Dead ends and dead links:
Navigating the shortcomings of McGill websites
Daniel Lutes, Web Developer -- February 14, 2017

“I found the whole process to be inaccessible and daunting,” said Rachel Siu, U2 Marketing, reflecting on her frustration at using the McGill websites when applying to McGill. “It was really overwhelming. I remember putting off the application process numerous times because I couldn't figure out how to navigate the dang site and I didn’t know where to find the specific admission qualifications for [...] students.”

For most McGill students, their first interaction with the university is through its websites. Applying to universities is a challenging and stressful process, and it is made even more taxing by the labyrinthine system of websites that students are forced to navigate. Upon arriving at McGill, many students realize that the problem with the website isn’t limited to the application process. From dead links, to conflicting information, to disorganized layouts, at times it seems like McGill’s websites are actively trying to confuse users. This is an issue that plagues the McGill experience for many, adding undue frustration and extra time to simple tasks, such as looking up course requirements for their program.

“[As a student,] I constantly [stumble] across e-calendars from previous years where my degree requirements have changed since then, so it is unclear what my actual requirements are,” said Siu.

Josh Liu, U2 Computer Science, echoed Siu’s frustrations. Beyond the difficulty in looking up course requirements, he believes that McGill sites are inherently disorganized.

"Using the site in general, there is an overall sense of lack of organization."

“When I am looking for information on course requirements, I search and search for the right page,” Liu said. “Using the site in general, there is an overall sense of lack of organization. I am aware of how the system works currently, in terms of how information is posted to the site, but there needs to be a better way of managing information that is important to students in a responsible way. It makes you wonder how many people have been unable to fulfill graduation requirements due to mistakes on the website.”

Have you had a positive or negative experience with McGill websites?

Understanding how McGill websites are managed is key to identifying the system’s weaknesses. Through a lack of oversight of what gets posted, funding woes, and an ever-increasing workload for the website staff, McGill websites have gained a reputation for failing to meet students’ needs. According to Chief Information Officer of McGill Ghilaine Roquet, the websites are managed by a small team of 10 developers. Despite the increasing importance of a strong and cohesive online presence, the Web Development team has only seen slight growth in its number of staff. There are roughly 800 associated websites run by McGill, including different pages for all of the various labs, faculties, departments, and projects, but only 10 people to maintain it all.

“[The McGill Web Development team supports] the service for public-facing McGill websites including the homepage and almost 800 associated websites,” Roquet wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune. “The numbers and composition of the team have fluctuated over a 16-year period, but the current configuration represents a modest increase in members.”

Managing hundreds of websites with only ten people is an extremely daunting task. The sheer volume of sites that exist under the McGill Web Development team purview necessitates the Web Management System, a tool developed by the McGill Web Service Group to better manage the McGill websites. The system allows faculty and administration to edit website information, provided they complete a course on how to make the changes in a safe manner. Upon the completion of the two-and-a-half hour course offered by McGill IT, these members of the faculty and administration are given editing privileges that allow them to update and delete content from their given domain. Since 2009, when this program was put in place, the McGill Web Management System has trained over 4,000 McGill administrators and faculty to use its tools, lightening the burden on the McGill Web Service Group.

As Roquet explains, each team of trained members is responsible for their website. Guidelines are put in place by the McGill Web Service Group, but it is up to individual site managers to follow them.

“The McGill Web Service Group team provides a web platform and guidelines to McGill units requiring a website, but each unit is responsible for creating and managing the content of their respective websites,” he said.

The system wherein faculty and administrators update content on their own section of the site leads to multiple drawbacks. The breadth of possible problems that can occur with a site of McGill is large, as Gary Francoeur, associate director of Communications Services explains.

“There are more pages on the McGill website than there are students who attend the university,” he said. “Ensuring that as much of this information as possible is readily accessible and up to date on the McGill website is a difficult feat.”

One such challenge is that of design; although website layout templates are provided by the Web Services Group guidelines, they are not always used as specified, and may cause students to rely on the wrong information. Misusing templates leads to incohesive design on the site; for example, the page for McGill Admissions has a different layout than the page for McGill Libraries. Straying from a cohesive look for a site is not just a matter of aesthetics; creating a common practice for navigation and formatting allows users to effectively find and consume information. Learning how to navigate McGill websites that dramatically differ in layout adds unnecessary time for students trying to find vital information.

Perhaps most detrimentally, sites often contain conflicting information. This is the direct effect of having a system where people with little content-management knowledge are able to make unilateral changes to a website.

Imagine a change of course requirements for a given department. Upon completing the website management class, the dean of the department posts the updated requirements on a new page; however, all of the references to the old course requirements still exist on the site. Therefore, unless the dean visits every page on the site and removes references to the old requirements—a time-consuming task—the contradictory information remains on the page. One example of this can be found on the the page for B.A. & Sc. Freshman Program Requirements here all of the Freshman requirements for the Faculty of Arts and Science are listed. Elsewhere on the site, a page called “Course Requirements” offers contradictory information about required courses.

In a 2016 presentation hosted by the McGill Web Service Group, Jason DelMarr, a senior web developer analyst, explained common issues that can easily occur with the McGill websites. He referred specifically to dead links, or 404 pages—a common and frustrating occurrence on some McGill sites. There are an estimated 21,000 dead links across all McGill websites, a figure shared in the same presentation.

“Often we have many site managers working on one site, someone creates a page, someone links to a page, and then some other person deletes that page,” said DelMarr. “What happens to that link?”

"The shortcomings of McGill websites cannot be blamed on the development team—a small team with a large responsibility should not be the scapegoat for this issue."

It should be noted that McGill Web Service Group offers a tool to find and remove dead links, but it is up to the 1,200 site managers to adopt this best practice. A lack of centralized control over websites’ content lends itself to problems of this nature, which are very challenging to combat.

The shortcomings of McGill websites cannot be blamed on the development team—a small team with a large responsibility should not be the scapegoat for this issue. Furthermore, one cannot condemn the administrators and faculty who are unable to properly manage a website after only a few hours of training. In essence, this issue is the direct product of a lack of funding and accountability.

According to the McGill University Budget Book FY2017 published in April 2016, the total salary spending on Information Technology Services at McGill dropped by roughly seven per cent from FY2013 to FY2014 and fell by another five per cent from FY2014 to FY2015. In comparison, the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia both saw increases in spending over the same period. The Internet is more important than ever, both as source and a method of gathering and organizing information, so it is concerning that IT does not receive adequate funds.

Upon learning about the spending cut in the IT department, Siu seemed unsurprised. She believes that the poor organization of the site leads to users spending more time than necessary for many tasks.

“It's par for the course at McGill, the whole thing is just frustrating,” she said. “Time and careful consideration of [the sites’] layout should be used in making the navigation experience as easy and useful as possible for both members and non-members of the McGill community. I shouldn't have to spend 10 minutes looking for what courses I need to graduate!”

The shortcomings of McGill’s websites have created an opportunity for students, sparking a cottage industry of students building applications with the purpose of enhancing the usability and functionality of McGill websites. One such student is Demertrios Koziris, a U3 Software Engineering student who has developed a Chrome browser extension, McGill Enhanced which integrates features from various McGill websites into a easy-to-use platform.

“The biggest thing that frustrated me was searching Google for a course and ending up on a course overview page, but from a previous year,” Koziris said.“The McGill site would have a message that showed I was on a previous year and the options it provided were either to click a link that brings you to the home page of the current year or edit the year in the URL yourself to get to the current year's version of the course page. I realized that instead of editing the URL myself every time, I could write a script that does that for you.”

Koziris’ extension, a result of hundreds of hours of development, is an ongoing project which has grown in functionality and user base over the past two years. In its current iteration McGill Enhanced creates a more coherent experience across McGill’s websites.

“For me, the issue seems to be how it affects students,” Koziris said. “When you want to register for courses, you shouldn't have to look up course info on the overview page, then navigate through Minerva to search for Mercury Evaluations, and then go to Visual Schedule Builder (VSB for schedules, and then go back to Minerva and navigate to the registration menu to submit course codes. Being able to jump straight from a course overview page to the registration page or Mercury Evaluations for that course, or being able to register straight from VSB without copying and pasting CRN codes, makes the process a lot smoother and that's what I tried to accomplish with [McGill Enhanced].”

An overall lack of cohesive design and structural flaws in McGill’s organizational network has created a system of websites where important information can slip through the cracks and students can be easily confused or even misled. At its core, this is an issue of funding, but with McGill cutting IT spending in recent years, it is difficult to imagine that these problems will be solved by the administration any time soon.

Instead, students are being forced to pick up the slack by creating applications, like McGill Enhanced, Minerva Bot, and Get A Seat. But these applications can only do some much. McGill websites remain the main means by which students interact with the university; unless the administration starts to adequately value this communication, students—prospective and current—will continue to be misinformed and frustrated.