Our Mobile Strategy

At last week’s Web Users Group meeting, we unveiled some of our strategy for improving mobile web offerings at VCU. Many of the things we discussed are still in the early stages of development, but we wanted to let university web developers know ahead of time that we do plan on tackling the growing mobile trend. And we wanted to gather your feedback about the direction we’re heading. So here’s a recap.
Mobile access to websites is increasing exponentially. Many students are coming to college with smartphones or touchscreen wireless web devices like the iPod touch. Using these devices to access many websites is painful at best and can be downright impossible. Even with the best devices, many websites contain a lot of data to download and may have underlying accessibility issues (touch screen devices can’t really handle a hover state).
Our first order of business to promote usable mobile websites at VCU was to craft some guidelines by which mobile websites should be built. We’ve added these guidelines in a draft form to the VCU Web Standards & Guidelines website for your perusal. Please read through them and consider your own sites. Let us know where you believe these guidelines can be improved, and we’ll continue to refine them as mobile devices continue to evolve.
Second, we wanted to provide a simple avenue of discovery for new mobile websites at VCU. What better way than through the A-Z index? Over the next month, we’ll build the infrastructure into the A-Z management system so you can easily add your mobile websites to a specific Mobile category. Sites within the Mobile category will have to meet a few additional guidelines to ensure that they work well for all mobile users.
Once the Mobile category is populated and running, we can pull that data into other places such as the VCU Mobile website (m.vcu.edu) and as a new module within the VCU Mobile applications for smartphones (available for iPhone and Blackberry and soon for Android devices). That’s phase three, if you’re still counting.
We hope you’ll look over the mobile web standards, give us your feedback on it, and start looking at how you can provide a better mobile experience for your users.

Web Users Group meeting – December 1

We will be holding a Web Users Group meeting on Wednesday, December 1 from 10:30 am to noon in Cabell Library, room B-35. We’d love to see you there. Here are some of the things we’ll be discussing at the meeting:

  • VCU Mobile updates
  • Mobile websites
  • Updates to the VCU blogs
  • iTunes
  • and more

We’ll post a more detailed agenda as we approach the Web Users Group meeting in two weeks. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Google search issue & fix

We upgraded to a new Google search appliance this morning. As a result of changes to the way the Google search appliance works, the default search settings for some VCU sites will need to be updated. The previous Google search appliance would automatically return results in the default template (which was the VCU template); the newer appliance returns results in XML format instead. Unfortunately, I can find no way of reverting to the previous default.

If your website search results are showing up as XML instead of in the VCU search template, you will need to add the following line of code within your search <form>. It should not appear visibly on your site, but will force the search results to appear correctly:

<input type="hidden" name="proxystylesheet" value="default_frontend" />

It needs to go somewhere within the <form> that contains your Google search code; its order within the other elements does not matter.

I’m truly sorry for this oversight on my part. We endeavor to test applications fully before we put them into production, and in this instance we missed a crucial issue. If you have any questions, please email me directly.

Improving findability with the new A-Z

In the 17 days since we unveiled the new A-Z web directory, we’ve had over 30,000 clicks to the many university websites listed in the directory. Shortly after the unveiling, we added in search tracking to track what keywords were drawing people to your sites. We’ve also added more helpful information to our knowledge base about setting up useful keywords.

We’ve also been looking at search data over the last two weeks and adding keywords to some sites as appropriate to make sure that popular searches were bringing up helpful sites from the A-Z list. (So if you see extra keywords when you’re managing your site, you may want to think twice before you remove them.) We will continue to track popular queries and adjust keywords for sites to better improve our user’s search results. We hope you’ll take some time to look through your own information and add helpful keywords as well. You can learn a lot more about creating great keywords in our knowledge base article about the power of keywords.

In addition, when you view your sites in the A-Z Web Directory manager, you can now see the top 15 search queries and terms that result in visits to your sites. Here’s an example from the Technology Services site statistics.

Technology Services keyword search statistics

Web Users Group – Video from July 14

You can view the video from our July 14 Web Users Group meeting below. A written summary of the meeting is also available.

You will need to have Flash Player and Javascript enabled to view the video.

var so = new SWFObject(‘http://www.ts.vcu.edu/flash/player.swf’,’mpl’,’600′,’450′,’9′);
so.addParam(‘allowscriptaccess’,’always’);
so.addParam(‘allowfullscreen’,’true’);
so.addParam(‘flashvars’,’&streamer=rtmp://video2.vcu.edu/vod&file=sdgrainer/wug-july14.flv&stretching=fill’);
so.write(‘player’);

Confluence: New wiki application

Over the past few years, we’ve tested several options to run university wikis. We began with MediaWiki as the most well-known wiki engine. It worked well but was very difficult for non-technical users to grasp. When we began testing Confluence, we knew we’d found a winner – it was easy for new users to grasp but even more powerful for our advanced users.
You can create a Confluence account simply by logging in to Confluence using CAS. To create a personal wiki, you would then hover your mouse over your name in the top right corner and click “Create Personal Space.” To request a departmental wiki, you’ll need to email Hugh Eaves (we’ll have more documentation available soon). You can restrict access to your personal or departmental wiki to specific eIDs or to LDAP groups.
For now, the URL for confluence is http://confluence.vcu.edu. Soon, we hope to redirect http://wiki.vcu.edu to Confluence (once the remaining users have been moved off of MediaWiki).
You can read more about using Confluence in the Confluence User’s Guide. Or watch an overview of how Confluence works.

Urchin Upgraded to 6.602

On Tuesday, July 13, we upgraded Urchin (our University-wide web analytics application) to version 6.602 from version 6.4. This update adds several useful new features such as:

  • LDAP authentication
  • Adwords integration
  • More user agents and operating systems (such as Android and Chrome, but not iOS or Mobile Safari)

We will be testing the new features this summer and hope to roll out LDAP authentication this fall.
For more information on what’s been changed in the latest version, you can read the Urchin 6.5 Changelist and Urchin 6.6 Changelist.

Using VCU Keywords for Short URLs

Originally the VCU Keywords service was designed specifically with user-defined keywords in mind, so that for instance go.vcu.edu/biology would redirect to the Department of Biology’s homepage. This feature is useful for both print and email marketing campaigns because it gives a shorter, easier to remember URL for website addresses that may otherwise be long and difficult to remember.
Nowadays, people are sharing links through Twitter and Facebook with even more frequency. These services limit the number of characters per post so that each letter counts. In this case, even a go.vcu.edu/keyword can be longer than is desirable. So we’ve added in the option (by default) of creating a shortened URL in the form of go.vcu.edu/_xxx (where xxx is a random three-character string composed of 0-9, a-z, or A-Z). These shortened URLs are temporary by default, lasting only 2 months without any visits. (They will persist as long as they are receiving visits. After two months with no visits, they will expire.) But you can choose to create them permanently when you request them or later through the administration system. (You will also be notified by email when a keyword is going to expire soon, at which point you can make it permanent.)
It is our hope that using go.vcu.edu for shortened URLs will provide a better degree of trustworthiness for links. To that end, there is a basic approval process for shortened URLs. By default, all links to vcu.edu domains will be automatically approved. Links to outside sites will be moderated to ensure they do not link to malicious or inappropriate websites. (Turn around time for approval is 1-2 business days.) As a result, we believe that users will be more willing to click on go.vcu.edu links than they might on a similarly shortened link from elsewhere. (All non-random keywords require approval to ensure the keyword is appropriate to the content, so that for instance, go.vcu.edu/biology doesn’t link to the School of Education.)
As an aside related to trustworthiness of links, we also verify that links exist when they are requested, and we check on a daily basis to make sure that keywords continue to link to existing content. If your keyword links to a page that gets deleted or moved, you may be notified by email requesting that the keyword be updated or deleted.
We hope you find the new feature useful!

Web Users Group: July 14th Meeting Minutes

Thanks to those of you who were able to make it today. Rather than posting an extremely long summary of today’s meeting, I’ve decided to post about each item in a separate entry. I’ll link to each here as I add them. This way you can easily pick and choose the items that are most useful for you. (And I can post them in a more timely fashion.)
We’d like to thank the folks at Media Support Services for recording today’s meeting. We plan to provide a video of the meeting as soon as we can.

Continue reading