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 special 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.
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.
- 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.
But here’s what I’ve learned from working with the feds on their websites:
Federal employees working on .gov sites are smart 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 do not have plans or processes in place for integrating SEO into their existing workflows, and are often under-resourced compared to the sites they are trying to out-rank, and often need more internal resources.
Government changes are not always slow
I worked through a new technical audit where the client prioritized the SEO tech fixes during a period over a few months of sprints – and we tackled quite a bit. Hence, government change is not necessarily slow if you have senior leadership support.
Technical Issues often prevent content from ranking
I’ve seen content not being indexed from federal websites as well as content that is indexed, but not ranking due to technical configurations. I’ve also seen sites coded in such a way that all of the content is not visible to Googlebot. There’s no magic that federal agencies have that ensure is 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 huge losses of traffic.
Selecting ranking targets that align with the mission can be difficult
There are a couple of reasons why you run into issues here.
One, just 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 feel limited in discussing their topics to how US citizens view them. The reality though is that 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 really 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 was “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 that 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.
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. I walk through examples of other federal agencies with YouTube channels and some best practices in this post and audio tip.