“Improving Findability” Falls Short of the Mark

Via Tim O’Reilly on Twitter, I came across this article by Vanessa Fox on how government can improve the findability of their web pages, and thereby allow citizens to become better informed and government to be more transparent.  Fox writes:

In an earlier post, I said that key to government opening its data to citizens, being more transparent, and improving the relationship between citizens and government in light of our web 2.0 world was ensuring content on government sites could be easily found in search engines. Architecting sites to be search engine friendly, particularly sites with as much content and legacy code as those the government manages, can be a resource-intensive process that takes careful long-term planning. But two keys are:

  • Assessing who the audience is and what they’re searching for
  • Ensuring the site architecture is easily crawlable

Fox elaborates on this, with specific tips that include: Making your website crawlable, using XML sitemaps, using 301 redirects when moving content, using descriptive ALT text for images, ensuring that every page has a unique title and metadata, and making your site architecture search engine-friendly.  While these are all worthy points to consider when creating a government web page, or any web page for that matter, what I find missing from this entire discussion is an acknowledgment of the role that the search engines themselves play in helping the user discover and explore the government information in question.  Of what value is “findable” information, if web search engines are only focused on helping users navigate to “known item”, high precision pages? Sure, if the searcher already knows exactly what she is looking for, and knows exactly what keywords to use to find a particular piece of government information, then the SEO tips that Fox offers are sufficient to make Government 2.0 transparency a reality.

But Goverment 2.0 search is not like web search.  Web search is fundamentally architected to be navigational, known-item-oriented in its algorithms and its interfaces.  Governmental search is exactly the opposite: It is exploratory. Users aren’t just trying to find the homepage of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, nor are they necessarily seeking any one particular document from that department. Rather, informed citizens, journalists, historians, researchers and students are seeking to understand the processes and pressures by and under which government operates.  Searchers, I argue, tend to be more recall-oriented, and need to find not one piece of information, but all pieces of information relevant to their needs in order to understand the full picture.  Searchers need to understand the fundamental interconnectedness of all available government information, and how it relates to their lives.  This is not a type of information discovery interaction and process that current web search engines support.

It does not matter how findable governments make their information, if the search engines themselves do not build systems that let users discover that information in a recall-oriented, exploratory manner.  My contention is that the key missing link in making government transparent is not Search Engine Optimization, but Search Engines themselves.

The biggest thing that needs  to change, in my opinion, is not the architecture of government information.  It is the algorithmic architecture, the optimization of the search engine.  Not the optimization for the search engine.  Govt content should not be optimized toward navigational, known-item search algorithms.  Rather, search algorithms and interfaces should themselves be optimized toward recall-oriented and exploratory information seeking behaviors. Government can optimize their information all they want toward navigational, known-item search architectures. But by so doing my concern is that they are optimizing their information away from recall-oriented, exploratory architectures.

Any discussion of Government 2.0 that only focuses on SEO, and not on the search engine itself, falls well short of the mark of making government and government information more transparent.  I wholeheartedly agree with the end goal of government transparency; it can only serve to make our society better.  Where I disagree is with a focus only on SEO. Don’t get me wrong; better indexability is a good thing. It’s just not the only thing.  What I would really like to see is a treatise on what needs to be done on the search engine side to make Government 2.0 a reality.  My feeling is that it will involve significantly more Exploratory Search than most web search engines bother to offer.

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3 Responses to “Improving Findability” Falls Short of the Mark

  1. You’re preaching to the converted here, of course. Perhaps taking it a step further, I imagine that people looking for government information might would consider using a vertical search engine for it. Such an engine should certainly support exploratory search–and having such an engine around (and marketing it) might obviate much of the need for SEO.

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