5 ideas for a better government website

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.

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Christine Pierpoint

You make make some great points about improving usability for government sites, but I think a key factor contributing to poor execution is a lack of governance over the Web presence. I think most Federal Web managers could agree to standards for navigation, content tagging and conversion of PDFs, but do they have the authority to enforce those standards? Establishing best practices is good, but without formal governance, there’s only so much a Web manager can do to implement those practices across an entire site. If there isn’t an administrative framework with the authority to enforce Web policy and standards, the best you can do is provide “guidance” which can be easily trumped by someone with a higher pay grade.

Jay S. Daughtry, ChatterBachs

Paul, great points on search functionality, PDFs, and related content. Powerful statement in “People don’t care about your org chart as much as finding the content they need.” Too often organizations don’t take such a user-centric perspective into account. Well done, Paul.

Michael McCarthy, APR

Nice to read this – backs up some thoughts we had about going to a more “google” homepage approach. Do you have some sample government sites that have done this?

Paul Day

Thanks for the comments,

I’ve never met a web manager I like and giving them more authority is probably going to stifle innovation.

The best solution is to hire plenty of web saavy professionals who aren’t from IT who see the value in web communications and will do their best to make things happen within their departments. IT folks are too far from what is happening within departments to be able to create an agency-wide commitment to web presence.

I think governments hire IT people rather than marketing people to manage their websites and IT people (generally) don’t care about usability. When cities hire web managers, you’ll see a list of technical qualifications but rarely will you see “can create a website that is easy to use” in that list.

I shouldn’t bash IT people because I know plenty of marketers who have never heard of Jacob Nielson.