Discover why federal agencies need an SEO strategy and the common challenges faced by .gov websites from an SEO that has worked with three different federal agencies.
In my 18 years as an SEO, I’ve run into folks that seem to think federal agencies don’t need an SEO strategy or that hiring an SEO is a waste of taxpayer dollars, and frankly, comments like that make me livid (and I’ve ranted about it in one of my SEO audio tips). I’ve asked Google reps dozens of times if .govs get a unique boost (they don’t). Additionally, I’ve seen with my own eyes technical and content issues that negatively impact the organic traffic potential of those federal websites.
I’ve had the fortune to assist three federal agencies with their organic traffic strategies — National Cancer Institute, HealthIT.gov, and Fisheries.NOAA.gov.
Here are the SEO challenges I’ve seen with federal websites:
- Web migration issues have cost them inbound links and traffic.
- Copy that is not written with empathy for the searcher in mind and therefore doesn’t rank.
- Technical configurations that hide the content from search engines and impact their ranking
- Content that’s authoritative but not targeted to answer a searcher’s questions or the topic fully is, therefore, not ranking.
- Technical configurations (hello Flash) that make the content completely not seen by Google.
- Low content pages galore with content they didn’t even know was there.
- 650 sub, sub, sub-domains – I’m looking at you, NOAA.gov!
- Child/parent relationships that don’t make sense and hurt their rankings.
- 508 compliance that is not 100% compliant
- And, of course, TONS of content in .pdfs is not trackable and sometimes not as effective as web copy.
There are PLENTY things federal agencies can do to suppress their content in Google or (in some cases) limit Google from putting the content in the index in the first place, and you can’t rank if Google hasn’t even put your content in their index.
So, why do I know so much about SEO and federal agencies?
I created and ran the team that implemented the digital marketing plan for HealthIT.gov – our plan changed Americans’ search behavior around the electronic health records topic and generated top rankings for thousands of terms. We launched the .gov site from scratch and had to build up its inbound links and authority (and, of course, its targeted content) before it would rank for all the terms we wanted. And we did not see that magically six months after turning on the domain, even with the redirects we received from the Office of the National Coordinator’s old official website.
Here’s what I’ve learned from working with the feds on their websites:
Federal employees working on .gov sites are intelligent and dedicated.
The joy of working with federal agencies is that I’ve found that their employees are really smart and fun to work with as they are interested in learning about SEO, which is great for me as I LOVE to teach others about how SEO works.
They are enterprise-sized sites but need plans or processes for integrating SEO into their existing workflows. They are often under-resourced compared to the sites they are trying to out-rank and often need more internal resources.
Government changes are sometimes slow.
I worked through a new technical audit where the client prioritized the SEO tech fixes over a few months of sprints – and we tackled quite a bit. Hence, government change is quick if you have senior leadership support.
Technical Issues often prevent content from ranking.
I’ve seen content not being indexed from federal websites and content that is indexed but not ranking due to technical configurations. I’ve also seen sites coded so all content is invisible to Googlebot. There’s no magic that federal agencies have that ensures that their web development vendors know how to build a site friendly for search discovery. And not all developers realize that a 301 redirect was needed per URL when the feds switched from HTTP to HTTPS or when redesigning – usually resulting in substantial traffic losses.
Selecting ranking targets that align with the mission can be difficult
There are a couple of reasons why you run into issues here.
Like businesses with their jargon, federal agencies have an accurate way of talking about their services and mission. It might be a very different way than US citizens searching for information about regulations and about the services the government offers.
Federal employees often need more time to discuss how US citizens view and search for them. You need to use US citizens’ terms in your copy to rank for those topics, pull in the searchers and re-educate them about the issue.
The one example I always use is the blog post I worked on for HHS’s Office of the National Coordinator, where we were looking to capture searches related to EMR. They pushed back on having that term in their copy, as they were promoting EHRs (electronic health records) instead of EMRs. After months of convincing, they finally let me write the post “EMR vs. EHR: what is the difference?”.
The post not only ranked for “what is EMR” related terms, but that post (and the entire campaign) also worked to educate the American public about EMRs so that the volume of people searching for EMRs vs. EHRs switched – more people talking about the EHR topic at the end of the campaign.
Most agencies don’t know to research their online competition
They don’t realize you have to be better than what is already ranking. In this SEO audio tip and post, I go into this example of Choose my Plate from USDA and walk through why the recipes on their site are not ranking.
Some .govs need local SEO too.
You might not know, but appearing in local (map) results requires different online marketing activities and strategies. Some .govs (like Fisheries.NOAA.gov) have local offices – or in their case, aquariums – that could benefit from increasing their online presence.
In a nutshell, that would require:
- Claiming and updating their Google My Business profile and generating frequent Google My business posts.
- Local inbound links to the location-specific page on the website.
- Ensuring that the Name, Address, and Phone number (NAPs) are consistent across all of the directories across the web.
- Generating locally relevant content.
- Responding to Google reviews and customer Google My Business messages.
- Responding to local reviews left on other platforms.
- Setting up different SEO tracking to measure the effectiveness of the local SEO work.
Some .gov domains need link building.
This might seem shocking to some, but I was there when we first launched HelathIT.gov, and it was just a baby .gov with limited inbound links. To build up the links (and authority), we started white hat linkbuilding which included:
- Outreaching to all websites that linked to the ONC site before the launch of HealthIT.gov to get them to update their links
- Social media/forum outreach
- Content marketing (creating disease-specific content about EHRs that we could pitch).
- Public relations
Being mobile friendly
At this point, hopefully, all .govs are mobile friendly – though as the mobile ranking factor algorithm update was rolling out, I knew of a few that were just going to have to abandon their microsites that were only desktop friendly until they had the budget or capacity to re-engineer them.
However, I’m sure many are not loading quickly (which can be a ranking factor). Having an SEO evaluate where they are losing rankings due to low page load speed and recommending improvements would benefit most agencies, as when pages were developed, page speed was often not a consideration.
Being ADA compliant
When I crawl a website to look for SEO issues, I often look for elements required for screen readers, as search engine spiders crawl (mostly) in a text-only fashion. Even though .govs are supposed to be ADA compliant, I always find missing alt tags, link text, and other issues that make it difficult for screen readers and search engine spiders to see all the information.
Often this is because this issue needs to be QA’d at the launch of every piece of content, and (in my experience) .govs don’t have trained internal resources to look for these issues. Nor do they have someone who crawls the site regularly with an SEO crawler to double-check these issues in case most recent website updates have rolled back changes.
Smart social media integration
Based on my experience, most .govs (and other larger organizations) have separate teams for social + search. (Or no one watching the search channel and a team working on social media). Those teams *should* be integrated for a host of reasons.
- Social media profiles are a part of the Knowledge Graph and Google’s understanding of your website and should link to each other. Bing still uses the signals for search ranking.
- YouTube is both a social media platform AND the second-largest search engine. Videos created and uploaded to YouTube should be created with YouTube and Google search discovery in mind and optimized for engagement. I have yet to see this on the accounts I’ve had access to.
- Social media provides an excellent opportunity to learn more about your target audience and to ask them questions that could power your SEO program. That’s even without a social media listening tool – but having access to one is even more powerful for your overall digital marketing program.
- Using this as a channel to promote new content is essential, but I usually do not see that being executed consistently.
- Most organic reach on social media has died, but the .govs I’ve seen do not have budgets for paid social media, which means their efforts (if they even measure it) have limited impact.
- For some .govs, it might make sense to use their social media accounts to provide social media customer service. In this case study, you can learn more about how I helped the NY State of Health with social media customer service.
Analytics and Tracking
Due to various federal mandates, .govs are tracking their website traffic, but most don’t know how to track their organic impressions and click-through. Tracking search visibility and impact requires investing in an SEO ranking tool, but most .govs rank for so many keywords that the toolset needed becomes expensive. You can hack the existing lower-cost subscription tools to determine the share of voice, but it’s more challenging.
Some government agencies provide online services for American citizens and would benefit from e-commerce optimization of their sites to improve their online transactions and revenue.
Most federal agencies are sleeping on the power of YouTube
As I talk about in this SEO tip, YouTube is a must for federal agencies – it’s the second largest search engine globally, and more folks in the US watch YouTube than TV. YouTube videos often dominate Google search results. In this post and audio tip, I walk through examples of other federal agencies with YouTube channels and some best practices.
If you’re a government official reading this and want to increase your organic traffic and visibility, please check out my federal capabilities statement or book a free strategy call.
Leave a Reply