Get Out Your Pitchforks and Clean Up That Content

The recently-released federal Digital Government Strategy lays out many promising initiatives that will, no doubt, improve the technology and infrastructure behind online services and, thus, enhance customer experience. Many talented people worked hard to develop this Strategy, and they will continue to work hard on its implementation. But we still don’t have a clear plan for cleaning up the mess that is the existing content of government websites…those pages and pages of words, many that are outdated, redundant, poorly written (and, thus, unusable) or just plain unnecessary. It’s the haystack customers have to sort through to find what they really want.

It’s time to get out the pitchforks and do the dirty work. Here’s what I would do.

1. Establish archive sites. Require every agency to establish archives.(agency name).gov as a separate website for obsolete, redundant, and little-used content that is still important for researchers, students, historians, and interested citizens. You don’t need an archives site for every website – one (or just a few) for the agency should do the trick. Examples of content for archives sites are documentation about obsolete programs; speeches, press releases, reports, management plans, testimony, and other materials from past administrations; past budget materials; and other content required by the National Archives and Records Administration or agency records policies. Set up the archives site so that customers can find it from the live site, but its content will not turn up in searches of the live site (and confuse customers). Brand every page on the archives site so customers know this content is no longer maintained and is available only for reference purposes. Use as a prototype.

2. Review statistics. Require every agency to review the statistics for every page on every one of their websites, for the past 6 months. Create 3 lists:

  • List 1: Pages that are viewed an average of 100 times or more every month
  • List 2: Pages that are viewed an average of 11-99 times every month
  • List 3: Pages that have been viewed an average of 10 times or less, every month

If you don’t have a statistics package that gives you views per page, get one now!

3: Review content on List 3 (because it should be the easiest). Task content owners (subject matter experts) to decide and act accordingly:

  • Still needed – work with web managers to update and rewrite to make more usable. Improve navigation and optimize for searches.
  • Not needed, but still useful as reference or to maintain transparency – move to the archives site.
  • Not needed at all. Remove it from the server. Be sure to meet NARA and agency records retention plans.

4: Do the same things for List 2.

5: Improve pages on List 1. This is your top content – that which your customers want and use most. Can this content be improved through plain writing, search optimization, or navigation? If so, do it.

Establish the goal to reduce the amount of content on the active website by half. Don’t analyze this stuff to death. If in doubt, move it to archives. You always can move it back if you made a mistake. Set deadlines and get it done. Make it a 6-month project, and declare victory at the end of the year.
I know it’s not fun to clean up our messes. But those behemoth websites are still there, and millions of customers are still trying to use them every month. Having all that content wastes time (both yours and your customers’) and money. So if we really care about our customers – if we want to make their experience positive and helpful – we’ve got to get out the pitchforks and clear out some of that hay to make it easy for them to find those great services we offer.
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Joe Flood

Yes! Digital strategy is certainly sexy but there’s a lot of Web 1.0 work that government needs to do. There are lots of government web sites out there with information that is inaccurate and out of date. The best thing that agencies could do is to have knowledgeable people actually read all the pages that they have online.

Jerry Schmidt

Phenomenal! I wholeheartedly agree with you on the cleaning up of web pages (and I love the pitchfork analogy-I actually used that one on my teen-age son last weekent while referrring to his room!)