Academic Website III: Anatomy of a Successful Website | Hendrik Erz

Abstract: In the last two articles I have introduced reasons for why a personal website may be a great idea, and how you can get your very own domain. Now it is time to think about the actual website itself. There are quite some preconsiderations that will influence what your website will look like. Today, we'll go scouting the web to get some inspiration!


Welcome back to the third iteration of my short series on academic websites. In the first post, I have given a quick rundown of why a personal website might be a good idea, and in the second one I have introduced you to the intricacies of a personal domain. In this post, I summarize the pre-considerations you will want to put into what your website will look like. This will save you some time when actually starting it – which I will introduce in the next article.

Shall we begin?

Why Think About Websites Beforehand?

First a bit of introduction to why this bridging article is even necessary and why we can’t just dive into the mud. For that, think of your social media profiles. You likely have a Facebook account (even if you don’t use it anymore), possibly an Instagram account, likely a Twitter account and, as of recently, a Bluesky account. I don’t want you to realize that you’re probably just terminally online and have no life. Rather, think about how you interact with these social media platforms, specifically (academic) Twitter/Bluesky.

Social media is all about presenting yourself: building a brand recognition and providing your (prospective) followers with content they superficially enjoy. What is important are two things: First, you only have to deal with producing content. How that content will be displayed is already decided upon for you by the UI designers of the platform. You have some guarantees as to how your text will show up, what you can (and cannot) do with images and videos, and in general how the content will be presented. Therefore, you only have to think about what to post, and how to frame it.

With a personal website, the third dimension that you don’t have to think about on social media suddenly plays a major role: How your content is being presented. On social media you have no control over the actual structure of the platform, but for websites, the sky is the limit. This is cool, because you can almost do whatever you want. But it also comes with the “blank page” problem: You have so many options that deciding on what to do can become a burden.

“With great power comes great responsibility” – or so they say.

And this is why you should put a bit of thought in the initial design of your website. You can and need to adapt the website later on, but the more thought you put into your initial design, the fewer headaches you have later on.

Consider your Target Audience

The first thing to consider is who your target audience will be. Just with any paper, an academic website also needs to fit your target audience. There are exactly three targets you need to consider: academia in general, academia specifically within your disciplinary boundaries, and machines.

To satisfy the first category, you don’t have to think too much. This involves deciding on what information you want to present on your website. Among the fundamentals for an academic website is a landing page that gives visitors a quick overview over you personally and professionally at a glance: No wall of text; short pieces of information. Your name, your current affiliation, your current project, your broad research interests.

You also want to add links to those social media channels there that you want visitors to find. So maybe don’t add your Facebook profile, but do add your Twitter handle. And don’t just add it: link it. People want it simple, and if you want people to actually follow you on Bluesky, link that profile, don’t just mention it. Finally, since we are in academia and not on Twitter, you are allowed to add walls of text on your website: but not on the landing page, only in the form of links to subpages.

When it comes to subpages, the absolute minimum is a CV page where you outline your education, publications, and presentations. Another thing that people especially above the level of a Postdoc often do is add one subpage each for their specific research interests. PhD students often don’t do that (and to be honest don’t need to). And that’s about it: You should definitely add subpages for big projects you are working on, but you don’t have to. Always think: what do you want other people to associate you with? While writing these lines, I realize that I possibly want to add a subpage for Zettlr, and I never thought about that! You see – when trying to help other people, you almost always also help yourself.

Let’s move to the second target audience: people in your own discipline. Those people will at the same time be much more lenient with you, as they will behave like reviewer 2. They will be much more lenient as soon as they recognize you as one of their own (academics sometimes are like shepherds). But to make them recognize you as one of their own is a difficult endeavor. You need to think about two things in order to signal to your tribe that you are part of it. First, certain pieces of information they expect to find on your website (such as an ORCID), and second keywords they recognize.

Network analysis scholars enjoy seeing a reference to “Erdos-Renyi”, “Small World”, or the Italian city of Siena. Text analysis people know what a “topic model” is, will understand the reference of “subtracting man from king”, and of course love transformers (not the movie). — You get the point.

Your own discipline, which may not be computational social sciences, likely wants to see other keywords, so make sure to scout other academics’ websites prior to launching your own (see below).

The last target audience you will have to consider is machines. Now, machines won’t give you jobs (they only take yours), money (they cost a lot), or recognition (they only steal your text). But they will help other humans find you to give you jobs, money, and tenure – err, recognition. But because machines are astonishingly stupid, you will need to help them.

Almost all backends that you can choose from will allow you to customize how machines see your website. Among the most basic things to consider here is: When you refer to a social media account, link it, do not just mention it. Machines may or may not detect that you are referring to a Twitter handle and not an Email address, but they will be able to follow a link. (Also, most humans – me included – will not copy and paste your Twitter handle, but we will dutifully click it if it is an actual link.)

However, there may be parts of your website you want machines to index (so that they appear on Google) and some you don’t want them to index. For that, you can make use of a file called “robots.txt”. Finally, even when linking to some Twitter account, a machine doesn’t have the ability to decide if it’s actually you. For that, you can make use of another technique called “JSON-LD”. But more on that in a later article.

To cut a long story short: While you set up your website, always consider that machines can help you tremendously in reaching the people you care about, and therefore helping a dumb robot is in your interest. And many (academic) websites don’t pay as much attention to these details as I think they should.

A final thing that will be important for both humans and machines is the usage of keywords. Humans need keywords to know who you associate with, and machines will use them to show your website for relevant search queries. Again, more on that (this is called “SEO”, or Search Engine Optimization) in a later article.

Consider Yourself

But you don’t only want to consider your target audience(s). You will also want to consider yourself. Even if you are a people pleaser, if you forget about yourself when setting up a website, visitors may like it, but they will still have absolutely no clue who you are. Therefore, always consider how you want to differentiate yourself from others. What makes you special? What do you like? And, most importantly: What do you want other people to see you as?

Your website is not a data dump; it should be a portfolio outlining what you can do best. To give you an example, consider what my best friend has told me repeatedly (and I have repeatedly ignored): Even if you have a basic technological understanding, under no circumstances should you tell anyone! Others will immediately see you as their personal tech support and disregard that you actually work on plant biology. Be selective in what you show.

The biggest advantage of a website over any social media profile is that you control everything on it. And you should use it to your advantage. Consider this blog: there is no comment section. That is only in part because implementing a comment functionality is really difficult (and as of now involves a lot of thought around GDPR directives). It is more because I started my first own blog around 2008 and implemented comments, and let me just tell you: the internet is brutal. Give people a text field and they will use it as a toilet.

And now a pro-tip: I forget about most academic websites. This is not because the people are uninteresting. Rather, it is because a lot of academic websites have no personality. Many academics use a default template and don’t modify it. And because many academics use the same template, many academic websites look the same. A simple line of (CSS) code such as a { color: magenta; } can be the pivot with which you can lift the entire earth with a stick.

Want an example? Then click the button below, which will temporarily switch all links on this website to magenta to see how much such a subtle change can affect our perception. Here’s a link to my CV page so that you don’t have to scroll too much to see the result.

This is referred to as branding: If your website looks unique, people will remember it, even if they don’t necessarily remember the exact words you have written on it. And then they will come back. And a person who visits your website twice is also twice as likely to remember who you are. But don’t overdo it.

For some branding decisions, you need to have the necessary clout. So don’t use Comic Sans as the main font of your website. Yes, it will differentiate you from others and make your website memorable. But as an aspiring Postdoc in a history department, it will do much more harm than it will help. The most extreme case of someone actually having this clout and getting away with … let’s say memorable branding decisions that I know is Joseph Redmon. Please look at the PDF of his CV and convince yourself. His website has all the required things such as a PDF of a CV. But the way they are presented? Absolute mad lad.

Pulling it all Together

Now, you may think that this is an unsurmountable pile of considerations. How and where do you start? Isn’t there something simpler? Well, yes. The good news is: You can ignore any and all of these pre-considerations. What I wanted is to make you read through them so that they now live rent-free in your head. Because this will make the actual decision-making process dead simple that I am about to introduce.

Because what you really want to do, equipped with this knowledge, is to go around and scout: Who has great websites in your field? What do others do? What do you spot that you really want for yourself? And what must’ve been an awful decision taken after one too many beers?

Look at the websites of people you like (because those you want to be inspired by); people you work with (because that’s how others will inevitably see you); and people who are famous/important (because that’s how your website will actually grow important).

Here is a (incomplete) list of things to pay attention to while scouting your colleagues’ websites:

  • What framework/backend did they use? (WordPress, GitHub, a graphical website builder, or their own custom website)
  • What does their website’s domain look like? (If you haven’t already settled on one)
  • What is the general aesthetic of these people? (modern, traditional, funky, artsy)
  • How do they describe themselves? Look especially for keywords and key phrases. Think of websites as extended abstract sections: full of keywords that are meant to arrange the website in the broader network (i.e., if you work on NLP but never mention Natural Language Processing anywhere on your website, you missed the mark)
  • Can you make out a shared color theme? What could be the reason? Do you want other colors? Why?
  • Do they regularly post new content, e.g., in the form of a blog or a news section? What do they normally cover? Can you make out general themes?
  • Do you even like those websites? Don’t copy a website just because it’s famous — if you don’t like it, don’t copy it!

Now, think about what you would like to do differently: Colors, general layout, information to publish, key phrases, etc. — it’s important to use shared symbols and keywords, but you also need to add your own touch.

Really essential are two questions: What do you personally want to put on your website, and how do you want to present it? And: How much do you want to experiment with the website? What could be things that you’d maybe like to add in the future?

These two questions will also influence what system you need to host your website on.

Final Thoughts

This is just a cursory overview over the many considerations you should pay attention to when it comes to your own website. There are many more. In fact, there are entire book series on how to properly set up websites. But this article should’ve sharpened your view on websites enough for you to get started. As I mentioned in the beginning: You will need to modify your website anyhow, so don’t worry if you forget something initially. The more you get right at the start, the fewer headaches you’ll have later on, but almost everything is fixable.

Before we dive into actually setting up a website in the next article, you can already start to think about where you want to set up your website. Let this be influenced by the people in your field, but also remember that this only influences how your website works, not how it looks. You are freer in choosing where to host it than you are in how it should look. In general, there are three options you may want to consider: A static webpage on GitHub Pages, a WordPress(-like) website on some shared hoster, or a graphical website builder like Squarespace or Wix. (If you have some technical knowledge, you can also decide to host it on an actual server as I did, but I’m going to aim this series more at the beginner. Those who know will know.)

But that’s all going to be elaborated on in length in the next article, in which I will run you through the actual steps of setting up a website. It’s going to be the longest article of the series, so buckle up. See you there!

Suggested Citation

Erz, Hendrik (2023). “Academic Website III: Anatomy of a Successful Website”. hendrik-erz.de, 8 Dec 2023, https://www.hendrik-erz.de/post/academic-website-iii-anatomy-of-a-successful-website.

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