On average, we launch about 300 school websites per year. It's a melting pot of international, public school and Higher Ed institutions; schools with tiny budgets, departments, or timelines; Best-in-Class designs, best-in-class content, future award-winners, and of course, some who hit some turbulence along the way for one reason or another.
Most curious about the turbulence part (because everyone hates turbulence...on a plane, or metaphorically) I reached out to our Deployment Team to find out the most common mistakes schools make, and how our most successful schools avoid them.
Here's their top five:
Mistake #1: Not Investing Time or Money into SEO
For whatever the reason, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) often appears to be an afterthought for most schools. Although we introduce our schools to SEO at the beginning of the deployment process, and provide dozens of resources on the matter, the immense amount of work it requires (to do well, at least) means that most school professionals don't invest the time they should. It doesn't become a priority.
But, what happens when you invest $10,000, $20,000 or even $50,000 + into a new website, and the people you're really trying to reach can't find it? Your ROI takes a hit.
When you launch a website on Composer, each page on your website will automatically inherit the page name it has been given, plus your school's name, like this:
This is a good start. At least it is a page name, right?
However, it is highly recommended that schools take the time to write custom title tags and meta descriptions for each page on their website. While title tags — which are only 55 characters or less in length — significantly impact your search ranking, meta descriptions (about 155 characters in length) don't play a role in your rank, but simply help a searcher make the right choice with their click.
If you're busy, start with only implementing an SEO strategy for your top hit pages or landing pages. And at a bare minimum, optimize your homepage.
What the pros do
Because search algorithms are constantly changing, and SEO is a consistent major investment of time and strategy, our schools who perform the best in search opt for paid SEO consulting and services.
The Website Redesign Playbook
Mistake #2: Migrating Over Old Website Content to a New Website
"Will you help us migrate over our content from our old website to our new one?" is certainly a frequently asked question. And while of course, the answer is yes, we strongly encourage schools to avoid the "simply move everything over" method.
What the pros do
The most successful websites are the ones that start fresh in as many places as possible, understanding that website content and design go hand in hand, and a new website isn't just meant to be a container for old content. Prior to the redesign process, they create a list of the pages and content to keep (if any), and then from there, all other content is new. In most cases this greatly decreases the number of pages being created on the new website, which makes for simpler upkeep.
Mistake #3: Hitting the Content Panic Button
It's a common situation: one month out from the website launch, content contributors are in full panic mode to get all their content into their new website. In most cases, it ends up delaying the launch, pages are incomplete, links are broken, and a snazzy new website has some less-than-snazzy content.
As a content marketer, I argue that well-thought and precisely-planned content is equally as important as a design — especially when it comes to value propositions, headers and sub-headers. Because not all visitors are reading every single word, focus on putting your strongest content in your headers and sub-headers, and then use information hierarchy to make the rest scannable.
What the pros do
Dedicate at least 5 hours per week (that's only one hour per day!) to adding website content to their work-in-progress site. For our most successful schools, it means a real commitment — even if they wear many hats.
While some website admins opt to write their content in a word document, and then move to the website later on, it's recommended that this be done concurrently because the way the content displays in your design may have to be changed, shortened, or re-structured.
Jaimie Skerker, a project manager at Finalsite put it best:
"I think of creating a website as moving into a house. It's important to move all your boxes (content) into the appropriate rooms (pages). Once the site is built, now you can unpack and hang things on the walls, re-arrange the furniture (add your design elements, photos, etc.)"
Further Reading: 8 Tips for Writing High-Converting School Website Content
Mistake #4: Over-Committing or Not Understanding Their Resources
It's easy to get excited about having testimonials on your homepage, a giant photo slider, or putting the Head of School blog front and center. However, picking design elements for the reason of pure aesthetic, without considering the ongoing commitment and upkeep can end up harming your website in the long-run. For example, giant photos sliders do best with professional photos — not iPhone photos. So, if you're dead-set on having a photo slider, but your photos aren't top-notch...it's not going to look as you had hoped, especially as the focal point. In addition to quality, photos should be changed quarterly to reflect the season change.
Text content is an even bigger commitment than visual content. When schools want to put blog or news content in the forefront, it's essential that there is someone dedicated to constantly updating that content, otherwise you run the risk of a design going stale quickly.
What the Pros Do
In some cases, schools already have sets of individuals who are dedicated to updating certain content, and that helps. Take St. Anne's-Belfield School, for example: The videos in their footer are constantly updated since they have someone dedicated to video.
While this is a cool design element, it wouldn't be recommended to a school without this same type of individual. If you don't already have designated content producers, assign roles, goals and deadlines to ensure content stays up to date.
Mistake #5: Launching an Incomplete Website
It's summer...meaning most of our schools currently in deployment have a goal of launching a new website by the beginning of the school year — August 1st to be exact. To achieve that launch date, schools may launch an incomplete site. However, this can create a confusing experience for users and make the new site transition even more difficult.
What the Pros do
Wait until every single page is done and everything is perfect (or hide areas that aren't ready). Do a soft launch to ensure you didn't miss anything (the 100th time you looked at it); and then make a public announcement. The beginning of the school year isn't the best time to launch anyway — as the new website can actually add confusion to the beginning of year processes. If you're website is ready to go — launch! If it isn't, hold off until it's ready...and then make a big deal about it.
Some other things the pros don't miss? Broken links, 301 redirects, Google Analytics tracking codes, and a variety of other search-related items. When a new website deploys, there are a whole slew of boxes that need to be checked during the site-to-site transition, and it's essential to minimize the confusion that search engines experience when an old URL structure is completely replaced by a new one.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
As Finalsite's Content Marketing Manager, Mia plans and executes a variety of inbound marketing and digital content strategies. As a former TV reporter, freelance cinematographer and certified inbound marketer, Mia specializes in helping schools find new ways to share their stories online through web design, social media, copywriting, photography and videography. She is the author of numerous blogs, and Finalsite's popular eBook, The Website Redesign Playbook.