An SEO review of the UK Government Websites

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 Name

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.

  1. 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)
  2. 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)
  3. 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)
Friendly URLs
Search engines like having friendly urls. The search phrases in the url will aid the search engine in working out what the page is about and is a good ranking factor. You’ll notice, for example that the url of this post matches the title. Moreover if a users sees a link they want to be able to tell what the page is about so that they can decide whether to click on it or not (but that is another matter).
  1. 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)
  2. http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/EducationAndLearning/UniversityAndHigherEducation/LifeAtUniversityOrCollege/DG_180817

  3. 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)
  4. http://www.businesslink.gov.uk/bdotg/action/detail?itemId=1073791931&r.l1=1073858790&r.l2=1073858944&r.l3=1073981161&r.s=sc&type=RESOURCES

  5. 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:
  6. http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/homehygiene/Pages/how-clean-is-your-home.aspx

    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)
    http://www.nhs.uk/ServiceDirectories/Pages/GP.aspx?pid=9A71A5C7-2974-4B9F-B559-AF0EEC76A756
Duplicate Content
The effects of duplicate content have long been argued. The facts are that the more duplicate content you have, the more likely you are to confuse Google. More likely you are going to end up splitting up your links and causing problems with rankings. The general opinion is to avoid it as much as humanly possible and where you can’t, introduce the canonical url parameter. At RBI we used to 301 rewrite all the urls back to the canonical version to avoid confusion. For this part I thought I’d take the three random links I took above (seeing as I can’t do the whole website) for the test.
  1. 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)
  2. 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)
  3. 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)
Redirects

An important thing for Search engines is making sure redirects are done and that they are done properly. You can do them via 302 (temporary – in which case Google will keep indexing the original version), 301 (permanent – all links to the old version will be pointed to the new version), meta refresh (via the meta tags on the page) and javascript (Google won’t follow them and you’ll lose value):
  1. 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)
  2. BusinessLink is not quite the same. They don’t really do 301 redirects, they do most of their shortened urls via javascript redirects (eg businesslink.gov.uk/tax is a javascript redirect – turn off javascript and you’ll end up on a blank page with a link). Not only that, but they also tend to not bother archiving old content and new content is regularly given new urls with the old urls just being lost (2/10)
  3. 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)
Meta Tags
Meta tags are the generic term (that I’m using anyway!) for a bunch of things that appear in the background of the page. Firstly you have the <title> tag that tells you about the page. It is the link that you have in the search engine and it is what appears at the top of the page. You then have <meta name=”description”> tag that tells you what the page is about and is what appears under the title when you search. Finally you have h1, h2, h3, etc headers of decreasing rank of importance of headlines. Meta Keywords aren’t used by search engines any more (but may be used by internal search or for tagging purposes). I’ve used the same pages that I linked to in the friendly url section here
  1. 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)
  2. 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)
  3. 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)
Overall Score
Before I do the overall scores (and remember these are just for fun), I haven’t taken into consideration a huge host of things. I haven’t looked at the keywords they should be ranking for, I haven’t looked at all page types, I haven’t looked at bespoke landing pages and I haven’t looked at inbound links. These are all things to consider when it comes to SEO. This score is just for fun:
  1. DirectGov – 39/50
  2. BusinessLink – 27/50
  3. NHS – 24/50
Posted in Google, Government, SEO
3 comments on “An SEO review of the UK Government Websites
  1. Great post Alec.

    I think the canonical tag is such a massive aspect of SEO for content driven sites yet implementation of it is quite rare.

    Pritesh

  2. Great post Alec.

    The canonical tag is something which seems to missing off quite a few content driven websites IMO.

    Could it be that the people entering the content into the site have no idea about SEO and the technical people who build the site have now been excluded from the content management process?

    Interesting.

    Pritesh

  3. WhenCanIStop says:

    Thanks Pritesh,

    I agree with you about the Canonical URL parameter. Sadly I think this is something that gets lost in the process of website development all too frequently for a couple of reasons.

    Partly it is because it is relatively new – many developers will just have never implemented it before. Secondly because technical people rarely understand how users interact with the site, they won’t realise that people will link to strange urls of the same page. Thirdly the content writers often don’t really understand the technical side of the site, meaning they don’t comprehend the same content being on different urls.

    It is definitely something that SEO experts would put in very quickly, however content sites often think they don’t have the money for that resource (even though it is definitely good value for money).

    Cheers,
    Alec

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