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Archive for February, 2012

Are Attitudes Towards Privacy Changing?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 29 February 2012

 

Liz Lyon, UKOLN Director, recently gave a talk on “The Informatics Transform: Re-engineering Libraries for the Data Decade” at the VALA 2012 conference held in Melbourne, Australia.

The abstract for the talk describes how:

This talk will present a case for a new and transformative library paradigm which delivers innovative informatics services to support data-intensive research. It will draw on cutting-edge exemplars from open data initiatives, public participation and citizen science, socio-ethical challenges with personal data, policy drivers, emergent scholarly communications and research impact metrics /tools, all of which are radically changing the research landscape. The presentation will explore how libraries can respond to these challenges with novel informatics services, new data support roles and pioneering strategic partnerships.

I was particularly interested in the “socio-ethical challenges with personal data” address in the talk. In the talk (and note that a recording of the talk is available) Liz described how a genome kit can be purchased for $99 (or, I discovered, from £59 in the UK).

It seems there are a number of DNA tests which can be carried out including paternity tests, forensic tests and ancestry tests. The DNA ancestry test enables you to:

Discover your deep ancestral roots using genetic genealogy. Find out where your ancestors came from, discover their ethnic background, and trace the roots of your surname.

If you order the test:

Your collection kit will have everything that you need to collect a DNA sample from inside your mouth. It’s fast, painless and simple and very similar to brushing your teeth. The entire process takes just seconds to complete. 

Does that seem appealing or does it fill you with horror? Do you really want to discover such information which would never have been previously available? And although your personal information may be confidential, will anonymised  findings be aggregated to reveal patterns of Viking ancestry around the UK?

In her talk Liz remarked on the privacy implications of such technical developments. Liz went on to report on a Nature survey which, as illustrated below, showed that “Nature readers flirt with personal genomics“. As described in the article:

Nature readers are eager to adopt these new technologies. About 18% report having had their genomes analysed in some way, ranging from whole-genome sequencing (about 10 respondents, after correcting for reporting errors) to direct-to-consumer tests. Of the remainder, 66% say they would have their genome sequenced or analysed if the opportunity arose.

I do wonder whether we are starting to see significantly changing attitudes developing towards privacy issues as technology drives developments not only for genome analyses but also, and more relevant to this blog, revelation of private information whether directly or, through aggregation of data, indirectly?

It seems to me that the forthcoming ‘cookie’ legislation will help to gain an understanding of the general public’s concerns over privacy issues. Those who developed the EU cookie directives felt it was important to ensure that users of web sites are made aware of personal information which is stored in cookies. But cookies have been with us since 1994. What if the cookie legislation, and the requirement for users to opt-in to cookies, results in a backlash, with people wishing to go back to the simplicity of today’s environment in which cookies are invisible to most people. It will be interesting to see how users will respond. And I should add that I’m saying this as someone who has a Facebook account and who, several years ago, installed the a Firefox plugin which enables me to block cookies – but has never done so. Indeed using the plugin for the first time in ages I notice that there are currently 18 cookies set. Am I bothered? The answer is no. Should I be? You tell me. Do you block cookies?

Posted in Legal | Tagged: , | 5 Comments »

Revisiting the Management of Disruptive Technologies Six Years On

Posted by Brian Kelly on 24 February 2012

Looking Back

Exactly six years ago today, on Friday 24th February 2006 myself and John Heap (from Leeds Metropolitan University and, at the time, a UCISA committee member) organised a joint workshop at Warwick University on “Initiatives & Innovation: Managing Disruptive Technologies“. The abstract for the event is described how:

Computing, IT and Learning Technology Services within HE institutions must maintain reliable, stable, high availability services whilst undertaking development work on new systems, applications and technologies. All this is done within a framework of new opportunities, and occasionally new constraints, provided by national and regional managed initiatives and development projects.

Additionally, as technology is increasingly used in the direct support of teaching and learning, new ideas and technologies arise not from the Computing Service itself, but from academic staff who, understandably, want maximum flexibility in their ability to introduce and exploit new technologies.

This workshop will explore the issues involved in managing these potentially disruptive technologies and will work towards a framework that can be used to balance the demands for innovation and constant development with the need for stability and security.

The following definitions of disruptive technologies were provided:

The Free Online Dictionary defines disruptive technology as: “A new technology that has a serious impact on the status quo and changes the way people have been dealing with something, perhaps for decades. Music CDs all but wiped out the phonograph industry within a few years, and digital cameras are destined to eliminate the film industry. The most disruptive technologies in history have been the telephone, the computer (and all of its offshoots) and the Internet.

Another definition from Christian Brothers University defines disruptive technology as: “Technologies that enable the breaking of long-held business rules that inhibit organizations from making radical business changes”.

It is interesting looking at the objectives for the event, which aimed to ensure that the workshop participants:

  • Gained an understanding of JISC’s E-Framework strategy and the role of SOA (Service Oriented Architecture) in JISC-funded development activities.
  • Had an opportunity to discuss the implications of the E-Framework for institutional IT Service departments.
  • Learnt about the potential to support teaching and learning and research of a variety of Internet technologies such as instant messaging, Blogs, Wikis, Skype, etc.
  • Discussed some of the potential difficulties in providing, maintaining and supporting such technologies.
  • Explored approaches to reconciling the tensions between the user community’s desires to make use of such technologies and the difficulties in satisfying such requests.

“IT Services: Help or Hindrance?”

It was around this time, which coincided with the height of Little Britain’s popularity, that I made use of the catchphrase “Computer Says No” to point out the popular stereotype of IT Service departments, which we also saw in the IT Crowd. Interestingly it seems that Little Britain also had a following in the US, with Michael Stephens noticing a presentation I gave and writing a blog post which featured the accompanying image.

At the UCISA Management Conference 2006 I posed the, somewhat provocative, question “IT Services: Help Or Hindrance?” in which I raised concerns which I had previously described in a paper on IT Services – Help Or Hindrance To National IT Development Programmes?. As described in the abstract for the paper:

There is a danger that development work, including development funded by national and international funding programmes, can be hindered by institutional IT services departments. However IT services may feel that developers fail to understand the security, performance and support issues which deployment of applications is likely to entail.

Around that time there were concerns over the provision of instant messaging clients, such as MSN Messenger, for student use. Such applications were, some IT staff suggested, only used for trivial purposes. The arguments for blocking access to Skype covered both performance issues (“Skype can turn PCs  into a ‘Supernode’ and consume bandwidth“), ideological (?) (“Skype uses a proprietary standard – we should only provide access to SIP-compliant Internet teleph0ny applications“) and policy (“Use of Skype contravenes the JANET AUP so we can’t use it“). The arguments concerns regarding provision of blogs and wikis tended to relate to concerns about inappropriate content being published and the associated difficulties in managing the content and the legal and reputational risks.

How Have Things Changed?

How have things changed over the past six years?

Some of the specific concerns I listed above are now, surely, no longer an issue. The value provided by Skype to the sector has, I feel, been accepted and although SIP-compliant VoIP services may be used as part of an institution’s telephony infrastructure on the desktop (and, indeed, on mobile phones) Skype probably is the safe mainstream option.

Similarly the desire to block access to instant messaging services probably became untenable once web-based client became popular, as well as many instant messaging facilities in a host of other applications: it seems strange when editing a collaborative document in Google Docs and having realtime chat with co-authors that at one time such activities were regarded as trivial.

As to whether IT Services should provide access to blogs, with the associated risks related to the lack of formal editorial control processes, the arguments for the need to control use of such applications became marginalised as academic, researchers and, indeed, IT Service staff themselves, started to make use of cloud-based solutions such as WordPress.com and Blogspot.com. On 17 October 2007, for example, Christine Sexton, IT Services Director at the University of Sheffield launched her blog on Blogspot published 62 posts in the remainder of the year and 208 in 2008, heralding the first generation of senior managers in IT Services who were willing to make use of blogs. And as well as use of third party blog platforms by those who wanted to exploit the potential of blogs to support their professional activities, we also saw institutions starting to install, and in some cases, develop blog platforms hosted within the institution. The lead in this area was taken by the University of Warwick Blogbuilder platform. Interestingly although people have been known to swear on their blog posts, the world hasn’t collapsed and there are now 8,311 blogs, 160,810 entries, 27,497 tags, 217,208 comments and 119925 images!

Have we then seen over the past six years “[Disruptive] Technologies that enable the breaking of long-held business rules that inhibit organizations from making radical business changes” which have transformed of the education business – the role of IT Service departments? I don’t really feel that this is the case. Rather we have seen IT Services (in higher education – this is not necessarily the case in schools or across other public sector organisations) IT Services becoming more flexible and more user-focussed in their approaches. In part this is due to the leadership shown by senior managers such as Chris Sexton (who, in 2010 when she was also UCISA chair managed to published 162 blog posts). But, ironically, to an extent we also have the financial crisis to thank for the culture change we are seeing, with a realisation that at a time of reductions in funding and opportunities provided by cloud services (especially those which are free to use) that the priority should be to support the needs of the user community. So I’m prepared to acknowledge the (unforeseen) benefits which the international banking sector helped to instigate :-)

But I’d be interested in your views on changes in the provision and support of IT across the sector over the past six years. Do you agree with my view that things have improved or would you prefer to go back to the way we were?

Posted in Events, General | 1 Comment »

Institutional Use of Social Media In Europe

Posted by Brian Kelly on 22 February 2012

A recent series of blog referrer links from a post entitled entitled “Rànquing d’universitats i estructures de recerca de Catalunya a les xarxes socials” brought my attention to a number of benchmarking surveys of use of social media in higher educational institutions outside the UK.

The blog post — which can be read in an automatically translated English version if you do not understand the Catalan language :-) — describes how:

The presence of social networks and academic institutions doing research is increasingly consolidated. Realizing the importance of this fact, I thought it might be useful to show what institutions are visible to the networks and to what degree.

The blog post provides a summary of use of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube in the seven public universities (and a number of research organisations) in Catalonia. The findings are shown in the accompanying image (and note that the original was an image rather than a table).  The findings can be compared with the findings for Institutional Use of Twitter by Russell Group Universities, carried out in January 2011 from which we found a much greater diversity on the number of followers, which ranged from 965 to over 12,000 and Use of Facebook by Russell Group Universities also carried out in January 2011 for which the number of ‘likes’ ranged for 977 to over 137,000. The much greater popularity of Twitter and Facebook in the UK is perhaps not surprising, as such US inventions are likely to have an impact initially in the English-speaking world, but it is interesting to notice the much greater variation within the UK.

The article provides a link to a post summarising use of Twitter in French universities for which the findings are shown in the following table. This table also shows that Twitter is more popular across many, although not all, Russell Group universities.

No. Name of Institution
(and link to Twitter account)
Nos. of Twitter
followers
1 Université de Nantes 2,817
2 Université Claude Bernard – Lyon 1 2,191
3 Université de Lille 1 2,125
4 Université Pierre et Marie Curie 2,103
5 Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3 1,762
6 Université Panthéon-Sorbonne – Paris 1 1,649
7 Université Lumière Lyon 2 1,648
8 Université d’Avignon et des Pays de Vaucluse 1,632
9 Université de Lille 3 1,530
10 Université de Rennes 1 1,515

A similar survey, which was also published in January 2012, provides details of the ten most popular Facebook pages for French Universities.

No. Name of Institution
(and link to Facebook page)
Nos. of
Facebook
Likes
1 Université Lumière Lyon 2 8,775
2 Université Paris Sorbonne – Paris 4 6,797
3 Université Pierre et Marie Curie 6,763
4 Université Claude Bernard – Lyon 1 6,304
5 Université d’Auvergne – Clermont-Ferrand 1 5,456
6 Université Paris-Est Créteil (UPEC) 4,774
7 Université Paul Valéry – Montpellier 3 4,745
8 Université Panthéon-Assas – Paris 2 4,509
9 Université Paris 1 – Panthéon Sorbonne 4,325
10 UVSQ 4,307

The automated translation of this page provides the ‘paradata’ for the survey:

  • This ranking takes into account the number of “gross” of fans at the time of measurement
  • we do not weighted by the number of students in the school.
  • only the “official pages” are taken into account (or group or community pages …)

The article also provides a graph showing growth in the Facebook communities from October 20010 to January 2012.

Back in September 2011 I wrote a post entitled Bath is the University of the Year! But What if Online Metrics Were Included? In the post I whether since University league tables such as those provided by the Sunday Times and the Times Higher Education based on teaching and learning and research activities are well-established, in light of the acceptance of  the importance of the online environment in university activities  might we expect online metrics to be included in future surveys.

In light of these surveys across Catalonian and French universities I now wonder if  a future equivalent of  The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2010-2011 will include metrics for institutional engagement with social media services?

 

Posted in Social Web | 4 Comments »

Next Steps In Addressing Forthcoming Cookie Legislation

Posted by Brian Kelly on 20 February 2012

The Forthcoming Cookie Legislation

We all need our privacy!

On 26 May 2011 I asked How Should UK Universities Respond to EU Cookie Legislation? The post was published the day before UK government legislation based on the EU Directive requiring users to opt-in to cookie use was due to come into force. However in light of the government’s awareness of the difficulties in conforming with the legislation, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) announced that UK websites were to be being given one year to comply with EU cookie law. But May 2012 is now only three months away, so how are UK Universities responding?

As described in a post on The Half Term Report on Cookie Compliance in December 2011 the ICO published a new set of Guidelines on the Rules on use of Cookies and Similar Technologies (available in PDF format) which seemed to appreciate the difficulties which institutions may face in implementing policies and practices which conform with legal requirements (“The Information Commissioner will take a practical and proportionate approach to enforcing the rules on cookies. He has to enforce the law, but he does have some discretion in how he exercises his formal enforcement powers“), but made it clear of the importance of making web site visitors aware of reasons why personal information is being gathered and used: “A key point here is ensuring that the information you provide is not just clear and comprehensive but also readily available“.

One of the key challenges will be in developing policy statements regarding information which is gathered and stored in cookies.

Learning from Current Practices

Back in May 2011 a survey of cookie use across the twenty Russell Group universities was carried out and the findings published in a post on Privacy Settings For UK Russell Group University Home Pages. Subsequently staff working in institutional web teams across the wider UK higher education sector were invited to provide links to their privacy policies in a Google spreadsheet. The following table provides links to privacy policies and statements based on the information available from the spreadsheet.

No. Institution Privacy Policy
1 Aberdeen Privacy statement
2 Aberystwyth Terms and Conditions
 3 Bath Privacy
 4 Bath Spa Website Terms and Conditions of Use
 5 Birmingham Privacy
 6 Bristol Privacy and cookie policy
 7 Cambridge Privacy policies for services
 8 Cardiff Privacy Policy
 9 Cranfield Cranfield University Privacy Policy
10 Edge Hill Privacy Statement
11 Edinburgh Website privacy policy
12 Glasgow Privacy statement
13 KCL Privacy statement
14 Leeds Privacy statement
15 Liverpool Personal information on the web
16 LSE Privacy and data protection
17 Manchester Privacy
18 Nottingham Privacy
19 Oxford Privacy Policy
20 Sheffield Privacy Policy
21 Sheffield Hallam Privacy Policy
22 Staffordshire Protecting Privacy on Data Transmission over the Internet
23 UCL Privacy
24 Warwick Website terms and Conditions
25 York Legal Statements

The links aim to make it easy for people wishing to see the approaches taken by others within the sector to see the approaches which are being taken.

Sharing Practices

In addition to the passive process of seeing what others are doing and making use of approaches which appear useful it can be more useful to collaboratively engage in the development of public privacy statements, such as those listed above, as well as discussions about important issues including approaches to auditing cookie use on web sites; ongoing auditing processes; policies for web sites which are not under the control of a central web team and the internal processes for developing policies and procedures, including reaching agreement on the institution’s willingness to take risks if it is not possibly to conform with the letter of the legislation.

Claire Gibbons, the Senior Web and Marketing Manager at the University of Bradford, has had responsibility for the development of the privacy policy at her host institution. As described in a recent blog post about a north east regional web meeting Claire:

shared our experience in terms of doing an audit of what cookies we have and presenting an updated privacy policy to our Information, Infrastructure, Access and Security group who actually signed it off. However, after subsequent conversations with colleagues and reading up a bit more I think we need to some more work here to go beyond the ‘corporate web’ or at least point out that our Privacy policy covers www.bradford.ac.uk and anything on another domain isn’t covered by this policy.

Claire subsequently made her draft cookie policy available as a resource which can be used and commented on by others.  The draft cookie policy has been uploaded to JISCPress, with references to Bradford University removed to facilitate its use by others. Claire has made use of JISCPress’s commenting facilities to annotate the document, and is now inviting comments from her peers across the sector.

Feedback can be provided on the JISCPress site or on this blog.

Posted in Legal | 3 Comments »

Risk Register for Blogs

Posted by Brian Kelly on 17 February 2012

 

Bloggers’ Squabble Involves Lawyers

RisksAn article published in the Guardian the week before Christmas announced “Hacked climate emails: police seize computers at West Yorkshire home” and went on to describe how “Police officers investigating the theft of thousands of private emails between climate scientists from a University of East Anglia server in 2009 have seized computer equipment belonging to a web content editor based at the University of Leeds“. It seems that “detectives from Norfolk Constabulary entered the home of Roger Tattersall, who writes a climate sceptic blog under the pseudonym TallBloke, and took away two laptops and a broadband router“.

But rather than comment on a climate denier’s blog of more interest was Tattersall’s post regarding Greg Laden: Libellous article which describes how “Blogger Greg Laden has libelled me [Tattersall] in a scurrilous article on his blog“. In brief, Greg Laden appears to have accused Roger Tattersall of illegal activities. However being a climate denier is not illegal and Laden seems to have opened himself up to accusations of libel. He seems to have realised this and has updated his post so that it now begins:

I’ve decided to update this blog entry (20 Dec 2011) because it occurs to me that certain things could be misinterpreted, in no small part because of the common language that separates us across various national borders, and differences in the way debate and concepts of free speech operate in different lands.

I want to make it clear that I do not think that the blogger “TallBloke” a.k.a. Roger Tattersall has broken British law

I hope that will be the end of that matter, but it does highlight some additional legal risks related to publishing a blog, beyond the issue of the cookie legislation which was discussed in a recent post. This incident highlights possible reputational risks for an organisation which employs a blogger (even if, as in this case, the blog is published anonymously and is not related to work activities) and risks that impassioned debate may lead to libellous comments being posted.

Managing risksA Risk Register For Blogs

There may be dangers that risk averse institutions may use such incidents as an opportunity to restrict or even ban blogs provided by their staff. In order to minimise such risks it may be advantageous to take a lead in providing a risk register which documents possible risks and ways in which such risks may be minimised.

I am in the process of providing a risk register and the draft is given below. I welcome feedback on the risks listed below and the approaches described to minimising the risks. In addition I would welcome suggestions for additional risks which I may have failed to address = and suggestions for how such unforeseen risks can be minimised.

Risk Description Risk Minimisation
Legal Risks
Infringement of ‘cookie’ legislation Since the WordPress.com service uses cookies to measure Web site usage, this may be regarded as infringing the ICO’s ‘cookie’ legislation. The ICO’s guidance suggests that due to the technical difficulties in requiring users to opt-in, they will be unlikely to take further action, provided appropriate measures to address privacy concerns are being taken. In the case of this blog, a sidebar widget provides information on cookie usage.
Publication of copyrighted materials Blog posts may contain copyrighted materials owned by others. Images, such as screen shots, may be included without formal permission being granted. Where possible, links will be provided to the source. If copyright owners feel that use of their materials is inappropriate, the content will be removed normally within a period of a week.
Plagiarism Blog posts may plagiarise content published by others. Where possible links will be provided to content published by others and quoted content will be clearly identified.
Publication of inappropriate comments. Inappropriate blog comments may be published. The policy for this blog states that inappropriate comments will be deleted.
Sustainability Risks
Loss of content due to changes in WordPress.com policies. WordPress.com may change its policies on content which can be hosted. Alternatively since the service is based in the US the US Government may force content published on this blog to be removed. Since this blog has a technical focus, it is felt unlikely that this will happen.
Loss of blog service due to WordPress.com service being unsustainable. The WordPress.com service may go out of business or change its terms and conditions so that the blog cannot continue to be hosted on the service. It is felt unlikely that the WordPress.com service will go out of business in the short term. If the service does go out of business or changes in terms and conditions it is felt that due notice will be given which will allow content to be exported and the blog hosted elsewhere.
Reputational Risks
Damage to blog author’s reputation due to inappropriate posts being published. The author’s professional reputation will be undermined in inappropriate posts are published. The blog’s policy states that “the blog will provide an opportunity for me to ‘think out loud': i.e. describe speculative ideas, thoughts which may occur to me“. If such thoughts are felt to be inappropriate or if incorrect or inappropriate content is published an apology will be given.
Damage to blog author’s host institution or funder due to inappropriate posts being published. The reputation of the author’s host institution or funder will be undermined in inappropriate posts are published. The author will seek to ensure that the conversational style of the blog does not undermine the position of the author’s host institution or funder. Occasional surveys will be undertaken to ensure that the content provided on the blog is felt to be relevant for the blog’s target audience.

Twitter conversation from Topsy: [View]

Posted in Blog, Legal, Web2.0 | 3 Comments »

My Trusted Social Librarian

Posted by Brian Kelly on 16 February 2012

I’ve mentioned recently how I use the Smartr app on  my iPod Touch to view the content of links which have been tweeted.  I have set up a number of Twitter lists, such as my JISC list, which enables me to view the content of links posted from such official accounts but I tend to prefer the serendipity of reading content posted by people I follow generally on Twitter or particular groupings, such as attendee at events.

I tend to download new content in Smartr in the morning while I am waiting for the bus (using a neighbour’s WiFi which I can legitimately access using BTFON). This then provides me with timely content to read on the bus travelling to work.

This morning I noticed that several of the interesting links which were being posted had been tweeted by @aarontay. This may be because Aaron works at the National Library of Singapore so that when I am getting up it is the middle of the afternoon for Aaron. He is therefore more likely to be using Twitter to share resources of interest while colleagues in the UK will be describing what we had for breakfast! However this is only partly the case – I also find that Aaron’s Musings about Librarianship blog is valuable reading.

In light of Aaron’s proven track record in creating useful content and sharing links to content provided by others it occurred to me that it might be useful to create a Twitter list containing just Aaron’s Twitter account so that I would be able to easily see the content of links which Aaron has shared and read then, even when I am offline.

As can be seen from the accompanying image I am now able to view the content using Smartr. It occurred to me that this is an example of how a trusted librarian contact can provide a ‘frictionless’ presence in social media. Tony Hirst wrote about this recently in a post entitled Invisible Library Support – Now You Can’t Afford Not to be Social? which followed up on ideas previously described in a post which asked Could Librarians Be Influential Friends?

In his post Tony wondered:

whether it made sense for librarians and other folk involved with providing support relating to resource discovery and recommendation to start a) creating social network profiles and encouraging their patrons to friend them, and b) start recommending resources using those profiles in order to start influencing the ordering/ranking of results in patrons’ search results based on those personal recommendations“.

Coincidentally earlier today I was looking for blog posts about the VALA 2012 conference which UKOLN Director Liz Lyon had spoken at recently. As illustrated my Google search provided a link which Aaron had recently shared on Friendfeed. My trusted librarian contact is helping me to find resources which may be of interest to me on Google as well as Twitter.

Last year Aaron richly deserved to win a Library Mover and Shaker award. Although I’ve never met Aaron we have spoken on Skype and had discussions on Twitter and via our blogs. I’m pleased that recent technological developments are now enabling me to gain value form the resources which Aaron is ‘frictionlessly’ sharing on services such as Twitter and Friendfeed. Who are the other librarians I should also follow in order to ensure that I can keep up to date with new developments, I wonder? Or to put it another way, I have found one intelligent agent who searches the web and finds content of interest to me. I’d like another one please!

Posted in Social Web, Twitter | 5 Comments »

Will Cookie Legislation Mean That Ads Will Become Prevalent?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 14 February 2012

Today I launched Firefox for the first time in a long while in order to make use of a Firefox plugin for analysing cookies.

Since the browser was open I used it, rather than Google Chrome which is now my preferred browser, to view one of my blog posts. I found myself looking at a Valentine’s Day advert which was embedded at the bottom of the blog post.

I don’t normally see such ads as they are not displayed to logged in users. The advertisements are used to cover the hosting costs for the blog, and I don’t feel that it is unreasonable for WordPress to recoup their costs by providing such ads. The WordPress store states that:

We sometimes display discreet advertisements on your blog—this keeps free features free!

The ad code tries very hard not to intrude on your design or show ads to logged-in readers, which means only a very small percentage of your page views will actually contain ads.

Since I am normally logged in to WordPress I don’t see ads provided on other blogs hosted on WordPress.com either. Which suggests that a cost-free solution to avoiding ads on WordPress.com blogs is to sign up for a WordPress.com account and ensure that you are always logged in – that would seem to mean that you will have an ad-free environment, but you don’t need to create a blog.

However I suspect that people won’t be motivated to subscribe to a free service simply to remove an ad. After all, ads are common on many web sites and we tend, I feel to ignore the less intrusive ads.

It should also be pointed out the ad providers are aware of the risks of serving too many ads to visitors or of serving inappropriate ads which is why there will be cookies associated with ads. Such cookies can bring benefits to the visitor, by keeping a record of the numbers of ads being served. And just as many users won’t sign up for a service to avoid seeing ads I suspect they will be reluctant to click on Accept cookies messages whenever they visit web sites.

Of course, we could simply configure our browsers to discard any cookies which are being send – which will probably mean that we are treated as a new visitor each time we open a page on a web site and are presented with a steady stream of ads.

I wonder if the cookie legislation will adversely affect the user experience, with users having to choose between clicking on Accept cookies on not every time they visit a web site or rejecting all cookies and having lots of ads to view on commercial web sites?

Am I along in regarding most use of cookies I encounter as benign and wishing that the EU had spent more time in drafting an EU directive which addressed misuse of cookies whilst leaving the user interface environment which is currently enjoyed by large numbers of users alone?

Posted in Finances, Legal | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

The Growing Importance of Infographics

Posted by Brian Kelly on 13 February 2012

Last week Liz Lyon, UKOLN Director gave a talk on “The informatics transform : re-engineering libraries for the Data Decade” at the VALA 2012 conference held in Melbourne, Australia. If you weren’t there and are interested in Liz’s thoughts of the implications of the growth of data for the research community in general and research librarians in particular you can view the video recording of Liz’s talk.

I was particularly interested in the infographic on the volume of tweets which are currently being produced, which, as shown below, Liz included in her slides.

The Twitter infographic was produced by Touchagency.com and the infographic is free for reuse. I think it succeeds in putting across the importance of Twitter in a very succinct way – although, of course, the volume of tweets should not be regarding as providing an indicator of its value and, beneath the surface, there will be a need to question the figures presented – for example, is 5pm the best time to get retweeted if you have an international following or will you need to take into account these numbers of international followers and their time zone?

But I feel that people will be aware that infographics will only provide a summary, and not the full picture. Or, as Wikipedia puts itInformation graphics or infographics are graphic visual representations of information, data or knowledge. These graphics present complex information quickly and clearly“.

The need to be able to put across complex information quickly and clearly is becoming increasingly important in today’s environment in which, as Liz states in her slides “A single sequencer can now generate in a day what it took 10 years to collect for the Human Genome Project”  (see reference).

I’m therefore pleased to see that a recent JISC Call on Activity Data: Analytics and Metrics is inviting submissions for a report on Activity Data: Analytics and Metrics which will be one of a series of high profile reports JISC is commissioning to inform the UK FE/HE sector on key issues relating to digital infrastructure which states that:

It is intended that this Report will be made available in a web format, and that it will contain a lot of visuals, including “infographics” where appropriate. 

I’m aware, however, that some people feel that infographics ‘dumb down’ complex issues. But for me this is simply restating the aims of infographics in a negative way: what is the difference between “infographics present complex information quickly and clearly” and “infographics present complex information is a trivial and superficial way“? You may make the second point if you disagree with the arguments being presented in an infographic rather than responding to the points being made.

Which isn’t to say that there can’t be bad infographics as well as good infographics. For me it will be important that the sources of information used to provide an infographic are readily available, so that if you disagree with the arguments being presented in an infographic you are able to provide a different interpretations from the same source.

Posted in General | 2 Comments »

An SEO Analysis of UK University Web Sites

Posted by Brian Kelly on 8 February 2012

Why Benchmark SEO For UK University Web Sites?

The recent JISC Grant funding 18/11: OER rapid innovation describes (in the PDF document) how this call is based on a conceptualisation of “open educational resources as a component of a wider field of ‘open academic practice’, encompassing the many ways in which higher education is engaging and sharing with wider online culture“. The paper goes on to remind bidders that “Effective Search Engine Optimisation is key to open educational resources providing benefits of discoverability, reach reputation and marketing“.

The JISC Call will be funding further developments of OER resources. But how easy will it be to find such resources, in light of the popularity of Google for finding resources? Or to put it another way, how Google-friendly are UK University Web sites? Are there examples of best practices which could be applied elsewhere in order to provide benefits across the UK higher education sector? And are there weaknesses which, if known about, could be addressed?

Recently an SEO Analysis of UK Russell Group University Home Pages Using Blekko was published on this blog which was followed by an Analysis of Incoming Links to Russell Group University Home Pages which also made use of Blekko. These surveys were carried out across the 20 Russell Group universities which describe themselves as being the “20 leading UK universities which are committed to maintaining the very best research, an outstanding teaching and learning experience and unrivalled links with business and the public sector“.

Having evaluated use of the tool across this sample (and spotting possible problem areas where university web sites may have multiple domain name and entry point variants) the next step was to make use of the tool across all UK university web sites.

The Survey

The survey began on 27 January 2012 using the Blekko search engine. A list of UK university web sites has been created within Blekko which automatically lists Blekko’s SEO rankings for the web sites. This data was added to a Google spreadsheet which was used to create the accompanying histogram.

It should be noted that the list of UK universities should not be regarded as a definitive list. There may be institutions included which should not be regarded as a UK university. In addition there may be a small number of institutions which may have been omitted from the analysis. The accompanying spreadsheet may be updated in light of feedback received.

Discussion

What can we learn from this data? The rankings for the top five institutions are given in Table 1. From these five institutions it might be useful to explore the reasons why these web sites are so highly ranked. [Note the Russell Group universities were inadvertently omitted from the list when this post was published. Details have been added and Table 1 has been updated].

Table 1: Top Five SEO Rankings according to Blekko
Ref. No. Institution Rank
(on 27 Jan 2012) 
 Current Blekko
Ranking
1 UCL 1,433.67 View
2 University of Liverpool 1,286.85 View
3 University of Leeds 1,284.97 View
4 Durham University 1,277.32 View
5 University of York 1,246.03 View

The embarrassing aspect of such comparisons lies in describing the web sites which are poorly ranked. Table 2 lists the SEO ranking figures for the lowest ranked institutional web sites. In addition to the table a screenshot of the table is also included, which was taken at 6 pm on Monday 6 February 2012 (note that the data and time shown in the image was the date the entry was added to the table).

Table 2: Bottom Five SEO Rankings according to Blekko
Ref. No. Institution Rank
(on 27 Jan 2012)
Current Blekko
Ranking
1 Trinity Saint David - View
2 Cardiff Metropolitan University  - View
3 UWL (University of West London)  - View
4 UCP Marjon  28.91 View
5 De Montfort University  31.58 View

It should be noted that two of the three web sites for which no rank value was available were in Wales. This may suggest that technical decisions taken to provide bilingual web sites might adversely affect search engine rankings. Since such factors only affect Welsh institutions it would seem that these institutions will have a vested interested in identifying and implementing best practices for such web sites.

I must admit that I was surprised when I noticed a large institution such as De Montfort University listed in Table 2, with a Rank of 31.58. Viewing the detailed entry I found that a host rank value of 507.9 was given – very different from the rank of 31.58 which is listed in the table of all institutions.

Can We Trust the Findings?

Further investigation revealed further discrepancies between the entries in the overall list of UK universities and the detailed entries. In the process of creating listing for use with the Blekko service, listings for UK Russell Group universities (as well as the 1994 Group universities) were created.

Table 3 gives the Blekko Rank value together with the Host Rank value which is provided in the detailed entry for the web site. In addition the accompanying screenshot provides additional evidence of the findings as captured at 7 pm on 6 February 2012.

Table 3: Top Five SEO Rankings
for Russell Group Universities
Ref. No. Institution Rank
(on 6 Feb 2012)
Host Rank
(on 6 Feb 2012)
1 UCL 1,433.67 1,607.6
2 University of Liverpool 1,286.80 1,260.3
3 University of Leeds 1,284.97 1,141.8
4 LSE 1,224.59 1,201.1
5 University of Nottingham 1,138.99 1,382.9

Table 4 gives this information for the five Russell Group universities with the lowest SEO ranking values.

Table 4: Bottom Five SEO Rankings
for Russell Group Universities
Ref. No. Institution Rank
(on 6 Feb 2012)
Host Rank
(on 6 Feb 2012)
1 University of Birmingham   80.60 205.4
2 University of Sheffield 395.04 529.7
3 Imperial College 514.22 476.8
4 University of Manchester 610.86 694.2
5 Cardiff University 692.08 752.9

From these two tables we can see that there is are some disparities in the ranking order depending on which Rank value is used, but the numbers do not seem to be significantly different.

The Limitations of Closed Research

Initially I had envisaged that this post would help to identify examples of good and bad practices, which could be shared across the sector since, as described in the JISC called described above “Effective Search Engine Optimisation is key to open educational resources providing benefits of discoverability, reach reputation and marketing“. However it seems that gathering evidence of best practices is not necessarily easy, with the tools and techniques used for gathering evidence appearing to provide ambiguous or misleading findings.

This post illustrates the dangers of research which makes use of closed systems: we do not know the assumptions which the analytic tools are making, whether there are limitations in these assumptions or if there bugs in the implementation of the underlying algorithms.

These are reasons why open research approaches should be used, where possible. As described in WikipediaOpen research is research conducted in the spirit of free and open source software” which provides “clear accounts of the methodology freely available via the internet, along with any data or results extracted or derived from them“. The Blekko service initially appeared to support such open research practices since the web site states that “blekko doesn’t believe in keeping secrets“. However it subsequently became apparent that although Blekko may publish information about the SEO ranking for web sites, it does not describe how these rankings are determined.

It seems, as illustrated by a post which recently asked “How visible are UK universities in social media terms? A comparison of 20 Russell Group universities suggests that many large universities are just getting started“, that open research is not yet the norm in the analysis of web sites. The post describes:

Recent research by Horst Joepen from Searchmetrics [which] derives a ‘social media visibility’ score for 20 Russell Group universities, looking across their presence on Facebook, Twitter, Linked-in, Google+ and other media.

The econsultancy blog describes how:

The visibility score we use here is based on the total number of links a web domain has scored on the six social sites, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Delicious and StumbleUpon, while accounting for different weightings we give to links on individual social sites.

Image from eConsultancy blog

But what are these different weightings? And how valid is it to simply take this score and divide it by the size of the institutions (based on the number of staff and students) in order to provide the chart which, as illustrates, puts LSE as the clear leader?

It should be noted that this work is based on the analysis of:

roughly 207,900 links every week related to content on the websites of the Russell Group universities posted on Twitter, Facebook (likes, comments and shares), Linkedin, Google+ and social bookmarking sites StumbleUpon and Delicious. 

and is therefore not directly related to the SEO analysis addressed in this blog. This work is being referenced in order to reiterate the point of the dangers of closed research.

However the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog, which hosted the post about this study, made the point that:

The LSE Impacts blog approach is that some data (no doubt with limitations) are better than none at all. 

I would agree with this view – it can be useful in gathering, analysing and visualising such data and in order to provide stories which interpret such findings. The Blekko analysis, for example, seems to be suggesting that the Universities of UCL, Liverpool, Leeds, Durham and York have implemented strategies which make their web site highly visible to search engines, but Trinity Saint David, Cardiff Metropolitan University and the University of West London seem to have implemented technical decisions which may act as barriers to search engines. The eConsultancy analysis, meanwhile, suggests that LSE’s approaches to use of social media services is particularly successful. But are such interpretations valid?

Unanswered Questions

Questions which need to be answered are:

  • How valid are the assumptions which are made which underpin the analysis?
  • How robust are the data collection and analysis services?
  • Are the findings corroborated by related surveys? (such as the survey of Facebook ‘likes’ for Russell Group universities described in a post which asked Is It Time To Ditch Facebook, When There’s Half a Million Fans Across Russell Group Universities?)
  • What relevance do the findings have to the related business purposes of the institutions?
  • What actions should institutions be taking in light of the findings and the answers to the first three questions?

What do you think?


Paradata: As described in a post on Paradata for Online Surveys blog posts which contain live links to data will include a summary of the survey environment in order to help ensure that survey findings are reproducible, with information on potentially misleading information being highlighted.

This survey was initially carried out over a period of a few weeks in January and February 2012 using Chrome on a Windows 7 PC and Safari on an Apple Macintosh. The survey was carried out using the Blekko web-based tool. A request was made to Blekko for more detailed information about their ranking scores and their harvesting strategies but the reply simply provided the limited information which is provided on the Blekko web site. Inconsistencies in the findings were noted and this information was submitted to the Blekko support email (and also via an online support form on the web site). However no response has been received.

The information on the survey of visibility of Russell Group universities on social media sites was based on posts published on the LSE Impact of Social Sciences and eConsultancy blogs.

Footnote: The findings for the Russell Group universities were omitted from the list of all UK universities when this post was initially published. The data has now been added and Table 1 and the associated histogram have been updated.


Twitter conversation from Topsy: [View]

Posted in Evidence, search | 9 Comments »

Favouriting Tweets, Openness and Frictionless Sharing

Posted by Brian Kelly on 6 February 2012

Yesterday I favourited (or should I say ‘favorited’) a tweet from @lisaharris which had a link to an article on “Scholars Seek Better Ways to Track Impact Online” published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. An hour or so later I received a direct message (DM) asking me if I was interested in exploring possibilities of joint work in this area.  We exchanged a few messages and agreed to discuss this more using a technology which allows for more in-depth discussions – the telephone :-)

It occurred to me that this is an interesting example of frictionless sharing - I spotted a link to an interesting resource and decided to bookmark it (using Twitter’s ‘favorite’ function) for reading later.  The bookmarking takes place in public (as, for example, I also do when I wish to bookmark web resources using Delicious or Diigo). And as a result of this public action Lisa Harris, who posted the tweet on Sunday morning, got in touch with me.

I have found that being aware of such Twitter favouriting activities has become easier following recent developments to Twitter’s mobile client.  As shown in the accompanying image (on the right if viewing this post in a web browser), such activities are readily accessible via the Twitter.com web site on a desktop PC.  But since, as with increasing numbers of  other Twitter users, a mobile device is now my preferred method of using Twitter, it’s the Interactions tab on my iPod Touch which typically alerts me to similar activities, as shown below.

From this we can see, for example, that @lualnu10 (Marisa Alonso Nunez) favourited and then retweeted my comment:

Great post from @ambrouk on “Why I Blog”. Good to see open reflections based on “vanalytics” & “pimpact” (TM Amber :-)  http://t.co/7oaEtc2N

It should be noted that access to such interactions are not available on all Twitter clients.  A lack of awareness of Twitter’s more subtle aspects is perhaps an example of why people may fail to ‘get” Twitter. As I mentioned in a recent post on Twitter? It’s Better Than The Most Things (According to Sturgeon)  there is a need to understand techniques for filtering Twitter content which are best exploited by using a dedicated Twitter client. In this example, however, we can see that there can be benefits in accessing content (interactions) which may not be available on all clients.

It is appropriate that the screenshot of recent interactions mentions Amber Thomas blog post on “Why I Blog“. In the post Amber explains why she is embracing ‘open practices in her role as a JISC programme manager. She cites Lou McGill’s definition of open practices:

By Open practices I mean a broad range of practices which have an ‘open’ philosophy, intention or approach […] Informal and formal open practice takes place within wider societal contexts which are evolving rapidly. Open practices take place in, and are enabled by, a highly connected socially networked environment”

Amber’s post primarily addresses the open practices within the context of blogging, and covers associated metrics which can demonstrate the ways in which the content is being used and shared.  However as we can see Twitter also provides an example of open practices in which the value lies not just in the content which is shared in the 140 characters or the embedded links but also in simple frictionless sharing actions such as favouriting and retweeting.

Of course there may also be risks in public bookmarking activities: it you favourite a tweet on “how to deal with a difficult boss” you may be sending unintended messages to your manager! But open practices will always entail risks – I suspect the question will be what your personal attitude to risks are. And perhaps if you are an optimist you will see the advantages which can be gained in open practices, as I suggested in a post on “A Tweet Takes Me To Catalonia“.  But if you are at heart a pessimist, you may well worry about how your tweets could be used against you.   I can’t help but think that embracing open practices says a lot about the individual rather than the technology. On reflection, this is an over-simplistic analysis as I know several people I follow on Twitter who enjoy sharing their grumbles on Twitter, particularly related to public transport failures around the south west!

Posted in openness, Social Web, Twitter | 2 Comments »

How Higher Education Uses Social Media [Infographic]: US and UK Comparisons

Posted by Brian Kelly on 3 February 2012

A post on How Higher Education Uses Social Media [INFOGRAPHIC] published two hours ago by Mashable.com provides an infographic on how US universities are using social media services.

Much of the content is based on bland summaries of how the services are being used: “Class announcements and discussions are shared on sites like Twitter” and unsurprising statistics: “Facebook is the most used social media tool in higher education”. However there were also some more detailed statistics, including the following information of the top social media colleges according to Student Adviser.

But how do these figures compare with leading UK universities? The findings for the five highest ranked UK universities according to the Sunday Times university guide for 2011 (as listed in Wikipedia) are listed below.

Institution Facebook Hubspot Twitter YouTube
University of Cambridge 128,310  -  27,399 2,341,548
University of Oxford 398,203  -  31,029     95,628
Durham University    8,785  -   1,980   256,933
LSE 38,730  -   4,660     91,964
University of Bath   37,744
7,032
 -  10,440     48,697

As the original article is an infographic, it would be inappropriate to  comment on these findings further :-)

Posted in Social Web | 5 Comments »

Twitter? It’s Better Than The Most Things (According to Sturgeon)

Posted by Brian Kelly on 2 February 2012

Early this morning I came across a tweet which announced:

Academic study – Most tweets are useless http://j.mp/xf85VN

The tweet provided a link to an article published in MacWorld which described how:

Carnegie Mellon University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgia Institute of Technology researchers have found that even though Twitter users follow who they want to follow on the microblogging service, they say only about a third of tweets are worth reading and that a quarter of them are completely worthless.

My initial reaction was “Wow – a third of tweets are worth reading. What a high percentage!” I was then puzzled by the headline for the article which read “Twitter users: Most tweets are garbage“.

This headline reminded me of the comment made in July 2003 by Sebastian Rahtz, at the time manager of the JISC OSS Watch service, that “Of course 99% of open source software is a pile of donkey cr@p” (and subsequently making the point that “if it was not clear from my post earlier. 99% of commercial software is poor too. obviously“).

Sebastian was, of course, simply citing Sturgeon’s Law.  As described in WikipediaSturgeon’s observation [is] that while science fiction was often derided for its low quality by critics, it could be noted that the majority of examples of works in other fields could equally be seen to be of low quality and that science fiction was thus no different in that regard to other art”.

We can therefore conclude that Twitter is well above Sturgeon’s average!

More seriously, it does seem that the research was based on a flawed understanding of how experienced Twitter users obtain value from their Twitter stream.  The article describes that the researchers:

gathered their findings by first setting up a website called “Who Gives a Tweet,” where, over 19 days in 2010 and 2011, 1,443 visitors rated about 44,000 tweets from roughly 21,000 Twitter users. (Twitter claims more than 200 million tweets are sent per day.) Visitors were incented to rate tweets in exchange for getting some feedback about their tweets.

This seems to assume that Twitter users simply process the raw set of tweets in their stream.  That’s not how I, nor other experiences Twitter users I follow, use Twitter.

In brief the approach I use to gain value from Twitter is to:

  • Follow a sufficiently large number of Twitter users in order to ensure that there is likely to be value in the content of the tweets and the interactions between the users.
  • Group my Twitter followers (in my case Using columns in TweetDeck) into categories which supports how I use Twitter (for example, I have a column for users based around Bath for whom I might gain value from tweets about local issues).
  • Use Tweetdeck’s search facility to identify tweets of particular relevance. This is often for an event hashtag (whilst the event is running) but can also include general topics of interest (e.g. #openscience).
  • Be ruthless in marking tweets as read.

But in addition to these simple techniques for gaining value from Twitter I also use other tools which can aggregate the content of links posted by the people I follow on Twitter. My current favourite app for this purpose is Smartr (which is illustrated).  This morning, while waiting at the bus stop at 07.11 the most recent links tweeted within my Twitter community informed me of @timbuckteeth’s early morning blog post on “Human 2.0“; @dajbelshaw’s post on “Conferences as Catalysts for Educational Innovation and Change” and @malin’s link to an article on  “It Must Be Measured: #Scio12 #Altmetrics“.  By 07.30, as I got off the bus in the town centre I’d read those three articles – all thanks to this information being shared by three of the people I follow on Twitter and the tools I used to help me find the quality resources.

Only about a third of tweets are worth reading”? yes, I’d agree with that. But the time it takes to discard the rest is small whereas it is much more time-consuming to process my email to find useful information. And of course, finding something decent to watch on the TV – well most of the content there is crap. But at least I have my Twitter community to help identify the quality TV programmes – and I have to admit that I watch Wallander and  The Killing following the rave reviews I read on Twitter.  S0 thanks to @timbuckteeth, @dajbelshaw and @malin and the remainder of the 955 people I follow on Twitter for providing such great content!

Posted in Twitter | 3 Comments »

Analysis of Incoming Links to Russell Group University Home Pages

Posted by Brian Kelly on 1 February 2012

 

“Google is the Home Page!”

Back in April 2011 the UK government’s Alpha.gov.uk team discussed the implications for web developers of Google being the homepage. This was followed up last week with a post which asked “What does “Google is the homepage” mean IRL?“. The background to this discussion was a realisation that:

Since for the vast majority of people their web journeys … start with a search engine rather than a direct visit we should think of Google as the homepage and we should also feed Google, Bing and other search engines nice friendly urls.

These discussions are, of course, equally valid for university web sites.

SEO and the Importance of Links

Since the importance of ensuring that content can be easily found using search engines is true for content hosted on University web site, last year the JISC funded the Linked You project. The project provided a series of recommendations to enhance access to resources based on the design of URIs for resources hosted on institutional web site. But such advice covers only a part of the picture. In addition to what the report describes as implementing an “improved underlying URI structure” links to institutional web sites also play an important role.

2011 Overall Ranking AlgorithmThe 2011 Overall Ranking Algorithm chart provided by SEOMoz (Source: SEOmoz Ranking Factors) highlights the importance of links to a web site for search engine optimisation. As described on their page on How Search Engines Work the top factor which affects the visibility of web resources to search engine suggested in the Yahoo guidelines is “The number of other sites linking to it“. The SEOMoz web site goes on to describe how “Through links, engines analyze the popularity of a site & page based on the number and popularity of pages linking to them, as well as metrics like trust, spam, and authority“.

An analysis of links from authoritative sites to institutional web sites will therefore help us to gain a better understanding of the extent and profile of links from key resources and may help to inform policies and practices for helping to maximise the benefits which may be gained by implementing appropriate linking strategies.

Top Incoming Links According to Blekko

As described in a recent post which provided an SEO Analysis of UK Russell Group University Home Pages Using Blekko registered users of the Blekko search engine can access a range of data relevant to SEO for web sites. The following table provides a summary of one set of data: the top three highest ranked web sites which have links to the twenty Russell Group university web sites.

Table 1: Top Incoming Links According to Blekko
Ref. No. Institution Blekko Analysis
(free subscription
required)
Highest Ranked
Incoming Link
Second Highest
Incoming Link
Third Highest
Incoming Link
1 University of Birmingham [Analyse] twitter.com has
6 incoming links
http://www.youtube.com has
1 incoming links
en.wikipedia.org has
7 incoming links
2 University of Bristol [Analyse] twitter.com has
25 incoming links
http://www.google.com has
1 incoming links
en.wikipedia.org has
313 incoming links
3 University of Cambridge [Analyse] twitter.com has
10 incoming links
http://www.youtube.com has
2 incoming links
en.wikipedia.org has
328 incoming links
4 Cardiff University [Analyse] twitter.com has
11 incoming links
en.wikipedia.org has
227 incoming links
http://www.linkedin.com has
9 incoming links
5 University of Edinburgh [Analyse] twitter.com has
15 incoming links
http://www.youtube.com has
3 incoming links
en.wikipedia.org has
95 incoming links
6 University of Glasgow [Analyse] twitter.com has
8 incoming links
en.wikipedia.org has
315 incoming links
http://www.flickr.com has
7 incoming links
7 Imperial College [Analyse] twitter.com has
6 incoming links
http://www.youtube.com has
3 incoming links
en.wikipedia.org has
115 incoming links
8 King’s College London [Analyse] twitter.com has
20 incoming links
en.wikipedia.org has
762 incoming links
http://www.linkedin.com has
17 incoming links
9 University of Leeds [Analyse] twitter.com has
12 incoming links
http://www.microsoft.com has
3 incoming links
http://www.youtube.com has
2 incoming links
10 University of Liverpool [Analyse] twitter.com has
10 incoming links
en.wikipedia.org has
278 incoming links
http://www.linkedin.com has
8 incoming links
11 LSE [Analyse] twitter.com has
15 incoming links
http://www.youtube.com has
1 incoming links
en.wikipedia.org has
257 incoming links
12 University of Manchester [Analyse] twitter.com has
43 incoming links
http://www.youtube.com has
2 incoming links
en.wikipedia.org has
179 incoming links
13 Newcastle University [Analyse] twitter.com has
5 incoming links
en.wikipedia.org has
216 incoming links
http://www.microsoft.com has
1 incoming links
14 University of Nottingham [Analyse] twitter.com has
24 incoming links
http://www.youtube.com has
2 incoming links
en.wikipedia.org has
525 incoming links
15 University of Oxford [Analyse] twitter.com has
11 incoming links
en.wikipedia.org has
462 incoming links
http://www.google.com has
3 incoming links
16 Queen’s University Belfast [Analyse] twitter.com has
5 incoming links
en.wikipedia.org has
277 incoming links
http://www.youtube.com has
1 incoming links
17 University of Sheffield [Analyse] twitter.com has
13 incoming links
http://www.youtube.com has
4 incoming links
en.wikipedia.org has
68 incoming links
18 University of Southampton [Analyse] twitter.com has
4 incoming links
en.wikipedia.org has
258 incoming links
http://www.flickr.com has
1 incoming links
19 UCL [Analyse] twitter.com has
67 incoming links
http://www.youtube.com has
16 incoming links
en.wikipedia.org has
1,175 incoming links
20 University of Warwick [Analyse] twitter.com has
6 incoming links
en.wikipedia.org has
220 incoming links
http://www.linkedin.com has
4 incoming links

The following table summarise the services which are listed in the above table. Note that the data is collected used the Domain SEO Inbound Links search option which has the format “http://foo.ac.uk/ /domainlinks“.

Table 2: Summary of Highly Ranked Web Sites
Ranking
(based on nos. of
incoming links)
  Service       Page Rank  Occurrences     Nos. of Links  
1 [Wikipedia]   11,561.1 19  6,077
2 [Twitter]   18,323.8 20    316
3 [LinkedIn]     7,766.7   4      38
4 [YouTube]   13,530.4 11      37
5 [Flickr]     7,168.3   2        8
6 [Microsoft]     1,865.5   2        4
6 [Google]    10,929.5   2        4
Total  60   6,484

From this table we have evidence of the most highly ranked web sites which provide links to a selection of university web sites. As described above such authoritative web sites can have a significant role to play in enhancing the visibility of web sites in search engine rankings. The question then is how can this evidence help to inform policy and practice?

SEO and Links for Authoratitive Web Sites

Since all 20 Russell Group Universities have inbound links from Twitter in the list of top three highly ranked web sites it might appear sensible to explore best practices for use of Twitter to maximise search engine visibility. However Twitter’s robots.txt file blocks conforming indexing robots from accessing Twitter user’s profile and tweets:

Allow: /*?*_escaped_fragment_
Disallow: /search
Disallow: /*?
Disallow: /*/with_friends

Twitter would therefore appear to provide no SEO benefits. The case for Wikipedia is, however, very different, as indexing robots are permitted to index the content of Wikipedia pages, including links contained in Wikipedia articles. As can be seen from the above table all Russell group universities apart the University of Leeds have links from Wikipedia amongst the top three highest ranked web sites which provide inbound links (and Wikipedia is the fourth highest ranked web site which provides 371 inbound links to the University of Leeds). There are therefore over 6,000 links from Wikipedia to the twenty Russell Group universities with UCL having over 1,000 inbound links.

One strategy to enhance an institution’s ‘Google juice‘ would therefore appear to be to embed links to the institutional web site from Wikipedia articles. However contributions to Wikipedia articles should be provided from a Neutral Point of View and should be factual and verifiable. In order to avoid adding material with a vested interest, there would be advantages in encouraging members of the university to contribute to articles even if, and perhaps especially if, links are made to other institutions.

Top ranked sites linking to http://www.ox.ac.uk

It should be noted that the importance of incoming links from social media site sites has been highlighted recently in a post on the eConsultancy blog which asked “How visible are universities on social networks? The post pointed out that:

16 -24 year olds are heavy users of social networks, so you’d expect universities to have been ‘socially active’ by generating and posting interesting, engaging content (articles, images, video and audio) on their own websites, and then sharing it on social networks.

The survey, which was based on data harvested by the company and not made publicly available, suggested that Facebook generated over 80% of links from social media sites to Russell Group university web sites. It was interesting to note that the data provided in the Blekko analysis did not include links from Facebook despite that fact that, as illustrated in the accompanying image for the top incoming links for the http://www.ox.ac.uk domain, the highest ranked domains tend to be social media sites.

The Blekko findings for facebook.com show that the sites has a ranking of 23,420.3 and has 317,167,273 pages. It is therefore unclear as to why according to Blekko Facebook is not highlighted as a significant site with links to Russell Group universities.

Domain Naming Issues

Note that as described in a recent post on SEO Analysis of UK Russell Group University Home Pages Using Blekko, significantly different results can be obtained for analyses using variants of the institutional domain name, as illustrated below.

Table 3: Domain Name Variants
Ref. No. Institution /
Domain
Nos. of links
from Twitter
Nos. of links
from 
Wikipedia
1 University of Birmingham /
www.birmingham.ac.uk
  6  7
University of Birmingham /
www.bham.ac.uk
  0  23
2 University of Cardiff /
www.cardiff.ac.uk
 11 227
University of Cardiff /
www.cf.ac.uk
  1  69
3 Imperial College /
www.imperial.ac.uk
  6 115
Imperial College /
www.ic.ac.uk
  0  14
4 University of Liverpool /
www.liverpool.ac.uk
  1    1
University of Liverpool /
www.liv.ac.uk
10 278
5 University of Newcastle /
www.newcastle.ac.uk
  0    1
University of Newcastle /
www.ncl.ac.uk
  25 216
6 University of Southampton /
www.southampton.ac.uk
  5  53
University of Southampton /
www.soton.ac.uk
  4 258
7 University of Sheffield /
www.sheffield.ac.uk
 25  68
University of Sheffield /
www.shef.ac.uk
 13 339

As can be seen the official version of the domain name can have significantly fewer links than the variant (1 versus 216 links from Wikipedia in the case of http://www.liverpool.ac.uk and http://www.liv.ac.uk). Another suggestion, therefore, which may help maximise SEO benefits would be to ensure that links from highly ranked web sites, such as Wikipedia, link to a definitive version of the domain name.

Conclusions

This article began by describing how “Through links, engines analyze the popularity of a site & page based on the number and popularity of pages linking to them, as well as metrics like trust, spam, and authority“. The survey has identified the most highly ranked web sites which contain links to university web sites. It is suggested that in addition to implementing the recommendations provided by the Linked You project, related to the URI design of an institutional web site, an institution’s social media strategy should address ways in which links to the institutional web site can be provided in an ethical way. In addition, institutions should seek to ensure that links to their web sites are not fragmented across variants of the web site’s domain name.

Paradata: As described in a post on Paradata for Online Surveys blog posts which contain live links to data will include a summary of the survey environment in order to help ensure that survey findings are reproducible, with information on potentially misleading information being highlighted. This survey was initially carried out on 8 January 2012 initially using Chrome on a Windows 7 PC and was completed using Safari on an Apple Macintosh. In addition the figures in Tables 1, 2 and 3 were rechecked on 1 February 2012 and any changed values were updated.

It was noted that differing results were obtained if variants of the domain name (e.g. http://www.cardiff.ac.uk and http://www.cf.uk and www3.warwick.ac.uk and http://www.warwick.uk) and entry point URLs were used (e.g. http://www2.lse.ac.uk/ and http://www2.lse.ac.uk/home.aspx). This has been documented above.

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