Your homepage is not your front door

We spend a lot of time and energy perfecting our homepages. The design, content, layout and usability, but how many of us check what we look like in the user’s first step? Search for your most popular content and see what the user sees. Common user behaviour indicates users find websites through search not by typing in the correct URL for your website homepage. We recently did some guerrilla user testing and hit the streets to ask how people used online government services to see how they find what they’re looking for.

What did we find? Everyone starts with global search engines like Google. Some people said they check the URL for the ‘.gov.au’ to choose their results to validate the websites they are looking for. Some people check just the first or second result and assume they were the most relevant, while a couple of students said they opened every single link from the first page of results into new tabs to narrow down what they’re looking for.

Search engines will display information that appears relevant on the search results page. This is especially so with a poorly defined page description in the metadata. Some search engines take just the first 10 ‘normal’ words (that is, those not H1 or H2) and use that. We can, however, tell a search engine what to use by replacing the result snippet with custom text. You have about 20 words to get your message across, 20 words to convey what it is that makes your agency or this page unique and why users should visit your page.

We recently got in touch with federal government agencies and suggested that they standardise the title metadata for their homepages to include the words ‘Australian Government’. Not all government agencies have ‘department’ in their name and not all government sites have ‘.gov.au’ domains. Standardising the metadata title in this way allows users to clearly see which is an Australian government site and which is not.

We also asked agencies to pay attention to the description metadata field. Descriptions should be succinct and written in active voice. Examples include: ‘Driving the digital transformation of…’, ‘Managing policies and programmes that…’, ‘Developing and administering…’, ‘Delivering….’, ‘Investigating…’ or ‘Regulating…’. This should assist users in finding the right agency. For tips on writing good descriptions read Improve snippets with a meta description makeover

When you look at a search engine as the first step in the user journey, what also becomes apparent is the impact social media can have. Some engines display or link to Wikipedia entries, Foursquare reviews and more. Agencies should work out who is responsible for owning them and ensure that these additional sources of information are helpful and as accurate as they can be.

Steve Jobs is reported to have said ‘Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works’. Providing good service online is much more than a good looking website and we know there is much, much more to search engine optimisation than homepage metadata.

If you want to improve how government web pages work, have practical experience and can help us flesh out best practices in search engine optimisation for government agencies, come along to one of our upcoming workshops. To receive an invitation, please register your interest in analytics and search when you join our DTO mailing list. You can also read and review (provide feedback in the comments section below) our Alpha guidance for government agencies Search Engine Optimisation.

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