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SEO performance on launch: comparing GOV.UK with Directgov

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: GDS team, GOV.UK

The search engine optimisation 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 shaken off its beta-warning shackles, it’s time to see if we’ve achieved this.

The number of visitors from external search remained stable at about 4.2 million for Directgov in the week prior to launch, and totalled 4 million to GOV.UK in the week after launch. This is good news because it shows that GOV.UK is attracting the same level of search traffic as Directgov and Business Link, but with far fewer pages.

Number of pages: GOV.UK compared to Directgov and Business Link combined
Number of pages: GOV.UK compared to Directgov and Business Link combined

Note: I haven’t focused on comparisons with Business Link as the site received under 500,000 visitors per week, while Directgov received closer to 5 million.

The redirects worked

Usually you’d expect to see a significant drop in referral traffic after a site is replaced, as both people and search engines take some time to find the new pages. But for GOV.UK, immediately post-launch, people were presented with the old familiar Directgov results and then redirected to the closest-related GOV.UK content. Bravo to the transition team, whose redirection plan meant that they captured the Directgov and Business Link search rankings and sent people our way. The redirects ensure that the high search rankings earned by Directgov and Business Link are transferred to GOV.UK, so it’s a double-win. You can read the transition team strategy here in the blog post No link left behind. The mappings have worked, as users coming from search were redirected to 2,380 different pages.

How are people from search interacting?

Directgov GOV.UK
Average visit duration 2.3 mins 2.4 mins
Pages per visit 2.5 3.5
Bounce rate (only one page viewed) 55% 13%


So what do these figures mean? On a conventional site these figures would suggest that GOV.UK is performing better than Directgov - more pages viewed means more interest in the site. But with GOV.UK’s ‘in and out as quick as possible’ philosophy it’s not that straightforward. The higher number of page views could be due to how we format our guides.  This format chunks down information previously on one page into separate pages. We’re planning to look into this in more detail. Hopefully the stats will show that people are finding what they need on GOV.UK and then choosing to explore the site in more detail. At the very least they’re not bouncing out after a couple of seconds and going straight back to a search engine. This is largely due to the work of our design and content teams who are committed to ensuring that GOV.UK inspires trust.

The battle of Directgov and GOV.UK - keyword comparisons

Below is a comparison of the top referral terms leading to Directgov a week before launch, compared with GOV.UK's performance for the same search terms a week after launch.

Directgov a week pre-launch compared to GOV.UK a week post-launch
Directgov (a week pre-launch) compared to GOV.UK (a week post-launch)

We can see that traffic from each referral term has remained pretty consistent. The spike in ‘clocks’ for GOV.UK was expected as the clocks went back that week. Bear in mind that this is more than just an SEO hit list - these are GOV.UK’s top user needs and although they may change slightly throughout the year, they generally remain pretty fixed. It's worth remembering them because services and content related to these keywords are reaching our biggest audiences.

GOV.UK rankings are looking good for most popular searches

We now need to keep monitoring to ensure that our content shakes off its shiny-snake skin of redirects and retains its high search rankings. Just over a week after launch I manually typed some popular searches into Google to see how we ranked. Apart from one, GOV.UK URLs ranked first or second for the top 20 Directgov and Business Link terms. So it looks like we’re in good form.

Screen Shot of how GOV.UK ranks in Bing for car tax
Screen Shot of how GOV.UK ranks in Bing for car tax

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  1. Comment by Luqman Qadir posted on

    Hi Lana,

    This is definitely a very interesting article, very indepth research and very accurate figures as far as I can see - Good work indeed, But I will like to think, David is right when it comes to redirects.

    I will look in to it and respond soon again.

    Thanks all.


  2. Comment by MegaMind posted on

    For us statisticians and analysis geeks this is an interesting article, thanks for sharing and please keep doing so!

  3. Comment by David Dinsdale posted on

    Lana, I am struggling to reconcile some of the figures from your article based on other online sources. I thought to ask for some help.

    I use as a way of getting high level stats for sites - not as good as analysing the web server logs but still good. shows the traffic to being about half of the traffic to Having said that, is still taking the remaining 50% so I am assuming that 'hidden' traffic comes from the re-directs to services that are yet to migrate, for example: takes you to local directgov.

    Hence, in your stats, are you combining traffic to all government domains that are still operating but hidden behind (including and business (e.g. contracts finder))? If you are combining traffic from multiple domains, how are you de-duping the numbers? estimates that hosted services are the largest downstream service from - over 25%.

    Also a small but important item re business The site hosted 6,000 guides as represented in your diagram at the top of the page. However, each guide was multiple pages. The stat that government previously quoted for number of pages for the site was 70,000. This included the 6,000 guides averaging 10 pages each plus another 10,000 pages served by the tools on the site such as Your Type of Business. Hope that helps.

  4. Comment by This week at GDS | Government Digital Service posted on

    [...] and there’s been a lot of detailed work done to analyse visitor trends. Lana wrote a bit about our SEO performance yesterday, but there’s also been analysis into how people are moving through the site, [...]

  5. Comment by John J posted on

    It's encouraging that you know that you don't have all the answers yet. One area which you acknowledge you need to investigate in much greater depth is the increase in pages per visit.

    As you say, this could be down to your new guides splitting things between multiple pages.* However there could be many other reasons. A positive reason could be that after finding what they need, people then stay to see what else interesting is on the site. More negatively, it could be that they don't find what they want straight away and have to look at other pages to find it.

    Most worryingly of all, it could be that the design doesn't, in your word, "inspire trust", and people are having to check out other pages to make sure that this is a legitimate information source. I'd imagine that if lots of people are going to the home page, it might argue in favour of this hypothesis.

    * Personally I think that splitting a single guide across multiple pages is fundamentally in opposition to the philosophy of "in and out as quickly as possible" - see - but that's an argument for another blog post.

  6. Comment by David Read posted on

    "The number of visitors from external search remained stable at about 4.2 million for Directgov in the week prior to launch, and totalled 4 million to GOV.UK in the week after launch." This headline stat is worryingly misleading.

    Your graph of visitors at quite clearly shows the four weeks from launch being 3.9m, 3.5m, 3.5m and 3.4m visitors. Discount the first one due to the excitement of launch and you have a sizeable drop in visitors to 3.5m. Then remember that you also replaced Business Link that got about 0.4m, and you get a drop of 4.6m to 3.5m.

    I appreciate you've got excellent redirects and worked hard on matching the SEO of the old sites, but where have 15-20% of the users gone, almost overnight?

    • Replies to David Read>

      Comment by lanagibsongds posted on

      Thanks for your comment David. You're right, when you look at visitors in the month post-launch there's a downward trend. See Peter Jordan's comment from a previous blog post:

      "We are analysing trends at the moment. But we know there is a seasonal effect that visit numbers start to drop off in the autumn. If we compare GOV.UK against Directgov and Businesslink for the equivalent period last year, GOV.UK is higher.
      We’re looking at other factors – like traffic from search."

      Peter will publish a blog post on this shortly.

      Cheers, Lana

      • Replies to lanagibsongds>

        Comment by battystephen posted on

        "You’re right, when you look at visitors in the month post-launch there’s a downward trend"
        That is the complete opposite statement of what the blog post seemed, at least to me, to be saying, which was "look we have retained all our users, even with less pages".

      • Replies to lanagibsongds>

        Comment by battystephen posted on

        And it your comment does not address the fact that there you are choosing to round up from 3.9 million. Which is misleading. Especially when coupled with the downward trend, that has only be revealed in a comment. The gist of this blog should be, the number of referrals is falling of a cliff, according to the data on yr dashbaord, and we don't know why.

      • Replies to lanagibsongds>

        Comment by David Read posted on

        Thanks Lana, but how do you square this 15-20% reduction in visitors with your headline statements like "it shows that GOV.UK is attracting the same level of search traffic as Directgov and Business Link"? That statement simply isn't supported by the data you have quoted.

  7. Comment by sb posted on

    "4.2 million for Directgov in the week prior to launch, and totalled 4 million to GOV.UK in the week after launch"
    Thats a drop of 5%, if you really want to use it as metric perform some stats and test whether its a significant difference.

    And the graph "The battle of Directgov and GOV.UK – keyword comparisons", shows the old site has more hits on 6 of the top 13 search terms (not including directgov), with the rest the graph is too small to discern any difference.

    The validity of both metrics as a measure of website performance is debatable. Just posting the raw data (4 millions referrals) is not helpful without further analysis; and if posting a graph at least post images where differences are discernible, otherwise how is it relevant.

    You then list a table "How are people from search interacting?" but straight afterwards question the validity of these measures yourself. It appears you don't know how to measure the performance of the site ?

    This is a blog post whose point seems to be "look we are doing great", and you may well be; but I don't think that point is evidenced well in this blog. I applaud the openess btw.

    Whats the actual feedback from users ? I have read both positive and negative across the tubes of the interweb, I assume you are keeping track ?

    • Replies to sb>

      Comment by lanagibsongds posted on

      Thanks for your feedback SB,

      I take your point about the 'we're doing great but...' approach - I didn't want to give conclusive results or go too deeply into analysis as it's only two weeks of data all up. The post is more to show that in broad terms the re-directs worked, and retained (most of) the search traffic which would have had a huge hit if they hadn't been in place.

      We are keeping track of feedback from users, our insights team are looking into aggregating comments into themes, so we can address issues that affect the largest amount of users. We'll be looking into statistical significance as well.

      Kind regards, Lana

  8. Comment by Keith Emmerson (@KeithEmmerson) posted on

    It's impressive that you've persuaded Bing and Google to lose the DirectGov links so quickly.
    I imagine a small percentage of launch week traffic to GOV.UK will be borne of the curiosity factor from having a shiny new Govt. website to poke around, especially for those of us in the field.
    I've been doing a bit of 'No link left behind'-ing on my site, replacing our out of date DirectGov links with new GOV.UK links. It isn't always easy to see an obvious replacement, and as to be expected, there are a few bugs in the form of the odd blank page or seemingly duplicated pages, so I sympathise with that team. That's not to mention the 301s I'm wading through at the moment!

  9. Comment by Graham Lee posted on

    Hi Lana,

    Excellent blog!

    Good to see GOV.UK pages are performing so well.

    Do you know if the recent addition of 'corporate' information to the site is presenting any problems with search results and optimisation?

    For example, this morning I searched for 'landlord harassment' in Google, and the top GOV.UK result (about fifth in the rankings) was for a Word booklet published in 'Inside Government' called 'My landlord wants me out - protection against harassment and illegal eviction'.

    Word documents aren't exactly web-friendly or 'digital by default'! And it's unclear why the user would be referred to information on government departments in 'Inside Government', rather than relevant content on housing problems in the section written for citizens.

    It would be a shame if users were sent to the wrong part of the site, and a print document, as a result of search results, especially as the mainstream guide ('Private renting for tenants: evictions') contains a very helpful chapter on 'harassment and illegal evictions'.

    I recognise this may be a question for someone else at GDS: why is mainstream information for citizens being needlessly duplicated in documents published in a separate part of the site, when this will contaminate the search results and confuse users?

    Thanks, Graham

    • Replies to Graham Lee>

      Comment by lanagibsongds posted on

      Hi Graham,

      Ross Ferguson, Associate Product Manager responds:

      "There are no restrictions on where a citizen can go on GOV.UK to get the information that they want. It is the case that departments may choose to provide similar content in different formats to satisfy a range of user needs, hence a quick guide and an in-depth publication.

      We are in a period of transitioning content from old corporate sites to a new shared platform, and in any period of transition there will be some overlaps and kinks in user journeys. Most people are comfortable with that and with the data and feedback being generated we are making journeys simpler through a better understanding the relationships between content."

      Cheers, Lana