At GDS we’re using search data to inform every aspect of content production. It’s no dry data analysis though, search logs reveal surprising insights about what people really want. Lana Gibson, Product Analyst at GDS, explains how understanding search behaviour is the root of all good content, and how our search-based approach helps people find trusted government information over content that doesn’t deliver.
Fancy paying for a free service?
Ever clicked on an appropriate-looking link in Google only to be taken to a page full of gobbledegook, with crude flashing adverts and your search term jammed in indiscriminately?
Some companies use paid search and the darker arts of SEO to direct unwitting users to websites that don’t deliver. GDS and Directgov need to compete with these sites without the luxury of paid search, so users can find free government information and services easily.
A good example of this is private companies charging for driving test applications which are actually free. These companies pay to ensure their links are prominent and an unsuspecting user can easily make the mistake of clicking on the non-government department link.
The results page below illustrates this.
The Hitwise report below shows that the tactic of the private company worked. They’re the second most visited website for people who search for the term ‘book a driving test’, capturing 13% of search traffic.
So we need to make sure that we use the right terms to rank highly in search results, and track how our site is competing with other sites.
But we use search analytics and SEO to go much deeper than that.
Content begins and ends with search
Think of web search logs as a repository of the planet’s needs and desires - they give a fascinating psychological insight into what people want.
In the past, government has tended to use ‘official’ language in web copy, rather than users’ language. We struggled to convince departments to convert titles and terms into plain English (‘Continuous insurance enforcement’ is a title submission that comes to mind, translated into ‘Uninsured driving’).
Changing the content designers approach to SEO by assisting them in researching the needs they’re creating and being reactive to popular keyword searches results not only affect affects search ranking. It also gives a greater understanding of how people will use GOV.UK.
Tools of the search trade
We look for terms that people use in global search engines like Google through sites like:
We also look at internal search logs from sites such as Directgov and Business Link.
SEMrush gives a good overview of how a search term is performing, as well as providing alternative terms and associated topics. So how do we use this?
Below is a UK report for term ‘annual leave’, in the red circle you can see that the term gets 2,400 searches per month.
From the report we can also tell that:
a) ‘Holiday entitlement’ is a better title for the content than ‘annual leave’ - it gets more than three times as much traffic.
b) Keyword variations in the first report tell us that users want information about how much leave they’re entitled to (surprise!), they’re looking for a form (presumably to request annual leave), and they want information about how annual leave coincides with maternity leave.
c) 'The Related topics report gives us a good indication of other information people want at the same time. For this example, when people search for 'annual leave', they're also likely to search for information on how to start a business - this information can't be covered in the item on annual leave, but we could link out to it from the 'Related topics' section in the item if we cover it on GOV.UK.'
As a result of using the tools available to us, we can not only ensure that we rank appropriately in search engine results and in the process protect our users from being unnecessarily out of pocket, but also ensure their experience on our site is reactive to their needs.
Tools reveal surprising results
The search insight provided by these tools can be surprising.
Official terms, acronyms, and application form numbers can be more popular than plain English alternatives, especially for business content. Employees and employers may use different terms to search for the same thing.
We saw that the term ‘holiday entitlement’ came up top trumps in Google search logs, whereas in businesslink.gov.uk’s internal search the top term is ‘holiday pay’. This may seem a small difference, but using targeted terms will increase traffic to our site and also help different groups of users quickly identify the content that’s right for them in search results.
Sometimes we can’t get reliable data on a search term. For example if we compared ‘eviction’ with ‘homelessness’ it looks as though there are big, disturbing spikes in people getting evicted throughout the year.
Delve deeper and you can see that peaks in the search term ‘eviction’ coincide with Big Brother evictions. Not quite as serious as homelessness.
When we get a tricky term we do a bit of archeology, and by cross-referencing different tools and checking the websites that actually appear in Google we can usually come up with targeted keywords.
So Big Brother may not be watching you (you’ll be relieved to know that search data is anonymised), but search analysis tells us that you’re watching Big Brother, hopefully in the comfort of your own home.