What Makes a Good School Website?
Mia Major

Have you ever tried to look up a restaurant's menu, book a trip (ah, those were the days), or order something online and thought to yourself "wow, this is not easy." In some cases, the website experience may have been so frustrating that you decided to order takeout from somewhere else, pick a different hotel, or abandon your shopping cart.

While you may not consider yourself a "website expert", you can tell the difference between a "good website" and a "bad website" pretty easily — it's one of those "you know it when you see it" situations that comes with consuming so much content online. Within the first few seconds of visiting a new website, your brain is analyzing load time, design, navigation, photography and content, while also comparing the experience to previous website experiences.

And those same split-second considerations you're making when you order pizza for the fiftieth time since the beginning of the pandemic are the same considerations prospective and current families are making when they visit your website. Is this site loading quickly? Is it working well on my mobile device? Can I find what I'm looking for? Is this visually appealing?

2020 brought the importance of your school or district's website into the forefront. If content was hard to find, or the site didn't work well on mobile — you likely heard about it (and hopefully felt compelled to do something about it.) Or even worse, maybe you didn't hear about it. So, as we look ahead to 2021 and beyond, the question of "what makes a good school website" has never been more important.

What makes a good school website?

  1. A unique, accessible design
  2. Mobile-first design
  3. Fast load times
  4. Simple navigation
  5. Informative and engaging content
  6. It's optimized for search
  7. Safe and secure hosting
  8. It's powered by a great content management system

Now, let's dive into each of these with a bit more detail.

1. A unique, accessible design

It goes without saying that the web design itself is the first element of a good school website. Ninety-four percent of first impressions are design-related, meaning new and returning website visitors are making split-second decisions about your school or district solely based on how your website looks. We recommend redesigning your website about every three years to keep up with the constantly evolving expectations of today's website visitor. If you're looking for web design inspiration, head on over to our expansive web design portfolio or read up on 2021 web design trends to watch.

whitgift school UK website

And while the overall aesthetic matters, so does accessibility. An accessible website ensures that all of your website visitors can fully experience and understand the website's design and content. 

For more on web design and accessibility, check out the following blogs:

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2. Mobile-first design

While an eye-catching design is essential, ensuring that design works well on mobile is just as important. Most schools and districts get, on average, about 50-60% of their total website traffic come from mobile – and it should come as no surprise that a mobile-first design is essential to having a "good school website". Parents and students are either on-the-go, or using multiple devices (think watching TV while catching up on the latest school news), so ensuring the mobile experience is just as good as the desktop experience is key.

Just consider the following stats:

  • 52% of users say that a bad mobile experience made them less likely to engage with a company
  • Mobile users are 5 times more likely to abandon a task if a site isn’t optimized for mobile
  • 48% of users say they feel frustrated and annoyed when on sites that are poorly optimized for mobile

You may be wondering: what is the difference between mobile-first design and responsive design? Aren't they the same thing? Nope! In this blog, Finalsite content specialist Leah Mangold perfectly articulates how these two terms differ: "The main difference between responsive web design and mobile-first design is how the designer approaches the website. A responsive website is reactive — the design moving fluidly to fit devices. A mobile-first website is when the mobile website planned and designed in tandem with the desktop site, making proactive changes to the overall design to ensure the mobile experience is just as good as the desktop experience."

In this example from Davie Public Schools in North Carolina, you can see how the design changes from focusing on big images and storytelling on desktop, to getting parents where they need to be on mobile with easy-to-click buttons.

Desktop design:

North Carolina public school website homepage

Mobile design:

davie county schools mobile view

For more information on mobile-first design, check out these blogs:

3. Fast load times

Today's consumer expects your website to load quickly, and therefore site speed plays a major factor as to whether a prospective or current family member even makes it to your website. Forty-percent of website visitors will leave if the site takes more than three seconds to load, and 47% of visitors expect your site to load in only two seconds. 

For most schools, this is the biggest issue with load time is due to photo load time. If you want to increase the load time of your website pages, consider the following tips for optimizing your website photos:

  • Export images at the size they will be displayed on your website:  Focus on image size and getting your dimensions right. Uploading a 7000 pixel-wide photo for a 200 pixel-wide thumbnail isn't necessary, and bogs down site speed. Before uploading, you could also run your images through a free compressor tool, like tinyPNG or CompressorIO. If you're a Finalsite client, the Resources module will also automatically resize your images based on device to speed up load times on smaller devices. 
     
  • Only upload images in 72dpi: While in print having 300dpi improves the quality of images, this will not make a difference on the web. This is an adjustment that can easily be made in Photoshop.
     
  • Upload JPEGs and PNGs accordingly: Only use PNG files when uploading a graphic. Since they are higher quality, they'll bog down site time if you end up using a PNG file for photographs. The tool TinyPNG to optimize your PNG images when they are absolutely necessary. Just drag and drop the image into the site, and they'll reduce the size by half or more.
     
  • Cut down on the number of images: While images are great, simply cutting down on the number of images you use on each page of your website can help with site speed.

If resizing and optimizing images just isn't cutting it, you may need to think beyond just content. How and where your website is hosted is potentially the biggest factor in website load time. At Finalsite, we believe that fast, safe and secure hosting is one of the most vital components of a successful website — which is why our clients sites are powered by Google hosting and Cloudflare, promising the fastest load times possible. 

Want to learn more about why hosting location matters? Watch Episode 4 of Tech Tuesday below!

4. Simple navigation

The way you structure your school website pages, navigation, and content can greatly impact its success. School marketers who thoroughly consider their website's information architecture — the effective organization and structure of website content to provide a simple and enjoyable user experience — have websites with lower bounce rates and higher engagement, because the structure of the website simply "makes sense."

For sites that inherently have more content than others — such as large public school districts — you can still achieve a simple navigation that makes the lives of your families easier. Take Richfield Public Schools in MN for example: Their short navigation docked on the left-hand side of the site makes essential pages easily accessible in just 1-2 clicks.

richfield public schools homepage

And if you want to consider putting a focus on how website visitors prefer to browse, you can put an emphasis on site search, as International School for Brussels does on their website.

international school website with search bar

 

Some top considerations for a simple navigation include:

  • Ensure all important content can be found in just 1-2 clicks. Content that your website visitors need and want to find shouldn't be buried.
  • Keep your main navigation to eight items or less. Too many navigation options can be confusing to website visitors.
  • Use plain language. Using jargon or uncommon terms can confuse website visitors.
  • Use a utility navigation to offer quick access to key pages — such as community portals.
  • Focus on site search. Today's website visitor is used to being able to "search" for what they're looking for, the same way they would on Google, Amazon or Netflix. Putting search front-and-center on your website allows your website visitors to find the information in their preferred format. 

If you're wondering if your website navigation makes the mark, you can:

  • Test it out for yourself! Make a list of important questions your families often ask and see how easy (or hard) it is to find the answers.
  • Refer to Google Analytics. Pages with low website traffic may indicate they are hard to find.

Want to learn more about website navigation? Check out these blogs:

5. Informative and engaging content

While good design can immediately encourage a website visitor to stay on your website, it is the content that fills the design that will ultimately sell your school. Website content has two key elements: visual content and written content.

  • Visual content comes in the form of photos, videos, graphic and design elements, and infographics.
  • Written content is, of course, the text you use to tell your story throughout your site. This comes in the form of value propositions, calls-to-action, paragraphs, lists, news, headlines, blogs, etc.

While you may be thinking "This is obvious, I know this already!" — Wait!

While the types of content you may use on your site is obvious, how you are supposed to use them may not be so obvious. Today's website visitors don't read your content, they scan it — especially if they're visiting on a mobile device. So, ensuring website pages aren't filled with paragraphs of small-test font is critical. 

When building your website pages, consider the use of:

  • Headings: Headers are not only important for accessibility, but can also make it easy for families to scan your website pages for the main points.
  • Bullets and lists: These scannable chunks of content are much easier to digest than long paragraphs.
  • Callouts and font colors: Use what's given to you in your website's style guide to bring attention to important content pieces you don't want families to miss.

On this page about Duke School's academics, you can see all three of these uses come to life as they draw attention to various content pieces through strategic use of font colors and sizes.

independent school academics page example

For more on website content strategy, you'll want to read:

6. It's optimized for search

The best school websites have a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) strategy that helps them achieve top rankings in the searches that matter most to them. While this may not tie directly to the website experience itself, ensuring your site is optimized for search is key to actually ensuring families can find your site. You can have the best website in the world...but if no one can find you, what is it worth?

For more on SEO strategy for schools, check out these blogs:

7. Safe and secure hosting

While hosting affects site speed, it also affects some other critical component's of your website's health — such as privacy and security of data. In a virtual world, we're unfortunately seeing an increased number of cyber attacks on school and district websites. You want anyone and everyone accessing your school's website to feel confident that their private information is safe — and asking your website provider questions about their hosting methods is essential.

All school websites hosted by Finalsite are protected from Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS), as well as other malicious web application attacks by Cloudflare. Cloudflare’s global Anycast network spans 200 cities and operates within 100 milliseconds of 99% of the Internet-connected population allowing them to mitigate even the largest DDoS attacks without any single point of failure. This type of redundant architecture is also built into Finalsite’s Composer application ensuring that school websites remain online no matter what attacks are thrown at them.

8. It's powered by a great content management system

At the heart of every good website is strategy, design, and content. But, it needs a home. If you want a website that works and looks great, you'll need a Content Management System (CMS) that makes maintaining your website easy. If you want to learn more about how Finalsite's CMS makes having a good school website easy, request a call with one of our website experts today!

Key Takeaway

The elements of a good school website extend from an eye-catching and accessible design to the content that fills it and the platform that supports it. These pieces are woven tightly together, and it's essential that all of them are taken into consideration for your school or district website in 2021 and beyond.


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This blog has been updated since its original publish date in July, 2017.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mia Major

Mia is a creative and passionate school marketing thought-leader. Since joining the Finalsite team in 2013, Mia has produced hundreds of pieces of content with one goal in mind: helping private, public, and international schools improve their online presence. In her current role as director of demand generation, Mia focuses on full-funnel inbound marketing strategies. She's also a co-host on The School Marketing Show, a frequent blogger, e-book author, Expert Course consultant and webinar host. She loves putting storytelling at the heart of all communications — and before joining the Finalsite team, Mia was a TV and radio broadcaster, wedding cinematographer, and author for various online magazines. She is an army wife, mom, and rookie photographer currently living in southern Georgia.

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