Uncovering the blind spot in your university content strategy

May 13, 2024

Jeff Dillon


3 min. read

Website search functionality is a growing issue and critical blindspot for higher ed institutions. Here’s a firsthand look at how the issue affects universities who are struggling to keep up with digital demands.

Navigating Today’s Higher Education Landscape

As a University IT Director, I’ve seen firsthand the multitude of challenges that higher education faces today. From dwindling state budgets and increased privacy regulations to the complexities of a digital marketplace, these issues are reshaping how universities across the United States operate. Even those not currently struggling with enrollment will likely confront these difficulties soon. One significant emerging challenge is the “search cliff,” anticipated due to changes in the College Board’s Student Search Service, primarily driven by privacy laws and digital shifts. This is expected to create a substantial recruitment shortfall, averaging around $9 million per institution.

The Growing Complexity of Technology in Higher Education

The digital ecosystem in academia has become incredibly complex. As a former Digital Director at a large state institution, I had to ensure our institution kept pace with an ever-expanding array of software and solutions.  The role of technology in university settings has broadened far beyond traditional systems like content and learning management systems. It now encompasses a plethora of tools designed to enhance digital experiences for students, parents, faculty, staff, and alumni alike.

From IT-Leadership to a Marketing-Driven Approach

Over recent years, I’ve observed a shift in the leadership dynamics within our university. Marketing departments are increasingly at the helm of discussions on digital tools and strategies. This reflects a broader trend where technology decisions are becoming more marketing-focused. Projects often pause pending new marketing leadership, underscoring the growing significance of marketing in driving our technology strategies.

Burn & Build Project: A University Website Transformation

In 2019, our university faced a pivotal decision with our website filled with outdated and conflicting information. We embarked on a “burn and build” strategy, which meant rebuilding our website from scratch. We cut down our page count by over 80% and reduced the number of content publishers from 800 to 150. This drastic overhaul aimed to tackle issues like stale content, poor accessibility, and a previously decentralized and inconsistent user experience. The project, taking over a year, was a major success, but it also revealed a critical blind spot: site search functionality.

The Crucial Role of Effective Site Search

Through the website overhaul, the importance of efficient search capabilities came sharply into focus. Despite our reduced content, the community struggled to find necessary information, leading to a spike in support calls to our service desks. This challenge highlighted the strategic value of search not just for navigation but as a vital asset in improving user engagement and experience.

The Complex Digital Ecosystem of Higher Education

Academia probably has the most complex digital ecosystem of any industry. I’ve worked with many, from a variety of government agencies to private financial institutions. Higher ed must cater to a wide range of audiences including prospective and current students, faculty, staff, alumni, donors, and parents, among others. Content is often siloed across different parts of the organization such as web pages, event calendars, course catalogs, and faculty directories. This, combined with the highly decentralized nature of web management and governance, often leads to digital chaos.

Strategic Data Use and Search Optimization

Effective data management and search optimization are key to understanding and responding to user behavior. Our recent projects have utilized search data to track engagement and refine our strategies, like setting up synonyms for frequently searched terms and tweaking content visibility based on search trends. This approach helps us tailor our digital offerings more precisely to meet the diverse needs of our community.

The Integral Role of Marketing in Digital Strategy

The evolving landscape of higher education demands a proactive digital strategy, with marketing playing a crucial role. As we move forward, integrating sophisticated search functionalities and strategic data use will be vital in enhancing digital experiences and ensuring our institution not only survives but thrives in this new environment. For more insights on leveraging digital tools and optimizing search in your organization, consider setting up a consultation to explore your unique challenges.

By Jeff Dillon

Digital Strategist, Higher Education

"This challenge highlighted the strategic value of search not just for navigation but as a vital asset in improving user engagement and experience."

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