Ryan Hawk

UM’s home page is looking pretty sleek these days, with large visuals and clear navigation portals that take you to parts unknown, or into the nitty-gritty of UM’s online presence. These changes seem to appear out of thin air. UM’s website metamorphosis is like that kid in high school effortlessly good at everything. For both, there is a lot of work put in behind the scenes. 

UM’s information technology department is nestled into the southeast corner of the Social Sciences building. The front room is dedicated to customer service. Typical IT troubleshooting problems like getting your email sent to your phone are dealt with here. If you look up at the ceiling, you see a bundle of colorful cables encased in a metal cage screwed to the ceiling. If you follow this bundle, it leads you through room after room, the path almost as confusing as navigating UM’s old website. Finally, you come to an open space, with carpets and colorful kites hanging from the ceiling. There are a couple of desks with computers littered throughout. UM’s three webmasters sit among them.

Nick Shontz, Kayla Pierson and Tony Scalise spend their days continuously improving UM’s online presence. In 2013 they, along with library techs, Student Affairs and UM Relations, completely gutted and overhauled the old website for the first time in about five years. These changes, like rearranging navigation and increasing visual appeal, have made a difference. Around 2 million users visited the homepage in 2015, up almost 32 percent from 2014. The homepage got almost 29 million page views, up around 18 percent from the year before, according to Google analytics.

Many students spend a lot of their time researching major purchase decisions, according to UM Vice President of Marketing Mario Schulzke. 

“College is certainly one of those major purchase decisions. Our home page is an important … gateway for them as they explore the colleges in their consideration set,” Schulzke said.

From April to December of 2015, webmasters Shontz and Pierson worked almost exclusively on a new home page feature called “what do you want to study?” The title and corresponding text input box are right below the large visual at the top of the home page.

The tool is aimed at prospective students. They enter an area of interest, like accounting, or English. Shontz and Pierson wanted to make search terms general, more like buzzwords, so students don’t get lost in the world of colleges and departments and majors. If someone wants to be an educator, they search for the word education, not Department of Teaching and Learning.

Once you click search you are taken to a simple, infographic page with streamlined information about the area of study you indicated. There are stats, potential career paths, a few highlighted classes and, at the bottom, other majors that might be of interest so you can keep exploring. There is also a button that takes you to the department’s actual website where you can get into the details of majoring.

In a time when administration stresses everyone is a recruiter, the “what do you want to study?” bar is an exemplary illustration.  Shontz and Pierson sent almost 600 emails asking departments to provide content for their pages. Some replied enthusiastically, others not so much.  After seeing how beautiful their pages turned out, some departments upgraded their websites too. According to Shontz, most department web pages are catered to current students. They need to strike a better balance catering to prospective and current students. 

Top areas of study searched are health and human performance, registered nursing and wildlife biology. Users from 112 countries and all 50 states have used the study search bar. Most are from Montana, but California, Washington and Utah have a strong presence as well. 

UM relations’ Jennifer Sauer manages the home page and worked with the IT crew in its redesign. The “what do you want to study?” bar is important because it gives UM data on what future generations might want to study. Once students start typing, a drop down menu appears with other similar areas of study. Areas they might never have thought of pursuing before, Sauer said.

UM only has three webmasters, Montana State University has 10.  UM’s strategy is utilizing user-generated content, instead of creating its own, like MSU does. Both Shontz and Pierson would welcome more help, but “we do a really great job with the resources we have,” Pierson said.