In times like these, when companies are cutting costs, not many are hiring SEO services. But governments aren’t cutting back (quite the contrary, but that’s a rant for another time). I am just putting to bed a major SEO audit of a government website, so I thought I would share with you some of my observations.
“What?” you ask. “Why would a government website need SEO? They don’t compete for business. They’re an information website, like Wikipedia.” In fact, government websites do compete in a number of ways and SEO can be a very powerful tool in reaching the right audience.
This post recommends SEO strategies to address issues that are particularly relevant for government websites – and in some cases any major information portals, such as university or newspaper websites. I cannot reveal who our client is, but you should know that it is a government agency that operates bilingually with both domestic and foreign audiences.
Governments have certain natural advantages – the search engines like government TLDs (top level domains, such as .gov or .gc.ca), the sites are huge, they are link magnets because they carry so much official information (they are the authority on so many things) and they typically have a high PageRank. Just to give you an idea, here are a few key stats for the website I have been working on (I wish this blog had stats 10% as good!:
But government websites also have some unique challenges. Here are a two of those challenges, along with strategies to address them:
SEO against the scammers
Any government agency that has the authority to approve or reject something, is a potential target for scammers. This might apply to:
- Status (tax status, citizenship status, business category, etc.)
Scammers will optimize their websites using words like “free” and “guaranteed” and “easy” and other qualifiers that sound like you can somehow get past due process. Obviously, a government website does not offer “guaranteed grants” or “free mortgages” or “guaranteed immigration” or “easy access”. But to protect the integrity of its services, the agency must rank above the scammers for those searches.
We found a few instances where there were several scammers ranking for several such searches better than our government client, so recommendations were made to out-SEO the scammers. In such cases, the government website must rank well not just for things it wants the public to hear, but for things it would just as soon noit discuss.
SEO for proper direction
Given the size of most government websites, there are usually many levels of information. People might do searches based on very specific or broad criteria. For instance:
- There might be a department with several branches.
- One of those branches might be in charge of several areas interest.
- Within one of those areas of interest there might be a number of programs.
- And one of those programs might include local delivery through offices in various locations.
The bread crumb trail to get to one of these delivery points would look like this:
Home > branch > interest > program > locations > specific location
So information might go five or more levels deep, with multiple branches to each level. This means that there are many pages with similar wording that could rank for a specific search. Here are some of the possibilities.
A person seeking a specific item, such as “health card Bottomsville office” would ideally land at the “Bottomsville” office page. He might also land on the page listing all the locations, including the link to the Bottomsville page. Or he might land on the health card program page, where he can follow the link to “health card office locations” and with a couple clicks he gets where he wants. These are all good scenarios.
On the other hand, someone doing a general search – let’s say a person in Sometown searching for “health card information” would ideally land on the program page, where she might find links to “health card fees”, “health card eligibility”, “health card office locations”, etc. However, if she lands on the page for the at the “Bottomsville” office page, she might be confused (because she is from Sometown). If she is clever, she will notice the breadcrumbs and follow them up…but don’t count on her to notice them, nor necessarily to understand their utility.
If the wrong pages are showing up for certain searches (and we found a number of those), the pages need to somehow be unSEOed, and the correct pages need to be better optimized.
Other SEO challenges
There were other SEO challenges that are not unique to government websites. In this case, we had to track not just domestic searches, but the rankings across a variety of country-specific search engines. And, given the bilingual nature of the website we had challenges when certain searches were the same in both languages and the English pages were the only ones that were showing up.
And don’t get me started about the restrictions one has working within the prescribed regulations of a government website.
Beyond all these issues, SEO is SEO, and we provided a report based on best practices, competitive intelligence and working within the constraints of what changes this government agency would be able to make. Doing SEO on a government website is a complex but rewarding project.