You know your website needs an overhaul. Everyone from the superintendent to the PTA president has ideas on how to make it better.
Maybe it’s been pretty much dormant from lack of usability, or perhaps it’s grown into a monster. Are parents, faculty and staff complaining that they cannot find what they’re looking for?
There’s a good chance your site map needs an overhaul.
Think of your site map like the chassis of a car. If that’s out of whack, missing some bolts or has bent or rusty struts, you’re going to have some navigation problems. Same with your website.
Most of the time you are dealing with a website that may have been built five years ago and grown over the years without a good structure. Creating a friendly and organized website is no easy task. It takes listening to your users, and a lot of assessing.
In addition, before you begin work on your new site map, it is important to examine not only what you’re doing, but see what others are doing. Be sure to avoid the common mistakes of website design (that we reviewed in a previous Campus Suite blog article), then employ some site map best practices.
For private schools and colleges, how your sitemap is organized affects how search engines like Google crawl your site. Regardless if you’re a college, private school, K-12 district or school, it’s important your sitemap is well organized and contains all the necessary metadata that makes your website easy for visitors to find and use once they find it.
Here at Campus Suite, schools come to us all the time expressing they want a professional design that’s easy to navigate so visitors can intuitively find what they’re are looking for.
It all starts with the site map. Maybe yours is not all that far out of whack. Chances are you know more than anyone else about how the content itself, but how it's organized is critical. Your chassis may need only some tightening and lubricating, not an overhaul.
Follow the steps outlined below to help you build a site map simply, and make it easy for everyone to find the information they're seeking:
1. Review your analytics and feedback
Your sitemap journey should start by taking a look at your current website analytics. See where people are hanging out on your site – what pages they are visiting. You don’t have to go overboard and do an in-depth analysis, just see what your most popular pages are. As a designer myself, I still believe in function over form. Even a 'dated' website can still have some good things going for it that you may want to build upon.
The best navigation is the simplest. (You don’t hear people complaining about Craigslist, even though it looks like it hasn’t change since David Hasselhoff was driving around in a car name Kit.)
Remember, your website is not an amusement park and your visitors aren’t wanting to be entertained. They are there because they are looking for something, on a mission. For this reason, pinpoint your most popular pages and make sure to work into the new sitemap what you learn here.
Another important part of improving your new site is to listen to what others are saying. Do not be afraid to get the opinions of key school stakeholders about what is and what is not working.
This helpful discovery can be achieved by asking questions at school board, staff andPTO meetings, or even sending out a simple survey. The key here is making decisions based on data you collect, and at a minimum bring this feedback into consideration.
2. See what others are doing
I hate to bust your creative bubble, but a sitemap is not a place to be different and wildly creative. Take that creative energy and apply it to the design, not into how to go “out of the box” with your navigation and sitemap. We are creatures of habit, and a website is a tool that we use to find things.
E-commerce websites that deviate from these best practices are not as successful as those that use these proven sitemaps. The leading e-commerce and Fortune 100 sites (e.g., Target, Sears, Kmart, Walmart, etc.) are all pretty much organized the same. Why? After millions of dollars of user-interface research, these giants have learned what people expect, and they do not want to learn something new.
Imagine being on vacation and you go to a grocery store looking for coffee. In this particular store, the coffee section is next to the butcher department and is labeled ‘hot morning liquids.’ Chances are you would have a hard time finding it and possibly be grumpy the rest of the day because you did not get your caffeine.
Job no. 1: no grumpy website visitors.
Your marching orders are to review 10 to 20 different schools websites and see what the similarities are. There is a lot of knowledge to gain from this exercise. Take notes and take screenshots that you can use to put together a plan for your sitemap. Check with your school website provider to see if they’re applying some of these best practices.
3. Create an outline
Just like a good book, a process or a plan, it all starts with an outline. This is your opportunity to work the pages around like molding clay to gain an understanding of how information is organized.
Powermapper, a cool tool that can help you generate a site map of your current website for reference, is a good place to start if you don’t have access to your sitemap. (You can always check with your current website hosting provider for that as well.) You will be reviewing your website and working this information into an outline.
Get something down in writing and make it easy on your team to make adjustments. We use Google Docs to collaborate on the sitemap outline and other documents before we plug it this information into our own Campus Suite sitebuilder. Feel free to add all of the pages and organize them in a tiered-outline fashion along with each school. Later in this article we will review more about how to start refining this information.
4. Keep it simple and common
Naming is one of the most important aspects of navigation. Whether it’s the top-level names or some of the drill-down terms you use, keep the naming of your navigation links concise and simple
Again, look at your research on what other schools are doing. Be sure to avoid jargon or internal edu-speak. Some terms you use may mean more to a staffer with his or her D. Ed. than it would to a parent, so think “lowest common denominator” when arriving at page names that are meaningful to most everyone.
As a parent of two school-age children, I often use their district’s website. Now, I’ve see thousands of school websites., and overwhelmingly the tab for schools is named, “Schools”. Yet my district chooses to use the term, “Buildings”. Not good. Internally, the district’s operations and transportation staff may refer to the schools as buildings but parents certainly don’t. It’s like referring to “teachers” as “workers”.
I’ve seen thousands of school websites and by far most of them use the term ‘schools” to refer to the schools. Now maybe internally the district’s operations and transportation staff might refer to the schools as buildings, but parents don’t. It’s like calling your teacher “Worker."
Besides being unclear, such language is not friendly to the visitors of the website. My point is make sure you use common names for your navigation. If it is a contact page, do not call it “Connect with Us.”
5. Heed the golden rule of 7 links
Now we are going to start getting a little scientific. While there is debate over our ability to memorize and process only a certain number of words and images, a long-held rule of thumb is that when a section or a drop-down menu exceeds seven links, the user can no longer skim read, forcing them to read the links one by one.
Pioneering research into memory capacity aside, conventional wisdom says don’t overwhelm your pages (and lose your visitors) with too many choices. You need to balance visual and structural complexity in your organization and layout.
This is a big issue. I believe we can all relate to going to a website that has a long list of links, which makes it difficult to find what you looking for. When you are organizing your sections, do your best to try to keep it seven or fewer. You may have to create additional sections and categories to avoid the dreaded number eight. I realize that this is not always possible, but make it a practice to try to keep links within that range.
Hick’s Law – I told you I was getting technical here – states that the more choices a person has, the more time it’s going to take to make a move. What’s more, too many choices can even paralyze a person and drive them from your site – that’s my law.
Broad, top-level (mega) menus work the best, and don’t go too deep on the lists you put under each one. Another tip for you: don’t waste a spot on your main menu for ‘Home’ designation. Not necessary. A click of your school or district logo will take them to your home page. Also, quick links can be utilized for the extremely common destinations on your website like calendars, contacts and other directories.
I’ve even seen the 7-link rule broadened to plus-or-minus two. So does that mean nine is okay and five is better? On a webpage, you’re working with visuals and words, so I want to inject a little simple reasoning here rather than math: don’t overdo your links, or you'll run the risk of cluttering up your pages and confusing the visitor.
6. Create uniformity across the school websites
While this point relates specifically to school districts or organizations with multiple schools, the notion of a uniform structure can also be generally applied to a single-school website.
You want to create a standard site map for each school, and a standard structure for your teacher pages too. This, of course, does not mean they all have to be exactly the same, but there should be a common structure. Each school and each teacher should have the flexibility to place their respective ‘mark’ on their site, but without going ‘rogue’ in terms of your sitemap design standards.
Site map uniformity will also make it easier for you to build out the websites if they are similar. However, this is not about how easy it makes your job but how it makes it easy for site visitors. Imagine being a parent with kids in separate schools: it would be nice if they do not have to learn several different navigation structures. Whether it’s going from district site to school site, from one school site to another, or moving between teacher pages, the uniformity will keep visitors coming back.
Whether you’re planning a new website, or reorganizing your current one, building a sitemap for your school can be the most important aspect that determines the success of your school website.
By first getting a better understanding of how your site is being used and seeing what’s working best for others, you can then set out on organizing yours for optimum usability. Be sure to collaborate with key team members to organize your content, then call upon your current website provider or tap some online tools to help you create the sitemap everyone can live with.
Above all, be sure to avoid the common mistakes made my many schools. When in doubt, keep it simple but thorough to make sure parents, staff, students and the community are coming back for what they need.
About the author
As co-founder of Campus Suite, Steve believes behind every great school is great communication. His tech savvy and passion for design fuel his desire to help administrators understand, embrace and seize the power of web communications.