Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Answer for Better Searching? Better Content!

Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs was to hear testimony from Google, Wikipedia, and others about the failure of government agencies to make their content “searchable.” The article claimed that some of the authorities scheduled to testify blame poor organization of content for the search problems. Well, that’s certainly part of the problem. Where web managers place content definitely contributes to its accessibility. But there is a bigger culprit: the words on the page are not words that the searching audiences use or recognize or – in many cases – even understand. This isn’t rocket science: if people are searching using terms that don’t appear on your web page, they probably won’t find that page. We’ve just got to do a much better job getting the words right.

Web Managers Advisory Council has worked for the past 2 years to help agencies focus on improving their “top tasks” – those processes and pieces of information that a significant number of citizens seek, routinely. Again – no rocket science here. You need to make sure those tasks are worded properly so that citizens can understand them; you need to make sure that they’re efficient – especially if it’s a process; and you need to put them in places where citizens can find them (dare I suggest front page links?). Seems like that should be an easy thing to do – right? Wrong.

It’s stunning how many agencies are struggling to identify their top tasks. Improve them? That can get very political. Is there funding to make a process more efficient? How do you get the agency to make that a priority? Will “the powers that be” permit you to replace those front page news releases and photos of the agency head with links to top tasks? And here’s a biggie: do agency authors and web editors know what words citizens use and recognize? If you do know, can you get agency managers (and lawyers) to permit you to use simple, plain language wording?

Web Manager University offers web writing courses every session. Indeed, they’ve typically been full. My take? They should be required. And not just of web managers. Anyone who contributes (or approves) web content needs to know how to make the words work. If you get the words right – searching is bound to get better.

One more thought on this issue (I can’t resist beating this drum)… I had a boss once who taught me that the only way to solve a problem is to deal with the root cause. So what’s the root cause of this problem? The Federal Government doesn’t really value communicating effectively with citizens. Some federal managers don’t even recognize “citizens” as their audience. Agencies don’t put money and resources into good communications. Content – for the web, for publications, for call centers – isn’t written and edited by skilled communicators. We don’t even have a mandate to put web content management under a professional communicator. Communicating isn’t something that just anyone can do. It takes skill. It takes experience. It takes understanding of the audience. It takes commitment.

We can make our websites more searchable if we fix the words. We can make government more effective if we make communicating with citizens a priority.

Related links:
We Need a Communications Czar
Three Wishes
Somebody Needs to Say “No!”

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