If Your Portal Doesn’t Add Value, We’ll Use Google

I remember when I first heard the term, “portal.” The concept of a home page that would aggregate links to content from other sites around themes made so much sense to me. Indeed, it was a huge step in the right direction – more than 10 years ago.

Today – many years later – customers’ expectations are so much higher. And search engines are so much better. So if your portal doesn’t enhance our experience (make it faster, better), we’ll skip the intermediary. We’ll just use Google.

The other day, I visited a state government portal. Like most web customers, I’m in a hurry. I want to complete my task as fast as I can. So I land on the portal site – gee, it’s great! I figure out how to navigate, find the content I want…super easy! But then – what’s this? I’m linked to a site that looks completely different. In a pop-up window – which I hate. This site is a mess. Can’t find what I want. Grrr. That state portal set me up for disappointment. Bad portal! Bad state government! I should have used Google.

I started looking around at other government portals. Lots of examples. Go to Iowa.gov. Nicely designed portal site. I see the top tasks on the front page. Navigation on the left where I expect it to be. Yes – the governor’s photo is there, but it’s on the top right…it isn’t the first thing my eye sees. So I choose “Education,” and I go to a second level page that follows that same clean navigation. Yay! But – ut oh – when I choose “Department of Education,” I go to a different design. More complex. Harder to find what I want. Not sure I want to be here. And the only way to get back to the main Iowa page is through the “back” click (there’s no “home” button to get me back to the portal). Wait – it won’t even let me do that. I’m in one of those truly exasperating sites that won’t let me back out of it! Oh boy… now, I’m really a frustrated customer.

I love Texas.gov. Who wouldn’t feel at home with those four big ol’ customer-focused choices: Do, Discover, Connect, Ask? But I go down a click or two and end up on an entirely different looking site with that ominous “welcome to our website” greeting (whenever I see “welcome,” I pretty much know the rest of the site is going to be sub-par). I’m so disappointed. Why, beautiful Texas.gov? Why did you let me down?

Don’t get me wrong. I think a front door to a state or city or federal government is a good idea. But you’ve got to add value to the customer’s experience. You’ve got to make it easy to complete our top tasks, especially when those tasks cross agencies or departments. You’ve got to show us where to start and what to do next and pick out the best choices among all the choices. You’ve got to give us something Google can’t.

So…two suggestions.

First, establish a common design with common navigation (so we learn it once and use it throughout all parts of the site) and – pay attention here – common publication standards, across all the subordinate sites. I’m talking about portals for units of government here: city, state, federal. Your customers think of you as a single entity. All of your components work under the same umbrella. You can do this.

You can let each agency run its site – but within a common design and common plain writing rules so it all works the same customer-friendly way. Then, if task-completion crosses entities, the customer never needs to know it. If you need to accommodate a unique mission or audience for one agency or department, you can still use common elements (header, general layout) and publication standards. I know it’s hard. But lots of cities and states and even large federal agencies have done it. Look at EPA.

Second – do the work. If you’ve got multiple sources on the same topic, take your customers to the ones that can help them complete their top tasks best. Analyze. Test. Make some judgment calls. Don’t list every single resource available – Google can do that. Choose the best. Yes, you might hurt some officials’ or web managers’ feelings. On the other hand, you might force them to step up and improve their content. The goal here is to help your customers.

Portals need to offer customers something they can’t get from search engines. They need to make the customer’s experience easier. If you don’t add value, then we might as well (and will) use Google.

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Plus another third I’d add is

-Really make sure you optimize for Google

….I see how hard this can be. Myself I’ve been working on how to redesign GovLoop home page and spend a lot more time on that than optimizing pages than the normal pages where people are coming through search. Which is just as if not more important….

-Also I still rarely hear about government sites optimizing for SEO – when I talk to private sector folks that’s the #1 or #2 web issue

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

I have to disagree with your two suggestions because they represent the one-size-fits-all approach to portals. What makes the personal start page for Google and Yahoo! so much better is that a user can personalize almost every aspect of the portal. Why don’t government agencies use that approach in designing their portals?


Hey Bill – I guess part of it gets down to how many people actually personalize portals? I’d love to see stats – personally I don’t personal Google/Yahoo using igoogle or something like that. For me it’s basically just to search…would love to see some stats on that

Tim Evans

At the large Federal agency where I used to work, only about one-third of all web site visitors entered the site on the home page (the “portal” page).

This cause is already lost. Portal pages are so 1999, and regardless of how well designed they are, they’re one more obstacle to the visitor finding what he really wants to do.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Steve – Very little research out there. It seems to be a given that personalization is better. I personally agree but some empirical data would be a better argument.

Here is what I did find:



2) http://horizonwatching.typepad.com/horizonwatching/2011/03/a-primer-on-the-website-personalization-trend.html

Chris Stinson

Most come to a government site to complete a task or get a answer. Clear navigation (and a well tuned search engine) is the quickest, most cost effective way for the citizen to complete his (or her) task. Government is not Yahoo or Amazon. At least IMO.