If we provided the following list to most other industries, it would be old news. I’m pretty sure the whole article would get a response like, “duh!” from their readers.
But, because schools and many educational institutions have limited communications budgets and the folks managing the school’s websites are seldom trained in website best practices, this topic is worthy of review. At least we assume it is because we continue to see the following tacky practices on many school websites.
All we can say is that if you are doing any of the following, please STOP IT! (No matter how many other schools you see doing it.)
What to avoid
- Counters – lose the page counters. They do not add credibility to your site or your school, and they look amateurish. For analytical purposes, view your statistics through Google Analytics (or any statistics analysis not publically displayed). Your site visitors don’t really care how many “hits” your site gets. It’s not like YouTube or Facebook and doesn’t validate your site visitors as being one of the in-crowd.
- Excessive Animation or Flashing Text – If your animation doesn’t serve a purpose that adds to your message, lose it. In the 90’s animated gifs might have been cute, but now they are annoying and detract from the professionalism and message of your site. The best school websites are not used to show off design cleverness but to provide useful, current, and relevant information. (Some flashing text may not meet ADA compliant website standards, so be careful there as well.)
- Broken Links – There are tools you can use to check your entire site for broken links. Get in the habit of running those frequently to keep your links useful. Broken links make your site visitors feel that your site is stale and you don’t care enough to keep it fresh. Parents also get upset when the form or page they are looking for is no longer there. We all know that off-site links are not under your control, but when they become broken, fix or delete them. School website quality control is worth the effort.
- Under Construction Notices – All sites should be constantly under construction if they are to stay current and useful. However, don’t place any “Under Construction” signs on your site. If it is not ready to display, don’t take the page live until it is. You wouldn’t invite friends over to dinner and not make a meal, so don’t invite people to an empty page. Yes, we know other schools do it. Just don’t be one of them, as it is considered Tacky 101.
- Slow Page Load Speeds – Fast wins! The established standard is text that is visible between 1.5 and 5 seconds. It is acceptable for graphics to take a few seconds longer if they are worth waiting for, but always optimize them for the web. However, while speed is important, don’t completely sacrifice quality for two seconds of load time. Pixilated photos detract from visual appeal and professionalism. Your site exists to provide information to your customers—parents, students, staff, potential new hires, and the community—so always keep their needs at the forefront of all your design decisions. They went to the site to save time; don’t test their patience, or they will leave.
- Inconsistent Navigation – Your site visitors should feel confident that while transitioning from page to page, the navigational structure will remain consistent. With navigation, the KISS rule applies (keep it simple stupid). Don’t confuse the visitor with redundant navigation scattered around the page—different buttons or links pointing to the same page. The exception to redundant links on a page is, for targeted users’ convenience, when you clearly delineate them under a specific category like Parent Quick Links or Student Information. And, if you have a main office website or a district website as well as school sites, please keep the navigational structure the same on your school sites. Parents are often visiting multiple school sites, and having completely different structure from site to site just causes confusion and frustration.
- Incongruous Theme & Style – A professional site design will maintain a theme throughout. This tells your visitors you care enough to build a cohesive, well thought out website. It also assures your visitors they haven’t wandered off your site. Don’t change styles from one department to the next just because they want to do their own thing. You need to display an organized front, not a fragmented, departmentalized image. A school or district website shouldn’t be a reflection of individual personality but a team of professionals dedicated to a unified mission.
- Stingy White Space – Readability requires the good use of white space. Use adequate margins and line-height, and avoid wide blocks of text that are difficult to read. On a monitor, if the text runs from one side of the screen to the other, it is too difficult to read and your viewers simply won’t do it. Be sure you have adequate space around all images, navigation, and blocks of text. Effective white space will guide the eye and help important information stand out, and it is professional and attractive.
- Obnoxious background colors – Sure, your school colors may be neon orange and teal, but don’t use them for background colors on your website or as a text color. While you may be attempting to “brand” your website with your colors, some colors and background images can make it difficult to read content and distract the user. Save those colors for graphic images, your school mascot, or maybe a heading or two. Don’t over do it. It is also important that you comply with those ever important ADA website compliance issues regarding color contrast.
- Non-compliance – We’re referring to several areas of noncompliance that you need to avoid. The first is ADA website compliance. Your school website design needs to meet WCAG 2.0 accessibility standards, and there can be expensive consequences for not being compliant. We’ve got lots of information for you on that topic on our blog (ADA tips, What every school administrator should know, How we can help). Another area to avoid is using images or photos that are copyrighted. You MUST tell your staff they can not just pull images from Google images or any other Internet resource because they are likely copyrighted, and the fines can be substantial. And, finally, be sure you are not copying content from another website. If it is published on a website, it is copyrighted. It’s called plagiarism. We all know how that turns out.
- Background music – Your site users won’t appreciate it when they land on your site and are greeted by auto-playing music that they didn’t select and can’t stop. If you must add music, be sure to provide controls so your users can start and stop the music. Nix those endless loop audio files, and don’t let anyone insist your school alma mater needs to ring in your visitors’ ears on every page, no matter how clever they think it might sound.
- Non-responsive website – Between 25 and 85 percent of your site visitors are getting there from their mobile devices. If you don’t have a responsive, mobile friendly website, you are making it more challenging for them to get to the information they need. There is no way around it these days. Get our school website mobile-friendly. Learn why and how to have a responsive school website.
- Outdated information – This problem, having outdated information on your school website, is one of the quickest ways to send the wrong message to your website visitors. It says you don’t care (which, we know, is not the case). But those first impressions matter, and having old news, out of date calendars, last year’s welcome message, and other relevant information on your site is a bigger mistake than you might imagine. Create a plan to update your website daily (or at least weekly), no matter your school size. Also, don’t use your site as an archive dump for every old agenda or meeting minutes you’ve ever posted. Get the old news off your site. It’s unprofessional, creates unnecessary site bloat, and just looks tacky.
- Link inconsistencies – We’re referring to what your site visitors can expect when they click on a link, especially in text links. Your off-site links should open in a new window, so your visitors don’t lose their location on your school site. But, typically, links that are pointing to a page within your school site should open in the existing window. There are a few exceptions. For example, we would recommend that a form that needs to be filled out could open in a new window to be completed, but then the visitor could quickly return to their previous location within your site without getting lost. Use an intuitive and consistent link strategy across all of your school sites.
- Silly font usage – Don’t try to get too creative with your website’s font selection. Pick one or two fonts, and stick with them throughout the site. A common approach is to use a legible serif web font for titles and maybe a san serif for text (or the reverse). But don’t change font styles without a good reason. Communication and clarity are the goal here—no extra points for creativity. Oh, and remember, “friends don’t let friends use Comic Sans.”
- Lose the jargon – Terms that are familiar to educators often have no meaning to those outside of their profession without a bit of explanation. You want parents and community members to understand and engage with your website, which means you need to avoid education jargon. That includes using acronyms and terms like IEP, ELL, ESL, GPA, IDEA, AP, NCLB, ESSA, Title I, whole language, block scheduling, and hundreds more. Instead, be clear and concise, and create communication that is welcoming to everyone.
- Stop centering text – Reading on the web is not much different from reading a book, and it’s easiest to read text that is left aligned. When you center text, the starting place for each line changes, and it forces the reader to find where each line begins. A consistent left edge lets us move our eyes quickly as we complete a line. So, it is faster and easier to read left aligned text. Centered text is best used for some headlines, like over a narrow column, or short lines of text that you want to bring to the reader’s attention. (While we’re at it, it also isn’t a good idea to right justify your paragraph text, as it is also harder to read. If you do it, have a good reason to decrease readability.)
- No style guide – One of the best ways to create effective and professional school communications is to create a clear style guide for your staff to follow (this blog will help if you handle your own school website management). A style guide is a document that briefly defines the set of rules you expect your organization to adhere to. It is basically a list of do’s and don’ts. It helps create a consistent tone that supports your school’s mission to portray your school communications in the style and format your school chooses. It also establishes consistent grammar, punctuation, and spelling standards. Our blog on style guides will help get you started.
- No address – Schools often commit the far too common mistake of not including the school’s address (including state and country) on their website. You need to remember that no matter what your school name is, there are likely to be others with similar names all around the country (and world). Whether your website visitors are prospective staff or new family move-ins, be sure they know they have found the correct website. Always put your full address on the school website. A good location is in the footer so it shows up on whichever page your site visitor enters. If you can’t do that, be sure you have a prominent “Contact Us” page available from the main navigation.
- Ignoring your audience needs – One thing that all good communicators know is that the website content should address your customer interests. For schools, the customers are parents, staff, students, and community members. That means that the website should focus on their needs and wants. You need to know what their concerns and interests are, of course. Walk in your customers’ shoes, ask questions, do surveys, and make sure your school website content maintains that focus.
In addition to the list of mistakes to avoid, keep in mind that your school website is your primary communications tool. In concert with your school social media, you have a potent resource at your fingertips (literally). Be sure you put it to good use. Tell your school’s stories. Market your school’s successes and benefits. Use it to help parents decide to send their children to your school. Become the local school of choice. You can do it through effective communication.
Bonnie Leedy, CEO