Three Higher Ed Content Problems a Strategy Can Solve

Problems and solutions

Solve common higher education content problems

One of the goals of Meet Content is to make content strategy more tangible for higher education web professionals. Many discussions on content strategy (including those led by me) look at it from a wide-angle lens, which demonstrates the necessary holistic approach to content. However, this approach can also make the discipline seem overwhelming and unmanageable. So, to bridge the gap between concepts and daily challenges, I’d like to highlight three common higher education content problems that a content strategy can solve.

FAQ pages

The problem with most FAQ pages is they don’t offer actual user questions. Instead, they answer questions content owners expect users to ask—or worse, questions content owners want users to ask. As a result, FAQ pages become miscellaneous content buckets to drop information that doesn’t have a home. They’re used as a crutch. If you need a FAQ page to communicate important, valuable information, then the web content it supports is likely ineffective.

FAQ pages done right

FAQ pages become miscellaneous content buckets to drop information that doesn’t have a home.

Although I caution people about using FAQ pages, there are appropriate uses. Simply stated, if it meets user needs, a FAQ page is appropriate. You can evaluate your FAQ page through user research, usability studies and analytics analysis. Understanding how users seek information is necessary for creating effective web content.

Done well, FAQ pages demonstrate good customer service by providing actual user questions and answers. Publishing user questions allows others to benefit from the answers. This builds trust and loyalty as readers feel they are being heard. FAQ pages can also support search engine optimization (SEO) by including "real-world" questions and keywords.

Regardless of whether a FAQ page is appropriate or not, I encourage organizations to maintain an internal list of common questions. These may come from offline sources, such as the Admissions Office or Student Services. Such questions can provide invaluable information for understanding user intent and creating content that meets users’ needs.

For a great list of FAQ page problems and solutions, check out Rahel Bailie’s post on how to create useful FAQ pages.


PDFs are web pages if they’re on your website.

Higher education loves PDFs. Academic websites are littered with them. It’s easy to understand why: they are easy to create, they preserve page layout and design, and they offer security to manage access and use. The problem is they often result in poor web writing, inconsistent design and branding, poor usability, poor accessibility and poor SEO. Oops!

Because PDFs are easy to create and distribute, they are often employed as a shortcut to publishing online—bypassing the publishing process and resulting in poorly developed web content. Why deal with an editorial process when you can "Save as PDF"?

Consider quality PDFs a low priority? Think again. An informal advanced Google search shows that PDFs represent nearly 30 percent of all public-facing higher ed web-based file types.¹ How many of those PDFs at your institution meet your style guidelines? If you’re like most, the answer is "not many."

PDFs have appropriate applications, but they are never an adequate substitute for standard web pages.

PDFs done right

If PDFs are part of your content strategy and included in your editorial process, then they can be implemented effectively.

  • Develop guidelines for appropriate uses of PDFs
    All content types require justification. Why is this content saved as a PDF? If there isn’t a justification, it’s likely better suited to your standard web page format. Some justifications may include the following: brochures, lengthy guides, contracts and forms that users need to download or print.
  • Include PDFs in your content audit and information architecture
    PDFs are web pages if they’re on your website. Many organizations consider PDFs "digital assets" rather than web pages, but to the end user, it’s all content. Don’t lose track of PDFs because they are a different file type. Most content owners are amazed to discover how many PDFs they actually have on their site.
  • Include PDFs in your website editorial process
    PDFs should be held to the same standards as your standard web pages. This includes editorial style, branding, design, accessibility, usability and SEO. Here are two good posts about maintaining web accessibility and usability standards with your PDFs:

"Related Links"

"Related" is not enough. Links need to be relevant, useful and appropriate.

Frequently found in web page sidebars, "related links" are often treated like FAQ pages and used as a crutch for poor content strategy. When a website’s information architecture is ineffective, content creators rely on related links to improve navigation. Without careful planning, related links can cause the following problems:

  • Content is out of context
    Placing links outside of the formal navigation or the primary page content challenges users to understand relevancy. When you place a link under the formal navigation, you put it in context through navigational hierarchy. Similarly, when you embed a link within the primary page content, it then becomes contextually relevant. Context is key to content relevancy.
  • Content is "uncategorized"
    Because it’s easier to add a link to a list of links than to re-architect your site navigation, related links become the solution for adding new content topics that don’t "fit" in the website information architecture. As a result, people can’t rely on standard navigation to find this content, which hinders usability and findability. As Angie King from Brain Traffic says: Don’t put content in your users’ blind spot.
  • Content is irrelevant
    For marketers who can’t resist pushing content, related links become an easy spot to add irrelevant content. The only problem is that you compromise trust and credibility.

Related links done right

Making “related links” work well requires planning, not tacking them on as an afterthought to make up for poor web content or navigation.

Crosslinks and outbound links need to be included in your information architecture. You need to consider how content is related and where there are appropriate instances to improve navigation with crosslinks. "Related" is not enough. Links need to be relevant, useful and appropriate. You can evaluate related links based on this criteria through user research, usability studies, content testing and analytics analysis.

More content challenges

These problems are just a sampling of the content challenges we face in higher education. In fact, for many, these are the least of our problems. How do we solve content governance, neglected Facebook pages and blogs, ineffective communications and off-brand content? The list goes on.

What are the top content problems you face in higher ed? Please share them with us!

¹ This statistic is based on an advanced Google search to determine total number of web pages using a .edu domain and then segmenting all PDF file types. 47,300,000 (.edu PDFs) / 164,000,000 (.edu) ≈ 29% (.288)

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About Rick Allen

Rick Allen has worked in higher education for over twelve years, helping to shape web communications and content strategy. As principal of ePublish Media, Inc, a web publishing and content strategy consultancy in Boston, Mass., Rick works with knowledge-centric organizations to create and sustain effective web content. Keep going »


  1. Wow! All 3 of these are fabulous insights, Rick. My FAQ solution has been asking departments the top questions prospects or students call up with? I have noticed these are rarely (never) the same questions that exist in our FAQ. Then, since these questions are so popular, I try and include this information in the main copy, rather than resorting to an often overlooked (for good reason) FAQ section.

    • Eric, thanks for the feedback! I really appreciate it. I think your system for collecting FAQs is great. I’m glad you’re putting that feedback to good use. Higher ed has lots of opportunities to gather user feedback. We just need to take advantage of them.

  2. I know I’m late to the party, but great post Rick. I had to chuckle when I saw the three higher ed “problems” you outlined. Even in 2015, they are still lurking on many higher ed websites.

What do you think?