Our website deployment team — which consists of designers, front-end developers and project managers — answers dozens of questions every day about website best practices, like: how should we structure our interior pages? What's the best placement for our call-to-action buttons? How can we provide the best navigation experience? What kind of photos work best on a homepage? How long should my videos be? How can I compress my photos?
The list goes on and on. But the most common question of them all: What makes a good school website?
Now, that's an interesting question, because there isn't just one answer. Catholic school websites vary from boarding school websites, which vary from public school websites...and so on. And of course, best practices for each type of school are different. But, there are some general best practices and standards applicable to every type of school, no matter their size, budget, target audience, or type.
So — what makes a good school website? Aside from the no-brainers, such as responsive design, I've whittled the extensive list down to nine key elements.
A good school website has a sense of self.
First and foremost, a good school website has a strong sense of self — meaning the design, content, and photos used are all representative of the school's brand. Rather than trying to replicate a competitor's website or another because you like it, focus on the elements of the website you like and then ask yourself: Why do we like this? Would it work for our school? Does this design element help us reach our goal?
"When schools have this kind of understanding, everything else falls into place," said Julianne Hamilton, an award-winning Senior Designer at Finalsite. "There are an overwhelming number of directions you can take on a new site, so having a clear goal and brand to base your choices on makes decision-making much easier."
It has one target audience in mind.
Good school websites don't try and communicate to numerous different audiences at the exact same time on their homepage. Rather, they focus on either crafting messages for their current families, or prospective families — and in most cases, homepage content is meant to engage prospective families.
Take a look at Grand River Academy's homepage, for example. The value propositions, testimonials, content and calls-to-action are all geared towards engaging the prospective student. However, they still make content for alumni and parents accessible using smaller call-to-action buttons in the top right corner. These segments content, giving your website one target audience, but still not forgetting about current and former constituents.
Important content is easy to locate.
Because 83% of search query paths begin with an unbranded term, (such as best schools near me), your school's homepage needs to easily answer five key questions right away to help searchers realize they are in the right place.
These five questions are:
- What do you do?
- What makes you unique?
- How can I learn more?
- Where can I find you?
- Will I fit in?
For examples of good school homepages that answer these questions, read this blog post!
There aren't dead end pages.
Dead end pages happen when you don't offer a next step, via a link, call-to-action or form. Most schools are guilty of having dead end pages, as it can be time consuming to ensure every page has a carefully planned next step. However, when your website has dead end pages, you lose control of your website visitor's journey, leaving them two options: try and find the content they expect on your website on their own, or go back to search.
Good school websites don't have dead end pages. Rather, they ensure every interior page has at least one related call-to-action to guide them to more related content. One great example of this is Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, who adds related calls-to-action to every single interior page of their website. No matter where you end up, there is always a suggestion of where to go next.
It is filled with really, really good 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, 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, and even your navigation.
However, because today's website visitors are scanners — not readers — and most of the content they view is on mobile devices, the most successful school websites take this into consideration and adapt their written text for these two purposes.
If you want tips on writing better website content, you're going to love this blog post.
It is optimized for search.
You can have the best website in the world...but if no one can find you, what is it worth? The best school websites have an SEO strategy that guarantees them a Page 1 presence in the searches that matter most to them. For more information on how to optimize your school's website for search, read this blog post.
Free Resource: Become an expert in SEO (Search Engine Optimization) with this worksheet.
It has smart information architecture.
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 — prior to the redesign process have websites with lower bounce rates and higher conversion rates, because the sheer structure of their website is strategic in nature.
One big piece of smart information architecture is a simple site search toolbar that can be accessed from anywhere, so if a website visitor is really struggling to find content, they can at least search for it. For example, Hotchkiss keeps a small magnifying glass docked in their main navigation, that brings up this interactive site search panel, where you can also quickly find top hit pages.
It integrates social media.
Social media is one of the most powerful marketing tools available for schools, as it is where prospective and current families spend a large chunk of their time online. However, the ultimate goal is to get them to your website, not your Instagram — which is why schools who use social media as a piece of the web design reap the biggest social rewards.
Almost every single website we launch at Finalsite has a social media component because we know how important social media is for your audience. It offers you the opportunity to provide up-to-date content on your website without duplicating effort, and provides an authentic inside-look at life on campus. And while social media is popular now, we're only going to see its vitality to your school's website increase over the next few years.
It is powered by a great CMS.
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 robust and trusted CMS that makes maintenance and teamwork easy. If you want to learn more about how Finalsite's CMS makes having a good school website easy, talk to us today!
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.