they still don’t know what you were looking for and did not find.

On a few occasions, I’ve unsubscribed from something or left a web site only to receive a pop-up window asking me why I was leaving. I suppose they are trying to get at just this question. I bet they get a lot of brusque and annoyed responses – and I wonder how useful they are. Once I even got a follow-up email: “Did you accidentally unsubscribe? We just want to be sure.” Civility is sometimes a hard-won virtue.

Web research can, for the most part, capture basic information such as how long you look, what you click on, and what sequences of pages you visit.  All of this is beautifully objective, but doesn’t tell anyone what you really wanted.

Good luck to all those college web-designers who are wondering if they have to replace that great slide show or take down the President’s letter.

One comment

  1. I think the best thing you could do is to interview a select group of people that attend college and ask them what they would want out of such a site. Then collate the results together and involve them in the planning process of the sites design. During the site’s design, make sure it conforms to W3C standards and make sure it is accessable by anyone, regardless of what impairments they may or may not have. Then during the design and construction phase you can think about S.E.O. After testing the website on a similar group of people, get their views on what they think and then go back to the drawing board if need be. After testing phase has been done, then you should start marketing the website online and offline and keep in mind you’ll need to target the right group of people to maximise your sites visibility and traffic.

    I hope that this will help you in some way :)

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