CMC’s website shows vast improvements

Last summer I tore into CMC's website redesign, saying that the new design emphasized looks over function and did a poor job of explaining what made CMC special. I recently visited the site and they've made a bunch of usability improvements.

Here are some of the highlights. Again, I offer these up with the caveat that, I haven't done any testing or looked at any data, but I do have a lot of experience in this area.

  • The old homepage, with only 14 links, call to action button that looked like an ad, and incredibly-difficult-to-change photo content, is gone. Instead users are redirected straight to http://cmc.edu/discovercmc, which is a much better page.

  • The Discover CMC page has lots of dynamic content that promises to be much easier to update; photos of speakers, links to events, a Twitter widget and a sliding bar. It also has an updated meta description, so a Google search for "Claremont McKenna" returns more contextual information about CMC.

  • Static assets (images, CSS, Javascript) are being cached with a Last-Modified and an E-Tag header, so that browsers will not re-request the same images and CSS every time a user requests the homepage. This will help with page load times.

  • There's a call to action button on the homepage: "Plan your Visit to Claremont McKenna today."

  • The "Student Gateway" replaced all of the stock photos with links to useful content, like the login form for your email account, which used to take around four clicks. That is outstanding. (For the record, http://bit.ly/cmcmail will take you right to the old form - I set up that link junior year :)) It looks like a page I would actually use to find things I was looking for - the maintenance request page, the Collins menu, etc.

  • The calendar on the Student Gateway page uses Google Calendar, instead of the old ASPX event calendar that no one used.

  • The "Prospective Students" page has an explanation of why you should apply to CMC.

  • Skip links for disabled users!! These will help people skip to the main page content and help CMC, a nonprofit, meet government standards for website accessibility.

  • The professor home pages, which I singled out for SEO improvements, have gotten about halfway there; it's clear someone is thinking about improvements in that area. Pages now contain an h1 tag and some keywords describing what the professor does; it's a lot of work, but the pages would be best with a unique <title> attribute and a meta description, however.

These add up to amazing improvements in usability and discoverability; they've addressed most of the problems with the old site. It also represents a tremendous amount of effort on the website and whoever is responsible should be proud.

That said, it's still not perfect, and there are some more quick usability/SEO wins to accomplish. Here's a shorter, less urgent, list of areas they could still improve upon:

  • You can access the Discover CMC page from eight distinct URL's:

    • www.cmc.edu/discovercmc
    • cmc.edu/discovercmc
    • claremontmckenna.edu/discovercmc
    • www.claremontmckenna.edu/discovercmc
    • www.cmc.edu/discovercmc/index.php
    • cmc.edu/discovercmc/index.php
    • claremontmckenna.edu/discovercmc/index.php
    • www.claremontmckenna.edu/discovercmc/index.php

    Google will sometimes interpret duplicate content as a sign that you're trying to farm for content by placing the same text at different URL's. It also means Google is unsure which version of the page to point people to. It's better for Google rankings to redirect all duplicate content to one canonical domain/URL with a 301 (and better still to serve it at the root - shorter URL's rank more highly).

  • It feels odd to have distinct pages for Admission and for Prospective Students; those two have a ton of overlap and it might be best to merge them. Prospective students are the only group interested in Admissions information, and the Admission pages may get more love (see the outdated Twitter feed on the Prospective students page).

  • The dropdown menu is great and includes a ton of links to useful content. However, I expected that when I hovered over the menu item, the menu would appear automatically. Instead I had to click to make the menu appear. Normally I expect when I click on something that looks like a link, I will be taken to a different page, so I was hesitant to click on the link.

    Dropdown menus have a usability problem where users scrolling the mouse from above the menu to below the menu trigger the flyout, even though they don't mean to. The best practice here is to have the menu only appear after the user has hovered over the item for around half a second, so that transient mousers don't trigger the flyout.

One of the reasons I set up Good Morning CMC was to provide students with an actually useful calendar and a more accessible view of the information that we needed on a daily basis. With these changes Good Morning CMC is becoming close to redundant.

The number of CMC students interested in different tech fields - web design, marketing, entrepreneurship - has been on the rise recently. I wouldn't be surprised if the web team and some smart interns couldn't continue to improve the site, boosting application rates, prospective student contact rates, and alumni giving rates, through iterative improvements to the current site.

PS Sorry I didn't include images or links - I am trying to blog more often and cut down on the amount of time it takes to do so.

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