SEO for Government: What it is and why it matters

There is a myth among the SEO industry that Search Engines somehow protect government websites and allow them to rank regardless of their technical issues, lack of well-structured content, or poor user experience. This is not true.

This article is part of the SEO for Government Series. You can find the other articles by clicking on the following links:

Technical Considerations in SEO for Government
Competitors in SEO for Government
Commercial Considerations in SEO for Government

Why SEO for Government Agencies?

How many times have you looked for information related to the pandemic dispositions in your city? Tax information? Touristic facts or places?

And how many of those answers were given by an official government webpage? Ideally, a user would like to get the official information as the answer, but unfortunately, that doesn't always happen.

There is a myth among the SEO industry that Search Engines somehow protect government websites and allow them to rank regardless of their technical issues, lack of well-structured content, or poor user experience. This is not true. Government websites are like any other one, and they need to follow the established guidelines to get traffic.

Search Engine Optimization for government websites is one of the most complicated and challenging SEO scenarios you can face. Many of the most common ideas about managing, implementing, and measuring an SEO project are inadequate for these cases, requiring a different mindset to be successfully executed.

I do believe this is too much for a relevant topic not to be more widely discussed. However, I haven't found much information regarding working SEO for this type of website. Most articles repeat the same basic SEO principles (such as "use keywords and create a sitemap") but with little or no guidelines or advice to understand what makes different these types of websites, and the most common challenges that you probably will face.

Note: I wrote this article with the help of my colleague Nahuel Cabrera, SEO & Technical Lead at StarMeUp. You can find a shorter version of this article in Globant's blog: Stay Relevant

Reach & Impact: The Why

These websites can work at different levels and sizes, from country-level to state or city. In any country, you would expect several government-owned websites for many purposes. For this article, I am referring specifically to:

  • Websites created and maintained under the supervision of a state or government-level entity, having no commercial or branding focus. In other words, websites that are not selling things (nor products, services, advertisement space) and are not trying to "build a (commercial) brand" for future monetization.
  • Public websites or public sections of these. Websites or sections that require a login or are somehow actively avoiding being visible to users are not part of the SEO scope.
  • Websites intended as a "single source of truth" providing the most updated and accurate information available to the public.
  • Any TLD. Typically, the ".gov" extension is related to government sites. However, they can use any top-level domain or subdomain. In many countries, they don't even use the .gov extension.
  • Multinacional agencies, like UN-related entities, can also be sometimes considered in scope.

Reach & Impact: The Why

Working for government sites could have the most significant reach you can imagine and profoundly influence the lives of millions, and that is something you should not take lightly.

These are a few examples of how important it is to consider this kind of website with SEO in mind:

  • Scholarships
  • Social subsidies
  • Unemployment benefits
  • Healthcare & Vaccionation Programs
  • Tax benefits and guidelines
  • Travel restrictions or requirements
  • Official documentation (passports, national IDs, public records)
  • Real-time information about natural disasters or emergencies.

This information can impact people and businesses depending on how well it performs in search engine page results. Think about the person who couldn't find the news about a specific healthcare benefit or someone unable to make a necessary trip in the middle of the pandemic because they couldn't get the correct information.

Technically speaking, every person in a country could be a potential user. All adults of a country will visit the website of the Tax Collecting Agency (IRS in the USA, SII in Chile, AFIP in Argentina, etc.) several times a year. The same applies to business. This demand for information puts much pressure not just on performance (I'll comment on that later) but on clarity of language, usability, and accessibility.

An SEO consultant can easily overlook the consequences of it. Since there are not "commercial incentives" easy to measure, it can be challenging to understand how such websites perform. You could know of visits or impressions, but it is not so simple to tell if the website fulfilled the informational need. I'll dig a little bit more later on this topic.

This is the level of responsibility that comes with working in a Government-related website, and that is why it is so essential to think about it from an SEO perspective. The information should be easily found and accessed, regardless of the user's device and educational level. That is way harder than it sounds.

Benefits of doing SEO for Government Websites

Government agencies often don’t give the importance their official sites deserve, spending a lot of money in publicity campaigns to spread their message to the citizens, using a technical vocabulary, and having sites with a terrible user experience. We can prevent this by implementing an SEO strategy to improve their reach to the whole country and, in the end, become the official source, not only for Google but also for the citizens, helping them to find the information they need when they need it.

Besides providing the official information when and how it is needed, improving SEO for government websites can also offer other benefits. Most of them are hard to measure, so it is essential to look at the big picture instead of tiny metrics.

Reduction in public attention costs

Having a good SEO will help people find the information without making a phone call or physically going to an office. Users having the chance of getting their questions answered online will reduce the costs of having a call center or dedicated spaces to attend, reducing the budget needed and saving time for the users, who will have an instant answer without a trip.

This would be great at any time, but with the pandemic still being an issue, it is more important to reduce the need for physical presence to find information.

More coverage for rural/remote population

We can expect that some people will have substandard attention in any country because they live in remote or rural zones. For them, it can be challenging to have a reliable internet connexion, but it will be even more tedious to have to travel to a big city to obtain information.

Increase visibility and participation in government initiatives

More access to information will help to enhance the public's interest in federal programs, government subsidies, and other kinds of projects. Having SEO-optimized websites will increase participation and help to reduce marketing costs related to other forms of promotion of those initiatives or programs.

Improve the perception of the public about the government agencies

For any government agency, public opinion is of great importance. Providing easy access to information will help to improve the perception of transparency, efficiency, and openness. This positive opinion can be a small but tangible way to get more votes for the next election.

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