Search engine optimisation (SEO) and the public sector

Spending on search engine advertising at the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) more than quadrupled in 2009-10 before being stopped as part of a general freeze on government marketing.

The £956,000 bill for search engine advertising was revealed in a Parliamentary Question answered by DWP minister Chris Grayling.

The axing of the budget for this year reinforces the point I have previously made about the importance of search engine optimisation in the public sector (i.e. getting high up in search results without using paid-for advertising) and the missed opportunities for better SEO:

Take the recent example of the Office for Budget Responsibility which I have blogged about. My own initial post about the Office for Budget Responsibility came out higher than the organisation’s own official site for a good while after it was launched. Yet the public sector has many high Pagerank sites it could have used in a coordinated matter to boost the official site right from the moment of launch. Both the 10 Downing Street and HM Treasury sites, along with others, could have provided prompt links rich in Google juice to boost the site so that people saw it above rather than below my own humble blog post.

As an added bonus, this sort of organic search engine optimisation does not incur any direct extra costs and once the processes for coordinating such work are in place, needn’t take up very much staff time at all as the public sector has such powerful assets to use. The different arms of a multinational frequently provide cross-links between their own websites, for example. Government departments based a few minutes walk away from each other rarely do.

Spending money on advertising is often the expensive but easy option in a large, complicated organisation. Organic SEO causes more internal headaches (you have to persuade people to think about new issues, be willing to write copy in different ways, to work across traditional demarcations and so on) but ends up being cheaper and bringing long-lasting benefits. It will be interesting to track over the next year how well or badly parts of the public sector rise to the challenge as the easy but expensive option wilts away in the face of budget cuts.

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