Government websites are mostly terrible, not because they lack a slick design, but because they are trying to be all things to all people. The goal of these steps is to maximize the chances that your visitors quickly find what they are looking for.
1) Avoid offering a menu of unrelated choices on your home page – or any page, for that matter. Government agency websites are invariably trying to please a huge array of stakeholders. It is practically impossible to adequately support any one of these constituencies through your navigation system. When your try to make your website all things to all people, that’s when it serves no one adequately. So why try to serve everyone through your site map? Why try to make guesses about what is most important? This is really bad:
2) Use search as the primary tool to navigate your website. Most government websites already have a search function, but it’s mostly an afterthought. Search should be front and center, like Google. This is why Google is the top search engine. Google is good. Whatever is left on your home page should be “money”. This only should be a few links. Front and center, advertising products (Adwords) is right under the search buttons on the Google home page. That’s Google’s primary source of revenue, so it makes sense. Everything else, relegate to the search function.
3) Optimize your content for search. This sounds simple, but because search is mostly an afterthought on government sites, this is super important if you’re going to use search as a navigation tool. Make sure that page title tags are optimized with keywords to reflect what people are searching for. Use HTML headings (H1, H2, H3, ect.), meta descriptions, and summary statements in the first lines of content to provide snippets of content that show up in the search listing.
4) Take everything out of PDFs. Like alcohol and cigarettes are for pregnant women, the PDF might be the most harmful legal product out there for web designers. Government websites are the top offenders of using the PDF to lazily represent content. The usability problems associated with PDFs have been well documented, but everyone continues to ignore them.The biggest problem with PDFs as far as finding content is concerned is that
they are almost always a dead end. Links between regular HTML pages are the best way to deliver almost all content and are the foundation of the World Wide Web.
5) Provide links to related content. At the bottom of almost every Google Search, you’ll see a list of related search keywords. Most internal government webpages include a map of links on the side navigation bar arranged according to the organization chart.
The problem with this approach is that it reflects a silo mentality. A transportation issue, for example, is not a public works issue or a public health issue – under the assumptions of this design. People don’t care about your org chart as much as finding the content they need. On each page, provide links to “related content”, even if it’s extra-departmental. If this is how the website is organized, then you don’t really need departmental websites.
Be conservative and user-centric when you choose what “related content” to include on the page. On a DOT page, for example, information about construction projects is probably not relevant to someone looking for snow removal schedules.