What items should we consider when updating or creating a library website? Where should we start?
The website is one of a library's most important assets. In most cases, a library's website will reach a much wider audience than the number of visitors to its physical facilities. It is vital to have a website that follows a modern design, that is easy to use, and that offers the content and features supporting the services of the library. Visitors to library websites bring very high expectations, informed by their experiences with social media and the services of the tech giants, like Amazon or Google, or a myriad of other organizations with limitless resources to design and deploy compelling web and mobile experiences.
The many technical components and design considerations involved in operating a modern website are increasingly sophisticated. The content and services specific to library websites bring even more complexity. The fundamental values and assumptions of libraries, embracing privacy and anonymity, bring in additional complexity. The general web and mobile infrastructure, in contrast, is based on capturing and exploiting personalized data. The deployment of a library website requires great care to not only deliver a great user experience, but to ensure that its technical operation works consistently with basic assumptions of privacy and security.
These factors drive many libraries to turn to specialized vendors for the design and deployment of their websites or to implement library-specific website portals such as Stacks from EBSCO or BiblioWeb from BiblioCommons. Few libraries have in-house expertise for the many different aspects of modern website design and deployment.
In cases where the library engages an external firm or a vendor product, the library staff should exercise at least some oversight. The website's visual appeal and functionality can be assessed through careful testing and through feedback from library users. Assessing its technical performance can be more difficult because many of these characteristics are not necessarily visible. Rather, a diverse set of validation and testing tools are available to assess the correct technical implementation and configuration of the website. Failure to adhere to any of these technical issues may impair the security, privacy, or performance of the library website.
Libraries can inspect their own websites with the following tools to assess important technical details. These considerations also apply to the services and content products the library makes available through its website.
- The coding underlying the website should be free from syntax errors, with valid HTML and CSS. The W3C Markup Validation service can be used to identify errors. Any errors need to be corrected until the code is fully validated. Libraries using a content management system or a site created by a consultant or contractor should require technically valid code. Access this service at: https://validator. w3.org/
- The site should be operated using HTTPS and not HTTP to ensure that any interactions that patrons have on the library's website are private and cannot be intercepted by third parties. HTTPS extends the HTTP protocol with encryption for secure communication. The operation of HTTPS requires a valid digital certificate. You can verify the encryption of the site and view the digital certificate on any browser. On Chrome, simply click on the icon presented on the search bar. This topic was discussed in the Q&A section of the August 2018 Smart Libraries Newsletter.
- Libraries should avoid advertising trackers and other code that may compromise the privacy of users as they interact with your website. Some of these trackers may be included unintentionally or in some content management applications by default. Libraries should be aware of the trackers present and eliminate any that are not specifically required for the operation of the site. The recently released Blacklight tool from TheMarkup provides a detailed analysis of trackers on a website: https://themarkup.org/blacklight
- The deployment of a library website can—and should— include structured data coding to facilitate the discovery and presentation of the library's website and resources on external search engines. Structured data is not seen in the presentation of a website but is detected by search engines and other automated scripts that interact with your site. Tools that examine the structured data on websites include:
- The Google Structured Data Testing Tool: https:// search.google.com/structured-data/testing-tool
- Google Rich Results Testing tool: https://search. google.com/test/rich-results
- Note that Google will be deprecating the Structured Data Testing Tool in favor of the Rich Results Test. The Structured Data Testing Tool detects all categories available through schema.org, while the Rich Results tool is limited to the specific categories in the Google Gallery
- Web pages must load quickly. It is important to understand any bottlenecks caused by scripts or components that respond slowly. You can view the performance of each included component using tools such as:
- urlscan.io: https://urlscan.io/
- The developer tools in Google Chrome, which also give a detailed analysis of the load times of each internal component of a web page.
- Each web page must properly accommodate use by mobile devices. Not only is this characteristic essential so that your users can easily access your site from their phones, but Google and other search engines penalize sites that are not mobile friendly.
- Google Mobile-Friendly Test: https://search.google .com/test/mobile-friendly
- Include a sitemap to help search engines understand each unique content item on your site. These sitemaps follow a specific protocol and are almost always generated via a script on your web server.
- Sitemaps XML format: https://www.sitemaps.org/ protocol.html
- XML Sitemap Validator: https://www.xml-sitemaps .com/validate-xml-sitemap.html
This list of tools is not comprehensive, but it provides good starting point to assess the technical integrity of a website. While these technical issues are important, the design and functionality issues are much harder to assess and improve. Neither technical nor design considerations are static. Technical standards and protocols continue to advance, requiring continual updates in website components or configuration. Preferred design frameworks change even more rapidly. Library websites require continual attention to ensure their optimal performance and success.