The Council Homepage – Search, Signpost or Both

Some interesting developments of recent days and weeks around council homepages has got me thinking as to what might be the best approach for a council homepage. The recent move by a couple of councils in the UK is to mirror the google approach and focus on search.

We had a similar interest when Redbridge Council was the first to deliver a personalised homepage and then Lincolnshire Council was the first to move away from a traditional local government based navigation list. All of these developments are great and along with the influence of social media the role of the local government website, in particular the homepage, is becoming an interesting development area.

I want to start by saying that these councils should be applauded for trying this as it gives the rest of us something to think about in terms of approach – well done to the respective council webteams.

On first viewing i really liked these sites, especially the large adverts found on the Lancashire site, it very much appealed to my visual nature. I also found the search options on Westminster very good, however on reflection i started to think about whether or not this was a good approach. Everything i know seems to point to yes, after all that is how google built an empire and don’t we all just want what we are looking for straight away. But i guess that is the point, do i want another search page on top of google?

But what i struggle with and i have struggled with this for some time is what purpose does a homepage have when google is so good. Don’t most users find the page they want by using google first and essentially bypass the council homepage?

Gerry McGovern has previously stated that we should focus on tasks and search and you’ll make your customers happier. So wouldn’t it be better as Gerry highlights to analyse your data and understand what your customers want and deliver that direct to your homepage so people don’t even have to think about conducting a separate search.

The alternative method which has mainly been the focus for all homepages is signposting – providing relevant content and services directly from the homepage – however Redbridge Council and Lincolnshire Council took this a step further in different ways and provided more alternatives within this model. What i think is right about the signposting method is that i believe it meets the needs of users more. You have the opportunity to provide the most popular services directly on the homepage and therefore allowing your users to conduct their business without the need to delve into the depths of a council website. The search route doesn’t quite do this for me, although Lancashire Council and Westminster Council both offer more than just search for instance A classic view for Lancashire and more content below the search for Westminster, so we are not seeing a truly google style homepage yet.

I also believe that a council  website regardless of whether or not this a right or wrong will inevitably reflect the council itself. The council homepage is at the centre of a wide range of influencing factors that will impact on the local webteam to make particular choices, those factors might include:

  • political pressure
  • resources
  • role of communications in website
  • role of ICT in website
  • role of customer services in website
  • location of webteam in organisation
  • external influences such as Socitm Better Connected, Gerry McGovernp plus many, many others
  • which conferences members of the webteam have attended (web, social media etc)
  • and yes last but not least our customers needs – all the above shouldn’t matter but they do.

What i think is really good is that the local government web community are really starting to raise the bar and we are seeing so much more innovation than we have previously seen over the last few years. Plus what is more interesting is that we are all looking at this from our own perspective, and whilst that may not make sense for the people who grade or classify local government websites, what i think it right is that we all understand how OUR customers interact with us –  After all that is the ONLY measure that should matter, isn’t it?

I guess that my view is that whilst i may not quite get the search based homepage on a council website yet, does that matter, what matters is the residents of those councils find and access the services they want quickly and easily.

I’m not convinced that a universal homepage template can be provided for local government, as what is important are the principles behind it,  i believe all of the above sites mentioned have one thing in common.

  • Enable the customer to find and access services and information quickly and easily.

If they do that then we should encourage the innovation and difference as it will certainly brighten up a market which in the past has been very dull and difficult to engage with.

I’d suggest this for a good homepage – An excellent search engine (google would be good), a set of top tasks either as links of directly provided on the homepage, with some marketing and promotional images to liven it up, access to the rest of the site via a user driven navigation. So essentially a bit of what all these sites have done in one clean homepage.

There is a role for those that like to judge or classify local government websites, in that i think the time has come to stop looking for the best and to start looking and understanding the difference between sites. Why are we all taking a separate view, if we all have the same goals in mind, why haven’t we all developed identical looking sites with just a logo or some colour change as the main difference?

Shouldn’t we all agree to a consistent approach, purpose and some principles for local government websites (including the homepage) that we can at sign up to?

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10 Replies to “The Council Homepage – Search, Signpost or Both”

  1. I totally agree with you on lot’s of the points there. Well most of them actually.

    Search is something that has to be pushed at people more. I get tired of reading complaints from the public saying “I tried to find X on your site, but I HAD to use the search” – like the search on a website is some sort of last resort form of torture.

    So I think it’s necessary for search to be at the forefront of a council site so it’s not seen as some sort of dirty function. But it’s also necessary for the search engine to work really well. From a little bit of testing I’ve found both Lancashire and Westminster’s not quite good enough. They need to be configured so terms trigger the most relevant sites.

    The test example I used for Lancs. was ‘when is my bin emptied’ – it came up with no results. That shouldn’t happen with such an obvious phrase. (though to be some searches were fine… though I only saw one configured recommended link for jobs).

    Like you say though, this Google approach is a bit too extreme. (I don’t think Comms departments will be cartwheeling for joy at them for a start). There needs to be a balance.

    GIS is becoming more important, and I still think there is scope for that to be better handled on front pages. I and also think there is room for a humble AtoZ – but that needs to be looked at and rejigged.

    And you can have signposting and news items there too – they are very important.

    But that’s just the front page. What happens after that?

    Anyway I’ve never really been to a conference, maybe I should, I’m just a man of the web.

  2. I use the Westminster site a lot, for work & life.

    It’s better than it was (not hard) but still hard to find what I want.

    So continuing thumbs down.

    Redbridge works OK.

  3. Hi Carl

    This is a great post, very thought provoking. As an ex council website manager and now usability consultant I’m constantly surprised at the lack of usability testing on council sites … well I would say that now, wouldn’t I. But, that the Local Government Navigation List (LGNL) seems never to have had any usability tests done on it is a bit amazing, given the amount of money spent of implementing websites with Information Architecture’s based on the LGNL or earlier LGCL.

    But then council’s have no culture of having a constant slice of their web budget devoted to seeing whether it actually works with users (in the private sector, usability budgets of about 12% of the total web budget are common).

    All the focus has been on Accessibility, which is fair enough (though much of the focus has been unhelpful, such as league tables). But an Accessible site with poor usability is pointless.

    I had hoped the new COI guidelines on Measuring website quality (http://coi.gov.uk/guidance.php?page=229) would help bring focus. But all they require is that you have a survey on your website.

    Anyhow, that’s not what I really wanted to say. What strikes me, a year out from being a Local Government Officer, is that the reason why council homepages are so difficult to design is because they really don’t make sense.

    How can you intelligently combine the museum’s Egyptology exhibition with the pest control service, the housing options people, the council wedding venues and Byzantine complexity of the minutes and agendas of the members meetings?

    It seems to me that in many ways, council homepages are a lot like Intranets: a hoch poch of unrelated tribes who happen to all coexist in the same organisation.

    Anyhow, you’ve inspired me to try and find the time to write up some of my own thoughts, so cheers for that.

  4. For myself I think Lancashire’s implementation works better than Westminster’s, though I agree the search box needs to be more dominant. Two strengths for me are the prominent switch to Classic view (which is not obvious on Westminster’s site) and the strong single-image design of the site’s homepage to support council campaigns. Provided they can maintain the freshness of the design by further campaign images, I think it’s a potential winner if a search homepage is to be more than a passing fad.

    But as ever, its all very well having a Google style homepage. If you don’t get the fundamentals behind it right then its all rather academic. Reliance on the search means that users must be able to find what they’re looking for first time (or second at a push).

    When I tried out Lancashire’s site I gave up on the new model pretty quickly, switching to Classic view for an altogether better user experience.

    Google-style homepages aside, I think that the traditional approach to local authority homepages remains the better option. As you’ve highlighted yourself Carl, the homepage offers the opportunity to showcase much of what the council is up to and can offer the user – that cannot be done easily if one uses a search format homepage without weaking its proposition.

    I’m not convinced that a set of principles for a local government website homepage is right way forward though. There was a proposal some years ago when ‘UK Online’ was the big thing. A proposal was on the table at ODPM that all local authority websites should look the same but it got thrown out as both impractical and inappropriate since different authorities serve different geographies and customers (eg a predominantly urban area will have different information resources to a shire county).

    I celebrate the diversity of local authority websites remaining individual, with local character and influences evident. I think it would be a sad day if standardisation in any form were mandated. One only has to look at the shortcomings of LGNL and SNL to see this really wouldn’t work in practice.

  5. Interesting to see local authorities trying different things but my first reaction is that I don’t like the search homepage. Google is different – sometime I am looking for specific information e.g. a document, other times I am looking for a website. If its’ a web site then once I’ve found it I don’t really want to start searching again – I want to navigate to my detsination. One reason is that if I search and don’t find anything I can’t be sure if its not there or I just need to change my search term. How many times am I going to have to try various combinations before I give up? Its the same problem lots of organsiations have with their intranets. On the other hand if I navigate through a logical hierarchy or use an A-Z, I can be pretty sure that what I find is what the organisation wants me to find.
    I’d agree though that either method is highly dependent on the effectiveness of the search engine and the taxonomy/categorisation of subjects. Surprising how often on authority web-sites searching, navigating and A-Z give different pages on the same subject!

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