From education to employment

What’s Wrong With FE Websites?

Stefan Drew

I remember the heady days when we didn’t have websites, server problems, SEO issues and all those delights so many FE marketers suffer today.

But we now live in more enlightened times and the website is at the heart of FE marketing. We simply couldn’t do without it.

But of course many FE marketers don’t suffer from SEO problems or sense impending doom when thinking about their servers and server backups. It’s not that they always have perfect websites and immaculately serviced servers. The problem is many don’t actually understand websites and depend totally upon web designers.

Over the last years I’ve worked with some superb web designers. Businesses that really understand FE, know their way around CMS systems and the eccentricities of php and that all important black magic subject, Search Engine Optimisation. The really good ones even understand the need to wireframe the site before embarking on the full build and to ensure they optimise conversion of visitors into applicants. That is a black art of immense proportions, a website is of no use whatsoever if it attracts a million visitors but doesn’t convert any of them.

And then of course there are the other people that claim to be designers. These people can cost providers dear and later I’ll explain why.

Website Basics

But first let me start with the basics. A website is a very complex beast. Not only does it need to provide accurate information, it also needs to link seamlessly with your course information and applicant databases within your MIC. And MIS systems were not really built to link to websites, so this presents a few issues. But why you are spending a small fortune on building and maintaining a website; what is its real purpose?

Hint. It isn’t because you just have to have one these days. It isn’t because it is there to provide information … your prospectus can do that. It isn’t for lots of other reasons.

The real answer will vary from provider to provider but I’d suggest it should have something to do with getting bums on seats.

That isn’t to say it needs to immediately convert every visitor into an application. Life isn’t that simple. My simple marketing strategy has the website at the core. But it starts with engaging people via all the traditional and digital tactics and tools you’ve ever imagined and then driving them to the website (you can largely forget social media followers, they have some value, but a website visitor is worth much more).

Once on the website I love it when someone applies for a course. But most don’t do that immediately,  so I want to see them applying for an open day, or a Taster course, or anything that will put them face to face with a real person.

You see with the exception of when they use Amazon, a supermarket website and a few dozen other exceptions, most people want to buy from a person and not a website. Put simply, people buy from people …. and all staff need to realise they are “sales staff” in addition to the job role on their contract.

And I don’t mean they sell just your courses. That would not be in the interests of the customer in all cases. But they can sell the concept of education, career enhancement etc.

But back to the website. Here are a few basic things we all need to bear in mind, sadly not every site gets these right.

Websites need a Call To Action

It might be as simple as a phone number or a link to EventBrite but it needs to be clear to the visitor that this is what they need to do to get the answers they need. Of course they musn’t feel coerced, it needs to feel like your information is the answer to a prayer. 

“Sign up to our newsletter” is not a call to action (CTA), it is a call for help. Why would anyone signup? What’s in it for them? Signing up to a newsletter to discover details of your courses doesn’t cut it. It is too wieldy. And they don’t care about your courses  … they care about themselves. And that’s not a slur on them, self interest is part of the human condition.

“Discover how plumbers earn more” is far more likely to work as a lead magnet on the plumbing pages, and can lead to a slew of regular content about plumbing careers, professional tips, advanced plumbing courses and much more that is of interest to them. Once they realise how good your advice is, why would they not want to take a course with you?

Are you on the right website?

According to research  by Gitte Lingaard, Gary Fernandes, Cathy Dudek and J. Brown. your first impression of a website is made in less than 50 milliseconds. Google have confirmed this research.

A website visitor makes decisions about your website in the first 50 milliseconds. If your site is cluttered or doesn’t fit their expectations they soon surf off. Visitors need to be sure they are on the right site and you need to ensure the website conveys the right impression in the first few milliseconds.  So it needs to be clear what the website is about. Could you define that in one simple sentence?  Straplines often fail to convey the necessary message, so you can’t always rely on them.

The important thing here is the website matches their expectations and not yours. Not the principals or the governors …. but theirs.

And of course this doesn’t just apply to the home page. If they have found you via search then any page they are taken to is a landing page. And every page must be perfect.

Being found on Google

Before any page becomes a landing page it has to be indexed by Google. That’s the easiest bit of the process. But it is a part of the process that many sites fail on. When Google indexes a webpage it takes its clues from many things. An important one is the descriptor meta tag (this is a hidden bit of code on every webpage). Think about this meta tag as if it were the cover of a book. If every book in a library has a unique cover, and a clearly unique title, it is easy to index, and to put the books in some form of order, so that visitors can find them.

Now imagine the situation where every book has the same cover and title. Chaos.

In Google’s case you might still be indexed but Google will be so confused that you will be a long way down the index list. And with millions of pages being checked for every search, if you aren’t on page one of the search results you have very little chance of being found. 99.9999% of webpages fail at this point. Google only displays ten results on page one … so competition is extremely fierce.

The sad thing is that I’ve looked at several provider websites in recent years where the web developer put the same meta tag on hundreds of pages.

It is certainly quicker to do it this way and the provider usually doesn’t notice simply because they don’t really understand websites and rely on professional web developers.

And of course unscrupulous developers can come back later and sell SEO services as if it were something totally separate … when the SEO should have been part of the website build. Beware unscrupulous web designers and empty promises. Just because a design company has done a lot of sites doesn’t mean they are good. Get impartial advice before committing to spending a lot of money.

Putting my neck on the block

Let me put my neck on the block here. I’m a one man band, I’m not a web designer and I can’t write code. So if I gave you a term to search for it would be surprising if you could find any search results, on page one of Google, that sent you to my websites.

The first term is to try …. Cherry picker hire in Dunkeswell … Try searching for it on Google. It is quite specific so marginally easier to get on Page one for phases that give millions of results. When I searched for it last it there were a few hundred results, so getting in the top ten is challenging but not impossible.

Now try the term … How to market a restaurant …. it is more generic and there are a huge number of possible results. In fact when I last searched there were over 48 million pages that matched the term.

Naturally it is dangerous to try a test like this and claim you’ll be found on page one of Goggle. So let me tell you the odds against How to market a restaurant linking to my site on page one is several million to one. If I’m not found, despite trying to get on page one, this proves how hard it is.

But what if one, or both, of these phrases are on page one and provide a link to one of my websites? Wouldn’t that generate a load of potentially very profitable traffic? Wouldn’t that just prove that the odds can be beaten. And if, by chance, I’ve done this as a one man band, devoid of many web skills, how much easier will it be for a well resourced provider?

I’d be interested in any results you get being posted in the comments box below.

But before you read on, are you ensuring your SEO is optimised for every page on your site?

Now let’s consider some of the FE website horrors I’ve seen in the last ten years.

Server horrors

What if you didn’t actually know where your website was hosted? What if it eventually transpired that it was hosted on an old server in a basement that was could easily flood?

Ohhhh and the backups you thought were happening on a daily basis are found to consist of the files for the content and don’t include site structure files. Or, as in one case I discovered, the backups looked great until you tried to recover the site via a recovery routine, only to find that those huge files were full of corrupted code and were worthless. The backup files you take as insurance only have a value if they work.

Sadly I’ve seen all of the above in the last few years. Servers set up by developers that weren’t as careul as they might have been.

It is essential the backups are performed regularly, are kept in a separate building to the servers (think fire), and are checked to see they are capable of rebuilding the site in the dire case they are required. Online backups in another city makes sense. And, like your website hosting, they should ideally be duplicated and stored on servers owned by two different organisations.  Otherwise if your hosting company goes bust ….. your website disappears.

Software horrors

A quick check here. The software you are using is all up to date isn’t it? 

Don’t assume anything. I recently saw a site built with php that was no longer supported. If that website falls over there is virtually no chance of it being recovered. Could you last without a website for several months?

Simple design horrors

The horrors that exist on websites aren’t all hidden away from sight. I recently phoned my bank, when making a money transfer between accounts, because the button I was clicking didn’t appear to work.  There it was in the middle of the page and click as many times as I like and nothing seemed to happen.

After several calls to the bank they suddenly discovered the problem. The next stage of the process was further down the page. It just wasn’t clear that you had to scroll down. But like the techie explained to me a lot of people have complained about the problem I encountered.

Unlike my bank you will, of course, have made it very clear where pages need to be scrolled. You’ll either have a very visible scroll bar or some of the design elements will run down the page in such as way that it is obvious that the page continues. Right?


This is a huge subject and can’t be adequately covered in a single short article.  I will cover more details in future FE News articles. 
Some of the topics that I plan to cover in future articles were covered in a short presentation I made to the AOC South West Marketing Group on Jan 24th 2017.

About Stefan Drew

FHE Marketing Consultant Stefan Drew was previously director of marketing at two FHE colleges and for the last decade has worked with colleges, universities and private providers throughout the UK, Europe and the US



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