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.
It should be noted that, as described on an Ad Planner help page “information 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.
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?
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?