Search Engine Optimisation for Local Government Web sites.

Why do we need to know about Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)?

Being in local government you may suppose SEO is of no interest to you. After all, your ‘clients’ are going to come to your site because in your area you are the monopoly provider of  many services; libraries, schools, social care, road repairs etc.

Whilst that’s partly true, in the move towards digital delivery in this ever growing on-line world, providing better access to your data by search engines should be seen as providing better customer service. Besides you must have had internal clients asking why their data is not “first in Google”. SEO is therefore important to you.

What search engines should you optimise for?

  • Currently ( researched in June 2011) 90% of UK searches are carried on Google property.
  • Bing have 4.2% of the market
  • Yahoo have 2.5%

And ASK, though not really a search engine anymore, has 1.2%.

So in the UK there is really one important search to enable and that is of course Google.

Abroad, in Russia, China etc there are many more search engines , some more important than Google in their own country. In the unlikely event you need to be generally seen in other countries – maybe some pages for economic development would be of use but only if they are in the language of the country – then you need to consider how you can utilise SEO for those pages of your site.

What’s happening at Google?

Google is turning into something more than just a search. I cant pretend to know or understand where Google are going. All I can do is see what comes out of Google and think about where that may lead.

We have already seen other Google services; Google Earth, Google Maps , Google+ and much, much more but are you aware there is a shopping experience on Google? It’s not wonderfully obvious, or for that matter, relevant to local government, unless you have products to sell, but the next time you do a search for a product of some sort have a look at the left hand column in the search results. You’ll see ‘shopping’. Go take a look at the results. The supplier has to opt into this service by providing a spreadsheet with agreed content in set columns. You can start to see where Google is going here.


Panda is the name for a series of changes to Google’s search algorithms, which were put in place in February of 2011, affecting the UK last April. It’s worth emphasising this is a change to Google’s algorithms. It’s not a black list of any sort. Panda algorithm modification is the biggest change Google have made in their history.

Panda changed the world for many people. The main change was the downgrading of sites connected to sites known as “Link farms” or “content farms”( a site which hosts many links and usually trite content about a site or URL). Being connected to by link/content farms is seen as detrimental and many sites were downgraded, some losing as much as 99.9% of their visibility in search results..

You can see an article here on the winners and losers in the Panda re-shuffle. Panda is unlikely to have an effect on local government or even small business visibility.

What is Google looking at on your site in order to define your position in their rankings?

Before you start.

Get the word from the mouth of Google-god. Google provide a really helpful, no, ESSENTIAL,  guide on SEO in pdf form here ..

Download this document to get an insight into just what it is Google want from your site.

Take heed of the contents of this document. It’s  ‘the 10 commandments’ for your Google-life.

It covers…

  • Create unique, accurate page titles
  • Make use of the “description” meta tag
  • Improving Site Structure
  • Improve the structure of your URLs
  • Make your site easier to navigate
  • Optimizing Content
  • Offer quality content and services
  • Write better anchor text
  • Optimize your use of images
  • Use heading tags appropriately
  • Dealing with Crawlers
  • Make effective use of robots.txt
  • Be aware of rel=”nofollow” for links
  • SEO for Mobile Phones
  • Notify Google of mobile sites
  • Guide mobile users accurately
  • Promotions and Analysis
  • Promote your website in the right ways

Some of this is a bit ‘techie’ but so is the Google process. Get your IT team or your Content management System (CMS) provider to show you how these issues have been covered, or not, as the case may be.

Previous thinking on providing information in the keywords tag is a little outdated. Google doesn’t use the keywords in the ‘keywords tag’ to add much, if at all, to your ranking. Is adding keywords of any use ? I would argue it is, because the activity of producing a keyword list for a page generates a lot of words which can be used in the text and used in the page content they do add to the ‘discoverability’ of the page by search engines. Include as many keywords as possible in the body text of your pages as you write them.

Schema is from the Greek meaning ‘shape’ or more generally ‘plan’.  In web site context it relates more to accepted standards. A number of search engines have agreed on schemas which make content appearing on complying web sites more discoverable – even re-usable.

The web site provides information on standards and practices. This may be one area for the more technically minded in your organisation to look at.

Domain authority:
Is about the “weight” of your site in terms of its authority.

This is related to:-

  • the age of the site – the older it is the greater the authority (especially if it is kept up to date).
  • Quality of links to the site – the more links of better quality i.e. from sites which have some credibility, the greater the authority of the site. In addition if you have a large number of long tail articles ( articles referring to the full range of content on your site) so much the better.However, cheaply written long tail articles about small issues in your long tail – a sort of ‘pulp fiction’ for search engines – a ploy employed by some SEO companies – are frowned upon. Google are looking at how they can overcome this “tweaking”.(This is not really an issue for Local Government sites, most of which are both old and massive, in terms of customer usage largely developed as a result of monopoly supply of these services in their geographic area; but be aware of the issues.)
    Working with partners and stakeholders.
    The production of cheaply written articles designed essentially to dupe Google – mentioned above – is not a feature found in, or about, local government web sites. However it’s true that good articles written about issues in the long tail of LG web sites are seen as positive. You should therefore consider how you work with partners and stakeholders to publish interesting and useful pieces about content on your site.
    Links to your site from external sources should not be simply links to the home page. “Deep-linking” – where you provide links to deep areas of your site – is an essential part of customer service, good manners even. How often have you been frustrated by following a provided link only to find you have been dropped at the front page of a site with 20,000 documents and having to search. Grrr… Deep-linking is good for you and the client.

Remember… No links = no ranking. For local government this is relevant if you want to improve visibility of sections deep within your site.

Social media.
Use social media ( you should be anyway. See post about using Twitter here)  Twitter, Facebook, blogs  etc  to send out links to deeper parts of your site.  Using social media raises Google scores as it illustrates a willingness to engage. Evidence of engagement is good for your “Google-life”.
There is reputed to be a relationship between Facebook and Microsoft hence Google is none too keen on Facebook results. It prefers to add more credence to your name appearing in Twitter – allegedly.

Low quality content on part of the site can affect the whole site.
Look at your site for signs of low quality. Such as:-

  • Not enough content on a page.
  • Poorly written pages – grammar, spelling, readability. (Google checks these elements).
  • Content copied from other sites. (Google say they can see this).
  • Content that isn’t useful – we’ve all produced it; that ego-massaging stuff about “how good we are and what we achieve blather, blather”. Only good for egos. Not at all useful to the client and therefore a negative.

Google ignores duplicate pages even from different web sites. Google is looking for original, high quality content. Don’t copy content from elsewhere into the pages of your site. It’s OK to cut and paste elements to illustrate a point but don’t cut and paste whole pages or even sections.

In Local Government Content is King. I believe local government organisations should place their ever-reducing resources into providing and sharpening up their content. It’s what clients go to local government sites for after all.  And – in the extreme – if that content isn’t there or is weak then what’s the point of the web site?

Another perspective; SEO for companies is far, far more complex.
Whole books and seminars are devoted to those complexities and nuances. There is little point in covering them here.
Here’s why it’s simpler for local government organisations :-

  • Most businesses do not have the benefit of being a monopoly provider.Local Government organisations do.
  • Most businesses do not have the benefit of providing essential services.Local Government organisations do.
  • Most businesses are not talked about by partners and stakeholders as widely. Local Government organisations are.

Consequently SEO for business is a far more complex and time consuming affair. And one on which the economic health of many a company hangs. Appearance in the search engines at high levels can make the difference between getting the business or not and therefore survival or not. That’s why many companies spend millions on improving their Google-life with SEO techniques and Google ads.

Local Government is fortunate not to have this pressure. Nevertheless local government can learn a lot from the application of good search engine optimisation techniques employed by commerce. It’s after all focused on excellence in customer service and shouldn’t local government organisations be striving towards that goal?

About the author.

Peter Barton was the Head of Service for “Web and Information Governance” at Lincolnshire County Council until December 2010.

Peter introduced many innovative elements into Local Government Web sites many of which have since become commonplace. Advertising for instance.

Peter’s background, prior to Local Government web site production  was in commerce where he started and ran a successful design business for many years. Peter has been involved in web site production since 1992 building the first sites in hand written code.

Peter’s business is a commercial venture  in on-line retail. Quite a departure form local government but a departure which has involved learning about the otherwise hidden intricacies of the web again. This time with a commercial eye. What he now has is a commercially augmented experience of local government web production.  And that’s refreshing and useful.

Peter also provides consultancy to Local Government on all things web.

Contact details:

T:  +44 (0) 1522-878135

M: +44 (0) 7712-578596


Skype: V70PDB

Twitter: #lgwebman – Tweets about local government web stuff


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