Bob Johnson's Blog on Higher Education Marketing

Revisiting Jakob Nielsen's "Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design"

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As 2008 comes to a close, it is time to revisit ancient verities. And this night, that means a visit to the latest (2007) rendition of Jakob Nielsen's major problems that plague websites. In the midst of the craving for social networking sites, it isn't a bad idea for everybody to step back and ask themselves how their "official" college and university websites rank against Nielsen's list.

If your website doesn't rate well against most of these criteria, then it isn't playing a strong role in your marketing efforts. Remember... most potential new students will first contact you at your website.

Here are the "Top 10" (yes, he should have used the number 10 in that headline rather than the word) as they appeared in 2007. The list with additional definition and Nielsen's comments is at

    1. Bad search
    2. PDF files for online reading
    3. Not changing the color of visited links
    4. Non-scannable text
    5. Fixed font size
    6. Page titles with low search engine visibility
    7. Anything that looks like an advertisement
    8. Violating design conventions
    9. Opening new browser windows
    10. Not answering users' questions

Over the past year of reviewing college and university websites, here are the 5 mistakes that stand out the most.

  • Search... Subjectively, this seems a bit better than a year or two ago,  but not nearly as strong as it should be. Test your site for terms like "scholarships" and popular academic programs and then decide if you'd be satisified with the results if you were a potential new student making a first visit. More often than not, you'd fail this test.
  • PDF files... It still amazes me how many print versions of alumni magazines and annual reports are placed online as PDF files in the expectation that people will actually read them in that format, switching back and forth in page size so that sometimes a entire photo is visible and sometimes the print is large enough to read. The good news? Online print viewbooks as PDFs are disappearing.  
  • Non-scannable text... Most web page still can't pass the 5-second rule: can a visitor to the page connect with the major content heading and subheads in just a few seconds or do you force people to read a dense block of text to find out what's on the page? Welcome messages, press releases, and academic program descriptions are likely culprits in this area. Every page on your website should have bullet points and subheads that make it easy to scan the content.
  • Fixed font size... Many websites today give people the chance to adjust the font size on the pages. Plan to add this feature soon. Remember the rule: "Don't make people squint" to read your text. Don't guess the right size. Let your visitors adjust.
  • Page titles with low search visibility... Use services like Free Wordtracker Tool at before you decide between terms like "graduate degrees" and "masters degrees." When you can, select words and phrases that are most often used to search for web content.

Those are the major elements that stand out from my 2008 website reviews. In 2009, mobile marketing and social networking sites will continue to draw major attention, as they should. But let's not forget to strengthen basic elements at official websites to create the strongest possible first impression when a potential student first comes knocking on the door. 

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