I’ve never optimized an academic Website. I’ve never consulted for a university’s Web team (formally, for pay – I had a friend once who used to ask questions). I have nothing to gain from writing this article, and no axes to grind or bones to pick. So, to all you university Website admins, I say this with great love and respect in my heart for all your hard work: some of your search engine optimization practices suck.
To be more precise, I’ve a few things to say about academic Websites which have bothered me for over a decade. These are problems that – on the surface – are easily fixed or prevented. And so I must infer that perhaps all the admins know these problems exist and they are, for reasons not obvious to us mundanes, prevented from doing what should be obvious.
Well, except for a couple of things that, in my professional opinion, are sub-optimally stupid. But though I seem to be picking on the academic Web mastering world, this article is more directed at content creators.
1 – EDU Websites Rarely Seem to Implement 301 Redirects
I haven’t crawled the EDU Web or compiled any statistics based on tests. This complaint is purely based on my own personal experience of maintaining thousands of outbound links on many Websites. Thanks in large part to the academic Web, many of those links now point to the Wayback Machine.
One of my long-standing practices as a content creator, Website admin, and search engine optimization specialist is to review outbound links on the sites I manage. I do this as a matter of habit rather than schedule. That is, I may not update a Web page for 4 to 6 years. But eventually I get around to them all and when I do I usually click on the links to see which of them are still active.
The academic Websites I linked to in the past have a nearly 100% failure rate after only a few years. Now, to be fair, I’ve linked to hundreds of product pages for affiliate programs that I no longer participate in – or where the products are no longer for sale. The mercantile Web is a vicious pit of unfaithful vipers who destroy your links at the drop of a hat. But they (theoretically) remove content that isn’t making money any more.
I’m sure some SEO expert somewhere told them this was the thing to do.
But academic Websites remove everything from the blogs of tenured professors and academic institutes to the press releases announcing major scientific discoveries.
It’s a rare day when I click on an outbound link pointing to an EDU site – where the link is more than 5 years old – and it still works.
The content may still be online (although most often it’s not). And this is what infuriates me the most. I can easily go find an old copy of the content on the Wayback Machine (most of the time) and search the Web for a snippet of text. Some of the old articles or whatever are still online – just published on new URLs without any redirects to help people find them.
Maybe there were redirects in place at one time and they were taken down. Maybe not. It just seems to me that if I had been managing those sites I would have found a way to set up permanent redirects. That’s what I do for my own sites. I’ve moved thousands of articles around our portfolio and I always build or update redirect rules.
2 – EDU Sites Abandon Domain Names
Although most people in the SEO industry learn quickly that .edu domain names are reserved for schools and universities, what you may not know (and I may regret telling you all this) is that many schools register non-EDU domain names.
Why do they do that? I’m sure they have their reasons. Student organizations, non-teaching research groups, and other school-owned organizations may not be given the name space to create Websites. So they go out and register .org or .com domain names and build great, wonderful repositories of information.
And I link to those sites quite often. If the information is good then it’s worth linking to.
Except, after a few years, many of these domain names vanish into the ether. And I don’t mean they’re taken down. I mean they’re allowed to lapse. So you can imagine what happens next.
A couple of years ago I noticed that my links to a student newspaper Website were leading to strangely laid-out Web pages. They didn’t look right. After clicking around a bit I discovered that the domain had been picked up by a company in India that was pretending to be the student newspaper.
Worse, the student paper was still being published on the Web – on a new .com domain name. And the genius alum who had come up with this plan bragged about his successful move on social media. Heck, he put it on his resume (for which an SEO agency presumably hired him).
As far as that individual’s SEO skills are concerned, I hope he’s learned better by now. But not only did he screw a student newspaper Website out of many links (including all of my own), he handed a perfectly good, reputable domain name to a smarmy, disreputable company that pretended to be a university student newspaper. And I mean they went out of their way to make their version of the site appear to be legitimate.
3 – Universities Remove Tons of Useful Information from the Web
I’m talking about press releases. And, to be honest, this problem isn’t limited to the academic Web. Many corporate Websites and government Websites also take down old press releases.
They may have good, even legally compelling reasons to do this. But sometimes I prefer to link to the original source of information than some Website that republishes press releases from universities. That said, there are a couple of science news Websites that gradually earn more links from me every year as I replace old EDU links with links to their copies of the old press releases.
I can’t do much about old press releases on government Websites except change the links to point to old copies on the Wayback Machine or some other Web archive site. And I hate doing this because those old copies aren’t really mobile-friendly.
If a government changes administration or combines a few agencies into a new organization, I can understand why they’ll take down old PR (but they should implement good redirects if they’re just moving stuff around). Universities, on the other hand, often obliterate perfectly useful information that may have earned more than 1 link from me.
Sometimes you’ll find a great quote from a notable person who speaks at a university event only in their press release. If you use that press release as a source for your quote, you may find years later that it’s gone – snatched out from under your once authoritative content without so much as a “thank you for all the PageRank!”
Of course, I’m not saying that linking to university press releases gives you some kind of SEO boost. It’s just that if you’re trying to give your readers good content and support what you say, you want to link to the best possible sources of information. Wikipedia ain’t that (ever).
After 20+ years of linking to academic Websites I’ve grown reluctant to continue doing so. I can’t trust that the content will still be online the next time I check the links. I don’t care how limited a university’s IT budget may be – online storage is no longer that expensive. They should be able to find room on their servers to keep all this old stuff online.
If not, then at least allow it to be archived somewhere on the Web. I’ve even found some universities won’t allow THAT.
It’s ironic that the academic Web, which has been used as a model for the entire World Wide Web in countless computer science and information retrieval research papers, does such a terrible job of preserving online information. It only takes 1 simple entry in a “robots.txt” file to ensure that information remains available in a free off-site archive.
While I’m sure there are many lawyers who advise universities to take down content for various reasons, the wholesale destruction of what is for all intents and purposes publicly-funded information seems nothing short of a crime to me.
As a content creator you should think carefully about what you link to. It may not be your responsibility to go back and check the outbound links 5-10 years from now, but as someone who browses the Web, don’t you hate it when you click on a link that seems trustworthy and it leads nowhere?
I know I do. And maybe I’ll never get rid of all the dead links on my sites, but I clean up a few every month without pause. I’ll keep doing that until they shut down the Web for good.