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Assessing University Homepages from Web

standard and usability perspectives

Tran Quoc Bao [HREF1] Graduate College of Management, Southern Cross University

Associate Professor Allan Ellis [HREF3] School of Commerce and Management, Southern
Cross University [HREF4].

Academic institutions and universities are often Web-technology pioneers. Because they
often have their own IT department to build and manipulate their Web sites, universities
frequently touch up their Web sites, especially the homepage, to produce better marketing

Over recent years published pilot studies have reported research involving Web standard and
usability issues. This research uses a combination of measures to analyse relevant 2007
concerns about homepage redesign and performance and uses some case studies to compare
and highlight current differences. A pilot investigation was undertaken of 31 institutions
around the world: 10 from Australia, 3 from Asia, 4 from England, 1 from France, 13 from
the US. In term of focus and disciplines, there are 21 universities (general curricula) and 10
business schools.

The results reveal that British and Australian institutions appear to be more compliant with
Web standards and usability issues. Other institutions show wide variation in the way they
organise information on their homepage. Most have scope for significant improvement.

Alexander (2005) conducted a study of usability and search ability issues involving 13
Australian and 2 overseas university Web sites. She concluded with 5 major action orientated
recommendations (pp317-318):

• Design an information architecture that meets prospective student needs

• Create content that meets the needs of prospective students
• Improve the performance of search
• Do not assume that prospective students have the relevant domain knowledge
• Do not use PDFs - the primary format for web content

Ruwoldt and Spencer (2005) used a printout of home page screen shots as the basis for a
questionnaire involving 68 Australian and overseas universities that sort comments on
specific aspects of content, labelling and navigation, design and branding. They concluded
that best practice in terms of information architecture involved providing….” multiple
navigation paths into the broader web site: (p431)
• Group static links into audience and topic categories; label the groups "For" and
• Where appropriate, provide two or more links from the home page to a key content
page; these links should have different titles
• Visually emphasised links to key content
• Allow users to choose between using a search engine or browsing a site map or

Nichani (2006) surveyed 25 universities, mostly from Australia, British and the US, and
focused on Web standards and navigation structures. She concluded Web site re-design
projects were breaking new ground and that considerable experimentation was going on.
DeWeaver and Ellis (2006) surveyed a representative sample of 9 universities (NSW and
Queensland) on 28 marketing parameters. They concluded that even though universities had
over 15 year Web marketing experience there was surprising variation with some rating very
low. They suggested that …”in order for Web-Marketing to be effective there needs to be
greater integration of design with content linked to as better understanding of how visitors
move around on a website as they seek information”(p.14).

This pilot study builds on these earlier works by examining and rating the full range of
important factors including information architecture, usability concerns, technical issues and
marketing effectiveness.


This pilot study involved examining and rating a sample of university Web sites based upon
survey methods and an amalgamation of criteria adopted from the published studies just
cited. Universities and business schools are from the top-tier institutions, always quoted in
the Higher Education Supplement 2006 [HREF5] or Financial Times MBA Ranking
[HREF6] and Australia Group 8 [HREF7], all over the world and Asia Pacific region. They
are selected because of the strong belief that they can outperform in their Websites. There are
10 institutions from Australia, 3 from Asia, 4 from England, 1 from France, 13 from the US.
In term of focus and disciplines, there are 21 universities (general curricula) and 10 business

Researchers first validated these homepages by Markup Validation Service [HREF8],

Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) Validation Service [HREF9]. If any failed in either validation
tests, the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) code was examined. Usability metrics
adapted from (Nielsen & Tahir, 2002) were used to assess the usability of those homepages.
Results were presented in Excel Spreadsheet and grouped by disciplines. In some metrics, the
program SPSS was used for more in-depth statistical analysis. It allowed us to both observe
the general trends and evaluate each individual exception.


No standard, agreed set or criteria exists to examine and rate university Web sites. Drawing
on previous studies this survey uses criteria selected from various areas: Web standards,
usability concerns, and marketing performance. The assessment criteria include:

• Web standards ensure that everyone from various demographics can have equivalent
access to the Web site. For example, people with poor eyesight can get pages
rearranged and magnified for reading easily or people using handheld devices can
browse the Website as easily as those using a workstation. Likewise, Web standards
also produce better search results and maintain visual consistency throughout the site.
• Usability ensures the “ease to navigation” of a Web site. It includes numerous issues
such as file sizes, the layout of search utility and sitemap (Nielsen & Tahir, 2002).
Smaller file sizes make the pages load faster. Most Web users navigate a Web site
through search tools or a sitemap rather than scanning the content on the homepage.
Therefore the search utility and sitemap are essential audience tools.
• Information architecture is the hierarchical structure of the Web site, i.e. topic-based
or audience-based, primary navigation and utility navigation methods (Nichani,
2006). Consistency is the basis of a positive user experience. In the university context,
it is difficult to get all its departments, schools and faculties to agree on a common
layout. Hence information architecture helps provide a common guideline and allows
university sub-sites to determine their own content without influencing the user

Universities in the study

In the world of international business and Web sites, English is the dominant language. More
universities in English-speaking countries tend to be sought after by international students. It
is hard to find an international student who does not recognise the high-profiled names like
Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Cambridge or Oxford. Moreover, Asia-Pacific, the fastest growing
economic region with countries such as Japan, China and Singapore, has proved its effective
educational strategy in economic development. So it should be included. Consequently
selected institutions in this paper are the leading institutions from those countries because of
the strong belief that these leading institutions should perform better in terms of their Web

In addition leading business schools were investigated because they generally outperformed
other schools in the same university. Sometimes their reputation was even more popular than
their parent university. Of the 31 institutions sampled, 21 are universities and 10 are business
schools. The disciplines and location of those institutions are presented in table 1.

Table 1: Institutions in this study

Country Discipline
Australian Graduate School of Management [HREF10 ] Australia Business
Columbia Business School [HREF11 ] USA Business
Harvard Business School [HREF12 ] USA Business
Insead [HREF13 ] France/SingaporeBusiness
London Business School [HREF14 ] Britain Business
Melbourne Business School [HREF15 ] Australia Business
New York University: Stern [HREF16 ] USA Business
Stanford Graduate School of Business [HREF17 ] USA Business
The Wharton Business School [HREF18 ] USA Business
University of Chicago Grad School of Business [HREF19
USA Business
Peking University [HREF20 ] China Multidisciplinary
Cambridge University [HREF21 ] Britain Multidisciplinary
Harvard University [HREF22 ] USA Multidisciplinary
Imperial College London [HREF23 ] Britain Multidisciplinary
Massachusetts Institute of Technology [HREF24 ] USA Multidisciplinary
Melbourne University [HREF25 ] Australia Multidisciplinary
Monash University [HREF26 ] Australia Multidisciplinary
National University of Singapore [HREF27 ] Singapore Multidisciplinary
Oxford University [HREF28 ] Britain Multidisciplinary
Phoenix University [HREF29 ] Online Multidisciplinary
Princeton University [HREF30 ] USA Multidisciplinary
Stanford University [HREF31 ] USA Multidisciplinary
The Australian National University [HREF32 ] Australia Multidisciplinary
The University of Adelaide [HREF33 ] Australia Multidisciplinary
The University of Queensland [HREF34 ] Australia Multidisciplinary
The University of Western Australia [HREF35 ] Australia Multidisciplinary
Tokyo University [HREF36 ] Japan Multidisciplinary
University of California, Berkeley [HREF37 ] USA Multidisciplinary
University of New South Wales [HREF38 ] Australia Multidisciplinary
University of Sydney [HREF39 ] Australia Multidisciplinary
California Institute of Technology [HREF40 ] USA Multidisciplinary

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.
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
only universities such as the US based Phoenix University.


These are discussed under the subheadings of Web standards, design, usability, information
architecture and metadata. They refer to what sites were displaying early in 2007. Some sites
will no doubt change by the time this paper is published.

Web standards

Universities adopting Web standards and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) are listed in table 2.

Table 2: List of universities compliant with both XHTML 1.0 and CSS mark-up

Australia The University of Adelaide
The University of Melbourne
Monash University
The University of Western Australia
England Cambridge University
Oxford University
U.S.A. Stanford University

Surprisingly, there are no business schools that are compliant with both XHTML 1.0 and CSS
mark-up. Common mistakes, for which institutions fail XHTML 1.0 validation, include: Use
of inline JavaScript; JavaScript with some characters, such as &&, that are not validated by
an XHTML parser; use of depreciated tags. For example many homepages still use<font> or
some other attribute which has become depreciated in HTML 4.0.


There are 9 institutions applying table-less design in their homepages. Of the 9 institutions,
there are 4 from the U.S.A., 2 from Australia, 1 from England and 1 from Asia. The list of
institutions appears in table 3.

Table 3: List of institutions using table-less structure

Discipline Name
Asia Multidiscipline Tokyo University
Australia Business Melbourne Business School
Multidiscipline The University of Queensland
England Business London Business School
U.S.A. Multidiscipline Princeton University
Multidiscipline Stanford University
Business Stanford Graduate School of Business
Business The University of Chicago – Graduate School of Business

Analysis shows that some 4/10 (40%) business schools and 5/21 (42%) universities apply a
table-less structure. It appears that business schools tend to use table-less design rather than
universities. Because their information architecture is much simpler and less hierarchical than
those of universities, it is more feasible for business schools to redesign their website.
Combining Web standards, CSS and table-less mark-up criteria: Stanford University is the
leading institution that strictly follows these criteria.


Nielsen and Tahir (2002) suggest a usability list for the corporate homepages. A subset of
these has been selected to evaluate the usability of university homepages. They are listed in
table 4.

Table 4: Usability assessments for institutional homepages (Adapted from Nielsen & Tahir,

Metrics Weight Recommended design

Download time 3 At most 10 seconds at the prevalent connection speed for
1 your customers. For modem users, this means a file size of
less than 50 KB. Faster is better
Liquid versus 2 Liquid
frozen layout
Page length 2 One or two full screen is best. No more than three full
screens (currently 1000 to 1600 pixels)
4 Search 2 Provide search. Have it on the homepage. Make it a box
Width of search 2 At least 25 characters, but 30 characters is better
6 Type of search 2 Simple search
Footer navigation 1 Use for ‘footer style’ links such as copyright and contact
7 links info. At most, 7 link across the bottom of the page. A
single line when displayed in the common size of window
8 Sitemap link 2
About the 3 Always include the feature
Contact 2 Provide a link to contact info and call it “Contact Us”
Privacy policy 3 Include one if the site collects data from users and link to
it from the homepage
12 Job openings 2 Include an explicit link on the homepage if recruiting is
important to the university (Otherwise, list jobs under
“About Us’).
13 Animation 2 No
14 Body text size 1 12 points
15 Body text typeface 1 San-serif (Arial or Verdana)

Maximum possible score is 30. Table 5 displays sub-scores and total scores on usability
assessment rating for universities.

Table 5: Usability scores for university homepages

Peking University 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 Australian 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 6 shows the usability of business school homepages.

Table 6: Usability scores of business schools’ homepage

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, there are 6 from the U.S.A., 3 from Australia and 1 from England or
46%, 27% and 20%, correspondingly. 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 Stern) or the search box is too small (less
than 10 characters).
• No or less visible links, “Contact” and “Privacy Policy”.
• Small text size, less than 12 pixels.
• No footer navigation (Columbia Business School and Peking University)
• Broken or invalid links.
They are the typical usability mistakes that institutions should be reviewed as redesigning and
maintaining their Web sites.

Information architecture

If a homepage is well-structured, it is often easy to use. Information architecture is the

blueprint of a Web site. Clear visual information architecture results in a Web page with user-
friendly appearance. Hence the following sections will discuss the information architecture of
institutions’ homepages in order to understand the “Do’s” and “Don’ts” in organising
information in the homepage.

Audience-based and topic-based:

There are two main classifications for top-level Web site 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
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 universities, excluding Australian business schools, follow this combination. In
addition, most Australian-based institutions add ‘International Students’ as a category in the
primary navigation or sub-level, reflecting their internationalised marketing purpose.

Primary navigation

Left-hand rail, links across the top and categories cascading in the middle of the page (or
Yahoo-style) are dominant in primary navigation structures. 16 of the 31 institutions employ
those methods although they are space-consuming. Visual-effect menus using JavaScript,
such as drop-down and fly-out menus, are also popular. There are a 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.

Media & RSS syndication

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

Table 7 Mean value of news and events appeared in institutions’ homepage from this study

Mean number – news items Mean number – events items

Business school 7.8 2.4
University 2.4 0.96
Overall 3.76 1.39

For 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 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.

Marketing effectiveness

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 search engine
HREF41), this variation is significant. The following figure (figure 1) presents the number of
search results with the keyword: 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.

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 inconsistency in the way it
names itself (figure 3).
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. However just a small rephrasing in their metadata keywords
can improve their accessibility, e.g. 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” [HREF42]. Figure 4 displays a sample of
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.


Google PageRank™ [HREF43, HREF44] 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 indicates the significance of the website in the WWW.

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

• 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 [HREF45], Yahoo
[HREF46] or W3C
• Most US and British leading universities are ranked of 9 but the Imperial College
London (8).
• Australasian universities, including Australia Group 8, NUS, Peking and Tokyo, are
ranked of 8, except the University of Adelaide (7).
• Most business schools’ pages are ranked less than those of the universities. The
exceptions are Harvard, Stanford and London Business School (8).

MIT 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’ pages are often ranked less than those of universities since their
academic and teaching scope is less intensive.

Google analytics (GA) [HREF47, HREF48]

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. It is obvious that
institutions recognise the usability and content of their website to improve online marketing

Issues for dual-language websites

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.

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 use an identical layout for their (1) and
(2) but PKY applies totally different layouts for its (1) [HREF49] and (2) [HREF20]. The
NUS arranges its Chinese pages in a subfolder [HREF50]. For example, in NUS, (1) (1.1)
(1.2) etc… are in a directory and (2), (2.1), (2.2) etc… in directories. 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).

Maintaining a dual-language mode for institutions is a traumatic task in this way. As

generating content in English, the Webmaster created an equivalent content (translation) 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 done well 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.

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.

This pilot study provides a brief assessment of university and business school homepages in
the key areas of Web standards, usability and marketing effectiveness. While these are
important clusters of factors they are not the only factors and a host of other minor factors
play a role in making a Web site fully functional and attractive to users. A trend emerging
from successful sites is to employ a combination of industry standard practices in relation to
coding and layout combined with a mix of topic-based and audience-based structure.

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.

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.
Digital Inspiratio (2005) Prevent Google Analytics from tracking your visit. Retrieved 12
-Dec, 2006, from

Monash University. (2004) Search and metadata. Retrieved 13-Jan, 2007, from

Nichani, M. (2006) The Changing Face of University Websites. Retrieved 15-Dec, 2006,

Nielsen, J. & Tahir, M. (2002) Homepage usability: 50 websites deconstructed. Indianapolis,

Ind: New Riders.

Phillipson, G. (2006) Getting Connected, Campus Review, April 11, pp12-13.

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.

Hypertext References
The Higher Education Supplements
Financial Times MBA rankings
Australia Group 8
W3C Validation Service
Cascading Style Sheet Validation Service
Australian Graduate School of Management
Columbia Business School
Harvard Business School
London Business School
Melbourne Business School
New York University: Stern
Stanford Graduate School of Business
The Wharton Business School
University of Chicago Graduate School of Business
Peking University
Cambridge University
Harvard University
Imperial College London
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Melbourne University
Monash University
National University of Singapore
Oxford University
Phoenix University
Princeton University
Stanford University
The Australia National University
The University of Adelaide
The University of Queensland
The University of Western Australia
Tokyo University
University of California, Berkeley
University of New South Wales
University of Sydney
California Institute of Technology
"monash" namespace
Google PageRank™ at Google Technology
Google Page Rank at Wikipedia
Google analytics (GA) at Google
Google analytics (GA) at Wikipedia
Peking University (PKU) Chinese website
National University of Singapore (NUS) Chinese website

Tram Quoc Bao & Allan Ellis © 2007. The authors assign to Southern Cross University and
other educational and non-profit institutions a non-exclusive license to use this document for
personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this
copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to Southern
Cross University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and on CD-ROM
and in printed form with the conference papers and for the document to be published on
mirrors on the World Wide Web.