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The SEO war - fighting the good fight in search

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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’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.

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  1. Comment by Aaron posted on

    Hey! Really interesting post, especially your findings on internal search. Overall do you know what sort of percentage of visitors use internal search on


  2. Comment by SEO performance on launch: comparing GOV.UK with Directgov | Government Digital Service posted on

    [...] landscape is changing. As I have blogged previously, we are doing our best to make sure we use the same search terms as our users to make content easier to find. Now that Directgov and Business Link are no more, and GOV.UK has [...]

  3. Comment by SEO for GOV.UK | Government Digital Service posted on

    [...] A few months ago I wrote about how we’re using search analytics and SEO (or Search Engine Optimisation for all the non-robots out there) to make sure that people get the right answer quickly when they look for government information using search engines. Well, the SEO landscape has changed recently, and the work being done to make GOV.UK good from a user perspective also helps our content to rank well in external search results. [...]

  4. Comment by Eleanore posted on

    Hi there! I know this is kinda off topic but I was wondering if
    you knew where I could locate a captcha plugin for my
    comment form? I'm using the same blog platform as yours and I'm having problems finding one?
    Thanks a lot!

  5. Comment by Three of a kind [4] | Digital by Default posted on

    [...] be of wider interest. So it is always interesting to read about SEO from the likes of the BBC and GDS as (a) it portrays that practice in a slightly more positive light and (b) they aren’t hung [...]

  6. Comment by Link roundup | Kind of Digital posted on

    [...] The SEO war – fighting the good fight in search – A rare thing indeed – an interesting and genuinely useful post about search engine optimisation! Who would have thought that such a thing was even possible!?!?! Share this: Tags: apps, cabinetoffice, comments, consultation, crowdsourcing, drupal, engagement, framework, gds, google, govuk, govweb, innovation, javascript, mobile, opengov, opengovernment, opensource, policy, programming, Search, seo From: Bookmarks No comments yet [...]

  7. Comment by lanagibsongds posted on

    Hi Martin,

    We will use slang in some cases, for example we used the term ‘bike’ instead of ‘bicycle’ for a title as it’s innocuous and performs much better in search.

    Some popular terms aren’t suitable for public-facing content; they may be outdated, or too informal to promote trust. For example the term ‘dole’ is still a popular alternative to ‘jobseeker’s allowance’, but we don’t use this term in content.

    We can still give people what they’re looking for in internal search, matching popular keywords with content items behind the scenes by adjusting the GOV.UK internal search algorithm, and tagging content items with popular keywords. We're sorting out our internal search engine at the moment.

    External search is slightly more tricky, as Google doesn’t look at any of the behind-the-scenes stuff.

    • Replies to lanagibsongds>

      Comment by Martin Cantor posted on

      Thx. Yes, I was thinking more about search than content (though I bet it'd be fun to do a dialect version of some stuff)

    • Replies to lanagibsongds>

      Comment by mrflicks posted on

      You could use cartoons to target search terms like your example "dole" in order to channel users to the right places without it not seeming professional as the usage might normally be seen. I know how to do it to!

  8. Comment by Martin Cantor posted on

    Related but separate. Are you also looking at slang and dialect? We did some work a few years ago around pest control, and all sorts of key words were people's first point of call

  9. Comment by Brendan posted on

    It's good to see that GDS is taking a robust approach to search, not just looking at placement on results pages but thinking more broadly about what we can learn from search data.

    This may or may not be relevant here, but I did a bit of analysis a few years ago which identified correlation between historical search volumes and headline economic data ( I never really followed up on it but I think there's potential there, especially for a project like GDS that is interested in the human motives behind search data.

    • Replies to Brendan>

      Comment by lanagibsongds posted on

      Hi Brendan - thanks for that, really interesting post. Using search trends to predict certain outcomes is a fascinating area. Google Flu trends - - is another good example, where flu outbreaks can be predicted by the amount of people searching for flu-related symptoms.

      At GDS we're creating a data insight tool that will mash together different types of data to give us a holistic and changing view of what people need, and why they need it. We're tying our data to both public and internal events, so that when a spike or drop-off in site traffic happens we can find out why. Hopefully we'll be able to get a little crystal-ball insight as well!

  10. Comment by Martin Richardson posted on

    Your example demonstrates that even when SEO successfully places the offical site at the top of natural search results, this does not stop a substantial number of customers using the unofficial sites. These test booking sites are a major problem, charging the unsuspecting public up to 100% mark-ups, on a large scale. The root issue is that Google persist in accepting advertising revenue from these organisations - in contravention of their own policies. Can GDS help tackle this problem more directly?

    • Replies to Martin Richardson>

      Comment by adeadewunmi posted on

      Hi Martin. You make a good point. The truth is that without paid search it's very difficult to compete with these sites for users' attention. In the past, we have had some success in getting such sites taken down by working with search engine operators such as Google. As many of these sites are working (just about) within the bounds of the law i.e. they're often not committing outright fraud, working with search engine providers is one of the most effective ways of tackling these unauthorised "intermediaries" of government services. This is helped by the fact that in many cases, as you've alluded to, these organisations are in violation of search engine providers' T&Cs.

      Some of this engagement with search engine providers has been hindered by the lack of a coordinated cross-government approach to tackling incidents of abuse/misuse of (government) online brands, phishing and unauthorised intermediaries offering access to government services. Developing this coordinated approach is one of the policy areas we're currently working on. This will make liaising with search engine providers a much smoother and more consistent process. Blog posts such as this are one of the ways we raise awareness about the issue in order to move things along.

      • Replies to adeadewunmi>

        Comment by Keith D Mains posted on

        The UK needs it's own search engine to compete against these US search engines dominating the market IMHO.

        If the Gov still had BT it would have been easy to make a wonderful search engine, a wonderful search engine that provides much better proper UK based and targeted results that would provide a much better search experience in the UK market & for the UK public, but alas...