I've written about SEO in the past and I have written about the UK Government websites in the past (although, admittedly not on this blog!). So it seems sensible that I should write about the two of them together. The trouble with writing about SEO is that it is very easy to sit here and claim what could be done better, but unless you are looking at the data of the number of visits generated and the value that they provide. Therefore the following should in no way be miscontrued as a the Government is wasting our tax money post. It is more of a if they did these things then it might be better post.
Before I go any further, I'd like to point out some other blog posts I've written in the past. Firstly I wrote about how to measure a Government website's success (on eConsultancy), using BusinessLink as an example. That having been successful I followed it up with another one about DirectGov. I also wrote a post on what the Government should do with online Marketing, the number one point was to become an SEO centre of excellence.
Along with the plethora of stuff I've written on how to measure SEO, I've also written the odd post on how to do SEO. This is going to be one of those posts. You can tell, because it has been very dry so far.
One of the big changes in web at the Government was the consolidation of all of the department's websites into three big ones. The idea being that this would reduce replication of content and allow the websites to link related stuff together more efficiently. In practice many of those prior Government department websites are replicated on DirectGov and BusinessLink in silos with the information still not particularly well linked together, so they are very reliant on Google being able to direct people to the right places. Along with this, massive budget cuts in Marketing have meant there is very little way to tell the public how to get to the sites or what they contain. This is why SEO is so important and particularly why I'm going to look at all three websites BusinessLink, NHS, DirectGov), rather than just one.
Domain names for SEO have been a decreasing factor for years. The increase in long tail searches (especially for content websites) mean that your domain isn't going to be very high in the searches that people make. Like branded websites, the only point of the domain name is for those who know about the brand.
- Direct.gov.uk wouldn't have been a great brand name in a non-advertising world. Fortunately they started when there was advertising (high profile tv, radio and national press as well as online) (8/10)
- BusinessLink.gov.uk was a good idea if only because of the existing BusinessLink 'shops' meaning that many people knew about the Government's help with Business already. Now that they no longer exist it isn't a reason to change domain name as people will still know about the shops (9/10)
- nhs.uk kind of makes sense because it is the website for the NHS (even if there are large parts of it devoted to health and well being) and is probably a bit more snappy than 'thenationalhealthservice.uk'. I'm docking them points though because they aren't a .gov.uk which would give them a massive boost in the search rankings (5/10)
- Direct.gov.uk works well with this because it manages to put the menu structure into the url, as you can tell with the example below - it sits in the education and learning section, is about university and higher education and is about life at university or college. I'll dock a mark because I think the ID that the database uses at the end rather than nearer the start, but it is probably much of a muchness (9/10)
- With Businesslink.gov.uk it is a different matter, the urls are not friendly in the slightest. In fact they contain a series of query strings that get lots in the detail about where you are in the navigation structure (for the database) without being at all informative to the user or a search engine. I won't go into all the directories on BusinessLink (because DirectGov doesn't have any it would seem unfair) but they follow a similar ruling as well - IDs, but not words (0/10)
- nhs.uk is a bit more complicated. It does have some of the same page types as the above two. For example see the page below. This clearly tells you what the page is about and contains useful keywords:
- However the other side of nhs.uk is really one of a search and for finding your local health services and what they provide. Here is my local GP with very little information about who they are in the url. This seems like missing a trick given how much information there is in here (5/10)
- A search for the opening paragraph from article above results in 23 results. Only one of these is www.direct.gov.uk, however there are a number from m.direct.gov.uk mobile version of the website. This is a bit confusing for Google, normally you'd have something in your robots.txt to ensure that these pages aren't crawled or that there is a 'noindex' parameter on the page, however these don't exist. More importantly the canonical url parameter passes different urls for the same page on the mobile site, whilst there isn't one on the main site (6/10)
- For BusinessLink the search produces 8 results, which is relatively good. Until you realise that six of the other seven links are skins of the main BusinessLink site (specifically for the Welsh, Scottish, Northern Ireland, Welsh language and Blackpool version of the sites). Fortunately there is a canonical link parameter on the site. Unfortunately so is there on each of the other sites that points to their own version. Google has clearly decided that the 'English' version is the one people want, so is the one you will see, so I don't know why the others are there (6/10)
- The nhs.uk article has 136 instances of it being indexed. This is a large amount and is in no doubt due to the syndication that nhs.uk offers. But also it is because there are localised versions of the page - I found identical knowsley.nhs.uk and imperial.nhs.uk pages. This is annoying as Google treats subdomains in the same way it treats new domains. Worryingly there is no canonical url parameter (1/10)
- DirectGov is a bit of a mixed bag. What they tend to do is archive old content, rather than redirecting it around to the new version of the content. This is an interesting way of doing it. You may need old advice to check to see if you were compliant several years ago. Wikipedia I always think is a good example that the old version will be given a new page under discussions whilst the new version takes the old url of the page. I think this tends to happen with DirectGov (although it is hard to tell). Also useful to know that their shortened urls (eg direct.gov.uk/taxdisc) do end up with a 301 redirect to the right place (9/10)
- nhs.uk doesn't seem to bother with shortened urls too often and when they do they use meta refreshes. These aren't as good as 301s, but are ok. NHS again archive data on the national archives, whilst appearing to ensure that the new content takes the old content's urls (7/10)
- For DirectGov there is a nice title that contains the title of the page, there is also a useful meta description that looks like it has been appropriately written for the page. The title contains the website name as well, which is always useful, plus it isn't first up so you get the value of the description of the page first. The h1 and h2 tags don't seem to be particularly related to the page. The h1 tag doesn't even appear on the page in text and the h2s are menus. Only when it comes to h3s and h4s does it actually appear ok (7/10)
- For BusinessLink we have a useful title, the brand name coming at the end and a description that matches the content of the page. The h1, h2 and h3 in this case work really well with the h1 being the first title on the page (the section header) and the h2 being the sub title (the page header), with h3 being important sections and right hand nav headers (10/10)
- For nhs.uk it is a bit different. The title doesn't really match the title of the page, plus it contains the title of the section as well as the website name. The description is very useful though, in true journalism style it matches the standfast (the introductory paragraph). The h1 in this case works well, but the h2s and h3s don't seem particularly related to the page (6/10)
- DirectGov - 39/50
- BusinessLink - 27/50
- NHS - 24/50