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What Role Should the Government Play in Our (Searching) Lives?

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Last Tuesday was Election Day (I voted, I promise!) in the U.S. One of the most prevalent themes on the campaign trail this year was the size and role of the federal government.

All of the recent coverage got me thinking about how, even though many Americans would like to see government play a more limited role, it has always served an important function in our lives. One way to better understand its influence is through Americans' search behavior and how that has changed over time.

For the sake of this analysis, we looked at the top search terms driving traffic to government websites, which include sites containing information on voting, the election, and government and state agencies (e.g., FBI.gov, Texas.gov, Army.mil).

Traditionally, we've used search click-throughs and their volumes as a proxy for relevance. The more often a search term drives click-throughs across the Internet, the more relevant it is to the searcher base at large.

Intent of these terms is further refined by analyzing their website and industry destinations. By analyzing the top search terms driving traffic to government websites at any given moment, we can determine what is politically relevant to the U.S. population at that time.

Big Government

Looking back at this data over the past three years tells a fascinating story of our fluid relationship with the government and how it serves us in times of not only administration and general information assistance, but also in times of irritation, preparation, and need.

Since 2007, the government category has averaged between 180-190 million search clicks in any given month, generally peaking around 235 million during tax season, everyone's favorite!

This year is different, however. Instead of falling back to normal levels by May, searches maintained historic highs throughout the year, even registering 240 million search clicks in September.

This consistency of volume throughout 2010 would point toward a greater increase in government related searches (most probably driven by the recession and the heated election cycle), as well as the U.S. government's efforts to better establish their online presence under President Obama.

Irritation, Preparation, Need

But not all government searches are as benign as downloading IRS forms and avoiding the DMV. A timeline analysis of the most popular topics offers insight into events that can have the greatest impact on our lives and the trust we have in our government to provide answers at a particular moment in time.

In September 2007, the government search landscape looked relatively serene, with the top 10 search phrases included:

  • AKO (Army Knowledge)
  • NOAA (Weather)
  • FAFSA (Student Aid)
  • IRS
  • Social Security

These same terms consistently rank near the top, year in and year out, and as a result don't represent any particular societal event. "Do Not Call" searches also ranked high, representing the most pressing non-systemic issue of that time.

September 2008 tells a far different story from the prior year, as Hurricane Ike arrived in the gulf. Ike was the third major hurricane of the 2008 season, and the U.S. population turned to search and government websites to prepare. The top five search terms driving traffic to government websites that month were all weather-related:

  1. NOAA
  2. National Hurricane Center
  3. Hurricane Ike
  4. National Weather Service
  5. FEMA

In times of crisis and disaster, we can see the important public service governments provide when citizens need to prepare. Government's most intrinsic reason for existing is to protect its citizens, and the ability to efficiently inform and prepare the populace for a disaster like Hurricane Ike is a great example of why a government search strategy is so necessary.

By September 2009, the economy took a severe turn for the worse as we were mired in a full blown recession. No news there, but the clear cut objective at that point for the government was to stave off a depression and address the financial needs of Americans.

With that understanding, unemployment-related searches become the single largest traffic driver to the government section. Unemployment search clicks had more than doubled since the year prior to the government category, reaching to almost 4 million by month's end. (Interestingly, "swine flu" related clicks gave "unemployment" a run for its money for awhile, but even at peak were less than half the size of the "unemployment" need.)

Fast forward to September 2010 and "unemployment" still tops the list of search topics driving traffic to government websites (nearly 4.4 million search clicks).

Even more unfortunate is a review of the top paid search phrases driving traffic to the category. The first six are military recruiting related (noteworthy for the military's efforts in adopting an online paid strategy), but the seventh most popular paid search phrase driving traffic is "Chapter 7 Bankruptcy."

This seems macabre on the surface, but in the grand scheme of things not an awful indicator, because the volume on this term in general hasn't risen considerably. It's just that government websites have invested dollars to better inform the populace on how to address this situation as opposed to first hearing from a for-profit entity.

Summary

So as we review the evolution of government searches over the past four years, clearly search plays an important role in providing citizens with the information they need for their most pressing areas of need and assistance, in good times and bad.

Whether it's as simple as downloading student loan forms or as complicated as applying for social security disability, search is an integral part of the 21st century citizen's idea of government.

Related industries should take note and consider where they fit into the government funnel of information gathering, crisis management, and policy resolution, and adapt accordingly.


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