A 20 MPH speed limit sign on a country road with a church in the background.

Higher ed's slow page speed epidemic

Or, how to stop disrespecting your website visitors.

I love seeing new redesigns launch in higher ed, or at least I want to love it. There’s my initial excitement to see something new, but that’s normally immediately tamped down when I head over to Google’s Page Speed Insights or pop open Lighthouse in my browser’s dev tools. That’s when the excitement abruptly ends and frustration takes over.

With what it costs both financially and in terms of human energy to redesign a college or university website those scores should be great, and they never are. Why do I care about this so much?

The thing is, quick load times aren’t just a “nice to have” feature on your site. Slow website speeds contribute to a lot of the problems higher ed complains about day-in and day-out. If you’re spending a couple hundred grand or more on a redesign, it needs to work for you, not against you.

I run a small agency and I don’t trash talk the big competition because I know lots of great people at those agencies and they are very smart. But select any of the big agencies in higher ed. Go to their website and find the latest project they launched. Then go to Google Page Speed Insights and drop that university’s URL in. I’ll wait…

So, what are some of the consequences of your slow website?

Poor conversion rates

People expect websites to load quickly and there’s plenty of data that shows the majority of web users will bounce as loading times pass the 3-second mark. In some sectors, that bounce rate is 48% or higher. And it gets worse when we get down to expectations on a phone.

A slow website that’s causing high initial bounce rates is just like cutting your university off at the knees. You’re not leaving money on the table, you’re slamming a door in your visitor’s face. They don’t get a chance to convert because they don’t even make it through the door.

Reduced search engine rankings

Sure, you may own the keywords for your particular institution’s name + program offerings, but our industry is only getting more competitive. That lead may not be around forever as your competitors start offering similar programs or as the big online players move in.

Google takes into account site speed when determining your ranking. There are a bunch of different metrics it looks at including the payload your site is delivering on first load. Erik Runyon (👋🏼 Erik) and I have been chatting about the large payloads newly designed university sites are delivering and it’s pretty disheartening. 8MB, 14MB, even into the 20MB+ range.

But everyone has to have that big video background, right? That video does nothing to help your on-page conversion rate and almost definitely hurts your search engine rankings by slowing down your site.

Harmful user experience

This is the biggie for me. I tend to view slow websites as an accessibility issue. Web accessibility is an inclusive field of work and study. When your website is slow, you’re ignoring the prospective student that lives in a rural area, or only has the internet on their phone, or only has a dial-up connection, sometimes. And what sort of message does that send about your institutional values?

Site speed optimization as hospitality

I’ve written before about living hospitality in everything we do. A posture of hospitality has to be active. Being hospitable is a choice we make. It’s about not stopping at being empathetic, but acting upon that empathy with kindness.

When redesigning a website, we should never stop at what looks good to internal stakeholders. Nice-looking is subjective, inclusivity is not. It pains me that so many institutions pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to redesign their website to end up with something that performs so poorly. It hurts because I’ve never encountered someone in higher education who is purposefully trying to cause harm to prospective students or the institution. Sometimes you just don't know what you don’t know.

But that leaves us with a challenge. Who takes responsibility? To my mind, the blame is shared, but the agency — chosen to be the expert consultant on the project — bears the brunt. Their responsibility is to communicate how bad choices impact the institution’s reputation and bottom line. Maybe the agencies that let these poorly optimized sites out into production do that. I don’t know. I’m not in the room.

Regardless, it’s an agency’s responsibility to do as much as possible to make that website a success when it goes live. Do no harm. Slow websites only do harm. Code needs to be optimized, frameworks need to be ditched, images need to be properly sized and deferred, CSS and JavaScript need to be used with efficiency in mind. Put a CDN in place.

The past two years Bravery has been doing a lot more consulting around conversion rate optimization (CRO) and this is the low-hanging fruit we find on every project. It truly is an epidemic. We’re working on a few ways to combat this, so look for that soon.

In the meantime, the next time you’re looking to redesign your website, ask for the Lighthouse scores for that agency’s last five projects. Keep site speed in your mind as something that affects your website’s accessibility. A fast loading site is a kindness that directly affects the institution’s efficacy.

Note: I love doing optimization work and do it a lot. If you know of an institution that needs help with this, send them my way! We’ve been helping a wide range of colleges and universities improve their conversion rate, application pool, and deposited student rate for years. And the next time you start planning a redesign, consider budgeting extra for a code and optimization review with Bravery after launch. Think of it like an insurance policy for your expensive web redesign.