How often should universities update their websites?

University Website Updates
Categories: Academia

I’m always amazed that some of the top universities have some of the worst-looking and most dated websites. I attribute this phenomenon to the fact that universities spend vast sums on their new websites and that budgets dictate that this can only happen every 4-5 years. Unfortunately, online technology and design features change much more rapidly than a 4-5 year time frame, so these expensive websites give the impression that a top-tier school does not have it together.

Design Changes

ios6 on the left – ios7 on the left

What is the appropriate website update cycle?

The look and feel of a website should be updated once every 1-2 years. This will allow the university to take advantage of new online technology while also keeping up with slight design palette updates. Consider the difference between Apple’s newest mobile operating system (iOS7) with the previous one (iOS6). Design changes like this change the expectations users have when they visit a website.

How does a university afford to update a website every 1-2 years?

A lot of universities get into trouble by constantly changing website platforms and choosing content management systems (CMS) that are astronomical in price. At a very basic level, there are two types of content management systems:

  1. Closed source / proprietary
  2. Open source

A closed source CMS is one in which one company is responsible for the creation and maintenance of the CMS. An open source CMS is one in which the code that comprises the CMS is “open” to the development community. The open platform makes it possible for developers around the world to improve upon the code and create add-ons that interact with the CMS. There are literally millions of people worldwide working to improve an open source CMS. A closed source CMS system might have 20 people working on the product. They may be able to better target their CMS to one niche market, but when you have 20 people vs. 1,000,000+, the results are going to be better with the open source CMS.

The biggest difference between closed and open source CMS platforms is the price. Closed source CMS platforms can cost upwards of $10k per website. Open source CMS platforms are free.

I believe that universities look at these two CMS options and conclude that the paid option must be the better option. Unfortunately, this is not the case (I have highlighted the differences in Cascade & WordPress in this blog post). Universities could end up spending a lot less money during each update if they adopt a platform like WordPress to power their websites, focus on continually making updates to their websites instead of trying to do everything at once, and then update the design every 1-2 years. The great thing about content management systems is that a new design can easily be added to existing content. A complete redevelopment is not required every 1-2 years, but a new design using existing content can easily be administered, lowering costs to keep the university’s websites continually updated.

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