Benchmarking university websites

Duncan Sanderson
Thursday 10 December 2015

We wanted to benchmark our website against other university websites, both within the UK and worldwide to see how we compare with things like responsive design, intranet usage and standardised school sites.

To do this I visited the websites for each Scottish, top 100 UK (The Completed University Guide) and top 50 world (Time Higher Education) universities. A similar study was done in 2013, by my colleague Stephen Evans, allowing us to compare the results to see how university websites have changed in the last few years.

While on each university’s site I checked if the design was responsive – a design layout that changes depending on the device being used (desktop, tablet, mobile, etc.), if they use a login to an intranet and whether they had a standardised page layout for their school pages. The data gathered from these websites provides a good overview of how university websites across Scotland, the UK and the world are designed and allows us to see how our own website compares.

The results of this study showed that the majority of these universities use a design that is responsive, with 79% of Scottish, 76% of UK and 78% of world universities having a design that responded to different screen sizes.

responsive comparison

The chart above shows that the number of universities with a responsively-designed website has significantly increased between 2014 and 2016. This rise in use of responsively designed sites reflects a growth in number of people using mobile devices to access the internet.

I also found that most of the universities have a log-in intranet, with 79% of Scottish, 67% of UK and 85% of world sites having a private intranet for their university.

intranet comparison

As you can see, there has been an increase in the number of universities using a login to their intranet in the last few years. A log-in only intranet allows universities to separate internal information and tools (e.g. policies, forms, etc.) from the public side of the website. This separation allows the external site to have more focus on current and potential students, who aren’t really concerned with the corporate side of the university.

We can also see, from the data collected, that most of these universities have a consistent design for their school pages, with 79% of Scottish and 66% of UK universities having standard school sites. The world university sites are significantly different in this area with only 30% of these sites having a consistent school layout. One reason for this may be down to the fact that most of top world universities are based in the USA which are less centralised compared with European universities.

standardised comparison

Standard school sites have a benefit for both the user and the university. Users can quickly learn what to expect and where to expect it on each school site. The university benefits as standard pages are easier to maintain, web support teams won’t have to learn the different page designs/code before updating or fixing an issue.

The University of St Andrews website currently falls behind when compared with other university websites, but is a long way off being the worst! We do have a number of pages that use a responsive design, mostly on our prospective student pages, but don’t yet have a standard layout for our Schools’ pages. However, we are currently working on redesigning our website which will make the site fully responsive and standardise all of our schools pages. So we can see from this study that we are heading in the right direction.

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