UK Web Focus

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Guest Post: Lend Me Your Ears Dear University Web Managers!

Posted by Brian Kelly on 26 August 2011

This is a guest blog post by David F. Flanders (JISC Programme Manager responsible for persistent identifiers) and Joss Winn (Project Manager of the ‘Linking You Toolkit’). They ask for your opinions on some potential future work that JISC would like to take forward on behalf of the sector.

Lend Me Your Ears Dear University Web Managers!

JISC is considering future opportunities for innovation funding in collaboration with University Web Service departments who have responsibility for managing the .ac.uk pages of their institutional website. We’d like to make sure that what we are proposing would be of value to the sector and is interesting enough for several of you to consider bidding. Please make your opinion known using the #lncneu  hashtag on Twitter or by adding a comment to this post.

The ‘Linking You’ Project

The University of Lincoln undertook a four month project for JISC called “Linking You“, which surveyed 40 different websites across the .ac.uk domain (ten from each university group) and compared the similarities between the URLs of those websites.  The project found there was a lot of inconsistency in the representation of information for graduates and undergraduates.  However, there were also good conventions that have emerged across the sector and out of all this, the ‘Linking You’ project proposed a common set of URL syntaxes that could be used in principle across multiple corporate institutional websites. Before you get upset and think that we are suggesting you change your current URL structures, you should know that we are not suggesting anything of the sort!  Rather we are suggesting that via a transparent mapping exercise (using 303 or 301 redirects) you can mint all the suggested URLs that the ‘Linking You’ project proposes and then link them to the actual URLs that have grown up as part of your organic system. For example if you use:

http://www.foo.ac.uk/study/undergraduate/courses

You could follow the ‘linking you’ recommendations and mint a new URL that points to the above URL using HTTP code 303 or 301 to:

http://www.foo.ac.uk/courses/
In short, you’re just mapping what we hope will become a common URI structure to your current link architecture, which means you can continue to change and add more links to your architecture (as the organisation changes) and you would just continue to redirect the ‘common’ link as recommend by ‘linking you’ to the underlying link. This process need not affect the design or apparent structure of your website.

Ten Benefits to Institutions

Why should you mint the suggested set of ‘linking you’ URLs for your institution?  We recognise this work of minting and maintaining the redirects would be ‘yet another thing to deal with’ across your complex and growing .ac.uk websites, however we think there is potential value (both in time savings and value add) we could all communally benefit from in considering these URL conventions. Below we list reasons why we think will result if we can get multiple institutions to start adopting this syntax and vocabulary and some simply suggestions for ways of achieving these benefits:

  1. Better SEO: As a sector we can go to Google and say, “Hi we are the University sector and we think you should give priority to these URLs when people are searching for things like courses.”
  2. Management of robot.txt files: If a group of Universities started adopting these URL syntaxes, we could save time and money by generating a common robot.txt for all of us so to use so we don’t have to each write a robot.tx file, this would also make doing analytics across the sector enhanced as we could understand patters of clicking across all .ac.uk websites.
  3. A simple mapping tool: An apache mod_rewrite (or IIS, nginx, etc. equivalent) tool that will do most of this work for you that could be written once and support many!
  4. Improve discovery: Clear human-readable URLs are now integral to browser search and lookup technology and becoming essential if you want to enable ease by a student experiencing your website.
  5. Predictable, consistent, aggregations: It will be easier to build tools on behalf of the entire sector because people will know where to go for the data. See the below reasons (nos. 6, 7 and 8) for immediate experimentation JISC is already undertaking and just think what else could be leveraged if we could bring our data together:
  6. Provision  of  a course catalogue: As many of you know JISC is actively encouraging universities to create XCRI feeds for their courses.  If everyone producing an XCRI feed put it at the following URL http://www.foo.ac.uk/courses/xcri/ we’d lay the groundwork for persistent, structured course data that developers (many of them students) could use to build new and engaging apps and websites that we could all benefit from.
  7. Provision of news feed aggregators: If we all knew where all the corporate news feeds were e.g. http://foo.ac.uk/news/rss we could create a UK University News Aggregation Service where the sector could have their news published on demand, let alone text mining goodness and other filters for highlight key news developments across all higher and further education institutions.
  8. A sector wide directory: Common information such as institutional policies, contact information, news, about, events, etc. could be aggregated into a searchable directory; useful to both the public and HEI data geeks.
  9. Managing your assets: Your .ac.uk addresses can be understood as your ‘virtual real estate’. Adopting a well-formed, widely understood and persistent ‘portfolio’ of core web addresses will help University Web Managers manage these increasingly valuable assets.
  10. Use ‘Cool URLs’: Simple, stable, manageable URLs make sense. They are recommended by the WC3, to make Web Managers’ lives easier and keep users happy, too.

Those are some of the reasons we can think of and we think there are many more if even a little imagination is implied. We’re convinced that if we all worked together as University Web Managers across the UK sector we could achieve more than the sum of our parts by producing this URL structure for each institution.

Feedback

What kind of idea do you think you could achieve by adopting the ‘Linking You’ toolkit?  We’re thinking of funding several short projects to review and standardise the toolkit, put it into practice and then write up the case studies for the sector on how it worked for you and what value you see in doing this work. Are you interested? What are your thoughts on all of this?

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4 Responses to “Guest Post: Lend Me Your Ears Dear University Web Managers!”

  1. Graham Klyne said

    It might be argued that this approach goes against REST/HATEOAS principles, and could encourage development of apps that exploit URI structure. But I also note that the URI template work looks to be getting close to last call. So I suggest that any development along the lines indicated should also define matching URI template files, possibly published themselves via linked data, so applications can navigate the structures without baked-in knowledge of them.

  2. I’m thinking that it’s a neat idea to design a vocab for relating pages to organisations. So you can
    a) use common sensible URLs for common pages (linked in)
    b) use rel in link headers to indicate core pages of a site eg. link rel=’http://purl.org/lyou/contact’ href=’http://www.ecs.soton.ac.uk/contact.html’ / (which means the site of which this page is a part has a contact page, which is….)
    c) use the same vocab, different namespace? to describe the ontological relationship between an organisation and its core web pages, eg
    http://id.southampton.ac.uk/ a aiiso:Institution ;
    foaf:homepage http://www.soton.ac.uk ;
    lyou:contact http://www.soton.ac.uk/contact.html ;
    lyou:map http://www.soton.ac.uk/findingus.html .

    etc.

  3. […] Guest Post: Lend Me Your Ears Dear University Web Managers! […]

  4. […] In a recent guest post on this blog Dave Flanders, JISC Programme Manager, asked readers to Lend Me Your Ears Dear University Web Managers!. The post highlighted the potential benefits which institutions should be able to gain from […]

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