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?