Making Government Web Sites Searchable – A Vital First Step

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Last week, U.S. Rep. Mike Honda (Calif.) guest blogged on O’Reilly Radar and asked, “how can Congress take advantage of Web 2.0 technologies to transform the relationship between citizens and government?” That’s quite a refreshing attitude for a lawmaker to take, for sure. On top of that he acknowledged how Congress needs to adopt a dramatic shift in perspective before that need can be met. “Instead of databases becoming available as a result of Freedom Of Information Act requests, government officials should be required to justify why any public data should not be freely available to the taxpayers who paid for its creation.” That’s music to my ears. And then he asked what Web 2.0 features he should add to his Web site.

This week, Vanessa Fox responded to Honda by writing that new features are not nearly as important as making government Web sites search-engine friendly. This alone “would absolutely transform the relationship between citizens and government and make an amazing array of public data available.”

Vanessa gives a fascinating account of why government data, while technically online, is not optimized to be found by search engines and thus, might as well not exist at all. She has spoken with people who manage government Web sites, dedicated civil servants who spend considerable resources on making sure their sites have valuable, accurate information. But they spend little time ensuring their sites interact well with the major search engines. “That’s like building a brick and mortar store with shiny new marble floors and high-quality, low-priced merchandise and keeping the front door locked,” she wrote. Google estimated that, as of 2007, about half of the content government agencies make available online doesn’t appear in search results at all due to how the Web sites are constructed.

Crazy, huh? Now why is this? She says that commercial sites have a monetary interest in being search-engine friendly. Government sites are geared toward content, rarely for traffic and monetary goals. The priority has not been giving citizens the ablity to easily search government Web sites and find information.

Hopefully, this is changing. Vanessa notes that Katie Stanton recently left Google to head the Obama administration’s citizen participation efforts. Improving the “searchability” of online government data through the major search engines is a top expressed goal. And Vivek Kundra, Obama’s new CIO, has plans to create data.gov as the go-to site for government data.

Vanessa encourages us to check back with her. She promises to flush out more details of how government can set up short and long term improvements. But she adds, the first step is “understanding that making government sites search engine-friendly is key to improved transparency, increased public data accessibility, and a ‘Web 2.0’ relationship between citizens and government that brings positive change.”

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  • Vanessa’s point about search engine optimization is an important one. Congressman Honda has been keeping that in mind as we work with industry experts to develop our eSTEM bill.

    The eSTEM bill would consolidate Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) curriculum and other resources from across the federal government into a single, SEO focused repository. The materials there would contain metadata and be structured to maximize repurposing of the materials for third party development.

    More information on the bill is available at http://honda.house.gov/legislation/2009/stem#update

    Thank you to everyone who has been helping us on these issues.

    Rob Pierson
    Online Communications Director
    Office of Congressman Michael Honda

  • Jakob Nielsen wrote about this in a similar fashion at http://www.useit.com/alertbox/government-nonprofit.html.

    I know we try our best to be optimized for search engines (a lot of traffic comes to us that way we know) by using web standards and such, but yes we have a lot of great data not as visible as one would like.

    See, for example our newer “Search” page which has 7 different search boxes for various data repositories (including 3 different Google custom searches): http://archives.utah.gov/search.html. Unfortunately, there is not incentive nor now especially money to invest in a more comprehensive search solution.

    Incidentally, this is also a huge problem for libraries. If you search for a book, commercial links far outweigh links to catalogs and other access to materials freely available from your local library.