Should academic departments get sub-domains?

Written by Mike on February 6, 2013

 

My friend Pat Canella, who works in the web department at Mercyhurst University and worked for me when he was a student at Allegheny College, posed this question via Twitter today. Should academic departments get their own subdomain web address? It’s a very interesting one.

If you’re a small school, I would say no.

Having worked at a small school, people from different departments were always very aware of what other departments were getting on the web from the marketing group. Our solution at the time was to say to departments: look, you can have your own site where you can do whatever you want and go into depth big time on your research, publishing and so on, but we in central marketing are going to keep a marketing version of your site, where all the departments will be shown to be equal and the same. This is also important for site visitors, who could go from department to department site and find consistent information in consistent places. We linked to their secondary site, if they had one, and that seemed to work pretty well.

At my current institution, we recently switched URL structures when we rolled out our new WordPress websites, so technically our department pages like at sites.jcu.edu/math. For marketing purposes though, we always create redirects to jcu.edu/math will always work and that looks better on marketing pieces and is easier to remember. Keeping a consistent URL structure is also a good UX thing to do. I think it’s important to be able to land at sites.jcu.edu/english and just change the end of the URL to /history and get to their site, not having to guess if its sites.jcu.edu/history or history.jcu.edu or historydepartment.jcu.edu. I’m not slighting our history department – they’re cool. My esteemed colleauge at both Allegheny and John Carroll, Josh Tysiachney, had this to say on this topic:

Which I agree with. Your school’s brand is usually better know than an individual department.

There’s always an exception to the case though – and this time it’s in regards to large institutions and/or named colleges within a large university. In many cases, those colleges within the university have large brand awareness on their own. The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern’s URL is www.kellogg.northwestern.edu. The Wharton School of Business uses www.wharton.upenn.edu.

However, where Northwestern falls short a bit is that if I type in www.northwestern.edu/kellogg, I get a big nasty 404. Not even a formatted 404 page, the barebones Apache error page. That’s not helpful for users.

For fun, I tried the same thing at Penn, entering www.upenn.edu/wharton and got a 404 error page. At least it was prettier than Northwestern’s.

Easy fixes, but that’s simple stuff that could be fixed to make it easier for users.