A new report that evaluated 200 law-school websites around the country, and found that the University of Illinois had the best, also noted that over 30 percent of the websites included pictures of students in close proximity to trees, a phenomenon apparently known and mocked in the web-design world as "Girls Under Trees."
Because studies suggest these kinds of images are "filler" that users tend to ignore, the authors subtracted points from sites that exhibited Girls Under Trees.
The report, conducted by Georgetown's Associate Law Librarian Roger Skalbeck and Yale Law School Librarian Jason Eiseman, evaluated websites on a range of criteria, generally selected to measure usability and usefulness of the information provided. Most important: "meaningful page titles," search forms, and basic facts like address and phone number that you would expect to find on any site, but which some actually omitted. (Several, including Cornell and Stanford, didn't provide either -- maybe there you have to be smart enough to find the campus on your own.) More technical issues like whether the site had an RSS feed or a "favicon" were worth fewer points.
"Girls Under Trees" is apparently a well-known phenomenon first mentioned in 2008 by a usability expert named Jared Spool. He was talking about higher-ed websites in general, but others have since pointed out that law schools are no exception to the rule. According to the authors of the report, studies have shown that readers' eyes tend to skip over these kinds of "beautiful campus" images anyway, so they add little while taking up space that could be used for information. Presumably, girls tend to predominate in such images, but the authors did not discriminate. "Points were deducted," they said, "for home pages displaying people (of any gender) under, near, or around trees."
As noted, Illinois came in first, followed by Wayne State, Michigan State, Nebraska, and Chicago. Special congratulations to Michigan State, which made the top five despite getting docked for Girls Under Trees. Bringing up the rear: California Western School of Law and Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico Law School, which tied for 199th place. (To be fair, Pontifical Catholic may have a lousy website, but it has to be on any list of top party schools.)
The report appears in the 2011 edition of the Green Bag Almanac and Reader, where, coincidentally, the second annual Year of Lowering the Bar also appears, or will shortly appear. You should read them both.