Search engine optimisation (SEO) is not often prioritised by local authority web teams, but their ability to help local people find public services can hinge on a little knowledge about how Google ranks pages in search results, delegates heard at the Building Perfect Council Websites conference hosted by the local public sector IT managers' body Socitm in Birmingham earlier this month.
On the whole, local authorities will automatically find themselves highly ranked by Google by dint of their authoritative 'gov.uk' domain names, Piers Ede, managing director of Barefoot SEO, told a conference session entitled: "Why understanding Google is crucial for council websites.
However there will be occasions where someone searching for a local leisure centre for example will find the council centre outranked by a commercial chain, and "this means [the private leisure centre] is probably doing better SEO", Ede said.
He recommended focusing on Google ranking as the service accounts for 67% of all web searches, and it is virtually impossible to optimise sites for other services such as Bing, Ask or AOL at the same as optimising for Google, he said.
Google has revealed it uses about 200 ranking factors, said Ede, though it does not disclose what these are. However it is worth looking at an annual study of estimated Google ranking factors by digital marketing analysts Moz.com, he said. While "a lot are conjecture", top of these a fairly safe bet: Google's own "+1" button whereby search users can recommend results to others, said Ede.
Other factors known to be significant include use of a relevant keyword in web page addresses or URLs as a user-friendly "permalink", for example where an address of council.gov.uk/wastedisposal would take you to the relevant service page, he said.
It is also important to give each page strong 'Header' and 'Title' tags, Ede said. An example of good practice with page titles is 'Disabled parking: Manchester City Council', he said: the combination of including the service subject and the council's name means it is simple, descriptive and unique. Conversely some sites use the same titles again and again: one major city council site he checked had 154 duplicate page titles.
A useful tip is that if your site needs to have two pages with the same title, you can ask Google to "de-index" one of them, Ede said. In fact, de-indexing weaker pages and using internal linking in a logical way to emphasise the content and purpose of each section are likely to be the two main ways to ensure the most relevant parts of a council's website are returned when citizens search for services on Google, he said. "Internal links are important. Google simply doesn't know what your page is about unless you tell them."
Page "freshness" - how recently content was created - is also known to be a factor in prioritisation, he said. "Maybe a page is great but it was published five years ago: so you should go into the content system and refresh the date manually."
Unique content is also good for rankings, and here Ede offered comfort for every council leader tasked with blogging on their authority's website: blogs are excellent for page ratings because they generate unique original content, he said - if not always the most riveting content.
Dead links are known to cause problems with Google rankings, and here councils face a major challenge, Ede said. "Council websites are huge, so there is a lot of scope for problems, and Google is very clever at picking up those problems". Free site auditor tools can be useful to find issues such as dead links and help fix them, he said.
Search engine optimisation is not just about ensuring your site comes out highest: it is also about ensuring the most relevant page in your site comes out highest in all the most appropriate searches, Ede said. "Sometimes the page that comes up near the top is not the best page within the council site."
Most of the time pages with simple, obvious, clear language work the best, he said. "Google is very language-based: you often see sites that are all words at the top of search results."
Ultimately, while the dark arts of SEO are often seen as a matter for commercial enterprises, there is good reasons for councils and other public bodies to use these techniques, Ede said.
"On one level, it is just about doing a good job for the public", Ede said. He gave the example of a disabled person searching for information about applying for a blue badge for parking in their area, a search which did not always lead to the best page first time.
"In my job I have to justify my work in pure metrics, and if you can educate your team to become savvy, can take to CEO and say look, you can see we have made real improvements - these are happy people."
There are sometimes even direct savings to be made by coming first in searches: one delegate who had developed websites for a major city's social services department said his council had gone as far as to buy 'pay per click' advertising on Google to recruit foster carers. This saved the council money because using in-house carers is much cheaper than using agencies.
"We are in competition with commercial foster agencies to recruit people, so we could put a value on what we have saved - tens, if not hundreds of thousands of pounds."
Pictured: Piers Ede, managing director, Barefoot SEO
Building Perfect Council Websites: www.headstar-events.com/bpcw14
Barefoot SEO: www.barefootseo.com