Scottish Web Folk: research, SEO and GDPR

Jennifer Hamrick
Friday 25 May 2018

On 4 May 2018, Nick, Maria and I attended Scottish Web Folk. Scottish Web Folk is an informal meeting for anyone working in digital in higher education in Scotland; it takes place three to four times a year at one of the universities. This meeting was hosted by the University of Dundee. 

The May 2018 meeting took place at the University of Dundee, and the agenda covered research webpages, search tools, SEO, GDPR, and CRM. This post summarises some of the key discussions and takeaways from the day.

Research pages

The first topic of the day was one suggested by our team as we are currently working on redeveloping part of the research section of our website. The questions posed to the group were:

  • What is the user need for research pages?
  • What is included?
  • Who updates the webpages and how often?
  • What are the key performance indicators?

During the discussions, most of the attendees seemed to agree that the pageviews for research pages tend to be very low. In addition, some attendees pointed out that there is a dichotomy between “deep-dive” academic research and more top-level research information.

One of the universities said they are planning on redeveloping their research section by focusing on top-level information, and they are planning on pulling information directly from Pure to their website. For the “deep-dive” academic research, they plan to launch a WordPress service to give research groups and centres their own sites that are kept separate to the main corporate website.

They also mentioned that a big user group for their research pages is prospective postgraduate students looking for research projects and degrees, and having research webpages is important for attracting this group. In fact, it seems most Scottish universities include information about postgraduate research (PGR) opportunities within their research webpages, although it still seems to be one of the “best hidden” sections across most websites. St Andrews is one of the few universities that doesn’t including PGR information within research, and some people thought that it is difficult to navigate to this information from our homepage.

Another university stated that their analytics showed that 40% of their users couldn’t find what they were looking for on research pages. In general, their users were looking for PGR information, and it seems users expect course pages for PGR in the same way as they are delivered for undergraduate students and postgraduate students on taught programmes. At the moment, they say there is a clear boundary between teaching and research on their website, and that the two are not being used to promote each other, which may be a missed opportunity. They say they are going to look at redefining the relationship between teaching and research, looking to permeate this through their whole website.

With regards to updating content for research sites, a university says they are looking into providing digital training so that the academic community can develop news stories and case studies for the website themselves. Another is working closely with their research innovation services group to come up with expectations for “web presences” in terms of time, funding, management, etc.

In terms of other users for research sites, one university pointed out that one of the key functions of a research website should be to support academic staff and show that their research is important by promoting it on the website. There was little consensus about whether or not REF panels or funding councils actually looked at university research websites.

Based on the useful discussions, the biggest takeaway for us will be deciding how we present PGR opportunities on the website in the future and also how we can effectively train staff to provide news stories and studies ready for the web.

Search tools

The meeting next turned to a discussion about search and how universities are replacing Google search solutions. The majority of Scottish universities appear to be using a search tool called “Funnelback”.

The University of St Andrews is still using Google Search Appliance, but needs to replace this before the end of the year. We are currently going through a tender process to find a new provider.

Search engine optimisation (SEO)

The group had an open discussion about what digital teams are doing in terms of SEO. Some of the starting questions asked were:

  • How do we define SEO?
  • How relevant is it?
  • What else affects search?

Some universities seemed to put little investment into SEO besides keywords and descriptions for their webpages. However, some others were conducting more research into SEO keywords by using the Google AdWords tool, conducting paid research to check the effectiveness of their SEO, and monitoring page rankings every week. One university was even planning on bringing in an SEO trainer to distil information to staff across the university.

Besides keywords, one university found that reducing duplication across their webpages had a positive effect; duplicating information was causing their webpages to compete with themselves for search engine rankings. They also found that switching their whole website to “https” helped their rankings enormously.

There was also discussion around encouraging academics to write articles and news stories on topical, punchy topics. These types of stories tend to get picked up very quickly, but can also be time consuming as it takes a lot of coordination to get good content. One group suggested the possibility of getting rid of their “News” section completely and getting academics to write topical content, similar to the Conversation website.

Another topic of discussion was geo-specificity with search results, as results depend on where you make a search. Are international students finding our webpages? One university discovered that prospective students from China typically use “Univesrity of XXX, official website” in their search terms because there are so many spam websites in China.


Another topic of discussion was the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) laws which are coming into effect at the end of May 2018.

Discussion included what universities were planning on doing with cookies, visible opt-in messages, Google Tag Manager, as well as recording and storing consent. There were more questions than answers, but it is clear that GDPR will have far-reaching implications where digital is concerned.

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