Which US University Has the Best (or Worst) Website?

Vanderbilt University (vanderbilt.edu)

Which U.S. university website is the best or the worst? Here we go with another fun listicle blog post.

Let’s take a break from politics and campaigns for a bit and focus on academia. This time, we’re reviewing university websites and using the same methodology we used with the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.

We ranked the websites for the top 50 national universities — actually 53 because of some ties — listed in the most recent U.S. News & World Report best colleges rankings.

Here’s a quick primer on the methodology and categories we’re evaluating for each website.

  • Avg. visit length: Length of time people are on the website.
  • Unique visitors: Total unique visitors to the website in the last month.
  • Pages/visit: Number of pages visitors view per visit.
  • Bounce rate: Percentage of people who view only one page.
  • Organic keywords: Number of keywords for which the website ranks.
  • Organic traffic: Number of visits to site from search in the last month.
  • Branded traffic: Number of visits to site searching specifically for the candidate.
  • Non-branded traffic: Number of visits to site searching for anything other than the university’s name.
  • Backlinks: Number of links on the Internet back to the website.
  • Referring domains: Number of unique websites linking back to the website.
  • Indexed pages: Total number of website pages in Google’s index.
  • Authority score: Strength and popularity of the domain according to SEMrush.
  • PageSpeed mobile: Mobile download speed score according to Google.
  • PageSpeed desktop: Desktop download speed score according to Google.

Harvard University (harvard.edu) Harvard University (harvard.edu)

We’ll share a few spoilers before you get started digging into the analysis. First, the university with the largest endowment, Harvard, did not make the top 10. In fact it was #22, but lucky for them, they’re above Yale at #28.

The worst ranked website was Wake Forest (sorry, Demon Deacons). Interestingly, seven public universities are lined up between #11 and #17.

This was a fun study to undertake, and we learned a number of interesting things about the web and digital academia world, such as:

  • The statistic most correlated with a high ranking was total backlinks and referring domains. The sum of total backlinks for the top 10 is 86M and the bottom 10 is 4.2M.
  • The statistic least correlated with a high ranking was PageSpeed on mobile and desktop.
  • Drupal was the most popular CMS with 17 websites and WordPress was second with 8 websites.
  •  Two universities have big software budgets because they paid for expensive Adobe Experience Manager as their CMS.

Also, if you’d like to see the raw data, skip down to the bottom to check it out.

#10. Stanford University

U.S. News Rank: #6T – 93/100
Rank Differential: -4
CMS: WordPress

Stanford University (stanford.edu)
Stanford University (stanford.edu)

Stanford University in Palo Alto kicks off our top 10 group with their WordPress website.

It’s a sharp and clean website with some good numbers behind it. It ranks #3 in unique visitors (6.3M), the number of referring domains (78.2K) and the domain authority score (84).

Four categories rank in the top 10. On the low end, it’s near the bottom in pages/visit (2.96). Across all categories, the average rank was #20.

I’m slightly surprised that it’s 10 and not in the top three websites. After all, Stanford alumni went on to found Nvidia, Expedia, Netflix, Yahoo!, Cisco Systems, PayPal, NetApp, Intuit, Akamai, LinkedIn, Atari, Sun Microsystems, Electronic Arts, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Yammer, Glassdoor, Zillow, YouTube, SpaceX, Pandora, VMware, Instagram and, of course, Google.

Wow, read through that list again. That’s an incredible list of tech and digital companies. So, for the U.S. News #6 university, now you see why I think being 10 is underachieving for Stanford. It’s also one of three in the website top 10 that scored lower than their university ranking.

By the way, you should check out what the Stanford website looked like in 1996.

Top 10 Rankings

  • 6.3M unique visitors (#3)
  • 78.2K referring domains (#3)
  • 84 authority score (#3)
  • 7.1M total backlinks (#5)

Lowest Ranking

  • 2.96 pages/visit (#49)

#9. Northwestern University

U.S. News Rank: #9 – 92/100
Rank Differential: 0
Website: www.northwestern.edu
CMS: n/a

Northwestern University (northwestern.edu)
Northwestern University (northwestern.edu)

Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, lands at number nine on our list. They’re the only school that comes in with a website ranking the same as their university ranking.

Five categories ranked in the top 10 with avg. visit length (13.54), PageSpeed mobile (74), pages/visit (5.38), branded traffic (353.2K) and indexed pages (520.9K).

It’s impressive to think that the average time a visitor spends on the website is nearly 14 minutes. That’s so high that it seems erroneous, with over five pages per visit. What’s really strong is the download speed on mobile, which is extremely difficult to optimize for.

Northwestern’s website is consistently strong across all categories, near the top or in the middle. The worst ranking is #28 for bounce rate (70.1%) and total backlinks (1.2M). Across all categories, the average rank is #16.

The communications and digital team at Northwestern are doing a pretty solid job with their website, so the other schools could learn a few things here.

Top 10 Rankings

  • 13:54 avg. visit length (#4)
  • 74 PageSpeed mobile (#5)
  • 5.38 pages/visit (#7)
  • 353.2K branded traffic (#10)
  • 520.9K indexed pages (#10)

Lowest Ranking

  • 70.1% bounce rate (#28)
  • 1.2M total backlinks (#28)

#7T. Vanderbilt University

U.S. News Rank: #15T – 84/100
Rank Differential: +8
Website: www.vanderbilt.edu
CMS: n/a

Vanderbilt University (vanderbilt.edu)
Vanderbilt University (vanderbilt.edu)

Coming in with a strong performance is my alma mater, Vanderbilt University, tied for #7. Not that I’m surprised, because I used to be the webmaster for the economics department nearly 20 years ago. I should add that Macromedia Dreamweaver was the preferred method for updating websites then and sadly still is for some organizations.

A lot has improved at the school since I left, including the baseball team with two College World Series wins and the website.

The incredible numbers to look at here are pages/visit and visit length. The numbers are so far beyond what the rest of the competition have that I can’t make sense of it. An average of nearly 21 minutes per visit? That one doesn’t make sense. I’d love to have access to Vanderbilt’s real Google Analytics account to take a look.

On the sad side of things, the website is slow to load. Slow being a relative term, of course, because we’re talking just a few seconds, but in the online world every second counts.

Hey, if my old friends at Vandy call me up, I’d be happy to provide some pro bono guidance and get them into the #1 spot.

Top 10 Rankings

  • 9.03 pages/visit (#1)
  • 20:49 avg. visit length (#2)

Lowest Ranking

  • 37 PageSpeed mobile (#37)

#7T. Princeton University

U.S. News Rank: #1 – 100/100
Rank Differential: -6
Website: www.princeton.edu
CMS: Drupal

Princeton University (princeton.edu)
Princeton University (princeton.edu)

The U.S. News & World Report #1 university is Princeton but sadly the website only comes in at #7, tied with Vanderbilt. That leaves them with the worst rank differential in the top 10 with a -6.

It’s also the first top 10 website that runs on Drupal. In the top 10, two use Drupal and two use WordPress.

The university comes in strong with two #1 rankings, total backlinks (40.9M) and referring domains (191K). The website also ranks for an impressive 229.9K organic keywords, enough to land at #9 there.

The sad side for Princeton is a #45 ranking with 3.39 pages/visit.

Top 10 Rankings

  • 40.9M total backlinks (#1)
  • 191K referring domains (#1)
  • 229.9K organic keywords (#9)

Lowest Ranking

  • 3.39 pages/visit (#45)

#6. University of Southern California (USC)

U.S. News Rank: #22T – 78/100
Rank Differential: +16
Website: www.usc.edu
CMS: n/a

University of Southern California (usc.edu)
University of Southern California (usc.edu)

The first big rank differential belongs to the University of Southern California with an impressive +16, ranking #22 in U.S. News and #6 with their website.

They’re doing a lot of good work, landing in the top 10 in five categories, branded traffic (451.9K), unique visitors (3.3M), total backlinks (6M), indexed pages (524K) and PageSpeed mobile (71).

The digital team is strong nearly everywhere with an average rank of #17. Their one sad statistic is #44 with organic keywords (11.4K). They may have a lot of pages indexed by search engines, but there isn’t a variety of long tail content to rank for enough breadth of topics.

Top 10 Rankings

  • 451.9K branded traffic (#5)
  • 3.3M unique visitors (#6)
  • 6M total backlinks (#6)
  • 524K indexed pages (#9)
  • 71 PageSpeed mobile (#7)

Lowest Ranking

  • 11.4K organic keywords (#44)

#5. Columbia University

U.S. News Rank: #3T – 94/100
Rank Differential: -2
Website: www.columbia.edu
CMS: Drupal

Columbia University (columbia.edu)
Columbia University (columbia.edu)

Columbia University is the second Drupal site in the top 10 and the third with a negative rank differential at -2. Now ranking #3 in U.S. News and #5 with the website isn’t really bad, so it’s hard to criticize.

Good news for the university ranking in the top 10 across six categories, referring domains (75.2K), organic keywords (439.9K), total backlinks (5.8M), non-branded traffic (302.8K) and unique visitors (3M).

These are all impressive numbers and across all categories, Columbia’s average ranking is #19.

The one statistic that was surprisingly low was ranking #49 with PageSpeed desktop (49). That’s a really low score for something that’s pretty important. How fast something loads, especially on a desktop, is table stakes in the world of web development. Mobile download speeds are more challenging, but both are critical signals used by Google to rank a website in search results.

Top priority for Columbia’s digital team should be to speed up the website.

Top 10 Rankings

  • 75.2K referring domains (#4)
  • 439.9K organic keywords (#4)
  • 597.3K organic traffic (#6)
  • 5.8M total backlinks (#7)
  • 320.8K non-branded traffic (#8)
  • 3M unique visitors (#9)

Lowest Ranking

  • 49 PageSpeed desktop (#49)

#4. Carnegie Mellon University

U.S. News Rank: #25T – 75/100
Rank Differential: +21
Website: www.cmu.edu
CMS: n/a

Carnegie Mellon University (cmu.edu)
Carnegie Mellon University (cmu.edu)

Carnegie Mellon University’s website performs incredibly strong, ranking #4 with a U.S. News ranking of 25, giving them a rank differential of +21. The team there is doing a lot right.

Six top 10 rankings across indexed pages (2.6M), total backlinks (7.6M), non-branded traffic (322.6K), referring domains (46.3K), organic keywords (263.6K) and organic traffic (517.3K).

No ranking was really that weak, with the lowest one being 3.92 pages per visit, placing them at #32 for that category. Across all categories, Carnegie Mellon had an average ranking of #16.

Top 10 Rankings

  • 2.6M indexed pages (#3)
  • 7.6M total backlinks (#4)
  • 322.6K non-branded traffic (#7)
  • 46.3K referring domains (#7)
  • 263.6K organic keywords (#9)
  • 517.3K organic traffic (#9)

Lowest Ranking

  • 3.92 pages/visit (#32)

#3. Boston University

U.S. News Rank: #40T – 67/100
Rank Differential: +37
Website: www.bu.edu
CMS: WordPress

Boston University (bu.edu)
Boston University (bu.edu)

The most surprising and impressive performance comes from Boston University, which has a +37 rank differential. They’re #40 in U.S. News and landed at #3 with their website.

How did they do this? Well, an average ranking of #16 is pretty solid.

More importantly, they are in the top 10 in seven categories, organic keywords (961.3K), organic traffic, (1.5M), non-branded traffic (744.2K), referring domains (83.1K), indexed pages (3.5M), total backlinks (7.7M) and branded traffic (745.4K). In fact, all seven of these are top three or above. Well done BU!

Boston University is like the Andrew Yang of universities (his ranking was surprising as well).

Now, on the negative side, their PageSpeed is pretty abysmal on both mobile (3) and desktop (49). But, as mentioned above, that was the statistic least correlated with a high overall ranking.

Also, look at the screenshot. It looks like they had an incredible capital campaign, raising $1.85 billion over the last seven years.

Top 10 Rankings

  • 961.3K organic keywords (#1)
  • 1.5M organic traffic (#1)
  • 744.2K non-branded traffic (#1)
  • 83.1K referring domains (#2)
  • 3.5M indexed pages (#2)
  • 7.7M total backlinks (#3)
  • 745.4K branded traffic (#3)

Lowest Ranking

  • 3 PageSpeed mobile (#51)

#2. New York University (NYU)

U.S. News Rank: #29 – 72/100
Rank Differential: +27
Website: www.nyu.edu
CMS: Adobe Experience Manager

New York University (nyu.edu)
New York University (nyu.edu)

The only university in the top 10 to invest in expensive proprietary CMS, Adobe Experience Manager, is New York University. They come in at #2 with an impressive +27 rank differential.

Six categories in the top 10 and an average ranking of #16 across all categories puts them near the top. The best performance was a #1 ranking for branded traffic (849.4K).

Again, a weak showing with PageSpeed on mobile (8) and desktop (52) has little impact on overall rank. Those were overshadowed by strong performances in organic traffic (1.1M), bounce rate (61.7%), referring domains (49.9K), organic keywords (321.7K) and non-branded traffic (270.6K).

NYU is the second non-top 10 U.S. News university to rank in the top 10, so whatever the digital team is doing, other schools should take notice. They’re doing it right.

Top 10 Rankings

  • 849.4K branded traffic (#1)
  • 1.1M organic traffic (#3)
  • 61.7% bounce rate (#4)
  • 49.9K referring domains (#5)
  • 321.7K organic keywords (#6)
  • 270.6K non-branded traffic (#8)

Lowest Ranking

  • 8 PageSpeed mobile (#48)

#1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

U.S. News Rank: #3 – 94/100
Rank Differential: +2
Website: www.mit.edu
CMS: n/a

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (mit.edu)
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (mit.edu)

Maybe it’s not shocking that a university for engineers comes in at #1. Not only that, but a #3 ranking in U.S. News still gives them a +2 rank differential. MIT is doing just about everything right, plus their website is sharp. It almost has a Google feel with the prominent search box placement on the homepage.

Eight categories in the top 10 across bounce rate (53.8%), authority score (86), unique visitors (9.4M), PageSpeed desktop (98), pages per visit (5.29), avg. visit length (12.31), PageSpeed mobile (72) and referring domains (39.1K).

Top 10 Rankings

  • 53.8% bounce rate (#1)
  • 86 authority score (#1-T)
  • 9.4M unique visitors (#2)
  • 98 PageSpeed desktop (#4)
  • 5.29 pages/visit (#5)
  • 12:31 avg. visit length (#6)
  • 72 PageSpeed mobile (#6)
  • 39.1K referring domains (#10)

Lowest Ranking

  • 42.7K branded traffic (#48)

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