Category: Usability

External Links and Beware of the ‘Link Trolls’

As a web manager, you have a lot of responsibility. You have to keep your content “fresh” and accurate. It is a lot of work when you have 50+ webpages to manage along with various other job responsibilities. Making CMS updates typically falls under “and other duties assigned”—making things particularly difficult.

The ‘What’ and ‘Why’ of External Linking

We link to a lot of external websites—ones that Michigan Tech does not own or control. We link to resources about the local community and lodging, responsible research practices, and the products that our university uses. We link to information about disabilities. To our corporate partners’ websites. To sponsors, writing tips, and career advice.

These links are not “bad.” Often times, an external resource is more of an expert than we are. It may also be more cost effective to link out than it is to maintain our own content.

We have to be careful, though. Every time we link to an external resource, two things happen:

  1. We tell the user that we “endorse” the third party and their content
  2. We transfer valuable search engine “link juice” away from our website and towards the third party’s website

What It Means

When we link to a third party website, we are endorsing both the content and the publisher—whether we like it or not. It is important to keep this in mind and especially important to only link to trustworthy content. There’s nothing wrong with linking to another website—we just need to make sure we’re linking to reputable ones. Particularly ones that are:

  • well established
  • will be around for the long run
  • are authoritative on the subject matter that they are writing about

The SEO Component

Search engine optimization is a big deal. Over 60% of our web traffic originates from a Google or Bing search. We need to rank well in search engines to capture traffic.

To simplify the discussion, search engines determine rankings by passing mythical “link juice” from site to site. Each website starts with an equal amount of link juice.

When website A links to website B, link juice gets passed from A to B. Over time, the more a website is linked to, the more juice it gets and the better it will rank. Similarly, if a website links out a lot, but doesn’t get any links in return, its link juice will dry up. This is a great way for search engines to measure the “trustworthiness” of a website. If your site is trustworthy, you should receive more links that you send out. Sounds simple, right?

It is a little more complicated than that. University websites get some “bonus link juice” from the start, because search engines trust “.edu” websites more. This gives us an advantage. It also makes us a target for link trolls.

An Innocent Link Ask

It is common for third parties to email university folks asking for a link to their website. Sounds innocent, right? They will find the email address for the department chair, administrative assistant, webmaster listed in the footer, etc. They will then craft a convincing email, similar to this:

Hello webmaster,
You have done a great job of putting together resources for *blah*. You've linked to a number of my favorite resources. One link that is missing, though, is It would be great if you could add this link so that your students will have access to all the best resources. Thank you for your time.

Another popular tactic is:

I was looking at your website and found some broken links. Who do I contact to get them fixed?

Once you reply to them with contact information, they will say:

It looks like the links are fixed now. However, here are some additional links that you should add to the listing.

Does this sound familiar?

The Bottom Line

A web professional will know what is going on right away and will be able to act appropriately. For those who’s web responsibilities fall under “and other duties as assigned,” ask yourself these questions:

  • do I feel comfortable with endorsing this website/company?
  • does the link actually provide value to my target audience
  • is the link really necessary? Do we have enough resources already? (Don’t forget about Hick’s Law and content overload.)

If you can answer “yes” to these questions, then linking to the new resource isn’t necessarily bad. I’m not trying to talk you out of linking to third parties. Michigan Tech websites have plenty of link juice, so we do not need limit our external linking. There are many reputable content sources out there that our users would benefit from.

What I want to do is raise awareness of why you may be receiving link requests. These requests may appear to be in good faith, but are often fueled by a company’s desire to boost their search engine rankings and nothing more. Some may provide value to our web users. More often than not, though, these additional links will only add to the noise of an already bloated webpage.

If you receive a suspicious request and want my team to review it, you can reach us at and we’ll happily help you out. I also recommend reviewing your site’s external link resources and do some clean-up if they have gotten unruly over the years.

Joel Vertin
Digital Services Manager

Flexibility/Usability Tradeoff

As the flexibility of a system increases, its usability decreases. It sounds simple, but yet is so difficult to understand. Intel has a couple nice examples of this. Flexibility has costs. I would argue this holds true in general, but for now let’s focus on the web.

Making it ‘Foolproof’

Murphy’s Law claims, in part, that “nothing is foolproof to a sufficiently talented fool.” In basic terms, you cannot plan for everything. Rather, you should design and code for the critical mass of users needed to make your website successful. When you go overboard on flexibility, you decrease efficiency, added complexity, increase time, and spend more money for development. You may deliver a user experience that is worst than what you started with.

Take an online project intake form or summer internship application as an example. Rather than trying to account for every possible scenario of what you may wish to know, ask for the base information that you need. You can always learn more about the person through follow up interactions. As you learn that certain questions or pieces of information are key difference makers, update your form/application. The nice thing about the web is that you can make updates.

Instead of making an “end all, be all” web form, webpage, or set of instructions, go back to the basics and make a general outline. Add in some of the flexibility factors that cater to the majority of your users. Test and be open to feedback. Make adjustments as necessary. Accommodate the few users who need those extra features—but have a flexible mindset in considering how to do so. If a particular issue comes up only once per six months, is it really an issue that needs fixing? Or, is a phone call or follow up email perfectly satisfactory? A good manager consider this through the lens of the specific context and situation.

Intentional Restrain

Digital Services must show intentional restraint in how flexible we make our websites. We use a Content Management System to manage the majority of our sites. Because our university uses a decentralize web management approach, we have hundreds of CMS users—many who are not web professionals. With every new feature or template that we add to our CMS, we add another layer of complexity. Another click. Another step. More opportunity for confusion.

Because of the flexibility/usability tradeoff scenario, we are very careful with what we do and do not add to the CMS and to our websites. Our clients benefit from this approach every day, even if they are sometimes frustrated by what we are able to offer. Our approach is intentional, though. Perhaps just not for the reasons that our clients realize.

Joel Vertin
Digital Services Manager

Why We Are Going Responsive

When universities or corporations redesign their website, the trend is to ‘go responsive.’ There are a few important reasons, beyond being trendy:

  • Mobile usage is exploding: More than 33% of our web traffic is on a mobile device and that percentage increases every few months. Our Athletics website has already seen “the flip” where more of their traffic is via mobile than any other platform.
  • Consistent user experience: if your customer is used to your desktop website, they should have a similar experience on a tablet or mobile phone. This is ensured by serving them a responsive website that adapts to their screen size. We believe in serving the same content, regardless of the screen size. Smartphones are fully capable of displaying all of the content that a desktop machine can.
  • It is recommended by Google: Google will boost your search engine rankings if a user is searching on a mobile device and your website is ‘mobile friendly.’ Although Google also values a separate version of your website as being ‘mobile friendly’, they recommend that your website be responsive.
  • Cost effectiveness: in the long run, it is easier to make your website responsive than it is to maintain two or more separate versions of your website. With multiple website copies, it is easy to be lazy and develop for ‘desktop only’ and then have to redevelop for the other screen sizes. A responsive website puts the focus on all screen sizes and one code base.

The Importance of Mobile

Administrators and others who are not trained web professionals often overlook the importance of having a fully functioning mobile website. Sitting at a desk all day can make you forget that this is not how everyone accesses your website. Think of your friends and family members who don’t even a computer now that they have a tablet.

The Pew Research Center has some excellent information about mobile device usage:

From those reports, these statistics especially stand out to Michigan Tech:

  • Nearly 1 in 5 Americans relies on a smartphone for accessing the Internet either because there isn’t “any other form of high-speed Internet access at home” or because of a “limited number of ways to get online other than their cell phone.”
  • 7 percent have neither broadband service nor other alternatives for going online other than their smartphone
  • Younger adults: Fifteen percent of Americans ages 18-29 are heavily dependent on a smartphone for online access.

Here are some other statistics that were discussed during the 2015 HighEdWeb Annual Conference:

  • 60% of college freshman say the visual environment is the deciding factor for college choice.
  • 40% of students use mobile devices to view any website “all the time”
  • 88% of juniors and 86% of seniors find college websites through search engines.

Putting Our Best Foot Forward

In order to reach the audiences that we want, moving our websites to a responsive design is not just a desire—it is a must. We’re excited to be putting our best foot forward to better serve our users and to reach a wider portion of our target audience. Going responsive is not a trivial initiative, but we’re ready for the challenge.

Joel Vertin
Digital Services Manager

Hick’s Law: Content Overload

Hick’s Law explains: The time it takes to make a decision increases as the number of alternatives increases.

It is important to keep this in mind when you are deciding to add another tab to your navigation, another link under a tab, another paragraph to a webpage, or another link in a sidebar.

Make Things Digestible

Every time you add something to your website, you decrease the importance of the other portions of it. Every time you add to a webpage, you may be “adding noise” that detracts from the most important information. As an example, everyone wants to be linked from the Michigan Tech homepage. Every department. Every academic program. Every initiative or group. However, how would a user ever navigation our website if everyone had a link? People would say that our website is unusable.

Digital Services uses analytics, user interviews, benchmarking, and leadership priorities to shape how we present our websites and the information within our websites. I challenge each individual department to treat their own website in the same way.

You can read more about Hick’s Law and how in applies to web design online:

Joel Vertin
Digital Services Manager

Image Carousels are Dead

Why do people always ask for image carousels, especially on their homepage? Ok, I understand that sometimes it is politics. “I can’t feature just one topic on my department’s homepage. Can we add seven images, so no one is mad?” Sometimes it is because novices thinks that it “looks cool.” Sometimes people see it on one website and think they should copy the effect. None of these are good reasons for an image carousel, though.

No One is Watching

Politically, you may feel better about having an image carousel, but your users don’t care. No one is watching past the first image. Not only do our own analytics show it, but it has been well documented by others on the web as well:


Instead of an image carousel that no one will be looking at, sprinkle strong imagery and content through your homepage, informational page, or marketing page. Users will scroll—especially on mobile devices. Instead of cramming all your images into one small section of your page, use them throughout your page. You’ll find more success.

If You Must . . .

If you HAVE to use image carousels, we recommend the following:

  • No more than three images. Don’t make the user load anything more than that (bandwidth isn’t free)
  • Optimize your images to reduce total load
  • Don’t rotate your images automatically. It affects those with motion sickness issues or other motor skill deficiencies

Joel Vertin
Digital Services Manager

The Hierarchy of (Web) Needs

Being a web professional at a university can be difficult. Department chairs say things like “I want a website that looks different from everyone else.” A liaison says “I want the newest, craziest, most different website that you can make.” Everyone wants ‘cutting edge,’ although they don’t know what that means or why they are asking for it.

Those who don’t work in the web profession get lost in flashy designs, zany animations, and sparkles. They rarely analyze how many clicks it takes to get to the real information, how accessible a website is to those with disabilities, or how user-friendly a website is on an iPhone. They just want to be ‘wowed.’ Does their audience really want to be wowed, though?

Design Hierarchy of Needs

The problem is that creativity is the least important part of the web design pyramid. A website cannot be successful if it is not functional, first and foremost. It also should be reliable and usable.

Design Hierarchy of Needs
Design Hierarchy of Needs (Credit: 3.7 Designs

3.7 Designs has a nice article that discusses this issue by relating it to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

My Digital Services team puts the focus back on making websites that are functional, reliable, and usable first and foremost. We understand why you are asking for “new and fancy” websites and we are working on new CMS templates to accommodate this. However, let’s not lose focus on what makes a website truly effective: good, readable content organized within an intuitive navigation structure and usable interface.

Joel Vertin
Digital Services Manager

Search Engine Optimization and Usability

Over the past month, 60% of our web traffic has come via some search engine. That number has hovered around 60% for months now. What does that mean? In a world where users automatically go to Google to find a website, it is increasing important that we optimize our websites for search engines (commonly referred to as SEO).

A number of the same principles for optimizing our websites (using headings, linking keywords, providing rich content) also create a website that is very user friendly. A good website follows usability best practices and SEO best practices.

To help our campus web liaisons, we have produced a guide about SEO and usability best practices.