Government SEO is Broken

The federal government, under the leadership of President Obama and Federal Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel, has launched a wide-ranging rethinking and consolidation of federal websites, domains, and databases. The goal: to broaden access to government information and services, incorporate mobile access, and reduce waste and overlap in websites and domains.

This is a pretty big initiative. One problem: there is a missing element that could hinder the effort - consideration for how users search for and find government service online – where's the search engine optimization (SEO)?

Improving Transparency and Accessibility to Government Services with SEO

Search engines are often the first step in the user experience, the place people go to find a government form, plan a trip to a national park, or get informed at government issues.

By including SEO - the set of best practices around helping web content appear in search results - government can insure their services, activities, and positions are issues are front and center in the everyday lives of the public.

The Challenge of Size

A recent study by the. Gov. Reform Task Force put the federal digital presence at more than 1,400 domains and 11,000 websites run by 56 agencies. The cost alone of managing this scale may be reason enough to consolidate and rationalize, but a hidden cost is the complexity imposed on citizens who need to navigate the mass of government data to find what they need.

Each negative or frustrating online experience contributes to the public perception that government is too large, unresponsive, and indifferent to the needs of its diverse set of stakeholders.

But what if users were able to quickly and easily connect to government directly from the search engines with a minimum of clicks? Instead of visiting a government agency home page, navigating the site, and finally finding the information they need? What if agency activities and perspectives were highly visible and above private sector sites in the search results?

Direct access to government services and information via search is in many ways an optimal user experience. This experience arises when SEO and sound technical management combine to treat every government web page as a potential landing page – a home page in its own right for users entering the site via search.

The Special Position of Government Sites in Search Engines

Government sites are inherently privileged in the world of search. They use the restricted .gov top-level domain, they tend to have many inbound links from other authoritative sites, and they are typically well established, indexable, and content-rich – all prized elements in the eyes of the search engine ranking algorithms.

Given this pedigree, government sites can potentially rank for practically any relevant keyword they wish with basic SEO - on-page optimization and sound linking practices.

Sound SEO fundamentals consists of the following tactics for all content (URLs, images, videos) relevant to search engine users:

  1. A strong keyword focus: The content has a specific query for which it is designed to rank well for in search results.
  2. The use of keyword-rich Meta data: Page title and meta description tags.
  3. The use of keyword-rich URLs.
  4. A keyword-rich inbound link / internal navigation profile: Pages linking to the content use keywords as anchor text.

These critical elements ensure that search engines understand the keyword focus of the page. Get these factors right, and any given government URL has a decent chance or ranking well.

Government Agencies & Search Keyword Strategy

Every government agency should understand, monitor, and actively seek to shape its digital presence around mission-critical keywords.

Given the advantages government agencies have in the ranking algorithms, it’s likely that agencies will have top ranking for core keywords - "brand" terms like the agency name, and closely-related terms like their areas of focus, regulation, and oversight. Other keywords will be more difficult to rank for, and are often the most important for the long-term future of the agency.

Digital content – web pages, videos, press releases – can be created or retro-fitted to rank well for each keyword or keyword cluster in the keyword strategy, insuring full visibility for the agency and its overall objectives.

Creating a Federal Government Agency Keyword Strategy

In order to implement SEO, a sound keyword strategy must be developed so that specific keywords can be mapped to content. Best practice involve researching keywords, starting with the most highly relevant core terms around brand or organization names, and then moving further out to include potential keywords around activities, oversight, and finally related news or issue keywords.

Taking the Department of Justice as an example, a well-crafted search keyword strategy might look like the following - this is just an excerpt of what would be a list with potentially hundreds of search keywords:

government-keyword-strategy

The Department of Justice keyword strategy should include small set of core or "brand" terms, a larger set of critical oversight keywords for the department area of focus, and a wide-ranging set of relevant issue keywords for which the agency is a stakeholder and participant in the wider debate.

Using Search to Enter the Public Discussion

Government agencies are big players in the ongoing shaping of American society. From setting regulation to informing the public, there is always a set of perspectives that agencies are seeking to disseminate.

Search can play a huge part in making sure government views and information makes it into the ongoing public discussion. Optimized government websites that rank well in the engines insure that talking points and government resources are front and center when people go to the search engines to get informed about a given topic.

The Department of Transportation: Entering the Distracted Driving Debate

For more than three years the Department of Transportation has been working to reduce the dangerous trend of distracted driving – the practice of texting, talking on phones, checking email when you should be driving. The campaign consists of video spots, banner ads, and the www.distraction.gov website.

While the DOT site ranks on page one of the Google results, it is unfortunately, ‘below the fold’ requiring the user to scroll down on most screens. As seen in the screenshot below, non-government sites rank about the DOJ campaign site, as do image results, news results, and book results. What is the chance that users will make their way through the crowded page to the distraction.gov site?

Implementing SEO for the distraction.gov site, by aligning press releases, linking from DOJ sites, and on-page content with a keyword strategy, would insure that DOJ content reaches the greatest possible audience.

texting-driving-dept-of-transportation-google-ranking

Furthermore, the site is potentially targeted to the "wrong" keyword if the goal is to reach as many people as possible. Distraction.gov is targeted to the phrase "distracted driving" which, while perhaps the technically accurate way to describe the problem, has much less query volume than the phrase "texting while driving", a phrase that could reach almost 5 times the number of potential searchers.

How to Handle Government Domain Consolidation

A key goal in the efforts to streamline and improve the government web presence is to reduce the number of .gov domains. While this makes a great deal of sense, it carries risks from a search engine perspective because the inbound links and search engine equity can be lost when a domain is expired or clumsily redirected. In other words, when the domain goes away, users may be impacted.

Available tools such as Google Webmaster Tools, Majestic SEO, and SEOMoz.com provide information on inbound linking for any live domain. Government agencies in the process of consolidating domains can check the inbound links for each domain on the consolidation list.

Domains with significant inbound links can be carefully redirected via server 301 redirects to point to the best-fit URL on retained domains. This insures that the new domain inherits the equity acquired by the old domains, helping it rank well in search results and by extension insuring users can find what the need post-consolidation.

Empowering State and Local Governments

While this post focuses on using SEO to benefit the agenda of the federal government, the importance of applying SEO is even greater at the state and local or city level. This is because most of the government services people use on a day-to-day basis are provided by state and local agencies.

A federal government that understands and implements good SEO can function as a role model to encourage partners at the local and state level to consider how users interact with search and to ensure that their information and services can be easily found.

Creating a More Transparent, Accessible & Impactful Government via Search

Search plays a series of critical roles in the interplay between government and the people. It’s a first step in the search for government services, to best way to find government data, and a key way people get informed and shape options about issues impacted by government policies and decisions.

If the federal government is serious about moving toward a more accessible and effective tomorrow, building-in SEO competency is a crucial step on the journey.

Capable SEO, digital agencies, and technology consultants that understand the issues and approaches to implementing enterprise SEO are well positioned to sell in this crucial service to federal, state, and local governments.