UK Web Focus

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Are University Web Sites in Decline?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 20 October 2011

Are Web Sites In Decline?

Are organisational Web sites in decline? Earlier this year an article suggested that this was the case for an number of well-known companies, such as Coca Cola (“Coca Cola’s website traffic is down more than 40% in just 12 months“). The article cited a study by Webtrends published in March 2011 which revealed that static or declining website traffic is affecting the majority of Fortune 100 web sites, with 68% experiencing negative growth over the past 12 months with a 24% average decrease in unique visitors.

Are we seeing similar trends across University Web sites?

Analysis of Usage Trends for Russell Group Universities

A recent tweet from Martin Hawskey suggested that Google’s Double Click Ad Planner service could be useful in providing usage statistics for University Web sites. This tool has been used to provide a graph of estimated usage of the twenty Russell Group Universities for a period of slightly over a year, from March 2010 to August 2011. The findings are displayed in the following table.

Institution /
Double Click Stats
Graph  Additional Statistics
1 University of Birmingham -
Stats for Birmingham
Unique visitors (estimated cookies)
390K
Unique visitors (users)
260K
Reach
0.0%
Page views
9.1M
Total visits
920K
Avg visits per cookie
2.4
Avg time on site
13:00
2 University of Bristol -
Stats for Bristol
 
Unique visitors (estimated cookies)
160K
Unique visitors (users)
110K
Page views
1.1M
Total visits
270K
Avg visits per cookie
1.6
Avg time on site
6:00
3 University of Cambridge-Stats for Cambridge  
Unique visitors (estimated cookies)
1.3M
Unique visitors (users)
1M
Reach
0.1%
Page views
19M
Total visits
2.4M
Avg visits per cookie
1.8
Avg time on site
10:50
4 Cardiff University -
Stats for Cardiff
 
Unique visitors (estimated cookies)
220K
Unique visitors (users)
150K
Page views
3.9M
Total visits
570K
Avg visits per cookie
2.6
Avg time on site
7:50
5 University of Edinburgh -
Stats for Edinburgh
 
Unique visitors (estimated cookies)
680K
Unique visitors (users)
520K
Page views
13M
Total visits
1.4M
Avg visits per cookie
2.1
Avg time on site
10:50
6 University of Glasgow -
Stats for Glasgow
 
Unique visitors (estimated cookies)
420K
Unique visitors (users)
300K
Page views
6.8M
Total visits
900K
Avg visits per cookie
2.1
Avg time on site
10:40
7 Imperial College -
Stats for Imperial College
 
Unique visitors (estimated cookies)
200K
Unique visitors (users)>
140K
Page views
2.4M
Total visits
310K
Avg visits per cookie
1.6
Avg time on site
8:00
8 King’s College London -
Stats for King’s College London
 
Unique visitors (estimated cookies)
1.3M
Unique visitors (users)
1M
Page views
19M
Total visits
2.4M
Avg visits per cookie
1.8
Avg time on site
10:50
9 University of Leeds -
Stats for Leeds
 
Unique visitors (estimated cookies)
580K
Unique visitors (users)
390K
Page views
15M
Total visits
1.5M
Avg visits per cookie
2.5
Avg time on site
11:40
10 University of Liverpool -
Stats for Liverpool
 
Unique visitors (estimated cookies)
350K
Unique visitors (users)
240K
Reach
0.0%
Page views
8.9M
Total visits
1.1M
Avg visits per cookie
3
Avg time on site
11:50
11 LSE -
Stats for LSE
 
Unique visitors (estimated cookies)
470K
Unique visitors (users)
350K
Page views
5.6M
Total visits
860K
Avg visits per cookie
1.8
Avg time on site
9:40
12 University of Manchester -
Stats for Manchester
 
Unique visitors (estimated cookies)
610K
Unique visitors (users)
430K
Page views
14M
Total visits
1.6M
Avg visits per cookie
2.6
Avg time on site
11:40
13 Newcastle University -
Stats for Newcastle
 
Unique visitors (estimated cookies)
390K
Unique visitors (users)
260K
Page views
6.2M
Total visits
1M
Avg visits per cookie
2.6
Avg time on site
9:50
14 University of Nottingham -
Stats for Nottingham
 
Unique visitors (estimated cookies)
470K
Unique visitors (users)
320K
Page views
13M
Total visits
1.4M
Avg visits per cookie
3.1
Avg time on site
13:00
15 University of Oxford -
Stats for Oxford
 
Unique visitors (estimated cookies)
1.5M
Unique visitors (users)
1.1M
Page views
21M
Total visits
2.7M
Avg visits per cookie
1.9
Avg time on site
9:50
16 Queen’s University Belfast -
Stats for Queen’s University Belfast
 
Unique visitors (estimated cookies)
220K
Unique visitors (users)
140K
Page views
6.7M
Total visits
770K
Avg visits per cookie
3.5
Avg time on site
13:00
17 University of Sheffield -
Stats for Sheffield
 
Unique visitors (estimated cookies)
470K
Unique visitors (users)
320K
Reach
0.0%
Page views
7.4M
Total visits
1.1M
Avg visits per cookie
2.3
Avg time on site
8:00
18 University of Southampton -
Stats for Southampton
 
Unique visitors (estimated cookies)
430K
Unique visitors (users)
290K
Reach
0.0%
Page views
6.6M
Total visits
910K
Avg visits per cookie
2.1
Avg time on site
8:50
19 University College London -
Stats for University College London
 
Unique visitors (estimated cookies)
830K
Unique visitors (users)
560K
Page views
9.9M
Total visits
1.6M
Avg visits per cookie
1.9
Avg time on site
8:40
20 University of Warwick -
Stats for Warwick
 
Unique visitors (estimated cookies)
430K
Unique visitors (users)
320K
Page views
6.8M
Total visits
980K
Avg visits per cookie
2.3
Avg time on site
7:50

It should be noted that, as described on an Ad Planner help pageinformation from a variety of sources including anonymized, aggregated Google Toolbar data from users who have opted in to enhanced features, publisher opt-in anonymous Google Analytics data, opt-in external consumer panel data, and other third-party market research“.

Using Google Trends To Make Comparisons

In order to see if the findings were reproducible using other tools the Google Trends service was also used. The findings are depicted below, with trends since late 2008 being shown in groups of five institutions.

Trends across Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, Edinburgh and Southampton

Trends across Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow and Imperial College

Trends across KCL, Leeds, Liverpool, LSE and Manchester

Trends across Newcastle, Nottingham, Queen’s University Belfast, Sheffield and Warwick

It can be seen from these comparisons that similar trends are taking place across all twenty Russell Group Universities, with the possible exception of Warwick University, which did not see a drop in usage in 2009, although after this its usage patterns followed that of the other institutions.

It should be noted that the Google Trends site does give the warning that  “several approximations are used when computing these results” and gives the warning that “All traffic statistics are estimates“. The site goes on to add that “The data Trends produces may contain inaccuracies for a number of reasons, including data-sampling issues and a variety of approximations that are used to compute results” and gives the warning that “you probably wouldn’t want to write your Ph.D. dissertation based on the information provided by Trends“!  So perhaps it would be inappropriate to make policy decisions based on this data. But if no addition data is available, how else can be make evidence-based policy decisions?  And as described in a post on “University Web Sites Cost Money!” we know that the Daily Telegraph has a record of publishing an article entitled “Universities spending millions on websites which students rate as inadequate“ based on flawed interpretation of statistics gathered using Freedom of Information requests.  Unless and until universities are willing to openly publish Web site usage statistics we need to be prepared to accept that alternative metrics may well be used.

University adoption of social mediaSummary

Whilst the evidence is suggesting that we are seeing a slight decrease in the amount of traffic to institutional Web sites for Russell Group Universities, there is additional evidence which suggests that the same group of twenty UK Universities are seeing increased activity across the institutions’ Facebook sites.

As summarised in a recent post entitled Is It Time To Ditch Facebook, When There’s Half a Million Fans Across Russell Group Universities?   “in a period of nine months we have seen an increase in the number of ‘likes’ for the twenty UK Russell Group Universities of over 274,000 users or almost 100% with the largest increase, of over 155,000 occurring at the University of Oxford“. The post goes on to describe how are “seeing a huge increase in the number of Facebook ‘likes’ with all of the institutions seeing a growth of between 33% and 345%“.

The findings from the declining usage of institutional Web sites could be used to question the importance of those working in institutional Web teams. However the evidence from Facebook suggests that certain services initially provided on institutional Web sites seem to have migrated to popular social web services – and clearly there will be a need to manage the content and interactions with potential students wherever such interactions take place. For example a couple of day ago a post on Mashable described 7 Ways Universities Are Using Facebook as a Marketing Tool which included providing virtual tours; demonstrating pride in the institution; marketing ‘shwag‘; supporting alumni activities; sharing departmental; content; reaching out to potential students and exploiting geo-location services – all activities which will require institutional support.

The importance of social web across higher education has also been identified in an infograph which was launched in August 2011 in a post entitled “How colleges and universities have embraced social media” on the US-based Schools.com service (and embedded in this post).

This article suggests that the US higher education system seemed initially reluctant to embrace social media:

Universities are often at the forefront of intellectual thought, but they have been known to lag behind the rest of society when it comes to learning and adopting new technologies. Such has certainly been the case with social media technologies. In fact, so reluctant were universities to adopt social media on campus that in 2007, only about half of colleges reported social media usage.

but have recently recognised the benefits which can be gained:

According to a recent report from the University of Massachusetts, however, colleges have finally caught on; in 2011, 100% of universities are using at least one form of social media–and they are reporting that it’s now an important and successful piece of their outreach efforts. Check out the below infographic to learn more about how colleges have been slowly going social.

The Mashable blog is in agreement with these views of the current importance of social media to US Universities. A post entitled 6 Best Practices for Universities Embracing Social Media suggests that:

For universities, deciding to use social media is a no-brainer. The 18- to 24-year-old college student demographic is all over the social web, and its younger counterpart (the high school crowd) is equally immersed.

and goes on to describe how:

Already, many schools have leveraged social media in a big way. In fact, a recent study showed that an astounding 100% of universities have a social media presence. From luring in potential new students with admissions blogs and creative use of location-based services like SCVNGR, to keeping alumni engaged via dynamic, content-rich Facebook and Ning communities, to informing students about campus offerings through Twitter feeds and YouTube videos, it’s clear that universities recognize the importance of social media.

But in addition to the popularity of Social Web sites, another possible reason for the lack of growth in usage of institutional Web site may be a consequence of the difficulties in navigating such sites on mobile devices. In the US a Read/Write Web article informs use that “7% of U.S. [is] Web Traffic From Handheld Devices“. How many institutional Web sites provide easy-to-use interfaces on mobile devices, I wonder?

Implications

There is a danger that the evidence of decline in traffic to institutional Web sites could be used to justify cuts in levels of funding for institutional Web teams.  However additional evidence suggests that users may be simply making use of alternative sources of information and interactions or may be using mobile devices which may provide cumbersome experiences when accessing sites which have not been configured to provide optimal interfaces when using small screens, no mouse interface and other characteristics of mobile devices.

I think it would therefore be a mistake to argue that there is a decrease in interest in or relevance of online services which may initially have been provided on institutional Web sites. Rather I feel we are seeing a move towards a variety of cloud-based services.  The high-profile services may include Facebook together with social media sharing services such as YouTube and iTunes (for which usage across Russell Group universities has been documented in posts on How is the UK HE Sector Using YouTube? and What are UK Universities doing with iTunes U?). But in addition we are also seeing policy and funding decisions being made by funding bodies such as HEFCE which will see a move towards cloud-based services which will be more closely-aligned with the requirements of the UK’s higher education sector, with the migration of the Jorum service from a project to a service role providing a good example of how key online services traditional hosted within the institutional may be more cost-effective if hosted externally but developed with the needs on institutions in mind.

How should the evidence, such as the examples I’ve listed in this post, be used to inform institutional policies, I wonder? And might there be a need to make changes to existing Web team structures, if responsibilities for managing institutional Web sites are separate from managing content and interactions hosted outside the institution?

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15 Responses to “Are University Web Sites in Decline?”

  1. Les Carr said

    Why the heck would anyone go to the coca-cola website in the first place? Are they trying to identify a regional stockist? Or do they feel in need of technical support because their beverage isn’t working?

  2. Mike Nolan said

    For Edge Hill University for the period from A Level results day to today we’re up about 5% on the equivalent period in 2010 and up over 20% on that period in 2009. That’s using Google Analytics counting offsite traffic only. If you count on site traffic then we’re up 35% over the last few years. Our website has never been more popular.

    • Many thanks for the information. An advantage with the approach described in the post is that neutral comparisons can be made in order to observe trends across a sector. However, as I said in the post, the methodology used by the Google services may be flawed. It would be useful to have a server-0side comparison of usage statistics in order to gather evidence which can be used to inform policy decisions. I wonder if it would be timely to see if we can revive the Sector stats comparisons which were carried out in 2006?

  3. What about the affects of increasingly straightforward do not track browser options, and the new legal requirement (as I understand it) to ask permission for tracking cookies (which is going to affect Google Analytics in more than one way)? I suspect that there are many different factors and patterns, and Google’s warnings are to be taken seriously.

    What might also be useful is a comparison of statistical methods, such as Google Analytics versus web server statistics for the same website over the same period.

  4. The statistics for us (Warwick) don’t reflect what we’re seeing through both Google Analytics and our access logs. Our hit logs (that include files that don’t go through Google Analytics) show a 35% increase on this academic year (over the first two weeks) vs. last year, and we have seen anecdotal evidence that supports this (including a few embarrassing capacity issues on some services).

    In terms of Google Analytics, we see a smaller increase (something around 10%) but this is still an increase – I am a little concerned about the quality of the data that these assumptions are being made on.

  5. Dan said

    Yep, like Edge Hill & Warwick, our (City University London) analytics don’t appear to correlate with Google’s adplanner unique visitor stats. I suspect that users are continuing to use institutional websites in the same (or greater) numbers, while naturally making use of other online channels of communication.

  6. Hi Brian,

    From my analysis I would have to agree with all above and say there is no evidence of website decline, if anything the reverse- we are looking at over 10 universities in the last sector statistics and over 25 in the next lot.

    I would have to agree with Matt about the data. There is many ways universities are changing their web space which could lead to these changes. Websites are becoming more “tighter’ with branding and areas that previously were considered part of the university “online estate” are no longer seen as such- university are constantly looking at cutting back legacy pages.

    Also on a basic level, as google trends is automated it could simply be a naming convention with would lead data in or out of the reporting one example that springs straight to mind is:

    http://www.myuniversity/businessschool is in, whilst http://www.businesschool.myuniversity is out.

    In my experience unless we look at data in depth and check it we really cannot be confident in the findings, but a great debate to start up Brian !!!

  7. Thanks for the various comments.

    I’ve received some email on this subject which suggests that content is being hosted outside the institution:

    a lot of ‘research’ content on our corporate website (academic staff profiles, publication lists etc) is being transfered to a web-enabled database hosted off-site

    but which also describes how changes to the Web infrastructure may improve the end user experience whilst resulting in an apparent decline in usage:

    We’re moving to a “more info per page” and the info being drawn via internal calls to back end services – so the outcome is that the stats for all those web services calls are not recorded in the normal places (if at all) and so “ordinary” http based stats from the externally visible servers do not reflect the actual overall web activity.

    It seems to me that use of the two Google services I mentioned may not provide accurate indicators of changes in Web site usage in a situation in which there are significant technical changes in the back end technologies – unlike, perhaps, the case for marketing-oriented commercial sites. However there will be a need to be able to understand changes in usage patterns across the sector. Perhaps Universities should be taking a lead in opening up access to their usage data so that there won’t be a requirement to make use of third party services?

  8. lescarr said

    An interesting and complex question. I can say that the overall visits to our school’s web pages are down 5.8% between AY 2009 and 2010, however the figure for “new visits” is up 22%. Pageviews of the home page are down 33% but up 6.6% on our undergraduate admissions pages.

    According to Google, in the same period pageviews are down 15.6% for our repository (gasp!) but according to us, downloads of the PDFs (not measured by Google) are UP 6.7%.

    Make of those figures what you will!

  9. Note that I should add that the data I’ve collated cover all domains for each institution, and not just the main Web site. For Birmingham University, for example, the figures include the following additional domains (with the numbers of unique visitors over a month shown):

    my.bham.ac.uk (71K), cs.bham.ac.uk (36K), medweb.bham.ac.uk (17K), as.bham.ac.uk (17K), shibbolethidp.bham.ac.uk (9.3K), dentistry.bham.ac.uk (8.6K) and etheses.bham.ac.uk (8.5K)

    The differences betweens the trends described in this post and the Google Analytics trends which have been documented in the comments to this post could possible reflect changes in University sub-domains.

  10. [...] Are University Web Sites in Decline? [...]

  11. There’s possibly more than a grain of truth in the famous XKCD diagram on this:

    http://xkcd.com/773/

  12. I was going to wonder about the impact of 3rd party contact tools like social networking. A number of regular readers of my blog posts access them via NetworkedBlogs (and access that tool via Facebook). How does that translate in terms of regular visitors, eyeballs on sidebars, etc?

    But reading through the comments, I have to think that the premise is wrong – website usage is not declining, it’s just being less accurately reported through Ad Planner.

  13. [...] Are University Web Sites in Decline? [...]

  14. […] will be very relevant. This is a trend I first observed in 2011 and described in a post which asked Are University Web Sites in Decline? At the time I […]

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