The Office for Budget Responsibility’s website: a public sector SEO mini-case study

blogged previously about the Office for Budget Responsibility’s website and how poorly it comes out in Google searches – so poorly in fact that I penned a blog post as a bookmark for my own use to find the site in future.

One reason I blogged rather than saved a bookmark was curiosity about how high or low the blog post would the appear in searches for “Office for Budget Responsibility” or “Office of Budget Responsibility”.

In the event, the post appeared high up the first page of Google search results – and well above the official site – for both terms for several days, bringing in a noticeable volume of traffic from people searching on the organisation’s name.

In its own minor way, this demonstrates how often the public sector is bad at search engine optimisation (SEO), with the result that people either find it harder to get the information they want or they fail to find it. One exception is the NHS, which does some smart work to try to ensure that its reputable health information appears higher in search results than questionable information from others.

But for each NHS example of good SEO work there are dozens of Office for Budget Responsibility style examples of websites not getting even some of the basics right. There is also a huge missed opportunity for different sites to work together successfully to raise themselves up the search results.

In the private sector it’s very common, for example, for a group of companies to have a series of sites for each individual company – and for them to link through to each other so that people can easily navigate around but also so that they share the Google love around and help each other come up higher in search results.

Take a look then at public sector sites and how rare it is to find web links that cut across departments, let alone links through to the range of other sites run by that department or the quangoes it is responsible for. Such links certainly exist, but their paucity compared to the possibilities says plenty about the lack of SEO awareness of many. So too does the sort of outreach that could further boost search results, such as by encouraging people to link through to a site – an act of altruism motivated by a desire for the site to do well that should fit perfectly with the ability of a public sector website to appeal to those working in the public sector for help.

Behind this SEO failure I think often lies two factors. First, for different teams to help each other with cross-linking and the like requires people to be thinking outside their own silo, which is not always the case. That’s a problem in the private sector too, but the mix of different departments, layers of government and the widespread use of quangos means those silo divisions are particularly common and pronounced in the public sector.

Second, there is a generational issue. The more senior the level, the older the person generally – and you don’t have to get to that old an age before you get to people who grew up and learnt their trade before search engines mattered much or even existed. The need to have a working phone system may be second nature to them, but SEO doesn’t have the same instinctive need for them. They know they’d look foolish to their peers if they presided over an organisation that has broken phones; websites broken for search engine purposes usually only make much more junior people feel embarrassed in the same way.

I’m not sure those two reasons fully explain the situation though; what’s your thought on the matter?

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