Sunday, 24 November 2013

How to reduce visits to your website

Ten years ago, a general view of local governments' websites was bigger is better. "We've only got 2,000 pages on our site; you've got 5,000? Brilliant!", I remember conversations at conferences going.

Today however it's widely accepted that some local government's websites are almost impenetrable fortresses of content, not just through incomprehensible language but because of the sheer number of pages one has to sift through to find pertinent information.

The LocalGov Digital Content Standards seek to help put this right, and these days participants in unconference conversations are more likely to take the view that it's better to have the minimum number of pages needed to do the task of delivering information and services.

So what's this change in best practice for local governments' websites got to do with the number of visits?

Most local governments now have some sort of Channel Shift programme in place, which seeks to direct as many users as possible often to "the council website". Back in 2011 I wrote about how councils having one website to do everything was an outdated concept, but this isn't what this piece is about.

Channel Shift is a good thing, but in ten years time I predict that, just like the change in thinking about content, we'll be praising those who have lowered visitor numbers to their website. Sounds pretty bonkers, right?

Most forward thinking digital services or web teams are also looking at user journeys through their sites, and as well as reducing the number of pages, they're making it easier to navigate around to find relevant information. It's well known that people will most likely start their journey by using a search engine or someone else's site so shouldn't the improvement of a user journey include this too and not just through Search Engine Optimisation of one's content?

I'll show you what I mean. Let's say someone wants to find out when the council offices in Newbury are open, so as most would, they go to Google and search. If you do this. you should be able to see that on the right hand side, all the basic information about this council building is shown.

By putting microdata in website pages you're telling search engines (and other sites that can read it) what's on the page. What this means is, it's saved the person having to visit this council's website find what they're looking for. Their user journey has been reduced, and as a result they're likely to be happier.

So this is great for basic stuff, but won't the user still have to visit the council's sites for other things? Of course, but there's a wide range of hierarchies for content so you can extend this to information about pretty much any person, location, physical service or object.

By getting cleverer with your content and doing the hard work to make it simple you'll reduce the number of clicks it takes to find your information and in some cases people won't even have to touch your site, to see your content.

So there it is, reduce visits to your website by making your content more intelligent, which will please more people. Channel Shift is a good thing, but of those people have shifted to the internet, don't assume they should always shift to your website. Not so bonkers after all, perhaps, you can be the judge of that. What do you think?

Sunday, 17 November 2013

An emergency tweetcast network

This week we had an incident on one of the trunk roads in our area. Fortunately there were no fatalities, but the road was closed in both directions for a few hours.

The incident happened around 6.45am and TVP Roads Policing tweeted about it. Ideally partner organisations would have someone monitoring Twitter and have re-tweeted it, but often it simply isn't possible to have dedicated members of staff to do this, around the clock.

So this got me thinking, could I build something to the task?

I was reminded of films, where in a civil emergency, radio and television becomes one broadcast network. Could something be done along similar lines with Twitter? I started to build a proof of concept and surprisingly, in a short space of time it was finished. So how does it work?

Firstly, (this is the technical mumbo-jumbo) set the code up with your OAuth application authentication and then get it to run at scheduled times, ideally every couple of minutes. Even running the code this frequently, you shouldn't hit the Rate Limit in Twitter.

Secondly, create a new list in Twitter, ideally with the account that will do the re-tweeting, then populate the list with accounts from partner organisations you want to re-tweet, so you'll end up with something like this.

Thirdly, you'll need to agree hashtags across your network, so you might choose #wmrti for road traffic incidents across the West Midlands, #brkflood for flooding in Berkshire and so on.

When the code runs, it looks through the tweets of the accounts in your list and if it finds one using a hashtag it knows about it'll re-tweet it, getting vital information out to more people, quicker.

If you'd like me to set up a proof of concept for you I'll be happy to do so, just let me know. I think it has huge potential and perhaps could even lead to a nationwide network for emergency alerts.

This blog is written by Phil Rumens, Vice-Chair of LocalGov Digital, lead for LGMakers and who manages the digital services team at a local authority in England.

The opinions expressed in this weblog are my own personal views and in no way represent any organisation I may have worked for, currently work for, might be thinking of working for, might not be thinking of working for or have never worked for. In fact having said that they, might not even be my views any more as I might have changed my mind so I wouldn't take any of it too seriously.