Websites

Guidelines | Best Practices | Accessibility

The University of Southern California’s digital platforms contain some of our most visible communication tools to reach our many different audiences. This section is intended for designers and developers working on web pages for the university. Check out this guide to learn about best practices for developing and designing web content to create web pages that align with the USC brand and contribute to a cohesive user experience throughout the university site ecosystem.


Guidelines

USC Information Technology Services (ITS) department manages website requests and services most websites. URL requests are managed by ITS in consultation with University Communications. To request a website name, URL and website please refer to the following information below.


Choosing a Website Name

A website’s title should be the most prominent identity information on the website. The title is either the name of a department, center, institute, program, or project.

  • This title will always appear in upper left hand corner of the page.
  • Departments, centers, institutes and programs must include the primary USC logo in the top right corner of each page with a link back to the USC homepage.
  • The consistent application of these elements is meant to clearly communicate the website’s academic affiliations and to provide a cohesive user experience throughout the site.

USC Websites Domain Names

USC academic and administrative units may obtain an official USC URL (also known as a website address or domain name), regardless of where their website is hosted, provided the site design and content meet USC’s eligibility guidelines and editorial and graphic identity standards. The name of the URL is subject to approval by ITS and University Communications.

Requesting a USC URL
University URLs are guided by the principle of spectrum scarcity, meaning there is ultimately a finite number of URL names that may be granted. USC ITS manages URL requests in consultation with University Communications.

University Communications maintains primary gateway presences for the university and reserves usage and governance of sites residing on broad, all-university URLs including about.usc.edu, president.usc.edu, ask.usc.edu, etc.

The following are circumstances for which URLs would typically be granted:

  • Administrative service URLs that clearly indicate the purpose of the site to the user. Examples: careers.usc.edu (Career Center), admission.usc.edu (Admissions), arts.usc.edu (all six arts schools)
  • Named School or Academic Unit acknowledging a philanthropic gift. Also may be used in the case of a center or institute that is cooperatively housed in more than one academic school or unit, or is administratively housed within the Office of the Provost. Naming convention will be guided by terms set in the formal gift agreement. Examples include: roski.usc.edu, viterbischool.usc.edu michelson.usc.edu, healthpolicy.usc.edu, etc. Note: in the case of very common surnames, or donors who have multiple areas of philanthropic support at USC, requestors are advised to use additional language in the URL to avoid confusion.

The following are circumstances for which URLs would typically NOT be granted:

  • Use of personal names (see above section for exception)
  • Overly broad terms, including acronyms (fire.usc.edu, escape.usc.edu, students.usc.edu, etc.)

Labs and Research Group Sites
For Principal Investigators who head labs or faculty research or personal pages, the suggested syntax is as follows:

  • /firstnamelastname
  • /lastnamelab
  • /lastnameresearch
  • /lastnameproject
  • /lastnamegroup
  • /acronym-lab

A note on centers within one academic school
Centers affiliated with a school should use a URL that represents that affiliation to establish the school’s reputational branding further. It is preferred to connect the URL to the school to further establish the reputational branding of the school. Examples, dornsife.usc.edu/unruh, annenberg.usc.edu/research/center-public-relation, etc.

A note on research projects
The criteria for research projects to be granted a domain name on usc.edu is as follows: the project should

  • be consortium level
  • have federal funding, or
  • reflect research across the entire university, subject to review by Provost Office Communications.

Requestors must present a content maintenance plan (who to contact, what will be published) and agree to update any out-of-date or incorrect information upon request. Priority is granted to projects and entities requiring broad national or international public recognition to benefit the university’s reputation.

Requirements for site owners on USC Domains
Requestors granted sitename.usc.edu domains and/or usc.edu/sitename redirects must keep their websites current with university visual identity, privacy policies, brand guidelines, and factual information standards. Sites that do not meet these standards will be subject to a 30-day period for updating information. If the required updates are not made within 30 days, usage of the university URL may be revoked.

Grandfather Clause Exceptions
Current websites with existing URLs may be “grandfathered” to keep existing URLs that do not meet the criteria outlined in these guidelines. Review of exceptions will be at the discretion of the academic unit communication office and/or Provost Office Communications, in conjunction with Information Technology Services and University Communications.

Requirements and Revocation of URL Names
Requestors who are granted sitename.usc.edu domains and/or usc.edu/sitename redirects are required to keep their websites current with university visual identity, privacy policies, brand guidelines, and factual information standards. Sites that do not meet these standards will be subject to a 30 day period of for updating information. If the required updates are not made within 30 days, usage of the university URL may be revoked.

University Communications, in conjunction with Information Technology Services, reserves to right to revoke any previously assigned URL at any time if it conflicts with the guidelines elucidated here, or other university policies, priorities, or interests. A period of 10 days will be given to site owners in preparation for revocation.

Other Domain Use
Occasionally, USC brand presence may be permitted on websites on .com, .org, .net, or other non- “.edu” domains for specific consumer-facing, conference, consortium, or affinity group purposes.

Typical permitted use cases of other domains where the sponsoring department include:

  • USC Athletics (as governed by NCAA rules)
  • USC Alumni Association and its formally recognized clubs and chapters
  • USC Campus Activities and its formally recognized student clubs and organizations
  • USC academic schools and units and their formally recognized student and alumni clubs, classes, or organizations

In these cases, site content managers are asked to confer with the sponsoring school, department, or divisional unit to keep their site content within brand standards for visual identity, editorial content, and current data privacy and online security best practices.


Request a Website

  • If you are within a large School or Center, contact your IT department which may have an existing website platform to use.
  • USC uses the WordPress content management system (CMS) for public domain websites. USC SITES is a free, self-service WordPress website you build yourself using a branded template. Visit USC SITES for more information.
  • For custom-made websites and other platforms, contact ITS Services.

Website Access
To add, change, or remove a person’s log in access to a website, fill out the WordPress user request form.

Web fonts and USC’s official typefaces
Web fonts let you use typefaces that aren’t available by default in web browsers by downloading font files along with your web pages. This technique allows you to use the university’s official typefaces – Adobe Caslon Pro and National – on the web. Our official typefaces help to reinforce USC’s visual identity and keep a consistent look across print and digital formats. See instructions on how to use USC typefaces.


Best Practices

Here, you’ll find some basic best practices for creating content that’s usable, accessible and aligns with USC’s brand guidelines. You’ll also find tips and resources for optimizing content for search engines, as well as analytics basics to help you measure performance and make data-driven decisions.


User experience

UX, or user experience, is a crucial element of any website. After all, what good is a website if no one can figure out how to use it? UX encompasses everything from the site’s overall layout to the small details like button size and color. Here are a few UX tips to keep in mind when planning your website:

  • Keep the overall layout simple and easy to navigate. Users should be able to find what they’re looking for without difficulty.
  • Use whitespace to your advantage. Don’t overcrowd your pages with too much information or too many elements.
  • Make sure your buttons and links are large enough to be easily clicked on mobile devices. Small buttons can be frustrating for users on smaller screens.
  • Use color judiciously. Too much color can be overwhelming but using color strategically can help guide users’ eyes to important information.

Additional Resources: WordPress’ Tips to Improve Your Site’s UX


Usability

Usability in web design refers to how easy it is for users to interact with the website. If a website is difficult to read, if the information is hard to read , if it doesn’t answer user’s key questions or if they simply get lost, users leave. By implementing some usability basics, you can learn to create more effective content and a positive experience for your users. Below are some simple tips to improve your sites usability.

Tips

  • Establish credibility by using proper USC logos and images.
  • Create web pages that are easy to read with clear labels for section heads and content categories.
  • Create content without too many long blocks of text.
  • Simplify site navigation as much as possible, and make sure navigation is easy to use on all devices.
  • Use simple, clear language and avoid unnecessary jargon when possible.
  • Use black text on plain, high-contrast backgrounds for better readability.
  • Double-check that all links are working correctly and don’t lead to 404 error pages.
  • Before launch, test your production site with real, in-person users.
  • Announce and communicate changes to a website after a major redesign.

Additional Resources: Usability 101: Introduction to Usability


Accessibility

All web content on USC websites must be ADA compliant for individuals using assistive technologies. These digital standards include the web page text, graphics, and images, as well as PDFs and other documents attached to a web page. View USC guidelines on accessibility.

Here are some tips:

  • Use HTML headings to structure content so non-sighted users can navigate the page.
  • Test your pages using only a keyboard, for those that are unable to use a mouse while navigating your site.
  • Include alt text for images, so screen readers can understand your message.
  • When color is used make sure that it is ADA compliant and provides enough contrast for a low vision reader.
  • Use a minimum 40×40 px clickable area for all touch controls.
  • Descriptively name links to help screen reader users.

SEO

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a set of practices that help search engines (Google or Yahoo) identify your web pages and deliver it to people looking for information. Using simple SEO techniques when creating web content will ensure it will be found and viewed.

Seo Research: 4 Basic Steps

  1. Identify top keywords or phrases from the topic(s) in your draft web content.
  2. Test the keywords on Google to see if they display similar content that you are creating.
  3. Verify a keyword’s strength and popularity using an SEO tools paid subscriptions such as MOZ, SpyFU, or SEMRush – or free services like Google Trends. You can further refine your keywords or search for related keywords.
  4. Incorporate these keywords/phrases into the title, headings, text, images, links, etc., where possible.

Additional Resources: Learn more about SEO research basics

Optimize Your Metadata
Metadata is a set of descriptive data and information that is applied to the page. It allows users and search engines to more easily find, use and manage the content on the page. Use this checklist to help you succeed with your SEO search.

  • Make sure page titles are descriptive and relevant.
  • Use heading tags (H1) as the page title using keywords in the HTML of all your pages.
  • In the body, use heading tags (H2, H3, H4 etc.) as subheadings using keywords in the HTML of all your pages.
  • Add links to relevant external websites or internal pages (at least 2 links).
  • Add a call-to-action link using keywords.
    For example: “Start Here”, “Submit”, “Take Action”, “Learn more”, “Go to”.
  • Create a short Alias (Slug) for the web page address using keywords.
  • Write a descriptive meta-description for each page using keywords. Keep it under 155 characters.
  • Integrate web pages into the website menu.
  • Write descriptive ALT text for all images and videos so search engines can understand the content of your imagery.

Additional Resources: Guide for creating SEO-friendly content


WordPress

Training and support
Websites obtained via USC ITS utilize WordPress as the backend content management system. For step-by-step tutorials on building, editing, and managing sites in WordPress, visit the Sites At USC WordPress User Guide. A curated list of how-to videos from LinkedIn Learning is also available for your benefit.

Tips

  • Don’t bury the headline. Instead, provide a simple and descriptive heading and overview topic sentence on the top of the main body text.
  • For long text blocks, use teasers and excerpts and link to an interior page for the full information.
  • Use available plugins (ex. “easy accordion” plugin) to organize large amounts of copy into collapsible boxes.
  • Use graphics or videos to provide an overview of the information you want to present. Where applicable, offer call-to-action links or buttons for users to perform a function, to take the next step, or to learn more about the topic.

Content and editorial style

Please visit the USC News editors website for a comprehensive overview on USC’s Style Guide.